The Book Club – All New Fighting Years

Originally published at The Groggy Squirrel

British comedy is often at the centre of a merciless tug o’war between the jocks and the nerds. It rope is tugged in each direction: owned by the ‘blue’ comedians in the early 1970s only to be taken by the satirists; divided oddly by alternative comedy in the 80s; taken by the lads again as ‘the new rock and roll’ in the 90s; reclaimed by geek power of Lee and Herring snatched away by Skinner and Baddiel’s Fantasy Football laddishess; back to the quiet boys in the corner by The League of Gentlemen and again to the popular kids again by Little Britain, Bo’ Selecta! and Catherine Tate.

Don’t worry though. Nerds and losers are back in vogue thanks to Daniel Kitson, Josie Long, The Mighty Boosh, Toby Hadoki and The Book Club. Josie Long’s “Drawing Moustaches in Magazines Monthly Magazine (Bi-Monthy)” is apparenty aimed at “Losers, Misfits and the Anxious”.

The Book Club has a short but interesting history. A group of comedians, most notably Robin Ince and the aforementioned Josie Long (now the proud holder of an if.comedy award), got together to launch a new showcase of friendly, non-confrontational comedy. It has been a refreshing alternative to the reign of laddish stuff in the eternal tug o’ war.

What is The Book Club? In a nutshell, our bookish comedians read passages from books aquired recently from local charity shops: all of them strange and rubbish. Popular lines of investigation include Mills and Boon pulpy romances; self help guides; astonishingly bad horror or sci-fi paperbacks; and memoirs of washed-up TV personalities. An ever-present tome during tonight’s show is “Yoga for Men”: a large hardback depicting a woman in a yogic squat, bearing a massive pair of hooters.

Tonight’s show was good. Robin Ince is a lovely puppydog-faced Alan Bennett-a-like whose orations from Catherine Cookson’s poetry and selection of “Medical Romances” is accompanied by an interpretive dancer and an opera singer. You never got that with Skinner and Baddiel.

Perhaps the jewel in the crown of tonight’s performance is camp Australian, Asher Treleaven. Announced as a reader of ‘self help books’, Asher reads from a selection of bad romances and a dangerous-looking thriller simply titled “WEAPON” in which our narrator tells us how to guess the nationality of a woman by gawping at her breasts through a pair of binoculars. Creepy. Apparently for want of a proper exit strategy, Asher treats/subjects us to a painfully geeky dance to a piece of classic Meatloaf.

There is slightly too much pantomime and childish CBBC-style interaction between the comics for comfort and Robin Ince’s frequent meandering between a stationary microphone and his book table is a bit hard on the ears. One can’t help thinking that the fostering of a more intimate atmosphere would be better for this sort of comedy. This aside though, The Book Club makes for a successful cabaret of amusing found-pieces and inexplicable humour which, like the acts and the audience, has trouble fitting in.

Luke Wright, Poet & Man

The poet, Tim Turnbull, once opined that the difference between stand-up comedians and performance poets was that the poets try to make money by selling their books during the intervals while the comics “just want to be loved… like dogs”.

A good point well made, but there are other differences too. It’s a matter of punctuation: the stand-up comedian must annexe his sentences with a shrill exclamation mark if he’s to get the belly laughs he’s after. The performance poet or the humourist can get away with a humble full-stop and is happy with a few nods of agreement and the occasional isolated chuckle in the darkness.

A stand-up comedian would never orate someone else’s work either (unless he happens to be Joe Pasquale). Repetition of another’s material is comedian kryptonite. But Luke Wright, as performance poet, boldly goes there.

The set, as the audience enters the room, consists of a bookcase and an occasional table stocked to the gills with excellent books. From Kafka to Harry Potter and The Bible to Zadie Smith, it’s all there. Breaking up the flow of his own poetry, Luke reads selected paragraphs, humourous and profound, from his favourite books with energy and a passion.

I see in the bookcase that there is a copy of ‘The Idler’ magazine in which I published my first essay. “Go on!” I tell the poet telepathically, “Read it!” Alas, no dice. He decided to read Goethe or something instead. There’s no accounting for taste.

The theme of the evening is masculinity (which explains why my piece got overlooked) and the selected pieces from his library highlight ideas discussed in Luke’s own works. His poems apparently derive from real-life experiences concerned with symbols of masculinity: his car, his childhood friends, his working class origins in Colchester “where not a lot of culture stirs”, his less-than-manly role as a poet and his the problems associated with “big gay face”. What emerges is the portrait of a culture-thirsty, eager-to-entertain, slightly socially awkward young man. It’s good and one can tell that poetry is therapy to Mr. Wright.

As an entire it works rather well. What works less well is Luke’s ad-libbed attempts at stand-up connecting everything together. His hubris isn’t quite ironic enough to make you laugh and you’re left feeling a little awkward for it. But this aside, his show is a five-star performance.

Andy Zaltzman

Originally published at The Groggy Squirrel

ANDY ZALTZMAN, 32, ADMINISTERS HIS AFTERNOON DOSE OF UTOPIA, STEPS BACK, AND WAITS TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS

If your budget for this year’s festival is a little lower than usual and you want to stick to the ‘safe bets’ rather than squandering your money on something dubious, Andy Zaltzman should certainly be towards the top of your list. Hard to believe he’s only been performing since 2000, Zaltzman is a seasoned satirist and a real Fringe institute.

He’s one of those natural comedians who you can’t imagine being anything else (he even resembles a clown with his receding mop of curly red hair) and though he often gives the caveat that the new show might be a little ‘shambolic’, it never ever is. He just talks and gold comes out:

Zaltzman: Where in the world is better than the United Kingdom?

Audience member: Switzerland!

Zaltzman: Why Switzerland?

Audience member: They have the chocolate.

Zaltzman: Yes, but how do they pay for all that chocolate? Nazi gold.

This year’s complexly titled show explores the idea of utopia and how we, the plebs, could do a better job of running things than any government. Zaltzman develops, with suggestions from the audience, a microcosmic society in the form of a flea circus. The end result is presumably different with each show.

In addition to ‘utopia’, Zaltzman is comparing the late night ‘Political Animal’ show at the Underbelly and performing at various nocturnal cabarets such as the notorious ‘Late and Live’ and the brilliant ‘Spank’. ‘Utopia’ takes place at a staggeringly early 3pm, meaning that Andy has to deal with audiences of the remarkably drunk and the painfully sober. It takes a good improviser to deal with both ends of the alcoholic spectrum in the same day.

The demographic of Andy’s audience is telling. A man behind me laughs loudly into my ear at anything vaguely political, to demonstrate that he ‘gets it’ and is up on the political zeitgeist. When Zaltzman asks about good alternatives to democracy, the answers that come back are “Philosopher King” and “Benevolent Dictator”. One member of the audience makes a heckle about the economic advantages of terrorism before announcing that he is a student of international relations. Political animals, one and all.

And this is Zaltzman’s brand: intelligent political satire with an absurdist edge. You can’t go wrong really.

Johnson and Boswell – Late But Live

Originally published at The Groggy Squirrel.

Openly insulting Scotland to its face has become a recurring theme in the latest works of Stewart Lee. Thankfully, it is an imagined Scotland of haggis and shortbread and an arachnid Robert the Bruce that is the object of his comedy scorn and the result is very, very funny.

“To say that a Scot speaks English,” opines his devised version of Samuel Johnson, “is to say that a dog eats a bone when in fact he merely mauls it”.

Such is the meat of this piece of comedy theatre: Simon Munnery as Dr. Johnson, lambasting Scotland for what he perceives to be its incivilities and peculiarities. In a belated book launch for Johnson and Boswell’s ‘A Journal of a tour to the Hebrides’, ‘Late But Live’ is a combination of stand-up comedy and theatre successfully blurring the boundaries between the two.

Simon Munnery is brilliant as Johnson. Perfectly cast, Munnery even looks like the good doctor and the parallels between this new character and Munnery’s infamous ‘League Against Tedium’ creation are myriad. A robust and regal creature, turgid with Nietzche-like witticisms and angry judgements.

Miles Jupp, perhaps best known for his portrayal of Archie the Inventor in BBC Scotland’s ‘Balamory’, makes a first-rate Boswell. He starts out as a smug champion of Johnson’s work (if always operating in his shadow) and ends up as his victim and appologist.

It’s difficult to say exactly how much input Stewart Lee had into this cleverly shaped piece of comedy theatre but it has many of his hallmarks. There is even a cheeky mention of Lee’s erstwhile colleague Patrick Marber (“the Johnson to his Boswell; the Marber to his Coogan”).

The play falters a little in the fourth act but its important to remember that Edinburgh is designed to be a launch pad for new material and a Petri dish for bold experiments. ‘Jerry Springer – the Opera’ felt a little half-baked at the Assembly Rooms back in 2003 and is now a tight and worthy object of international recognition. It feels good to be present at the start of something excellent.

Whether ‘Late but Live’ becomes a phenomenon of Jerry Springer proportions remains to be seen (or whether that is the intent) but it certainly has the potential.

Martin Soan

Originally published at The Skinny

Long before Vic Reeves or Harry Hill brought their brands of surreal humour to the mainstream, Martin Soan was tickling our fringe fancies with his impossible costumes and absurd enactments. While Soan is assuredly an originator of alternative comedy, he is not a stand-up as anyone would ordinarily define the concept. You won’t find many gags in his set revolving around humorous observation or witty digression, but rather an energetic piece of one-man theatre with lightning fast changes of homemade costume and a ridiculous surplus of bizarre and unpredictable props. Watching Soan perform is more akin to watching a cartoon made flesh than a stand-up comedian. When you laugh, it will be an uncontrollable and childish giggle: his jokes are stealth bombers flying beneath the radar of our sophisticated adult sensibilities. When was the last time you laughed at a hat? Or a pair of fake eyebrows? Martin Soan is at once hilarious, terrifying and childish, and is a master of non-sequitur.