Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dissecting Frogs With Stewart Lee

I had a lovely bank holiday, thank you for asking. I went to see dodos and dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum with my one-year-old niece Dorothy, and I read Stewart Lee's How I Escaped My Certain Fate from cover to cover. The latter I should have done much earlier; the former was reasonably timed.

The book is partly a look back on Lee's return to stand up - having quit in 2001 - and partly an in-depth analysis of three fully-transcribed shows. I should say that when I've seen Stewart Lee live, I've often found myself buying into the cool, superior character he portrays on stage far too much, taking it to heart, and, ultimately, pushing back against it. But among several things his book has prompted me to do - look up the acts he mentions that I don't know about, for example, and generally Be Better Read - I'll certainly be heading to Go Faster Stripe to buy a few of his shows. As he says, so much is in the performance that it feels like that's the proper way to round off the book.

I am the last to say this of course, but How I Escaped My Certain Fate genuinely is, as the quotes suggest, a book that all comedy fans would do well to read. The passages about his career are honest and entertaining, he's really generous in his praise of peers from Michael McIntyre to Simon Munnery, and, in the annotated transcriptions, the book takes my previously-discussed love of dissecting comedy frogs to the nth degree. It's completely fascinating.

Sam Simmons says that people often describe his work as "random" but that it's quite the opposite - everything's there for a reason. I'd love to read his annotations on one of his own shows. Tony Law actually does it to some extent as he goes along of course, though he certainly doesn't give everything away on stage, and there's loads of swan's feet stuff going on beneath the surface too. Claudia O'Doherty's thesis on The Telescope would be a hoot, and it'd be wonderful if John Luke Roberts were to explain in devastating detail exactly why every single one of his mild insults is funny.

I've only really given any thought to the mechanics of comedy over the last few years, but it occurred to me recently that there were little seeds planted much earlier than that. When I was doing A-level English Language, we were asked to analyse a tv or radio interview from a linguistic point of view, and I chose two comics: Jim Carey, who spoke to Richard and Judy, and Johnny Vegas, who was on The Jonathan Ross Show.

For my essay, I essentially tried to explain how they were using language to subvert the conventions of the chat show and derail the interview, by asking questions themselves, for example, or referring to things happening off camera. I was trying, in a rather simple way, to explain why and how they were funny, and I loved doing it, spending much more time on the assignment than was necessary. I enjoy doing it now too with live comedy - in fact, I find that when I'm writing about an act I really love I do the analysis bit first because I've so enjoyed how they shaped and elicited the laughs, and then I have to go back and add in the glowing value judgements later.

There's a great passage, late on in the book, where Lee stresses the importance of "rhythm, pitch, tone and pace" in stand-up, and while I have, genuinely, attempted to include these when writing about comedy, I'll certainly be making even more of a concerted effort to do so in the future. So: seek out influential acts, read more, spend money with laudable boutique online establishments and try to give a more rounded report of the shows I see. That's my personal response to How I Escaped My Certain Fate.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Thoughts on the Edinburgh Comedy Awards 2012 nominations

I've written a little piece for British Comedy Guide about this year's Really Rather Impressive nomination lists for Edinburgh Comedy Awards 2012 - and you can read it right here. Pappy's! Claudia O'Doherty! Tony Law! Ben Target! All the rest! Hooray!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Edinburgh Fringe 2012: Tony Law - Maximum Nonsense

I've read a lot of very lovely reviews of Tony Law's Maximum Nonsense (Stand One, 12:30pm) over the last couple of weeks, and in that time I've noticed that there's a little theme emerging. Not just that they're all positively overflowing with praise, that's to be expected (and hugely welcomed), but that the enthusiasm is coupled with something along the lines of: "Flipping heck; Tony's tight this year."

Some who are already Law fans might balk at this a little, but you've only got to look at the ever-impressive (and continuing) improvement-trajectory of David O'Doherty to see that - if it's done right - the most charmingly shambolic of comedians can tighten up the screws and not only avoid losing what made them great in the first place, but actually get better and better along the way. O'Doherty did it right - and so has Law.

Given this, it might be kinda surprising to hear that this year's show is actually more surreal than Go!. There's discussion of Vikrate (a martial art which combines his Viking and Pirate heritage), Pol Pot material, references to Marcus Aurelius and a magic dragon, a trip around Northern Europe using mainly accents, and a gorgeous set piece in which Tony attempts to emulate some of his favourite musical comics, like Demetri Martin. Trouble is - as he reveals in a mighty drip-feed of huge belly-laugh moments - he has no musical training to speak of, and a wandering comedy style that doesn't lend itself to being accompanied by that steel drum he's got casually slung around his neck.

But all of these wonderful, warped ramblings - gloriously funny in and of themselves - are this year wrapped up in a beautifully paced show that feels easy and really satisfying. Tight, you might say.

Not that Tony leaves off there. Having impressively ticked Structured Absurdism off the list, Maximum Nonsense also continues last year's trend of Law Saying Important Stuff. Stuff, for example, about gender politics - like how rape victims can be made to feel like the criminal. And about comedians - those he admires and those he resents (not always mutually exclusive), and about the nature of comedy itself. About father-and-son-hood. About roots. About being a good guy, or otherwise. And you know what, the Structured Absurdism helps shape the Saying Stuff, and vice versa. Now that's neat.

All of this is framed by Law's now-trademark self-analysis and running commentary, and culminates in a magical finale of real pathos, ridiculously catchy song - and lots of elephants. It's warm, smart, bonkers and genuinely insightful - no doubt about it, Tony's got some big ideas to match that booming delivery, and the laughs are as fulsome as ever. Put simply, Maximum Nonsense is a rather special show, carefully put together by a rather special performer.

Edinburgh Fringe 2012: Pappy's - Last Show Ever

When I sat down to write this, I thought I'd begin with the line: "I always knew Pappy's had this show in them." But you know what, I'm not actually sure that's true. I knew, of course, that they could create a stellar sketch show - they are one of the finest sketch groups around and they do fun better than any act I can think of (you can take the Fun out of Pappy's etc...) But I have to admit, I didn't see Last Show Ever (Pleasance Dome, 8.20pm) coming. It's a ruddy tour de force.

Ben, Matthew and Tom have clearly decided that just writing their best sketches and stringing them together into an hour of big knockabout laughs isn't enough - though believe me, the quality and inventiveness of the sketches on show here means that it definitely would have been. No, this year they've decided to frame those skits in such a way that delivers something that sketch comedy very rarely attempts, let alone knocks out of the park: proper emotion.

The premise that allows for this is a really clever one - we meet the boys in the twilight of their lives, looking back on what turned out to be their last ever show, and trying to remember what drove them apart. Was it Tom's new fortune, gained through the inheritance of a glove shop? Maybe not, but it gives us one heck of a good glove-based song. Or perhaps it was Matthew's celebrity status, achieved by excelling on a TV game show that required him not to be able to do things (which it turns out he's really good at, ironically)? Or could it be that Ben found love that night, and - as we see in a really charming Up-style montage - left his friends for a long and generally happy marriage with the girl in the front row.

As Pappy's piece together that final show, we get to see the sketches that they performed, the best of which includes a wordless routine that has very different meanings depending which music accompanies it, and their take on the dynamic between Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow. Plus, we hear their memories and commentary and - eventually - the true story behind that fateful show... All in all it's intricately written (bang-on-the-mark callbacks and reveals abound), hugely funny and, perhaps most impressively of all, genuinely emotional.

Monday, August 06, 2012

London 2012: The Olympics, by a fan

Like many people, I have been preparing myself for the London Olympics for seven years; and like what I suspect is a minority of those people, I have been looking forward to it the whole time.

It's just not in me to be cynical about the Olympics. I've devoured every moment since Barcelona '92, which I watched aged 6, and the idea of this festival of endeavour and human emotion coming to my home country was just incredibly exciting. I didn't know, back in 2005, that London would be my home town too, come 2012.

All of this means, of course, that I have watched cynics and non-sports fans alike take to these Games with such enthusiasm with a massive and admittedly smug-tinged smile on my face. I knew it'd be great. I just knew it. We have Danny Boyle to thank for getting things off to such a fun, quirky, clever and dramatic start of course, but since then, the athletes, the organisers and the Beeb have taken up the metaphorically-appropriate baton to create something really rather special. And we're only halfway through.

When tickets first went on sale, I was one of those who missed out entirely, despite applying for what I thought was a judicious mix of the blockbuster and the offbeat. When it came to Round 2, I was up at 6am, texting my complaints to Rachel Burden on 5Live as the site crumbled - but I came out of it with Handball and Basketball tickets. Both games I knew little to nothing about. It didn't matter.

And since then I've been incredibly lucky - my housemates were quick on the draw when another round of tickets were released, and we bagged Archery (at Lord's, for goodness sake) and the table tennis. Then, my good friend Rob offered me a ticket for the athletics stadium itself. As I said; lucky.

My excitement for the Games only wobbled about two weeks ago, when the constant drip feed of travel warnings (threats, almost) started to grate. "Have you thought about walking to work? Why not try cycling? Don't go in the Games Lanes! You should probably watch the road races at home! (That one really annoyed me) Have you planned your travel? Have you? Well, have you?"

But if the purpose of all these messages and warnings was to keep London moving during the Games, well, job done. It's busy, sure, but it's fine. More than fine - it's impressive.

And so to the sport. It was archery first for me, a very civilised start made even more so by the fact that we took a cab to Lord's in the morning sunshine, and hopped out 10 yards from the entrance. The Games Makers were cheerful, the security checks quick and unintrusive - we went from taxi to Lord's bar in 15 minutes flat. It's a beautiful venue - I'll certainly be back for some cricket before long - and archery is a surprisingly entertaining spectator sport; fast-paced and generally closely fought. Fun, basically.

St John's Wood to Docklands is not an inconsiderable journey, but we made it over to ExCel centre in plenty of time for table tennis in the afternoon; a very squished trip on the DLR made more bearable by some lovely views of the new cable car, the Greenwich Arena (aka the O2) and glimpses of the Olympic Park itself.

Again, getting in was straightforward, and the organisation inside - to say there was also judo and boxing going on in the same venue - really good. The event we saw was a new 'Davis Cup' style tournament, with countries competing in singles and doubles rubbers. GB, it has to be said, were utterly out-gunned, and the atmosphere went a little flat as a result. A minor quibble in a day that really meant a lot to me - I'd been to the Olympics. Ruddy hell.

As tens of millions of us have experienced over the weekend, watching the Games on TV has almost been as brilliant as being there live this year. I've barely been able to tear myself away for basic things like shopping and eating - what if I miss another Gold for Team GB? Another heart-breaking failure? Just one more event. Just one more game, then I'll go. What, Murray's on court again in a few minutes? *Orders takeaway*.

Yesterday, my parents travelled down for Handball and we got the Javelin train from St Pancras to get to the Stadium. If anything, it's too quick (I didn't get to point out that cable car!) and we saw more Games Makers than passengers on the way to the platform. "Crowds?" Mum said, "What crowds?"

Well, we found them at the Olympic Park, which now the Athletics has started is basically rammed from about 8am. But again, it was a breeze getting in, and we got 5Live on the radio so that we could listen in to Murray's frankly staggering win against Federer. If you read my love letter to tennis and Andy, you'll appreciate that I was rather delighted about this - he's such a fighter, got such flair, has a beautifully dry sense of humour and... well, Federer has clothes made based on the fact that he's going to win. Murray has tweets of support written on his bag. You get my point.

Handball - aka run-and-score - is a pretty agricultural sport, but heaps of fun to watch (and, I suspect, even more so to play), and you can't help but clap along with We Will Rock You, can you? We chatted to the French guy next to us, checked the athletics results on his girlfriend's phone, and watched Bolt's semi-final on the little monitor down by the judges. Have I used the word 'fun' yet?

To round off the weekend, we headed to the centre of the park to watch the 100m final on the big screen, and there were huge cheers as Bolt finally decided to use his top gear and break the Olympic record. Bolt travelled 100 metres in 9.63 seconds; TFL and the Games organisers got me from the Park to my sofa in 60 minutes. Good going all round, I'd say.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

'Extra' shows at the Edinburgh Fringe

One of my favourite things about the Fringe is the chance to see great comedians doing something other than their usual stand-up. I've written an article about it over on British Comedy Guide, with lovely contributions from Beta Males, Sarah Bennetto, Debs Frances-White and Hannah Gadsby, and mentions for Mark Watson's ace-sounding Edinborolympics and more. Please take a look!