Tag Archives: Henning Wehn

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)


Funny Business: Making People Laugh with Scrapbooks and Sausages

In Scotland’s capital city, the Edinburgh Festivals are drawing to a close. Since I live here, I’ve been spending every possible moment wandering about the city, searching for excitement – I’ve hummed along with improvised ditties about the Pope’s ‘no touching’ rule, learnt more about Marcus Brigstocke’s body than I ever wanted to know, laughed and winced at puppets singing about porn, and been dragged up on stage and kissed by a man dressed as a creepy superhero. Good times. But I’ve also been led to consider, at some length, the ins and outs of entertaining the audience, and, more specifically, of making them laugh. That doesn’t mean that this post is going to be a comedy masterclass – if it was, I certainly wouldn’t be teaching it. I present you instead with my musings on what makes a live comedy show work, and my spurious projections about how this relates to TV comedy. (You’ll definitely enjoy it, though.)

First, and perhaps most importantly, it seems clear that comedy is not all about jokes. This is despite what Dave (the TV channel) seems to think. Its list of the top ten jokes of the Fringe consists almost entirely of puns, including its number one, Rob Auton’s quip “I heard a rumour that Cadbury is bringing out an oriental chocolate bar – could be a Chinese Wispa”. Now I saw Auton’s show, and I have absolutely no recollection of this joke. It’s faintly amusing, sure, but certainly no match for everything else he did: weather-related stage decorations and a hand-crafted scrapbook of the sky, humorous self-deprecation, quirky cartoons based on cult films, doleful audience interaction, and beautiful, moving performance poetry. I left the show feeling uplifted by Auton’s poetry and personality, not by his puns.

And this applies to other comedy shows, too. This year I saw two shows based on traditional ‘jokes’: one was an awkward affair, with the audience merely smiling politely rather than bursting into guffaws, and the other was abysmal – the actual opposite of funny. The less about the latter the better; in the former, the comedian in question was a retired medic, so most of the jokes were variations on the age-old ‘Doctor, Doctor’ scenario; even those that had some originality to them were very much in the same vein (pun intended, in order to demonstrate the sort of thing we’re talking about). Neither show was a great success. In contrast, most other shows in this year’s Fringe treated jokes, and in particular puns, with less respect. Take Henning Wehn, the self-proclaimed ‘German Comedy Ambassador to Great Britain’, who opened his show by waving a string of sausages at the audience and stating that this was his ‘wurst’ joke (cue enormous groan from the audience); meanwhile, the members of improv troupe Racing Minds go out of their way to make deliberately bad puns, before gently berating the audience for not finding them funny. Sometimes it seems as though ‘proper jokes’ just aren’t funny any more.

And TV comedy, I think, is going the same way. Shows where comedians get in front of a camera and present their material, like The Tommy Cooper Hour or The Two Ronnies (one of whose scriptwriters, incidentally, was our retired doctor friend), have long since been replaced by other, more subtle types of comedy. Take, for example, the Awkwardness Trope and its king, Ricky Gervais. My last post mentioned the hilariously painful-to-watch Extras, with its celebrity stars presenting themselves as the worst people on the planet; and the same thing happened in The OfficeDavid Brent says or does something idiotic, the other characters look at each other in embarrassment, and we laugh. There’s also the Pop Culture reference, where the viewer basically finishes the joke him- or herself: an excellent example comes from How I Met Your Mother, in which Marshall shows his friends a Venn diagram in which the two circles are ‘People who are breaking my heart’ and ‘People who are shaking my confidence daily’ – the area where they overlap is, of course, marked ‘Cecilia’. So overall, though we still have the occasional moment of punning (for example, Milton Jones on Mock the Week) or slapstick (Miranda, please stand up, if you can do so without falling over a chair), modern comedy has become more knowing, more subversive, more interactive, and less rammed-down-your-throat-with-a-rubber-chicken.

Related to this is the question of the audience and the part they play in creating the funny. Obviously this is differs between live comedy and TV, because in live comedy the audience is right there in front of the performer, who can converse with them, make fun of them, sit on their laps (if you don’t want that to happen to you, don’t go and see Paul Foot) or drag them up on stage and kiss them (see paragraph one, above). But a limited amount of audience interaction can be present in TV comedy, too. Certain programmes, such as panels shows and quizzes, still rely on a live audience during filming, and these audiences provide a cheerful background to the presenters’ comments without ever really making their presence felt (see for example Mock the Week, Top Gear and Pointless). In other shows, the audience members are practically performers in their own right: Graham Norton gets the people in his audience to take part in his opening sequences, as well as sending the occasional celebrity up into the stands to schmooze; the audience on Have I Got News for You once staged a minor uprising in the form of a silent protest against Piers Morgan; and audience members on QI have been known to get points for knowing answers, to the point where they’re named the winners of the episode.

In sitcoms, the presence of an audience is a less certain issue: The Big Bang Theory, Miranda, Two Broke Girls and The IT Crowd follow in the footsteps of Cheers and Friends by filming in front of a live audience, while Scrubs, Green Wing, Parks and Recreation and Gavin and Stacey leave the viewer to decide when to laugh. Thus the debate about laugh tracks continues to rage on, with some writers such as Graham Linehan staunchly defending the advantages of an audience in sitcom recording, and others clearly deciding that if we don’t have live audiences weeping over dramas, it makes no sense to have audiences laughing at comedies. The question, of course, is whether hearing other people laughing improves a comedy show. On the one hand, laughter is contagious. I only ever laugh at Family Guy if I’m watching it with my husband, who finds it hilarious; and a lack of laughter where you expect it is incredibly disconcerting, as in the silence following Victoria Coren Mitchell’s jokes on Only Connect (“That was funny! But… why is nobody laughing? Are Victoria and I the only survivors on a post-apocalyptic planet?”). On the other hand, a laugh track over a sitcom can sometimes feel a little bit patronising – I got the joke before you guys laughed, OK?

The final issue raised by the comedy performances of the Edinburgh Fringe this year is ‘Humour – art or craft?’ In other (less pretentious) words, can comedy be perfected beforehand, or is it better off-the-cuff? As well as Racing Minds (relatively new faces on the circuit but already the greatest improv troupe known to man – fact), the Fringe abounds with Whose-Line-Is-It-Anyway-style performers, both new (e.g. the Oxford Imps) and old (e.g. Paul Merton’s Impro Chums), plus improvised versions of Shakespeare, Jane Austen and musical theatre; and when these shows are on form, they’re astounding. Plus, the funniest bit of stand-up shows is often the audience interaction: Reginald D. Hunter’s show was distinctly average, except when he was rubbing the audience up the wrong way, Lloyd Langford had the (minuscule) audience in stitches as he lamented how few people had come to see him, and Stuart Laws’s (free) show was a gem of two-way humour and semi-voluntary audience participation.

And, again, it’s the same on TV. Maybe not in sitcoms, where a script is sort of a basic requisite (although a sitcom improvised live on TV could be a fun challenge – TV gods, are you listening?); but in panel shows, certainly, the ad-libs are the best bits. The chairman’s script on Have I Got News for You is usually fairly amusing, but the biggest laughs come from the riffing between the guests – take this fabulous exchange between Ian Hislop and Dan Stevens – and it’s the same on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, which finds its forte in moments like Catherine Tate and Bernard Cribbins’ random outbursts, Preston from the Ordinary Boys walking out in a huff halfway through an episode, and John Barrowman’s gay-off with Simon Amstell. Indeed, Reginald D. Hunter’s quick wit on programmes like this was the reason I went to see him in the first place, to discover, unfortunately, that the stuff prepared in advance was much less funny.

So what have we learnt from this little romp through stand-up and screenlore? Mainly that I enjoyed the Edinburgh Fringe this year (if you didn’t come, you missed out. Try harder next time). But we also learnt (take my word for it) that comedy is a tricky business, that humour is changing, and that TV and stand-up have more in common than Live at the Apollo. So it’s goodnight from me, and it’s goodnight from me again, and tune in again next week for the one about the Englishman, the blonde and a horse who go into a bar…