My first unfamiliar performer was Tom Wrigglesworth, whose show describes a true incident… no… skirmish… no… event that happened to him on the 10:15 train from Manchester to London Euston. The tale itself - Tom helping a old woman by collecting funds for her after a corpulent train manager penalizes her for being on the wrong train by no fault of her own - isn’t funny. But it’s the way Tom tells it, with the asides, the imagery and the indignation that makes for funny evening.
One of the things British performers have to overcome, even in a country like Canada which has the British monarchy on their money, is an info-dump on how some things work in the U.K. One of the marked differences - in a country with free government health care - is that the train system is all privatized with 25 different operators of the lines. Hence the letter Tom is writing when he opens his piece is to Richard Branson, billionaire owner of Virgin and operator of the Manchester/London Euston line. Or as Tom addreses him, “Dear Ricky B and the Virgins.”
Tom handles some of the information dump as he goes along, but once found himself having to explain a joke about British Health and Safety to the audience. If you’re paying attention, you’ll be able to catch most of the difference with the context clues. For example, the difference between performing a whip-around and begging.
Tom’s tale about how he and the other passengers overcome the train manager all ties together wonderfully from the set-up, even with Tom’s admission at the end of the show that part of it wasn’t true. But it’s to Tom’s credit that I was so engaged that I didn’t particularly question that part of the tale until after he mentions it.
Filed Under Just For Laughs
My plan for this year’s Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal is to put myself in the unfamiliar as possible. So heavy on name I don’t know already and have never seen. Some of this is simple logic, but I think it’ll also give me the funniest fest possible.
First, I live in New York City. And with Montreal so close, lots of the talent are New York people. I could see a lot of those NYC-based stand-ups live if I want to already, and probably have numerous times. I’ll go see quite a few still, but it seems a waste of an opportunity (and plane fare, etc.) to come here and have what would be the best night of New York City comedy I could find in another town. I want the best nights of World comedy.
And as I said, I think this strategy may give me the best laughs I could find. Surprise is such a key element of comedy… if you know where something is going, you’re probably not having a good time. I can still can be surprised by people I’ve seen before, but I love to see a show and have it be a revelation. In sports terms, the more I know a player’s moves to the basket, the harder it’s going to be for them to score on me. For this fest, I’d love to lose a lot of game by ridiculous margins.
This last point will come off a negation of any of my subsequent posts about the shows I see. I think too many of us do not let ourselves come in cold in a culture that’s littered with reviews, spoilers and, yes, blog posts. Some of the best artistic experiences I’ve had were when I had no idea what I was going to see. When I’ve walked by a movie theater and saw an art film because of the poster. When I’ve bought a book simply because of the title or first couple of sentences. When I’ve just tagged along to see a play because that’s what someone else wanted to do.
It’s a experience that you can easily replicate on your own. Why wait for the comedian to surprise you? Surprise yourself. See something you don’t know.
Filed Under Print
Last week a fantastic book called “Satiristas!” hit store shelves. Veteran stand-up Paul Provenza interviews comedians whose work in challenges society and questions what effect it has on the world at all. As the filmmaker of the documentary Aristocrats, Provenza has a real rapport with all the subject and like Mike Sacks’s book “And Here’s the Kicker”, the conversations in “Satiristas!” doesn’t dwell on the standards of where ideas come from and recognizing funny ideas. You start in the middle, literally.
The inspiration for Satiristas! was the photography of Dan Dion. Anybody who’s spent a little time in the front halls of Gotham Comedy Club knows how striking his work can be. Dan captures something about each comic making them perform for him. As he describes in the foreword, he’s not “asking the monkey to dance.” Provenza brings that idea into the text itself.
Below is a gallery of some of Dan’s photos, more of which can obviously be seen in Satiristas! and on his website dandion.com.
Filed Under Sitcom
OK. Now we know the consequences if we don’t watch this show. So we all know where we need to be in March of next year, right?
Though there’s been a rush of iPhone apps in the past year, the limitations of developers’ imagination for apps that are funny has pretty much ended at fart noises. A new release this week is trying to break beyond novelty and become something reliably funny, that you’ll open more than just two or three times to annoy your friends.
The iPhone app is called This Just In and features anywhere from 10 to 15 new jokes a day about current events—politics, pop culture, sports… anything in the news. It’s a joke style that you see right at the beginning of every late night talk show - the monologue. But it’s getting to you before Letterman or O’Brien or even Leno, at his 10 PM time spot, have a crack at it. The faster, the funnier - jokes from This Just In have the first shot at surprising you.
And better, comedy writers who have written for many of those shows, along with writers from The Onion and College Humor, are writing jokes for the app. There’s actual talented comedy writers behind each joke and it’s all being curated by someone who has fantastic comedy chops, who I’ll talk about a little later.
Monologue jokes are, by nature, a little hit or miss. You may not be up on the target or just heard the take on that target before — I think we could all manage a serviceable “Bill Clinton is Horny” gag. But the idea should always be, you don’t like the last one, maybe you’ll like the next.
This Just In does only an OK job with “Can’t eat just one” navigation. It’s always a two step operation after you read a joke to get to another. You’re either hitting “Back” to return to today’s jokes or your diving deeper by topic or the joke writer. Either way you’re on a category page rather than a page with something else funny. Your mileage may vary, but I’d rather go through the app “joke, joke, joke” rather than “joke, options, joke, options, joke…” That said, it’s great to dive deeper into either a comedy writer you find particularly funny - and particularly good for the writer who can grow an audience for their other efforts. Anything you find particularly funny can be sent to your Twitter or your Facebook page.
The company behind This Just In is iLarous, which was born from last year’s writer strike as comedy writers began to look directly to cut out the network middle man and reach audiences directly through the web. iLarious comes from the mind of Fred Graver, creator of “Best Week Ever” and one of the first writers for “Late Night with David Letterman.” Graver has been producing good stuff for over 25 years starting with the National Lampoon. He knows the funny.
This Just In is one of many ideas forth coming from iLarious, including another app that will semi-adapt another segment of the talk show - the celebrity interview. It’s called WITTR, and will feature talk between pro comics like some familiar BWE faves like Paul F. Tompkins, Paul Scheer, Christian Finnegan and Doug Benson.
Full disclosure: I talked with Fred Graver as this was being developed and very well may write a joke or two myself for it. Fred offered me a review copy of “This Just In”, but I paid for mine in the app store. If you’re interested where funny could go next, you should too.
It’s only $1.99 with subsequent month-long subscriptions to current jokes are 99 cents (a 3 month-long sub is available for $2.99 - which is a couple cents more than month to month. I’m sure that’s a bump that’ll get evened out somehow.)
A favorite of comedy geeks, David Cross recently wrote the book I Drink for a Reason, a collection of funny essays. He has also gone on tour to support the book, giving fans outside of the coasts a chance to see him perform stand-up live for the first time in five years. (You can check out David Cross’s upcoming tour dates here.) I talked with David about the differences between writing a book and stand-up, why he turned off his Google alert and how his family life is off-limits on stage, at least for now.
What were the challenges you found in writing a funny book as opposed to writing a bit of stand-up or a comedy sketch?
Well, I guess the ideas don’t flow as naturally or prolifically when I’m sitting down to write because you’re writing in a vacuum. When I’m writing stand-up there’s such a give and take in the energy. Plus I’m talking out loud. I never talk out loud when I write.
It’s all my interior voice. Ideas, whether they’re good or bad, come easier to me when I’m talking on stage. That’s sort of the way I write on stage. I have the idea and I just sort of riff the idea until I’ve done the set a bunch of times. And I pick and choose what I say and then that becomes a bit.
I’ve never met somebody who sat down and just wrote jokes. So that genre doesn’t come easily to me. But it was nice to be able to have the idea written down on a piece of paper and be able to edit it there once it was done.
Like if you set up a bit of stand-up wrong, then you’re in that place and can’t go back and fix it.
Yeah, but then I can comment on that. “Oh I fucked that up” or whatever. It’s just so different because you’re communicating in a completely different way.
I just find it to be very hard. I’m amazed when I look at old National Lampoons with Michael O’Donoghue and Doug Kenney and how they’re able to make me laugh out loud. It’s very difficult. You rely on the readers’ sense of timing. You have to figure out how to get that comic pacing in their head.
Well, I probably do have the benefit, if people are familiar with my work, of assuming that the voice that you have when you’re reading it is my own. You can sort of hear my voice in it. I’d be interested to talk to somebody who liked reading humorous books, who’s not familiar with my work at all, to see what they thought of it. Because they wouldn’t have the benefit of knowing what cadence I use. And that’s another huge difference. You don’t have the benefit of pausing and gesticulation and intonations and cadence. There’s no performance to it.
You could put something in italic like Spy would.
That’s all you get.
Italics or bold.
You get an ellipse or all caps.
There you go. The typographic ability of stand-up in print.
Well, no one could say Russell Brand didn’t try.
Last Wednesday, he work-shopped some material for hosting MTV’s Video Music Awards at “The Green Room” on Bleeker Street. Brand had hosted the show last year as well, but the crowd didn’t know what to make of his jokes about the Jonas Brothers and their promise rings. It was enough of a debacle that Brand spent a fair amount of his first United States comedy special talking about it. Good fodder for one show, but I’m sure he’d rather talk about something else in a second U.S. special.
The first thing you would notice about the impromptu show was the female/male ratio of the crowd. It tipped about 80/20. Brand’s lusty persona has a hold that’s really rare in the comedy world. I can’t remember the last comedy show where the opposite sex from my own was so strongly represented.
Brand framed the evening for the audience, but first realized he was a bit hungry and bemoaned he left behind a banana backstage. No worries however, an audience banana is quickly produced and in between mouthfuls, Brand told us how he wanted this year’s stint as the VMA’s master of ceremonies to go much better, specifically a desire to avoid “death threats.” So he was gong to try his material out on us. We were heavily encouraged to raise our hands if we believe Brand was nearing territory which would make him a target for more than a joke.
Hand-raising was the least of the contribution Brand sought from the audience. The audience acted like a writer’s room at times for Brand, offering punch-up for bits. Sometimes it was just a word - don’t say “Fuck”, say “Nail.” A long diversion occurred about what word to use for asshole. (“Orifice” - not specific.)
But a few times it was a bit more. One in the crowd had a reaction to the tail end of the joke, and Brand immediately earnestly question that didn’t he have to have a third thing, citing comedy’s “rule of three.” It was a generous assumption that the audience would know what he was talking about.
Brand might have been too generous. Brand at one point elicited suggestion for a bizarre thing he could suggest Pink might do in her performance. A voice from behind me yelled, “Pink comes out and fucks Michael Jackson’s corpse.” Thankfully, lost in the din of other suggestions.
Another joke about P. Diddy and Jennifer Lopez elicited a response that it should be about P. Diddy’s current girlfriend. Russell Brand made a good observation that true for constructing all monologue jokes, stating that “a fact that nobody knows, it’s almost like it’s it’s not a fact.”
A variation of this is also a lesson for Brand, which, after watching his parts of the VMAs, I think he’s unfortunately had to learn twice. Brand’s obsessive sexual persona is great for his stand-up, but it’s still so unknown on these shores that people just wonder “why is this British guy is saying dirty stuff about our pop-stars?” If the jokes rely a bit on who you are, and you’re still relatively unknown, then no one is going to get your jokes. Brand knows this, he even said so much in that aforementioned first US special.
I think the VMAs are a terrible place to try and be funny anyway. Just like the Oscars, the audience is full of music folks taken a relatively meaningless awards far too seriously (see Kanye). The best reaction you’re going to manage is clapter - the clapping for a political point of agreement- not laughs. Brand’s best moment was when he referred to Britain having free healthcare, and it was more of a statement than a joke. (It was a popular line the night he was working out material as well. And wasn’t part of his initial monologue. No wonder he moved it up.)
And Brand’s talent is two fold, the second being something that’s could never be part of the VMAs but was part of the show I saw. He’s more than just a prancing pervert, but dares into metaphysical stream-of-consciousness, where he imagines that we’re all connected backwards to prior generations and each other by umbilical cords, suggesting that as a reason to cast a kinder eye at celebrity. His mind ventures in places that MTV just doesn’t cover unless it’s pretentiously shown in a rarely aired music video. I can’t imagine MTV offering the VMAs again, but if they do, hopefully, Brand won’t try and make the third time the charm.