January 14, 2008

Review of the Year Part 3: Comedy

Edinburgh was sort of weird this year. The overall quality of shows seemed to be up, but the flip side was that less really stood out as brilliant. There were a couple of shows that were particulary good though.

Runner Up: Stewart Lee: 41st Best Stand Up Ever
Some comics improvise a lot of stuff on stage (Ross Noble), others keep the same topics and stories but move words, delivery and such around every night (Robin Ince), while others go to great extents to carefully script a set so it sounds completely improvised (Billy Connolly).
Stewart Lee ignores all that. While they’re technically stand-up, Lee’s shows tend to veer very close to being one-man theatre pieces. He has a script, in which every word was carefully picked to get just the right response, every pause expertly timed to the half-second. In doing this he’s able to play with the form to a crazy degree, weaning massive amounts of laughs from cleverly done repetition and other techniques that you know would just be a disaster delivered by anyone less conscientious about their writing than Lee.
The show touches on what might be considered fairly hack topics such as reality TV but it’s done so differently you don’t care. The only reason this isn’t the winner is that it re-uses a lot of techniques, though not material, from his previous show. He’s since said that he considers this, 90s Comedian and Stand-Up Comedian a trilogy of sorts, so it will be interesting to see where he goes next.

Winner: Brendon Burns: So I Suppose This Is Offensive Now?
Burns is always a somewhat misunderstood comic. You’ll often find him headlining rowdy comedy nights at big clubs in the weekend, playing the part of the offensive asshole to a tee, being that stereotypical shouty Australian saying bad things. It’s an act that pays the bills, but Burns’ Edinburgh shows have always offered something more. While they feature plenty of shouting, it’s done in a smarter way and the shows often have a point to them that justifies it all.
The show takes Burns’ point-making to an extreme, with the first two-thirds offering Burn’s standard intelligent but somewhat skewed views on the issues of life, but then the ending turning everything on his head. It many ways it’s almost an attack on the easy-led braying weekend comedy crowds Burns is used to playing to, but it also highlights the inherent mob mentality and the sort of casual right-winged-ness exhibited by many self-proclaimed liberal comedy fans. Of course, to give away the ending would spoil it and hopefully it will get a London run like Burns’ previous shows, and is defiantly worth seeing.
Well deserving of the Perrier award, though I worry slightly that this is the second year in a row a show that’s about ‘making a point’ (albeit Phil Nichol’s show did it in a very different way) that has won. I’ve felt both have deserved the recognition for some time now, but I worry about this year’s Edinburgh having too many people spotting the trend and attempting to shoe-horn badly thought out ‘messages’ into their comedy shows.

Disappointments
Mark Watson’s 24-hour show
I’ve talked at length before about how brilliant Mark Watson’s 36 hour show in 2006 was so I was very much looking forward to this. Alas, it was a bit rubbish, and I ended up leaving halfway through, having only managed 12 of the 24 hours. So here’s some speculation on why it wasn’t as good:

Venue: I’m aware there were some venue problems and one of them was a last minute cancellation, but the venues were a real problem this time around. The first half of the show was held at The Stand. Now don’t get me wrong, I love The Stand. It’s a great little venue, that’s a comedy club all year round, and the acts that play there get to actually make money, they do wonderful stuff for the acts, they’re pleasant lovely and helpful and they’re great. But The Stand is in the city centre near the high street. This is a million miles (not actually) from The Pleasance, The Underbelly, The Dome, The Gilded Balloon and all those venues. And the reason that this was a problem was the show ended up being very isolated. In past years, it was held at the Pleasance Dome, right in the middle of things, so various acts would pop in and help out and banter with Mark and co. throughout the night as various late shows finished and so on. But you can’t ‘pop in’ to The Stand, so other than acts making a definite effort to be there (and the contortionist, I don’t think we’ll ever forget the contortionist) it was mostly just Mark. Even his regular sidekicks Alex Horne and Tim Key weren’t around for much of the show this year, placing far too big a burden on Watson’s shoulders. For the second part of the show it moved to a more central venue, but again it was one of the new C-Venues and not exactly somewhere on the beaten track, and from what I hear the level of guests and so on really only picked up in the last 3-4 hours of the show. One man can’t be funny and entertaining for 24-hours on his own, he needs people to bounce of and that was sorely missing this year, and I think the main factor in the show being not as good as before.

Timings: A short show at 24 hours this year, it ran midnight-midnight. I can understand the point of this, as it gets those awkward 3am-9am hours out of the way while people still have some energy, but on the other hand it prevents any setting up of anything in the previous day to pay off in the following one.

Theme: I don’t object to saving the environment or anything, but the problem with this theme was that it didn’t have a temporal aspect to it. Previous shows have involved a minute for every year in history, or an around-the-world trip with timings planned so that Watson could check our current ‘position’ at any point. That meant that there was always something to fall back on. Having a more general theme meant there was no ‘safety net’ to speak of.

Running around: There was too much moving about and emphasis on pre-planned events that not only felt artificial but also after you’ve been up for so long you don’t really feel like trudging down to Princess Street for Mark’s book launch. Also my personal circumstances may figure in to it. Last time around I was doing a rolling review of the show for Chortle, which meant not only did I have something to focus on, but I had a laptop for power and an internet connection so if I did get a bit tired or bored I could always have a quick MSN chat or check some websites. Whereas without that there was only Watson.

Dawkins: Sometime early in the show, when discussing what celebrities we could convince to come along, Mark got into his head the idea of getting Richard Dawkins. Problem was, from what I could gather no-one was even sure if he was in Edinburgh. He was doing a book signing, but that was about a week away. So much of the show was spent obsessing over how to get Dawkins, and it got old quite quickly. And it was also somewhat ridiculous when someone actually gave Mark his phone number early on, but he was reluctant to call him, so a million and one other ideas were bandied around, none of which actually worked. It was an awesome idea in principle, it just sucked up far too much of the show and for the twelve hours I was there we never seemed to get away from it.

Ah well, I only write all this as I felt the 2006 show was so brilliant and if this year’s one is to be the last long show I want it to be better.

Other Stuff
In non-Edinburgh news this year I have spent lots of time listening to piano-based comic Tim Minchin, hearing him with a band for the first time on his Radio 2 Christmas show was a revelation, and I’ve since tracked down his first album, which features him and a band and is more ‘music’ than ‘comedy’, even if it does blur the lines. It’s awesome. I want, nay demand, a Tim Minchin and band UK tour this year. Preferably with Chris T-T supporting. Thanks.

I’d also like to plug GoFasterStripe.com a husband and wife outfit who film good comedy shows and sell them on DVD for ten pounds. Legally and stuff. There’s so much good stuff out there that just won’t get a DVD release through the regular channels, but needs to be archived somewhere as it’s just too important not to. I heartily recommend their first release: Stewart Lee’s 90’s Comedian which I personally consider to be the best stand-up show ever written, and anyone who cares about comedy should buy it right now.
Also, and this is a more subtle point: they film all the shows at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff. It’s a small venue and holds just a hundred or so people. The reason I point this out is if you buy any stand-up DVD from Woolworths it’ll inevitably have been filmed at the biggest theatre (or sometimes stadium) the producers could find. Whereas comedy is at it’s best in smaller rooms, and these DVDs go some way towards capturing this, picking up some of that intimate performer-audience connection that doesn’t exist in the massive cavernous theatres most shows are filmed in.


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