Monday, 21 March 2011


I once sat in the audience of an 'open mic' evening at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For those of you who don't know what that is, it's a show in which anyone can get up on stage and have a go at making the audience laugh. It's a tough job, stand-up. As I know from personal experience.

On this particular occasion, it was the (professional) compere who especially went down like a lead balloon. There appeared to be nothing the poor guy could do to salvage the situation.  However, one of the acts he introduced was sooo appalling, the guy got booed off within the first 30 seconds of opening his mouth. Back on came the compere, glancing off stage for an instant, before turning to the assembled throng and saying 'and you thought I was bad'.

Biggest cheer of the night.

We've all had tough audiences.  

A memorable one for me was in Brighton, where the guy who booked me asked me to do 15 minutes, no longer - there were 6 of us on that night, they had to be very strict about the timing - requesting me to make it 'intellectual'; there would be an academic crowd in from the university.

And so I wrote some stuff about aliens masquerading as lexicographers - can't remember the exact material now, but I probably did all the usual gags about aliens masquerading as lexicographers - learned it, and made my way to the venue.

The person (polite term) on before me wore a grubby buttoned-up raincoat. He had wild, unwashed hair.  And his act was also filthy. The audience were not appreciating it. But he worked hard and persevered, became ruder and ruder, and the crowd began to warm up.  His allotted 15 minutes expired.  He carried on.  The management let him carry on. In the end he did half an hour on the sort of material I wouldn't regale my stuffed dog with, and he finished triumphantly to the sight of the audience falling around holding their sides in laughter. His applause must have lasted for another 15 minutes.

And then there was me. With a set about aliens masquerading as lexicographers.

Moving on, my first foray into professional comedy was in the '80s on the London fringe, where I spent five years working for a well-known topical news satire show. I originally joined it as a Music Director, teaching the cast parodies of songs, in hastily-arranged 4-part harmony, and playing the piano on stage during the performances.  I started to contribute scripts, became the show's Script Editor, then directed a few important runs, which subsequently got me into the BBC as a Comedy Producer/Director.  Where I also did a lot of political gags.

So I speak from copious experience when I say that not everyone appreciates satire - or, indeed, appears to have the capacity to understand it.

Many's the night I sat in the theatre after the show, trying to explain to the odd table of frothing ticket holders what the evening had been about.  

How can you make jokes about what's happening in Northern Ireland? would come the inevitable question.  Well, I'd endeavour to enlighten them, we're not laughing at the situation; we trying to make a political point through sardonic humour.  It's irony. But it's not funny, you shouldn't be laughing at something as serious as that.  

In the end, I gave up.  If they didn't get it, they didn't get it. No amount of explanation would switch on the light bulb.

Incidentally, we'd do the exact same version of the show four 4 nights in a row.  One audience would laugh its head off at all the best jokes. Another might receive the show enthusiastically, but laugh in completely different places to the audience of the previous evening. Sometimes, there'd be no energy coming off from the crowd whatsoever, not a sound, nothing for the cast to feed off  at all.  Until the last 5 minutes of the show, when suddenly - en masse - they would warm up and giggle hysterically. Frankly, it would have been better had they been dead from the neck up for the duration of the performance.  Far less frustrating for the actors. But an interesting lesson in humour and crowd behaviour.

At the BBC, whilst doing topical news comedy, my postbag would be overflowing with letters of complaint if I even mentioned the Royal Family.  There was one particular time during which Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, was touring the globe. Being notorious for continuously writing to newspapers and assorted Ministers of Government, and for talking to plants, we had a running gag throughout one particular sketch show of Charles reading out his (progressively nutty) missives.  You can imagine the amount of mail I had about that week's episode...

...I would remind you, Ms Etoile, that the BBC is funded by the Licence Fee, and as such, I pay your wages...

Usually in green ink, the sprawling handwriting spidering its way across the page.

Some programmes were recorded in front of a studio audience, usually in the Paris Studio in London's Lower Regent Street, an underground theatre which seated 324 people. No longer in existence, the venue hosted decades of comedy history - it was where the Goon Show was put on tape. Seats were free, but had to be pre-booked with the BBC's Ticket Unit.  Sounds grand, doesn't it, the 'Ticket Unit'? The reality was marginally less impressive, said unit actually being a large, middle-aged woman called Rosemary.   

Rosemary was a (larger-than-life) character.  Forever dressed in a (large) flowery Laura Ashley-type dress, she would burst into our offices, call everyone 'dear', and ask what audience shows we'd got coming up for her to promote.  If you said 'I'm doing a series of romantic comedies', the publicity would say A delightful series of romantic comedies.  If you told her you were working on 6 episodes of dark  murder mysteries with a lot of violence, the publicity would say A delightful series of dark, violent murder mysteries.

Anyway, a colleague of mine was producing a well-known, long-running political satire programme, also recorded in front of a live audience. This usually attracted a studio full of regular fans, the cast comprising a handful of much-loved household name comedians, who fired at each other sharp one-liners on the week's news. However, one week Piers came back to the comedy corridor from the Paris Studio with a puzzled look on his face.  The audience had offered not one laugh, not one titter.  The performers were rattled. He went to see Rosemary, who expressed amazement.  

I just don't understand it, dear, she said.  I filled the whole place with Swedish slow learners.

You might be wondering why I'm telling you about all this now.  Well, the other week was a first for me.  Nice to know, after 25 years in the business, that there's still the capacity to be surprised.

I wrote a joke in a recent post (some of you might have read it) about knitting mittens for Wiki Man so that he couldn't spend his time cutting and pasting. And somebody wrote to me to say they didn't get it.

Now, this line - about knitting! - requires no topical knowledge, no in-depth analysis of world events, and is entirely free from any aliens who might be masquerading as lexicographers. Indeed, the correspondent is well-acquainted with the whole Wiki Man saga. And so I'm now in the same position of scratching my head as have been some of my audiences over the years.

When I lived in the UK I once saw an ad in my local paper for Christmas cracker joke writers. I failed to apply. 

I think I'm beginning to see where my career has gone wrong.


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Please be nice, but not funnier than me. Thanks.