Markets of Britain

Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz have made a short film on Markets of Britain. Hilarious nonsense as expected.


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2011 Comedy Review

2011 was a year mired in economic turmoil, protest and civil unrest. Comedy wouldn’t be doing its job if it wasn’t right in the thick of things and, for better or worse that was certainly the case this year. If times are bad they’re certainly bringing out the best in stand-up, Josie Long’s development as a voice of political dissent was refreshing, funny and added an extra dimension to a performer so readily dismissed as ‘twee’. It was also a real pleasure to see hard-working circuit nearly-men rewarded as Adam Riches finally took home the Edinburgh prize, while Nick Helm and Joe Wilkinson began to cement themselves as fixtures of the live scene and as TV regulars. Meanwhile the surreal stylings of Dr Brown and Sam Simmons attracted rave reviews and ever-increasing audiences.

Alternative acts making mainstream breaks was hardly a trend reserved for the UK, in the States long time alt-comic staple Jon Benjamin found acclaim with his own comedy vehicle Jon Benjamin Has A Van to follow up his lead in Bob’s Burgers. Meanwhile younger upstart Hannibal Buress not only enjoyed success at the Edinburgh Festival (picking up a Best Newcomer nomination) but also signed a deal with Fox to create his own sitcom with Hollywood star Jonah Hill. But it took a well-established name to truly shake up the scene. Perhaps unsurprisingly that comic was Louis CK who released his latest stand-up show as a download. Aware that his fanbase were always going to get hold of the show via the Internet he bypassed the DVD middlemen and did something which may becoming common place in music, but until recently hadn’t been attempted by a comedian. Who takes up the baton next is anyone’s guess.

While the live circuit buzzed with talent, television comedy felt comparatively gloomy. BBC cult hits Psychoville and Shooting Stars were both axed, while the future of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, having already been moved into a graveyard timeslot, remains in limbo despite Lee’s recent wins at the British Comedy Awards. Channel 4 also wielded their axe, Comedy Lab, the testing ground and starting point for so many modern favourites became a victim of TV comedy cuts. This was particularly unfortunate given some of the excellent work that emerged through the lab this year (Chickens and Anna & Katy both showed bags of potential). While innovation seemed to give way to cost-effectiveness, Channel 4 did hold most of the comedy trump cards including Friday Night Dinner and, a real high spot in the form of Fresh Meat. The eight-part series based on a university house share contained some of the year’s funniest moments as well as some surprisingly tender ones. The writing, while occasionally a little uneven, took it above just being a sub-par Skins clone and into a genuine TV highlight. The cast also deserve credit, Zawe Ashton and Greg McHugh took most of the laughs but Joe Thomas perfected his likeable loser persona and even Jack Whitehall, a man whose stand-up has often led to much personal teeth-grinding, was surprisingly enjoyable (if not particularly stretched) as posh twit JP.

Perhaps the culling of so many inventive shows was the reason it was so hard to watch Life’s Too Short. Unfortunately it felt like an extension of Gervais and Merchant’s previous work, unsure of whether it was a vehicle for Warwick Davis or Gervais, an Office-style mockumentary or a traditional sitcom. Even the character traits of those from The Office appeared to have been transferred to those in Life’s Too Short. Davis, desperately fame and power hungry, possessed not only Brent’s lack of self-awareness, but even the same style of comic delivery. His assistant, Cheryl, was at times Gareth, at others Maggie from Extras, undermining Warwick at every possible turn and undoing any headway he makes with her dozy honesty. The fringe characters that made The Office so well-rounded have now been replaced by Hollywood A-listers, cameos that varied from genuinely funny (Liam Neeson) to the tediously ‘unpleasant’ (Helena Bonham Carter). Much of the humour from the programme’s set-pieces was missing because you felt you’d seen it all before. It was hard to watch so many characters who were so totally unlikeable. Admittedly Gervais hadn’t helped, his Twitter-based ‘mong’ campaign in the run-up to the first episode made him look less like a comedy genius and more like a craven idiot. Contrast that to the fortunes of his comedy partners (Stephen Merchant’s Hello Ladies show was exemplary and Karl Pilkington grew increasingly popular through a second series of Idiot Abroad) and Gervais may look back on 2011 with a shudder.

Gervais wasn’t the only comic who fell from their pedestal this year. The UK riots weren’t a great time (especially as every stand-up has been crowbaring dreadful London looters gags into their sets ever since) but it was also a chance for all and sundry to pass comment on why it had happened. Step forward John Cleese. It was a comment that passed under many news radars, maybe due to his ‘legend’ status or maybe because there were just too many hoodies to film but when questioned about the riots on Australian TV, Cleese asserted that the reason rioting had taken place was due to the fact that London wasn’t English anymore. A decidedly dodgy line at the best of times, Cleese, current star of the AA adverts, clearly missed the irony of passing comment on British immigration policies given he moved to California several years ago. It was also nice to see how only a month ago he was willing to fly back to his beloved non-English England in order to flog his DVD for Christmas. Cheers.

As well as riots 2011 was also the year Britain woke up to how morally bankrupt our national press was – an alarm call raised by, among others, 2010’s star of the year, Steve Coogan. Coogan had a somewhat schizophrenic year, going from promoting and fuelling the brilliant Alan Partridge renaissance to appearing on news programmes and the Leveson Inquiry taking the tabloid press to task over phone hacking, harassment and misleading reporting. He even managed to make it quite funny.

Roll on 2012. Thanks for reading.

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Review: Laugh or The Polar Bear Gets It at the Hammersmith Apollo

There must be a great sense of achievement in selling out any comedy show but it must be even greater to, not only have people filling a venue the size of the Hammersmith Apollo, but also be supporting a worthy cause like Friends of the Earth. Greg Davies is an inspired choice as host for the evening, roaring the crowd into life as soon as he steps onstage. He doesn’t get much time to really flex his comedy muscles but does occasionally dip into his ‘Book of Pithy Tales’ which provide plenty of short, sharp bursts of surrealism.

Richard Herring is the first act of the evening and his tales of romantic frustrations initially make him seem like an unusual opening performer. But his trials and tribulations and, in particular, his descent into Ferrero Rocher based madness are hysterical.

Filling in as a last minute replacement for Russell Howard can’t be a job that many comics would look forward to but, since the Good News host is recovering from recently breaking his fingers, tonight that role falls to observational Scottish standup Danny Bhoy. As it happens, the audience are quick to take to him. Bhoy’s a likeable performer though it must be said he draws from a fairly safe bank of material including what seems to be the go-to gag topic of 2011 – jokes about the riots.

Another act stepping into the breach at the eleventh-hour is the drunken children’s entertainer Jeremy Lion. The creation of The Thick of It’s Justin Edwards, he leads the crowd through a brief, liquid-based rendition of ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’ and the audience drink it up.

A slightly different  musical act comes in the form of Badly Drawn Boy, who takes us into the interval with a couple of his biggest hits and a rendition of ‘Thunder Road’, all the while demonstrating an unexpected knack for joke-telling.

The second half begins with Josie Long who, perhaps more than anyone else, is just having fun. It’s infectious. Relishing her time in front of the sell-out crowd she laps up the outstanding welcome she receives before running through her book of ‘genuine’ Darwin letters.

Francesca Martinez may not be the biggest name on the bill but she’s the one on everyone’s lips by the end of the show. Her frank and funny take on her cerebral palsy (or her ‘wobbliness’ as she calls it) wins her a lot of new fans tonight.

One of the driving forces behind organising the gig is Dan Antopolski who, in a short set taking in his love of gadgets and his young family, also manages to  ensure that no one in the audience will look at the Maisy Mouse series of children’s books in the same way again.

Headlining the night is Tim Minchin and while he’s pushed for time he’s still able to run through a couple of his guaranteed crowd-pleasers like ‘The Pope Song’ and ‘Prejudice’. Finishing with a straight-faced encore of ‘Hallelujah’ seems like an odd decision – the forced sing-a-long is greeted with adoring affection by many of Minchin’s fans and bafflement by others. But no matter, this was an event packed with entertainment and enough laughs to ensure the polar bear won’t be ‘getting it’ for another year at least.

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Review: Tommy Tiernan – Poot

The Forum is freezing. Admittedly more renowned as a music venue, it’s an uncomfortable spot for a comedy show and absolutely no one inside is prepared to be separated from their winter coat. Therefore the tricky task of ‘warming up’ the crowd falls to Lloyd Langford. The support slot is never an easy gig but the Welshman gets the crowd onside quickly and easily. There are a few simple shots at his Port Talbot heritage and the Welsh weather but Langford’s talent lies in his anecdotes and he finishes on a flourish with a bizarre tale of his first day working in a factory.

While Langford does a good job, there’s only one person the crowd are here to see. London loves Tommy Tiernan. Rephrase that, Ireland loves Tommy Tiernan. An overstatement maybe, but London’s Irish community is out in full force for one of the country’s biggest comedy stars. The fact there is such a large Irish contingent means he’s not going to struggle for a warm reception. It also means that any reference to anything remotely Irish draws huge woops and bellows from sections of the audience but Tiernan deals with it well, doing enough to dissuade anyone from making it a regular occurrence. But regardless of who he’s performing in front of, his show, Poot (a posh word for fart apparently), is excellent.

To describe Tiernan as a controversial comedian would again be an overstatement but he has had a reputation for pushing people’s buttons, albeit in a way that forgoes the acidic touch usually applied by tabloid tearaways like Frankie Boyle or Jimmy Carr. He’s certainly not afraid to tackle weighty subjects, opening with a riff around famine, before moving onto religion, the world economic crisis and mental health, including a frank synopsis of his own mental state.

All the topics are dealt with quite broadly, but Tiernan has an additional string to his bow in the form of his rampant, pacey and loud delivery (while it took time to register, there were several occasions when he wasn’t even talking into the microphone, just yelling at the audience).  For the first 45 minutes he’s utterly relentless and it must be said this bombardier style gets quite tiring, especially during a section on religion which feels a little dragged out. However it’s at this point Tiernan demonstrates his comic skills, suddenly breaking off to whisper segments of his material and instantly pulling everyone back in. Then again, maybe he was just saving his voice.

Highlighting his considerable ability as a great storyteller, the show is rounded off with a string of family anecdotes, which in other hands could have been tame affairs but Tiernan injects them with an energy and manic edge that very few possess. It’s these skills that have made Tiernan a star in Ireland and it seems unusual that on English shores he remains something of a cult phenomenon. On the basis of tonight we’ve definitely been missing out.

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Review: Raybot at King’s Place

It’s hard to attend a comedy night now without seeing a little video clip thrown in to break up all that standing around, talking into microphones malarkey. It’s a trend that’s gone from being a part of nights like Knock2Bag to, in the case of Adam Buxton’s Bug nights, the crux of the show. But new night Raybot, from the people who bought you The Fix, has done away with the stand-ups and placed the emphasis entirely on video content. This means we get a lot of acts crammed into the evening but bizarrely only two actually taking to the stage.

Opening with a song courtesy of keytar-toting Brett Domino and his comedy partner Steven Peavis (together, The Brett Domino Trio) we get a video of the pair performing a medley of Ibiza club hits at the Ministry of Sound. As can sometimes be the way with musical comedy virals, it’s clever if not uproariously funny but a nice start to the show.

The night’s first video-MC (?) Rich Fulcher then makes an appearance on-screen to introduce the next few sketches, one of which, featuring a couple of walking, talking, living dolls, is fantastic. American comic Dave Hill also appears in the first of his two-part advertisements. They’re suitably left-field and his act brings to mind the alternative, off-kilter style of Zach Galifianakis back in his stand-up days.

Ben Target is our second video MC of the evening. He uses his brief on-screen time to lambast show mastermind Harry Deansway, even taking his gripes to the St Paul’s protestors. Both Target and Fulcher come over well in their vignettes but it’s an odd feeling to see comedy MCs who aren’t riffing off the crowd or concocting elaborate methods of clapping on acts.

The first section of the evening is wrapped up with Robert Popper and Alice Lowe starring in a Public Access TV-style relationship show. It’s typically stupefying stuff from the pair, but their weird and wonderful character interplay oddly fails to whip up the audience in the way some of the night’s earlier ‘acts’ did.

Part two brings about a bit of a change as actual real-life comedian, Trevor Lock, takes to the stage. Lock is here to introduce another selection of videos based on past Fix night Star Search. A precursor to the likes of The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, Star Search unearthed treasures ranging from a brother-sister street dance troupe to a man who painted genitalia in his spare time. The segment was marred by several technical issues before one of Star Search’s biggest finds, the comedian and magician Ray Presto, made an unscheduled appearance. Presto possesses roughly as many magic tricks as he does jokes (about three each) but despite their ‘lo-fi’ quality (or maybe just ‘low’ quality), it’s all done with such a showbiz smile and twinkle in the eye that it’s hard not to enjoy his performance.

The final third of the show moves firmly back into video territory, including one from US surrealist Kurt Braunohler doing an utterly daft educational video on seahorses. ‘Headlining’ is a short film written by and starring Tim Key and Tom Basden. It’s the strongest video of the night and highlights them as two of the country’s most imaginative comedy writers and performers – a good fit for such a forward-looking comedy night.

The show ends as it started, with a song, this time from controversial tunesmith Kunt and The Gang. His rather different take on Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’ attracts a lot more squirms than laughs but if you call yourself Kunt and the Gang that was probably the point.

Live comedy can always do with the odd shot in the arm and a night with few, if any, live acts performing, is certainly going to do that. There were admittedly some gulfs between the quality of various clips but if Raybot continues to keep the exclusive content coming, audiences will no doubt be drawn to its unique and innovative style. And if nothing else, it’s certainly going to make heckling a dying art form.

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Ricky Gervais, Offence and Idiocy

It’s a common problem. You’re a world renowned star, you’ve done the sitcoms, you’ve done the stand-up tours and you’ve done the Hollywood movies. Where to next? Well apparently you should set yourself up a Twitter account and use it to call anyone who’ll listen, a ‘mong’.  As in, the word you might use to mock someone with Down Syndrome, yeah.

Because if you’re Ricky Gervais that’s something that definitely needed doing. Gervais has recently re-opened a long dormant Twitter account to predominantly post pictures of himself pulling faces and ‘reclaiming’ the word ‘mong’, using it to describe anyone he sees as an idiot. Understandably people have got a little upset by this, given it’s the type of derogatory schoolyard-bully term that people shouldn’t be be bandying about, not least someone with his level of fame, wealth and influence.

No doubt he loves the hand-wringing it’s causing, after all it can’t be long before his new project Life’s Too Short hits the screens. And hey, maybe this is all just some brave comedic attempt to provide the word with some alternate meaning and show up the ‘PC Brigade’. But unfortunately his attempts to justify it have been utterly cack handed and pathetic.

His first point is that ‘mong’ is an outdated word, its meaning has changed, like ‘gay’ meaning ‘happy’. I’m afraid that’s not true. In some corners perhaps the definition is changing but the words base meaning will always remain. As someone who was in education a lot more recently than Gervais and happens to do a lot of work in schools and colleges, unfortunately you can still hear it used to mock. He completely undoes this argument by the very fact that he’s posting pictures of himself pulling a stereotypical, (for want of a better expression) ‘Down Syndrome face’, suggesting he’s quite happy to reinforce its meaning.

Then things really get strange. Gervais claims that the ‘haters’ are ‘offended by my success’. Are you serious? You sound like every has-been comedian you’ve made your career out of sniping at (it’s the classic Jim Davidson/ Ben Elton defence). How many years do we give it before your shouting at the BBC for not letting you joke about Muslims?

What’s worse is that he’s even taken his campaign to the point where he suggests his followers should tweet the word ‘mong’ at anyone who has the audacity to call him up on the issue. So the answer to dealing with those who don’t like bullying is to bully them some more? What kind of idiotic mentality is this? Sorry, should that be ‘mong’ mentality?

There are acts who can, and do, address ‘offensiveness’. The words we use, how we use them. Carlin and Hicks are classic examples and more recently acts like Glenn Wool have tackled offensive comedy with aplomb and intelligence. Gervais sadly possesses none of these faculties. This whole thing highlights him being nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is. This is just a multimillionaire sneering.

There’s often been an argument that ‘they’ don’t mind, ‘oh, I said this to a guy with Down Syndrome and he was fine about it’. It’s been trotted out several times by Jim Jeffries to support his use of words like ‘mong’ and ‘retard’. Maybe that is the case, Jeffries has performed gigs for several disability charities in the past and of course the offensive nature of a word is ultimately in the eye/ear of the beholder. But could Jim Jeffries honestly say everyone in those audiences took it well? What kind of reaction would he get performing that material in front of a crowd at a boozy comedy club on a Friday night? I imagine he’d still get the laughs but probably for very different reasons.

Therein lays the real problem. Is Gervais really in a position to ‘reclaim’ this word? Would he honestly try and reclaim the N-word (a point alluded to by Richard Herring in his excellent blog on the subject)? The answer is no. We know what happens when white comedians do this, the answer is ‘Michael Richards’. But hey, a little fun at the expense of Down Syndrome? Well, that’s OK.

The whole thing leaves a pretty unpleasant taste in the mouth. Here’s one of the UK’s, nay the world’s, most successful comedians and  he’s decided to use his power and influence to bring back the word ‘mong’. While some comics like Josie Long and even Ricky’s old touring buddy Robin Ince are using Twitter, blogs and social media (as well as their stage performances) to critique and slam political wrongs and social hardships, we’ve got a global superstar who’d rather grab some attention with some snide backbiting and offensiveness. It suggests a man tragically out of touch with reality.

No doubt the blog postings of some whingeing liberal comedy nerd won’t bother Ricky Gervais in the slightest. But like Ricky I just had to get this bugbear off my chest. For me it’s another indication of a man who long ago lost sight of what was funny and what wasn’t. I was, like many, a huge fan but the simple, heartfelt, everyday appeal of The Office has progressively given way to writing that relies increasingly on his celebrity mates turning up and saying something funny about tits or ‘the Jews’, rolling out some fairly lazy stand-up shows and it turns out, having some, at best ill-informed, at worst plain nasty, personal opinions to spread across the Internet.

So Ricky, in future if you’re looking for another term to describe an idiot, how about we just call them a ‘Gervais’?

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Josie Long’s Alternative Reality

Josie Long is performing a series of DIY shows across the UK from October 3-12. Going under the banner of ‘Alternative Reality’, this goes a little beyond comedy (and hey, why not?) so here’s the manifesto:

We are coming to car parks, to playing fields, to nowhere places near your town.

We have singers and comedians and writers. We are anti-cuts. We are pro-youth. We are awesome.

The shows are free. We have no profit motive. Our motive is to be wonderful.

We support public art. We despise austerity measures. We like adventure. We will travel.

Not only does it sound a lot of fun but it does so with some principles behind it. Long’s engagement with politics has become more vocal over the last few years and has taken her comedy to a new level. In fact she’s taken it beyond comedy to the point where, earlier in the year, she co-founded the charity Arts Emergency Service, set up to defend and promote Arts and Humanities Degrees. It’s bold, it’s brave and it should be supported.

The dates are below but for more details on the shows – the who’s, the when’s and the where’s – be sure to follow her on twitter for the latest updates.

3/10 – Margate

4/10 – Isle of Sheppey

5/10 – East Bergholt, Suffolk

6/10 – Milton Keynes with Alan Moore

7/10 – Hull

8/10 – poss Middlesborough, afternoon gig

9/10 – London. Joining UK Uncut to Block The Bridge

10/10 – Bedford with Simon Munnery

11/10 – Gloucester

12/10 – Tapeley Park

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