Category Archives: Comedy

Television About Television on Television: The Television Years

I quite like television (don’t know if I’ve mentioned that before), so one of my favourite things is television programmes that are about television programmes. In that regard, recent weeks have been simply delightful, with both W1A series 2 and the Episodes series 4. Quelle richesse!

Episodes, which continues tonight, features two married British screenwriters, Bev and Sean (played by Tamsin Grieg and Stephen Mangan) who go to Los Angeles to have their pet project mangled and regurgitated by the Hollywood Television Machine. In season 4, their original pet project has been dropped by the network, leaving its star, Matt Leblanc (played by Matt LeBlanc) out of work and out of pocket, while Sean and Bev are back into the fray trying to pitch a new show to various bizarre Hollywood executives. And this is great for so many reasons. One: Tamsin Grieg, Stephen Mangan and Matt LeBlanc, all of whom are comedy royalty. Two: a hefty dose of fish-out-of-water Brits-vs-Americans humour, with both sides managing to be surprisingly empathetic despite their quirks and foibles. Three: a (presumably partially accurate) insight into the way Hollywood works, with scripts being passed around, picked apart and rewritten beyond recognition, lots of arse-kissing, creepy network executives, people pretending to like each other, cast and crew members who are either overly enthusiastic or lazy as hell… TV, baby!

And I’m enjoying this fourth series much more than the previous one, which got a bit soapy and weird, with lots of angsty storylines. The main issue was that Bev and Sean were separated, so they – along with pretty much all the other characters – were all sleeping with everyone else and getting upset about it. This season, the show is back on form (notwithstanding a slightly weird lesbian storyline that seems like a deliberately controversial rehash of old plots). Bev and Sean are a team once again, which gives us a united British front of scepticism, tea-drinking and passive-aggressive disapproval against the excesses and enthusiasm of the Americans, as well as allowing Grieg and Mangan to do what they do best and actually interact with each other in a humorous fashion (Green Wing, how we miss thee). Matt LeBlanc also has a particularly fun new storyline of having lost thirty-two million dollars of savings to a rogue accountant, which gives him an excuse to be massively bitchy and self-centred – again, what he does best.

In contrast to Episodes, set in Hollywood, stands W1A, set at the BBC in London. The programme (whose latest series was so short that it was finished before you could say ‘OK, here’s the thing with this’) follows a group of people working in TV development and planning; and it has many things going for it. First of all, it’s set at the BBC, that staple of broadcasting greatness. I see the exterior of New Broadcasting House (it’s no Television Centre – RIP – but you can’t have everything) and there are all the establishing shots of all the researchers and producers and developers tapping away at their BBC desks and I clap my hands in glee at being part of it (ish).

Also, some of the characters are properly fantastic. My absolute favourite is Will the intern, the single most hopeless person in the history of anything, who manages to get away with not being able to perform even the simplest of tasks because he looks so lost and sweet. This series, he’s even managed to have one or two moments of absolute brilliance that have saved him at the last minute from being thrown out on his ear; this is especially pleasing because no one looks more surprised about it than he does. And of course there are other great aspects to the programme, including: Jessica Hynes as painfully nonsensical PR guru Siobhan Sharpe (“If you get bandwidth on this, you’ve got maple syrup on your waffle from the get-go”), the fact that all the meeting rooms are named after celebrities (“Let’s have lunch in Tommy Cooper”), the constant mockery of the BBC’s own nearest and dearest (for example, the uncannily well-timed jokes at the expense of Jeremy Clarkson that aired shortly after he was fired from Top Gear), and, of course, the soothing narration of Lord of All Things David Tennant.

The only thing that limits W1A’s greatness (in my eyes) is that, well, it could be more TV-y. Obviously it started life as Twenty Twelve, with all of the characters working for the Olympic Deliverance Commission, and I loved it back then, but, you know, it was about sport, and that always hung over the programme like a sweaty, lycra-clad spectre. So when it was announced (after the Olympics had finished) that the whole team was moving to the BBC, I was very excited. But, in the end, it turns out that the reason they could get away with changing the setting was that it’s not really about sports, or the Olympics, or television, or the BBC – it’s about working in an office with a bunch of people who are terrible at their jobs and thereby make you terrible at yours. Aside from the name-dropping, the references to BBC shows and the odd cameo (of which more later), W1A could really be set anywhere and it would function the same.

In fairness, both W1A and Episodes do have quite a lot to live up to in terms of shows about shows, since they are following in the wake of two particularly shining examples of the format. One is Extras, which ended in 2007, but which still makes me laugh when I think about it. As a reminder, Ricky Gervais starred as Ricky Gerv- sorry, as Andy Millman, an aspiring actor-writer who is currently stuck wallowing around in the shallow end of the acting pool as an extra on various low- and high-budget productions. As with W1A, a lot of the comedy lies in how useless everyone is, particularly Andy’s agent, who barely seems to know how to use a phone, let alone how to hobnob with producers and directors to get Andy the kinds of roles he wants. BUT, unlike W1A, we get to visit the actual sets on which Andy and his chums are filming, and more frequently than we do in Episodes. As such, we’re introduced to bad catering, cramped dressing-room conditions, uncomfortable costumes, incredibly pretentious stars and awkward homophobia. Extras, how we miss thee also.

The other magnificent programme involving how all the facets of television-making interact is 30 Rock. Set at the peacock-bedecked NBC in New York, the show follows the trials and tribulations of a writer/producer (Liz Lemon, played by Tina Fey) and studio exec (Jack Donaghy, played by Alec Baldwin) as they try to maintain a grip on their writing team, actors, crew members, assistants, love lives and reality. As with Extras, 30 Rock finished several years ago; but I came late to the 30 Rock party, and am desperately trying to stretch the final season out for as long as I can (we’ve arrived at the last episode, and I don’t want to watch it, because then it will be over *sob*). I LOVE IT. In particular, and more so than any of the other shows I’ve mentioned, 30 Rock holds up the whole business of television-making to the light and examine the cracks, before filling them up with comedy putty. For example, an episode I watched recently featured the main star of the fictional show-within-the-show tweeting that women weren’t funny, which led to Liz Lemon being absolutely hilarious as she tried to prove to everyone that women were funny, and in doing so creating an extremely funny episode written and performed by a women (Tina Fey), thereby proving to the real world that women are funny. (If that doesn’t make sense, never fear: it makes even less sense in context.)

And this is the really great thing, not just about 30 Rock but about the other shows I’ve mentioned as well: they generally involve people in television making fun of themselves and their careers. The fictional writers, directors, production staff and crew all come off looking like hilarious buffoons, largely due to the efforts and self-awareness of the real writers, directors, production staff and crew. And particular credit must go to the ones who actually appear on screen – not just actors and other celebrities, but people who you’d think weren’t quite so used to putting themselves out there for mockery. A previous blog post listed some of my favourite television cameos, but it’s worth giving a quick shout out to some of the other great (and surprising) appearances from these four shows: 30 Rock’s inclusion of Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing (among other things), as a struggling writer who’ll do anything for a gig; Moira Stuart in Extras as Ronnie Corbett’s drug mule; in Episodes, the appearance of a ‘Friends co-star’ in the fictional sitcom that turns out to be Gunther (James Michael Tyler); and Mary Beard on W1A being subjected to the atrocious attentions of Siobhan (“Of course, not everyone can be Lucy Worsley”).

Basically, these shows are fantastic because (a) they’re a double dose of something I love, the almighty television; and (b) the people who make them also love television so much that they’re prepared to look like idiots to make it as wonderful as they possibly can. My kind of people. I peacock you all.

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The Geek Proliferation: In Defence of The Big Bang Theory

Last night heralded the return, after a mid-season Christmas hiatus, of The Big Bang Theory, that wacky comedy about four science-loving nerds, their attractive female friend, and, recently, two other women who sort of cross into both camps. And, boy, has the programme received some ire from professional and amateur reviewers alike. Although Big Bang Theory is clearly very popular, it’s also much derided: search ‘why geeks hate the big bang theory’ on Google, for example, and you get 472,000 results. But I for one am pleased it’s back, because I LIKE IT. I’m getting that out there now, so that there can be no confusion about what kind of approach this piece is going to take. Obviously it’s not the perfect show (what is? Answers on a postcard, please), but I firmly believe that its critics are seriously misguided in their scorn and hatred for something that is, after all, designed as 25 minutes a week of light amusement.

One principle reason giving for not enjoying Big Bang Theory – nay, hating every fibre of its being – is that it isn’t funny. Well, there’s not much I can say to argue against that. Either you find it funny or you don’t, and tastes vary. My husband sniggers at Family Guy; my best friend finds 2 Broke Girls hilarious; my sisters LOLs at Made in Chelsea; my grandfather loves Doc Martin… And, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by the way I’ve set this paragraph up, I don’t find any of these remotely amusing. So if you don’t simply don’t find Big Bang Theory funny, then you can stop reading and go and watch a programme that you do find funny. (Don’t stop reading, though. Seriously. I need the clicks.) I’m not saying it’s ever made me laugh until I cry, but it invariably provides me with a few smiles and the odd snigger, and sometimes, yes, it does make me splutter with laughter.

Another reason for getting up in arms about the show, often combined with the first, is that it has a laugh track  (by which I mean it is actually filmed in front of an audience). I’ve talked about laugh tracks before, and, yes, sometimes they’re a bit annoying (especially if you’re not laughing yourself). If I was making a comedy, I think I’d err on the side of audience silence. But audience laughter is, ultimately, a simple presentation feature that you can pretty much blank out and ignore. Also, for those people saying that the theme tune’s annoying (examples: here and here), two words: Who cares? It lasts about 30 seconds and then it’s gone. Mute the damn thing.

But some of the other criticisms are a bit more debatable. Perhaps the main argument is that the audience, far from empathising with Leonard, Sheldon, Howard and Raj, is laughing at them. One blogger puts it thus:

“The humour in The Big Bang theory relies on the audience siding with and relating to Penny, the character coded as “normal” in comparison to the main four guys. It also relies on the audience having a sense of superiority over Leonard, Raj, Sheldon and Howard. We’re supposed to feel like we’re cooler than them and that we’re better than them. This then prompts us to laugh at the things which make them nerdy, which stop them being cool, which make them lesser.”

Another blogger comments that:

“All the lazy tropes of geeky characters – weedy, unable to function in society, terrible with women, mummy’s boys – are present and correct. […] In short, this is a TV show where the premise is ‘lol look at these losers!’. And depressingly people seem to lap it up.”

Finally, this:

“The Audience sees that these anally-retentive misfits are inferior to them, and this pleases The Audience no end, because looking down on people and laughing at their shortcomings is one of our favourite things to do as a species.”

Ouch.

Now I have a serious issue with baldly stating that the audience is against, not for, the ‘geeky’ characters: it’s not accurate to position Penny against all the others and claim that she’s normal and they’re not, nor is it accurate to imply that the four guys are one homogeneous nerdy mass made of “lazy tropes”. They’re clearly different people, with different personalities. Certainly, most shows with a geek or nerd character squeeze every geek stereotype into that one person. Take Moss in The IT Crowd, or McGee in NCIS. Good with computers? Check. Bad with women? Check. Chubby and/or otherwise weird-looking? Check. Likes role-playing games? Check.

But because there are four scientists in Big Bang Theory, they all have their own personalities, and it’s absolutely untrue to say that all of them are the same, particularly that they’re all “weedy, unable to function in society, terrible with women, mummy’s boys” (for one thing, one’s married and two are in stable relationships. How truly awful with women they must be). Leonard is a physicist, clever, independent, musically talented and fairly socially switched on, but also boring and whiny. Sheldon is a theoretical  physicist (the distinction is important), probably somewhere on the autistic spectrum, leading to behaviour that seems childlike, obsessive and self-centred, but is actually a refreshing change from Leonard’s martyr-like puppy dog moping. Howard is a short creepy Jewish astronaut, and although his pervy tendencies have declined since he got married, his dress sense has not improved. And Raj is an Indian astrophysicist recently recovered from selective mutism, who is self-centred, fairly camp and tends to get ignored and forgotten by the others. What’s more, in later series, two female scientists have added to the mix: Bernadette is small, pretty, shrill, bossy and practical, and is Howard’s wife, while Amy is socially inept, possessive, possibly bisexual and madly in love with Sheldon. The whole glorious spectrum of human emotion is covered here, that’s what I’m saying.

So, because of these (and many more) differences, the characters spend a lot of time making fun of each other. For example, Sheldon is teased by all the others for his obsessive habits and his failure to be tactful in social situations; Raj is mocked for pretending to be a poor Indian boy when his parents are actually loaded, and also for his weird intimacy with his little dog; and Penny gets stick never having been to college and for her complete inability to have a girls’ night in without drinking copious amounts of alcohol. Because the thing is: mocking each other is what friends do. Remember how often the other characters in FRIENDS made fun of Joey’s eating habits or Ross’s dinosaur obsession. Recall how much stick Ted got for be a soppy romantic or Robin got for being Canadian in How I Met Your Mother. Think back to the intra-group mockery in The Simpsons, Blackadder, M*A*S*H, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Scrubs… Gentle mockery is the lifeblood of a friendship group.

And the reason I feel I can claim the mockery in Big Bang Theory to be gentle is that I really believe that we empathise with the characters (not Leonard, though, ugh). Again, the Internet disagrees with me on this, panning the “shallow, one-dimensional characters assembled by a collection of overpaid Hollywood screenwriters” and arguing that they’re all “thoroughly hideous”. OK, I’m totally onside with the claim that Leonard is “weak and whiny”, but for the other characters, their negative traits don’t suddenly negate their positive ones, nor do they preclude us from engaging with them. Ever heard of an anti-hero, guys? And I would argue that there’s been some actually quite convincing character development, especially in the cases of Howard and Sheldon. Howard used to be “horribly sleazy” (see also this previous blog post) but he’s (mostly) grown out of it: he has a wife, and a job full of responsibilities. And Sheldon’s struggles with commit to an adult relationship with Amy are heart-breaking. For example, in an episode just before Christmas, the group set up their own prom, and Sheldon was worried that this would result in him having to sleep with Amy, and he wasn’t ready, and that scared him. Maybe he’s annoying, maybe you wouldn’t actually want him as a friend, but that’s an emotion even the most cynical viewer must be able to relate to?

Because that’s the thing about Big Bang Theory – even if some of the characters are annoying, and not everything they do is realistic, and they sometimes fall into a lazy joke or stereotype, there are enough moments of recognition, and of humour, that it’s worth watching. So sue me.

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 (part 4): Back to School

I live in Edinburgh, and in August, during the Fringe, Edinburgh gets CRAZY. Welcome to the last of four* weekly review articles on the visitors I’ve had, the shows I’ve seen and the sides I’ve split.

*All completely off-topic – no TV involved.

Week 4: My parents and I learn things, and have a right old laugh in the process

After the chaos and mayhem of last week, my 2014 Fringe experience drew to a close on a calmer note as my parents arrived for a long weekend of rather more cultural – nay, educational – pursuits. In the week that all the poor Scottish children had to go back to school, so, rather fittingly, did we.

ENGLISH LITERATURE: Our education on this core topic focused on a classic author: Jane Austen, in the form of Austentatious, an improvised version of a ‘lost’ Austen novel whose title is suggested by the audience. On this occasion there was an hour of rollicking japes on the subject of ‘Hubris and Hostility’, involving two sisters (naturally), one wild and fancy-free and one serious and responsible (naturally), whose desire for marriage was thrown into jeopardy by the problems at their father’s museum-cum-carriage-wash business (naturally). And that’s precisely what makes this show awesome: the absurd combination of impressively consistent Regency mannerisms and language (well, mostly – one actor who came out with the phrase ‘pack it in’ was roundly derided by the other cast members) with a slightly satirical inclusion of modern elements, such as the fact that the romantic hero of the piece worked as a mixologist. ‘Beach on the Rocks’, anyone?

GERMAN: Our foreign language option this week was German, as taught by Henning Wehn in his show Eins, Zwei, DIY. In addition to five minutes of actual German conversation between Wehn and a countryman in the audience – surprisingly funny given that no one else had a clue what they were saying – Wehn generally uses the whole ‘I’m German and you’re not’ theme to great effect. Indeed, the very fact of Wehn’s Teutonicity tends to be a driving factor behind his comedy in the sense that it allows him to take an outsider’s perspective on all the things Britain is currently failing at (house prices, politicians, and of course football) and thereby ridicule them in a convincing manner. I’m not sure I’m fully on board with the idea that we get rid of mortgages, but I can’t fault the suggestion that if we elected Angela Merkel the next Prime Minister, she would sort things out.

HISTORY: Specialist historical subject of the week – the Romans. This event had the distinction of being the only one presented by an actual teacher: Mary Beard, whose discussion topic was ‘He-He-He! What Made the Romans Laugh?’ Included in the Fringe catalogue under ‘Spoken Word’ rather than ‘Comedy’, and more of a lecture than a show, the hour nonetheless included several Ancient Roman jokes (have you heard the one about the absent-minded professor from Abdura?) and several instances of poking fun at Ancient Roman jokes, which was funny in itself. Beard won me over the second she used a picture from Asterix to illustrate Julius Caesar’s baldness, and the gentle, informative tone of the hour was a nice change of pace from the madness of the stand-ups and sketch troupes.

SOCIOLOGY: Bringing the focus back to the present, and taking a decisive stance on the greatest issues facing society today, were Fascinating Aïda, giving us a condensed version of their show Charm Offensive. The elegant appearance of Dillie, Adèle and Liza, and their beautiful flowing melodies, belie the content of their songs, which include ‘Cheap Flights’, ‘Song of Genetic Mutation’ and ‘Dogging’ – thus firmly refuting criticisms that it’s the youth of today who use bad language and jokes about sex to make people laugh. Both of my parents (indeed, most of the audience) were in fits of giggles throughout, and, although I’m not exactly their target market, I was smiling and humming along, and even getting a little misty-eyed during the couple of serious and emotional songs that were interspersed with the comedy. And, perhaps most importantly, I learnt an important life lesson: always be sceptical of airlines offering you a good deal.

PSYCHOLOGY: What with all these troublesome aspects of modern life, mental health is an incredibly important topic nowadays, so it was with great relief that Jack Dee was there to help out, inviting a variety of comedian friends onto the Jack Dee’s Help Desk panel to help solve the audience’s personal conundrums (‘conundra’?). Our helpful psychologists on this occasion were Richard Herring (see here), Jess Robinson, Cariad Lloyd (of ‘Austentatious’, above) and James Acaster, who was the funniest of the bunch. The problems offered by the audience ranged from the light-hearted (‘My mate wants me to be a bouncer at his party’) to the serious (‘I feel lonely at work’) to the downright horrifying (‘I’m addicted to Holby City’); but the panellists were good humoured, witty and amusing, and, in many cases, they actually offered some quite sensible advice (e.g. ‘Try watching Breaking Bad instead’), leaving us all feeling a lot better about ourselves, each other and life in general. Plus I got a free pen. Score.

GEOLOGY: Finally, after a lot of artsy-fartsy nonsense, we got into some hard science – specifically the study of volcanoes, in Stuart Laws: When’s This Gonna Stop? (1 Hr Show). Laws also dealt with other topics – YouTube memorials, primate recognition and German biscuits, for example – but it was on the topic of volcanoes that the knowledge really came thick and fast (much like low viscosity basaltic lava). Unlike some other audience members, I was not asked for my favourite volcano – the answer would have been Arthur’s Seat, of course – but, for the second year running, my father was asked to contribute to the show in the form of answering questions about when he was a lad, which was awkward for him and extremely amusing for everyone else. What’s really nice about Laws’ comedy, though, is that it’s all very friendly, and when you’re laughing (which you’re doing for pretty much the whole show) you feel like everybody else is laughing with you, like a big comedy family. If you can spend an hour chortling/guffawing in harmonious tandem with thirty other people, and learn a little something about pyroclastic flows in the process, well, that’s how you want to spend the last week of the Fringe.

SHOW OF THE WEEK (WEEK FOUR): When’s This Gonna Stop? (1 Hr Show) (Stuart Laws) (Banshee Labyrinth, Niddry Street)

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 (part 3): Mind Games

I live in Edinburgh, and in August, during the Fringe, Edinburgh gets CRAZY. Welcome to the third of four* weekly review articles on the visitors I’ve had, the shows I’ve seen and the sides I’ve split.

*All completely off-topic – no TV involved.

Week 3: Sarah and I are driven to the brink of insanity, or possibly beyond

This week, I found myself sitting in the backroom of a small Italian restaurant, next to a Roman statue wearing a fedora, watching two people in cabaret-clown makeup singing songs about cats, heliophobia and Butterbeer. This was the Peablossom Cabaret, starring two of my favourite Oxford Imps, whose aim is to sing delightful improvised cabaret songs based on audience suggestions (the Butterbeer was mine – in response to Mr Pea asking me ‘What’s a nice memory you have?’, I blurted out, ‘I went to Harry Potter World!’ I’m not ashamed). Some of the rhymes and scansion during the songs were a little bit dubious, but hey, they were making it up on the spot, and that’s quite a feat; and besides, Mr Pea and Miss Blossom are a thoroughly winsome pair, with excellent on-stage chemistry, merry patter and flawless comedy timing.

Despite the wackiness and the unsettling costumes, though, this was actually the least bonkers show of the week, which turned out to be a progressively darker and more disturbing series of comedians and audience dragging each other down into a horrifying world of mental instability, panic and hysteria…

Sounds hilarious! Read on!

The road to insanity began lightly with Celia Pacquola: Let Me Know How It All Works Out. The first move of the show was a bold one: she announced that she was generally a worrier (fine) and that, in consequence, she pays actual money to visit psychics to try and calm her down (um). The evidence was presented as to why this wasn’t as crazy as it sounds – Pacquola is an intelligent person, it’s no more unreasonable than believing in an unknowable being in the sky, most psychics just tell you something vaguely positive and let you go on your way… But then there was a story about a not-so-positive palm reader and the aftermath of his clairvoyant assertions (a minor breakdown, followed by an amusing appearance from an annoying hipster) – and any sympathy I had for the reassuring nature of the psychic was wiped out. Yes, the show was funny (in a disconcerting way), the soundtrack was excellent, and there was a fun twist at the end; but it’s hard to be entertained when you’re a little bit angry, and I – and I suspect several other people – left the venue thinking not ‘That was a funny show’ but rather ‘Psychics are bloody awful.’

Other comedians, like Jessie Cave, turn to arts and crafts to soothe their frantic hearts. Cave is probably still best known for playing Lavender Brown in the Harry Potter series, but her Twitter and stand-up persona is more of a socially awkward bundle of nerves. At last year’s Fringe, her show involved lots of fretting about running a book club where NO ONE WAS DOING IT RIGHT. This year, she has something really big to be anxious about – she’s pregnant. (Plus her stand-up partner dropped out at the last minute.) The resulting show is kooky and charming, with a wealth of handmade props and puppy-dog eyes, but all with an undercurrent of anxious mania, and, at times, the jokes seem so close to the bone that you actually find yourself worrying for her. When she finished the show with, ‘Please leave money in the bucket to support my unborn child’, everyone emptied their pockets.

Following on from that, Mark Watson in his show Flaws went one step further by actually re-enacting his own nervous breakdown on stage. It should be stated that this wasn’t the whole show. For forty-five minutes, the audience was chortling, giggling, guffawing and, in one case, hissing with laughter as Watson talked about his kids, exercise, work, and the terrible drink choices of the guy in the front row who kept getting up to pee (strawberry cider, incidentally). Then, to the strains of children’s TV theme tunes and with the help of quite a lot of balloons and a PR specialist plucked from the audience, Watson dimmed the lights and recreated apparently the lowest moment of his life. It was genuinely a bit frightening; yet, disconcerting though it was, it was still absolutely hilarious, and Watson was even more firmly cemented in my heart as one of my favourite comedians.

But the delirium was not over – oh, no. Forget about darkness and balloons: true madness lies at The Circus. Performed in an actual tent, The Circus is, well, a circus, but what a circus would be like if it was souped up on acid. The line-up changes nightly, but every performer we saw did an absolutely bang-up job in making their characters simultaneously awful and uproarious. Joseph Morpurgo’s Elemento performed some stunningly underwhelming feats of strength and bravery  (the ramifications of which, I was reliably informed, had taken fourteen years off my life); Tim Fitzhigham’s Lion Tamer went up against an astonishingly self-important and arrogant audience member who arrived late (but sadly, presumably for legal reasons, refrained from actually whipping him); Lolly Adefope and Adam Lawrence performed some actual magic, accompanied by awful puns; Ellie White and Natasia Demetriou were unhinged but riotous as two Eastern European women dressed as ‘Sexy American Girl Cousins’; and Paul Foot brought his usual brand of stream-of-consciousness nuttiness to the Human Cannonball. We came out of the show dazed and confused, with headaches from laughing so much, and no longer sure whether we were still at the Fringe or whether we’d been dragged to some hell dimension where Satan was disguised as a ringmaster and tortured his subjects with never-ending mirth.

Fortunately, after all of that, everything was calmed and cured again by Rob Auton. Last year Auton performed a show about the sky, which, as it went on, slowly began to reveal itself as part stand-up, part performance poetry. This year, it was The Face Show, which began with Auton drawing portraits of the audience members (Sarah got one, and I was jealous) and evolved into beautiful philosophical musings and poems on the subject of faces – and the people who have them – interspersed with cheeky grins and playful questions about pretty much everything under the sun. Also there was a renegade sticker book, and who doesn’t love a renegade sticker book? The genius of this show is Auton’s charisma, which means that the funny parts are sparkling, the sad parts are heart-breaking, and the uplifting parts are joyful. I definitely wasn’t the only person with tears in my eyes by the end – and not just because I finally felt sane again. If I can only recommend one show this week, it’s this.

SHOW OF THE WEEK (WEEK THREE): The Face Show (Rob Auton) (Banshee Labyrinth, 4pm)

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 (part 2): Audience Participation

I live in Edinburgh, and in August, during the Fringe, Edinburgh gets CRAZY. Welcome to the second of four* weekly review articles on the visitors I’ve had, the shows I’ve seen and the sides I’ve split. *All completely off-topic – no TV involved.

Week 2: My BFF (Best Fringe Friend) comes to stay, and we Get Involved

Following the relative calmness of last week’s visit by my sister and her boyfriend, things were dialled up a notch this week with the arrival of a university friend – Sarah – whose attendance for a week of Fringe fun has become as essential a part of summer as accidentally squashing a wasp into your drink. This year, we decided to make the most of one of the best things about the Fringe: the opportunity to get up close and personal to the acts. Obviously, pretty much any live show requires an audience. Take, for example, The Addams Family, a musical take on the family favourite. The version at this year’s Fringe was performed by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (who last year provided a pitch-perfect rendition of Avenue Q), and all we had to do as an audience was sit back, relax, laugh, tap our feet and provide the traditional finger-clicking during the theme song. From then on in, it was a whirlwind of creepy (yes, and kooky) Broadway-style numbers interspersed with the typical love story: boy meets girl, girl brings boy and boy’s parents home to meet her family, family turns out to be bunch of violent, masochistic loons, zombie ancestors appear, hilarity ensues. In particular, the show was stolen by two characters: Gomez, whose attempt to reconcile his devotion to his wife with his love for his daughter was genuinely heart-rending; and Lurch, who groaned a lot. But many shows invite you to get a little bit more involved than some giggles and clicking; sometimes, say, you might have to proffer a suggestion for the theme of a spontaneous musical…

This approach was taken by No Strings!: The Improvised Puppet Musical, a group made up of a selection of performers from Showstoppers (saw them last year – excellent), Austentatious (of which more in review #4), Boom Chicago, and a bonus Racing Minds associate (see here). An audience member shouted out the word ‘lasers’, and suddenly we were in a world where photons turn people into rats, Hogwarts gives out university degrees, and the only thing male scientists know about women is that they have ‘This, and this, and one of those’. The songs may not have been Christmas Number 1 material, but the energy and enthusiasm were infectious, the quips were razor-sharp and sassy,  the puppets were handled with a surprising amount of dexterity, and the occasional gaffe – for example, two different members of the cast accidentally falling off the stage – was handled with aplomb and good humour. And I think I’m going to get ‘Phil! Stop dancing with the mutant rat!’ printed on a T-shirt.

Adam Hess, in his show Mustard, also asked the audience for suggestions, though these mainly involved calling out random numbers that corresponded to items on a list of slightly sinister true-life confessions he’d written on a piece of paper. We saw Hess a couple of years ago alongside Sean McLoughlin, during a show in which the stories of their sad lives were so upsetting that I hugged them both as I left and told them to stay strong. This time, a recent break-up provided some sympathy-inducing material, but most of the show consisted of fast-paced reminiscing about childhood awkwardness, from playing with Barbies at school to being obsessed with The Sound of Music (who isn’t?). There was an element of bafflement to the proceedings – largely from not being sure which bits were real and which bits exaggerated (read: completely fabricated) for comic effect, a fact which came back to bite us firmly in the behinds on several occasions – but it was funny, and it was sweet, and we got to listen to some Britney Spears, so overall it was a win. But audience participation isn’t just about shouting things at performers – oh no. You might be asked to go on stage when you least expect it.

Our musical performance for the week was Out of the Blue, the all-male a cappella group based in Oxford who’ve been on Britain’s Got Talent and actually have their own Wikipedia page (fancy). Being familiar with the city, I’ve heard them plying their trade before now, but I’d never attended an entire show.  Nonetheless, what I expected was exactly what we got: a group of bright-eyed undergraduates singing their hearts out with beautiful harmonies, impeccable choreography, a Disney reference or two, and the occasional arrangement that made you want to weep with joy. What I didn’t expect, given how perfectly everything was prepared, was one of the performers leaping off the stage and pulling a girl out from the audience to star as the female lead in the ‘Out of the Blue Musical’ love medley. Fortunately she did a fantastic job of staying calm, smiling, genially conversing and joining in with the dancing, although she sadly didn’t get the chance to wiggle her hips like Shakira – that job, naturally, was left to the boys.

Stage-based participation was also required for Joz Norris: Awkward Prophet, a stand-up who comes across as wacky and light-hearted with a hint of clinically insane. In all honesty, I was a little bit concerned about how this one would pan out: sure, his show last year had Sarah literally crying with laughter, but that was partly because at least half of it involved me being chatted up, serenaded, stared at, flirted with, begged for a date, embraced and, eventually, forced to come up on stage and dance with Mr Norris as he wore a stocking over his head. This year, fortunately, it was other members of the audience who were prevailed upon to join in, mainly through wearing something stupid and/or stuffing their faces with marshmallows (well done, Sarah). The experience was educational – we learnt all about how to do online dating, pour juice from a carton and liven up a birth for the price of a Christmas cracker – and interspersed throughout the madness were moments of surprising pathos (to the extent that Norris paused a story to let us know that, really, he was OK, and we didn’t need to call the Samaritans or anything); but mostly there were snorts of laughter, tears of mirth and some worryingly damp Skittles.

Alex Horne, in The Percentage Game, went one step further by making the show all about the audience; indeed, the show was officially “39% experiment”. One hundred audience members; a square painted on the floor; and a beardy guy at the front shouting out maths-based topical questions (“What percentage of the UK supports gay marriage? What is the average life expectancy in Japan? What percentage of the world’s population dies of fireworks each year?”). Working together, moving in and out of the square, we (the audience) made our best guesses, and were generally completely wrong. And a lot of the fact and figures were actually fascinating: did you know, for instance, that a lady in eighteenth-century Russia had sixty-nine babies (owww…)? Other statistics, particularly the ones relating to death and poverty, were fairly depressing, which made for a slightly more sombre affair than most Fringe shows; but all power to Mr Horne for shaking things up and trying something new – the very fact of having to think and make decisions instead of just sit was a welcome change, and to top it all off, we saw our third performer of the week fall off the stage (they were all fine, by the way).

Leaving that show, I thought I’d managed to avoid anything too embarrassing in terms of participation – but I hadn’t counted on Cupcakes with Colebrook and Khoshsokhan. We didn’t really know anything about the show – we went because, duh, they were offering free homemade cupcakes – but it turned out to be more than we could ever have imagined in our wildest dreams (or our most horrific nightmares). The first of the two half-hour sets was Khoshsokhan, who told a rambling tale of ex-girlfriend woes: apparently a recurring theme for comedians, but this well-worn comedy trope was substantially improved by the presentation, which was a weirdly mesmerising – and pretty funny – combination of pathetic and psychotic. And then… Then Colebrook happened. As far as I can reconstruct it in my head after the fact, his half of the show was made up of three characters – a French mime, a crazy Italian with a beard, and a man called Franz who was “half German, half tropical!” There was definitely some stuff involving bananas, and some homo-erotic icing play, but for some reason the bit I remember most is being pulled up onstage, handed a fake beard and made to sing the Spice Girls then dance like a monkey as everyone else pissed themselves laughing. On the one hand, mortifying. On the other, bloody hilarious. And that’s how you get involved in the Fringe.

SHOW OF THE WEEK: Cupcakes with Colebrook and Khoshsokhan (Laughing Horse Free Festival at the Cellar Monkey, 12 noon). The cupcakes were actually delicious.