Posts Tagged ‘Stand-up’

24th January 2013

This is my latest blog for The Independent. I wrote it just after seeing Les Mis, which might explain it’s somewhat radical tone…spot the George Orwell “Animal Farm” reference for extra revolutionary points!

I miss when life was simpler. Comedians were the idealistic losers and business men the bullies in sharp suits. Now, with a financial website  encouraging struggling corporations to learn from the world of stand up and a BBC documentary detailing the huge amounts of money comedians can make in corporate bookings, things aren’t so simple. Increasingly, instead of sticking it to the man, comedy is charging it to him instead.

Who can blame big business for trying to take a leaf from comedies notebook? In a climate of collapsing high street chains and stuttering growth, it’s the one industry that seems to be doing well. It also reflects how companies are trying to rebrand themselves; they don’t just want our money anymore, they want our love.

In our public consciousness, the ultimate alpha: the ruthless businessman has been replaced by well meaning good guys in fleeces. Multinationals seem desperate not to be taken seriously; the cheeky loan ads that encourage borrowing on a whim, the matey messages on chain store sandwich wrappers, the banks offering pictures of your dog on your visa cards, presumably to put a brief smile on your face before it’s declined. They’re all designed to do the same thing, make us relax; convince us everything is fine, that they’re on our side. In Goodfellas Joe Pesci, shot a waiter for suggesting he was funny, today he’d probably hire him as a PR. They may not pay corporation tax and they certainly won’t let you visit their factories in China, but have you seen this funny viral they sponsored?

Who can blame comedians either, after years of struggling, from accepting the bone thrown to them from the top table? Anybody seriously thinking that comedy is a quick way to make a fortune is almost endearing in their naivety. It’s like thinking that being an Olympic athlete is an easy way to money because you can melt down your gold medal afterwards. The only way anybody could cope with the scorching rejection, chilling indifference and aching hearts that accompany most comics journeys to success, is a deep obsessive love for the art form itself. While there may be more people getting into comedy, the people who stick at it long enough to actually succeed have to work just as hard, if not more so. The only difference is the way their hard work and talent is being marketed to the public.

Show business has never been able to escape the latter part of its word. The giddy heights of creativity that comedy is capable of can only be reached because it is supported by a steely hearted pyramid scheme. At the bottom are thousands of hopefuls, running new material for barely the cost of their travel home, all investing money, time, hopes and dreams, crossing their fingers and hoping that if they stick at it long enough, they will be one of the privileged few at the top.

The Edinburgh festival is the jewel in the comedy crown but it is also the American subprime mortgage disaster in miniature. Thousands of unknown acts converge on the city every year, spending money they don’t have and betting on what their stock will definitely probably be worth in five years time. Most consider breaking financially even a sign they have hit the big time.

Despite all this, as a comedian I find this merging of two very different worlds deeply unsettling.  Stand up should be about challenging power not endorsing it. We are the release valve for a society bombarded with unachievable goals. How can we do that if we are the ones in the ads?

The public is being short-changed if the only comedy it gets is shiny and safe because we do not live in shiny and safe times. It has a right to be angry about what is happening to the world and they deserve comedians willing to storm the barricade with them not cling to safety inside. Comedians happy to join the corporate party to share drinks and tax avoidance tips with the great and good might well live to regret it. After all, when the mob finally press their nose against the glass and look from comedian to businessman and businessman to comedian, they might not being able to tell the difference.

19th November 2012

Here’s an interview I did with Ross Noble for The Independent:


With all the talk about the imminent collapse of the comedy bubble, Ross Noble, currently in the midst of a mammoth nationwide tour seems to be doing fine. But then the thirty six year old is currently celebrating his own comedy jubilee, twenty one years as a stand up.

“When I got into it, there was no money. It was this tiny niche thing. At best you would get a presenting job, when I started Mark Lamarr, who was an amazing life stand up, was presenting “The Word”. You’d think the best you could do was probably get a sitcom or chat show or a presenting gig. I just absolutely loved doing stand up, it was just what I wanted to do

“If I was a teenager now, I think I’d be really excited about what was going on in comedy now. The big difference to when I started is you couldn’t just go on YouTube and watch anything from around the world. There used to be a bookshop in London that sold comedy books and I had to go down and buy comedy books there. There’s a lot more things out there now, which is good in one sense but it’s also daunting. How do you find your own voice when there’s so much stuff out there?

“There’s a danger, that like when pop bands come along and they just sound like everyone else, that the real stuff , that’s a bit different, will get a bit lost and more experimental stuff gets pushed aside for stuff that is more instant and commercially viable.

“TV and life comedy are so far apart now. When “Live at the Apollo” first started, I did the very first series. There was one act and we each got to do 40 minute set, that was unheard of, you hadn’t seen acts doing sets for that long before. Now, there are three acts and the times keep being shortened down.

Noble thinks you can compare how television treats life comedy to what happened to music.

“It used to be that you put out a record, you recorded a single and then you released millions of copies and you ended up on something like “Top of The Pops”. That’s where the band and record companies made their money from so it was in the music industries interest to have shows like that on. Then people stopped buying records, it was full of boy bands, it wasn’t relevant to the way that people consumed their music. People on “Later with Jules Holland” people playing album tracks, that are more eclectic late night things, that was still relevant. Comedy will go like that too. Eventually it will get the point where you’ll get a whole channel; all of it stand up from start to finish, because everything will become so fragmented”

After all that time honing his craft on the live circuit, clocking up TV appearances is not something he seems very interested in.

“I’m in my own little bubble. I go out there, I do my thing, the whole TV thing is kind of irrelevant to me. The people with real longevity, like Billy Connelly, don’t pop up on every TV show; he’s not chasing the telly. That’s the problems with a lot of acts desperate to make a name for themselves in comedy; people are just going to end up sick of them. They’re on everything and telly is just going to chew them up and spit them out the other end. As soon as Michael McIntyre stops getting the high profile TV stuff he’s going to struggle to sell all these massive big arenas, it can’t last forever”

For anybody who equates mass popularity with lasting comedy greatness, Noble offers a sobering reminder from recent showbiz history.

“In the 70s and 80s, the biggest acts in comedy were Cannon and Ball. They were so big that when they played Blackpool people would queue from pier to pier to get a ticket. They even had their own movie. You could not have got a bigger act than them. I saw them a couple of years ago and they were playing to four hundred people on a variety bill”

Instead Noble takes a longer view on things.

Frankie Howard had a massive long career, he kept doing what he did, he fell out of fashion and he was back in fashion four or five times, that’s the trick to do your thing and make telly and all that stuff come to you, if you chase it you become a slave to it”

Even after all these years, Noble is as excited by stand up as ever.

“For me every show is a work in progress. I have an idea, I will go on improvise and if something comes out of that I think, that’s got more in it, then the next night I might move the idea on, and the take it around and see where it goes. It just becomes this flowing thing. This fluid constant, I never get to the end, I want to be in the moment all the time

“I don’t look at a tour and think, oh god, I’ve got to do a massive tour, and I have to travel. I think brilliant; this is what I’ve always wanted to do. I get to tour the UK and Australia, playing tiny towns in the outback and beautiful old Victorian theatres in the middle of nowhere, spend a couple of months just having a laugh, doing my thing. There’s nothing perks up your energy than having two thousand people go “come on then”, when you walk on stage. You hear that buzz off the audience, its lifts you. It’s not like a job”

You can see Ross at Hammersmith Apollo 29th, 30th Nov, 1st December. For other tour dates check his website
His new 3 disc DVD “Nonsensory Overload” is also out now.



11th October 2012

Here’s a blog I wrote for The Independent during this year’s Labour Party Conference…


It is the last full day of the Labour conference and despite a full timetable of events, there is an end of term feel to proceedings. The high light of today is Ed Miliband’s Q&A. Ed’s ability to think on his feet, answer questions thoughtfully, often going back to the questioner for their thoughts and remember everybody’s name is incredibly impressive. He banters with the crowd and flirts with some of the older female delegates. As an MC at any late night gig, he would hold his own.

Throughout the conference I have been really missing comedy. I think it was all the earnestness, formality and sincerity of the political debates that made me nostalgic for the laid back, gruff cynicism and silliness of the comedy world. Comedians look at the world and either say: “this is awful we should be angry” or “this is nonsense, we should be silly”. Politicians say: “this is not working what should we do instead?”

When it’s over, Ed and the other senior members of the shadow cabinet go for a meet and greet around the conference main hall, stopping for photo opportunities at the various special interest groups and corporate sponsors that have set up stalls there for the week. An awkward group of fresh faced delegates and determined middle aged women follow them around, swooping in for a quick photo op when possible.

Then everybody pops back to their hotels rooms, the gentlemen stick on their favourite red tie, the ladies into their best fitted red dress and it’s back for the last hurray: the annual Labour Youth Reception. It’s the final night of the conference and the only place left giving out free wine. For most young delegates, this is not only their final chance to see their political heroes, it is all their last chance to pull.

I chat to a lobbyist who has been to the Lib Dem conference in Brighton. It was he said, one of the most depressing weekends of his life. He is looking forward to the Conservative conference as the food will be better and parties more fun. Vote Labour but shag Tory, he explains, an expression I have heard three times at this conference already.

The room is the size of a medium-sized hotel reception room, making the event feel like a family wedding. Ed Balls takes to the stage, to the kind of enthusiastic applause only a room full of slightly drunk young men can create. He recounts a prank call made to him during a cabinet reshuffle, where – for a few moments – Tony Blair let him believe he was heading to the Northern Ireland office before giving him a post in the Treasury. Every shadow minister will have one off-the-cuff joke that they will tirelessly recycle at every event. From most people’s indulgent hoots, this seems to be his.

Then Harriet Harman takes to the stage. I adore Harriet, she reminds me of the sort of secondary school teacher that you would worry about letting down. She gives a rallying call to the young people in the room, praising Ed’s speech and warning them not to fall for the St. Vince Cable nonsense; The Lib Dems are getting no love from her.

Then bizarrely it’s my turn. Two months ago in the throes of the Edinburgh festival I got an email asking if I wanted to do a short set at the Labour Conference. I thought it would be at some daytime event and that I would maybe get a few free sandwiches out of. I didn’t think I’d have to follow the Deputy Leader.

Yet here I am. After half an hour of heartfelt rabble rousing speeches, I’m about to go onstage to a room which may possibly include the future cabinet and do a tight ten. It was the most terrifying gig I have ever done in my life. I cannot breathe, white with bone-chilling fear. I get to the stage and after about two minutes of startled confusion by the audience, where they must have worried that I was some truly bizarre protester, they get on board and it is one of the most wonderful gigs of my life. Maybe I’m still on a high from Ed’s speech, maybe it was the hopeful earnest faces looking up at me but doing that gig was one of the proudest moments of my life. I look at their little hopeful, earnest faces and I am in love.

I am followed by man of the hour Mr. Ed Miliband. It is like a rock star has entered the room. There are shouts of “Ed! Ed! Ed!” and I overhear relieved party members reveal how happy they are to see the Ed they campaigned for in the leadership elections, after a few years worryingly MIA, coming back.

Afterwards I meet a young Labour party member. Her name is Kaya Makarau Schwartz and she is an incredibly clever, funny woman in her twenties who has campaigned in her Islington constituency for years. She has come close to being selected for counsel several time but always just missed out. She still volunteers in local elections, trudges along to conference every year, has plans to set up her own community group to help young women, all the while having a full time job.

Anybody who thinks that you can sail up the political ladder without putting years of hard work in must be the same people who think Michael McIntyre was an overnight success. When she makes it into the House of Commons, which if there is any justice she will, will it be my job as a comic to dismiss her off hand? To label her a shameless, self serving careerist? It wouldn’t be biting satire, it would just be bizarre.

Afterwards, everyone skips to the final night student disco. There, conference friendships will be cemented, allegiances made, delegate romances will reach fruition. I also know that hangover or not, half the crowd there will be up the next morning to see Ed give a special Q&A for Labour Youth and then sing along to the Red Flag after Harriet’s Final speech. As a comic maybe I should have some witty zinger to dismiss them all as out of touch weirdos but I just don’t have the heart to.

It’s at that moment, I realise after five days with the Labour party family, this comedian has probably drunk the Kool-Aid.