Tag Archives: Racing Minds

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 (part 1): Fringe 101

I live in Edinburgh, and in August, during the Fringe, Edinburgh gets CRAZY. Welcome to the first 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 1: My sister and her boyfriend join me for their first ever Fringe experience

Now you may not know this, but the Edinburgh Fringe is quite a big event: we have shows coming out of our ears, noses, mouths and other orifices too unpleasant to mention. To try and distil all this excitement into a one-weekend period for a couple of newbies, we decided on three major categories of show – stand up, improvisation and music – and agreed on one show from each, plus a wildcard.

Representing the stand-up contingent was Richard Herring: Lord of the Dance Settee. Now I’d seen Herring on various panel shows, but all I really knew about his comedy was that, in 2009, he grew a Hitler moustache just to see what would happen. Consequently, I was expecting a controversial show – not necessarily Frankie Boyle-standard, but something a bit edgy. What we got, however, was a sweet but slightly disjointed ramble through the trials of childhood, from the challenges of singing hymns in school (“I was cold, I was naked… hee hee, naked!”) to kisses from scary aunties. I do like observational comedy, but I find that it’s funnier when it makes you go, ‘By Jove, he’s right! I’d never thought about that before!’ than when your reaction is, ‘Well, naturally…’ A couple of times, the observation did evolve into something unexpected; for example, the aunty-kissing moment became a meditation on the longevity of human memory and existence (which, to be fair, was funnier and more interesting than I’ve made it sound) – so the show was engaging, and thought-provoking at times. But ultimately it was an hour of gentle smiles rather than belly laughs – plus one horrified gasp during a disconcerting story about window décor, but the less said about the nightmarish vision painted by that particular (hilarious) anecdote the better.

Next came some improvisation, in the form of Racing Minds’ Aaand Now for Something Completely Improvised. Now in contrast to Richard Herring, I’m pretty familiar with Racing Minds – I’ve seen them several (dozen?) times before, and last year I described them as “the greatest improv troupe known to man”. I therefore had extremely high expectations, which, you’ll be pleased to know, were not disappointed. As usual, the preposterous storyline took a back seat to a constant stream of puns, self-mockery, questionable regional accents (Welsh? Indian? Geordie?) and general high jinks, mainly to do with increasingly ineffective attempts to create a realistic-looking zebra out of a walking stick and three scarves. Minor changes from past shows were all to the good – for example, the always-impressive keyboard player was actually allowed to speak (and made an excellent job of it), and the slightly larger venue meant that for once there was an offstage area where costumes could be changed with a minimum of fuss. Even though it wasn’t my favourite show they’ve ever done (that honour would have to go to either the one about pinguins [sic] or the one with the Australian horse-people), it was still an absolutely fantastic hour, and my respect for their ability to be that funny, for that long, without preparing any of it in advance, increases every time I see them. Sadly, I didn’t get a Werthers – but there’s always next week.

The third show of the weekend – in the music category – presumably involved somewhat more preparation. Of all the various musical genres on offer, we went for a cappella (largely due to an ongoing sisterly obsession with Pitch Perfect), and we chose Exeter University’s all-male group Semi-Toned: Toned Up. They were tuneful and slick. The presentation was fluid, the voices were harmonious to the ear, and the outfits achieved an aesthetically pleasing smart-casual balance (although I bet the one guy wearing skinny jeans and multicoloured socks had a telling off after they finished). The only drawback, for me, was that many of the songs featured were recent (you know, Jay-Z and the like), and since my knowledge of popular music from the last five years is patchy at best, I was forced to lean over to my sister several times and ask, ‘Who did this originally?’ As a result, subtly humorous changes in the lyrics and clever vocal reinterpretations of bass lines often went over my head. Still, I could get fully on board with the Disney number – Donny Osmond eat your heart out – and the Meat Loaf song, both of which were very well performed. Plus, the beatboxers were genuinely incredible. I especially liked the one who looked like a Spanish Charlie Brooker.

Finally, the wildcard. With time in the schedule for one more show, and with my sister commenting that she’d be quite interested in something about feminism, we flicked through the guide and said, ‘That one’ll do’. And what a wise decision we made. Andrew Watts’ Feminism for Chaps was a delight. I was quietly sceptical about how much I’d enjoy an explicitly feminist show – my sister and I have had some quite vocal debates on the topic in the past – but it turned out to be my favourite sort of feminism: less debate over terminology and affirmative action and more making fun of sexist idiots. Jokes ranged from cricket metaphors (which I generally didn’t get, but the men in the audience were wetting themselves) to puns based on French philosophy (which I did get, and since I was the only person in the room who did, I was singled out and called a show-off – whatevs). Thrown into the mix were a few genuinely upsetting stories about how far we have left to go, tempered with a brilliant anecdote about Watts sticking it to The Man in a strip club, of all places. The show was hysterical and heart-rending by turns, Watts was extremely likeable, and we left hoping that his message of peace, love, equality and orgies would be spread far and wide. If you’re in Edinburgh this month, you can help with that…

SHOW OF THE WEEK: Feminism for Chaps (Laughing Horse Free Festival at the Counting House, 6:15pm)


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…