Tim Key warns the audience fairly early on in his show that it will be more of a poetry recital than comedy show. If you have a low bent for experimental comedy than you might just characterize more as dicking around. But Key’s show constantly reframes what it is, bringing in, yes, poetry, but also odd short-films, list of animals, asides to the audience and a bit of child-like play (as opposed to childish play). TIm Key tells us early on that the title “Slutcracker” is a misnomer, but there isn’t a “nomer” for this. “Slutcracker” is as good as any.
A lot of Key’s poems are playing with perceptions, pulling back and delivering that last bit of information that reframes all that came before. (Key also challenges the characterization that they’re deliberately bad, stating “They’re not deliberate.”) A lot of it is engaged with the audience, poems being interrupted by Key’s own observation that a line is “quite lovely, idn’t it?”
Key also likes to play a man unaware of universal knowledge and customs, asking the Canadian audience if they have Shakespeare or kissing. Not seeing his Edinburgh performances, I can’t say it’s a new bit of business but it’s really fun bit of play. Key knows how to coax audience to go along with his nonsense, having once member being responsible for bringing him his beer when he wants it, rather than leaving next to him on the stage.
This audience engagement is best realized at the end, when he challenges audience members to help him go from just off stage to the top of the refrigerator on the opposite side, requiring stepping in a haphazardly-placed baked goods, a bit of pushing in places below the lower back and finally being carried by as many audience members as he can force on stage.
It’s all a bit of fun for Key, but he wants you to join in. And you should.
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.
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.
Filed Under Stand-Up Comedy
One of Steve Martin’s early specials has made it to the web and it gives what is now a pretty rare look at his stand-up. If you were around at the time, your main image of Martin’s stand-up career is his performances for thousands in arenas. Well in the special “Steve Martin’s The Funnier Side of Eastern Canada”, there’s a segment of Martin performing a more intimate venue. You can see it in this clip, which starts at around 3 minutes in.
Wow, can you hear that? Unsweetened, distinct laughter on TV. Those were the days.
If you want to see the whole thing, I’ve put it together as a playlist that you can watch after the jump.
Judd Apatow’s upcoming film “Funny People” has a huge viral media blast going on, with a lot of it centered around Aziz Ansari‘s character in the film Raaaaaaaandy, who I always assumed was going to be a lot of what’s wrong with modern stand-up. The latest piece is this faux documentary of the character by Ansari and Jason Woliner, the director and 4th member of Human Giant. Let’s watch, unless you’re at work, because there’s some borderline NSFW stuff here:
Maybe it’s because I know Ansari’s own performing style well or I’m used alt comedians doing incredibly annoying characters as a bit, but I don’t see Raaaaaaaandy the way I’ve assumed I’m supposed to see him. So I don’t really think this is targeting any particular stand-up at all. Because the difficult thing about terrible comedy is that the characters, just like the perpetrators of bad comedy in real life, have to be absolutely sincere that what they do is funny. But, as Raaaaaaaandy might say, this video winks at me like a muthafucka. And Ansari’s just so naturally funny, he actually makes Raaaaaaaandy look like he has some nascent skills.
In the context of the film itself, this may very well play differently. And this isn’t to say, I’m not laughing my dick off at this. Because I am. Particularly at DJ Ol’ Youngin, who does come off completely committed to his shit here. Maybe it’s because I don’t know him outside of this vid is why I absolutely buy it.
The most annoying to me about Raaaaaaaandy is his name and how he spells the damn thing. It should be Rannnnnnnndy. 8ns not 8as!
Filed Under Stand-Up Comedy
I’m in Chicago for Just For Laughs, getting ready for another night of the ha-ha. But if you’re not here, the best place might just be your couch for Joe Rogan’s new hour special, “Talking Monkeys in Space.” Joe has been making his name as a stand-up in the last few years with his willingness to confront the ills of the business, particularly joke thievery. But more than a passionate defender of the art, Rogan is a great practitioner of it, weaving some philosophical insight into his jokes that bring him into territory few comics cover. This bit of evolution here is just a small part of something larger about human hubris in going places we shouldn’t be. Check it:
“Joe Rogan: Talking Monkeys in Space” airs tonight at Midnight on Spike.