All entries for August 2008

August 09, 2008


Here is the first podcast by myself and Anna we hope you like it. If you like people saying “err” a lot then frankly this is the podcast you’ve been waiting your whole life for!

Show notes:

Anna’s Hamlet Review

Ben Folds
Dean’s Gig Review
The Suburbs on the album ‘leak’

Dean’s Brief Thoughts on Glastonbury
Anna’s Boosh Festival Review

TV Comedy
Anna’s Tonightly Review
Anna’s Labrats Review

Edinburgh Fringe
Tim Minchin
Mark Watson
Lloyd Langford
Owen Niblock: Twisted Whimsy
Daniel Kitson’s 66A Church Road
Jason Cook

How To Swim

August 07, 2008

In Defense of the Edinburgh Comedy Festival

The Edinburgh Comedy Festival is an idea that’s taken a lot of flack. Basically the big four Fringe venues (Pleasance, Underbelly, Assembly Rooms, Gilded Balloon) decided to get together and market all their shows under the banner of the Edinburgh Comedy Festival. Now this isn’t that new. For years the venues have been pairing up to help with promotion, producing joint programmes and so forth. Most of the consternation comes from the name: it implies that they’re the only comedy shows on the Fringe, ignoring the smaller venues.

It’s a valid complaint, but it’s hardly the first time someone has pulled something like this. Some years ago Avalon (a comedy management company) produced a “Fringe Highlights Guide” which was styled like the official Fringe program and had just their own acts in. Still nothing has been done on this scale before and the argument appears to be that it discriminates against the smaller acts that can’t afford to play the big venues, which is against the spirit of the Fringe (though the organisers have suggested other venues could join the “Comedy Festival” banner in future years).

I’m not so convinced it’s that clear-cut. For a start pick up the Fringe programme and thumb through it. 1000s of shows, but adverts for only around 10% of them. If you can afford an advert in the programme you get better advertising. If you can afford and convince one of the ‘Big 4’ you should play there you get better advertising. It’s most certainly a question of degrees rather than a fundamental issues.

The other issue that gets raised with this one is how comics lose thousands of pounds putting on a Fringe show. One interesting thing to note is that those on at the bigger venues are paying a lot more for those rooms, they’re taking a much bigger financial risk. Sure they get better positioning, more advertising and so forth but if they’re not good enough or don’t take advantage of it they’ll lose more money.
Now lets be honest, there’s a lot of shit on at the Fringe. There’s a lot of acts and productions that frankly shouldn’t be there. The open nature of the Fringe is that anyone can put on a show which is a good thing, but a lot of those shows are going to be rather poor. And the smaller and less auspicious the venue gets, the higher the proportion of really bad shows.

Now before you have a fit, I’m not denying there isn’t crap on at the Pleasance, nor am I denying there are some truly brilliant acts performing at the Free Fringe. The former is a case of acts with either more money than sense or over-inflated egos. The latter tend to be the opposite, or those acts that simply don’t have the money to risk. But at least when it comes to the bigger venues, the acts have put their money where their funny mouths are. They’re saying that they know they’re good enough to be playing there and put cold hard cash behind it. Meanwhile there are acts playing the Free Fringe that know they are far from having a sold hour of material, but are doing because it’s fun and not too costly.

So there does exist an argument that bringing these acts willing to risk their own livelihoods playing the big venues under one banner helps the consumer. And meanwhile it also hopefully sells more tickets overall so the acts don’t lose as much money.

The most interesting thing of all is that a number of the acts openly criticising the Edinburgh Comedy Festival are performing at The Stand. The Stand is a great place, but has the advantage of running comedy all-year round, so has a solid infrastructure already in place. It’s also a fairly small operation. All this means that those acts lucky enough to be picked by The Stand to play at their club don’t lose money. In fact, most of them turn a profit. Which is why it’s a little disconcerting to see them attack a system that’s designed to help out their fellow established circuit comics that are stuck performing at the Underbelly et al.

Sure, the whole thing could have been handled better, and under a different name I doubt half as many people would have been upset. But to automatically dismiss it as ‘a bad thing’ seems to be something of a swift judgement.

And of course, after the horrendous ticketing cock-up at the Fringe office, from a purely practical point of view it’s very useful to be able to buy and collect tickets for all four venues from one box-office!

TV Review: True Blood pilot

To say I’ve been anticipating this show is something of an understatement. It’s about vampires, it’s on HBO, it’s by Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball and it features Anna Paquin in the lead role. They couldn’t have appealed more to the demographic of ‘me’ short of casting Alyson Hannigan as an evil vampire girl. Nevertheless I haven’t really been following the show, but caught this trailer which makes it look like Buffy with added-gore and more Rice-esque vampires. Thankfully having now seen the pilot that’s not the case, though it’s far from perfect.
Paquin and Sterotype
The first thing that grabs you is the setting, or perhaps I should say backdrop. Two years ago the Chinese developed synthetic blood which provides all the nutrients a vampire needs to live. As such, they came out of the shadowy closet. In True Bloods world, not only are vampires real, everyone knows they’re real, even if only a small number of people have ever seen one. It’s a concept that grabs you immediately. What I’m not so sure about is the specific geographical setting. It all happens in a small village in Louisiana, Southern USA. It’s an understandable choice – the racial divide between vampires and humans appears to be a central theme of the show, so setting the show in a town where those attitudes will be at the fore seems a good idea. It’s just settings such as this are a little difficult to watch: it’s a community soaked in acts of casual sex and violence there’s something really nasty about it and it makes it hard to emphasise with any of the characters as you know they’ll either turn out to be horrible or have horrible things happen to them. But even elements of this setting don’t strike true: our heroine’s sensitivity to swear-words for one, or the “I’m better than all of you but still stuck here” friend. Maybe it’s a setting more common and clearly defined for US viewers but from a Brit perspective it seems that what should be a drama based around introducing an unfamiliar concept (vampires) to a familiar setting in fact plays more like an unfamiliar concept in an alien setting. It damages the show as it’s impossible to know what things are normal and what have been added as part of the show’s mythology.

There are other issues too. Our lead Vampire seems incredibly hokey and boring. The pre-titles teaser pulls a lovely bait and switch which seems to exist to point out that the vampires of this world are not what we’re used to in Rice-esque fiction. Then once the show proper gets underway it drops a hulking great stereotype in the middle. A few of the lines are truly cringe worthy.

I don’t want to be too harsh as it’s a decent show. Paquin’s Suki Stackhouse is an interesting character, with the ability to read minds which is played rather well but for a HBO show one expects something more. Perhaps the most damning criticism is that the whole thing was hugely predictable. The show didn’t surprise me once and it all seemed to be marching in a startlingly obvious direction. I should stress that this review is based on an unaired pilot and some of my smaller gripes may well be fixed. There is potential here and I enjoyed it, but I was hoping to be blown away and so am somewhat disappointed.

August 06, 2008

Brief Public Service Announcement

If anyone is ever unsure what to get me for a birthday / christmas present, can I direct you to this website

To quote:
“The Nestlé Raisin and Biscuit Yorkie is probably the best chocolate bar ever, but strangely they’re simply not available in enough shops.

So we created a shop, a shop that only sells Raisin and Biscuit Yorkie bars. That’s right! Your one stop shop for Raisin and Biscuit Yorkie bars is here.”

And yes, I know Nestle are evil, but they taste so good…

August 04, 2008

Edinburgh Late Show Round–Up

You know the feeling, it’s Edinburgh, 11pm and after a day of watching comedy, you quite fancy watching some more comedy, but in a slightly more laid-back fashion. A strange tradition has been established at the Fringe, and that is while most individual stand-up shows are done by midnight it’s these late hours when the traditional club-style comedy nights start up. You pay your £12, you get 3-5 acts doing 10-20 minutes each with an MC and it’s all a bit Jongleurs but later in the evening.

And there are loads of them. While in years past there were only two or three, these days there are 5 or 6 every night and closer to 10 or 12 at weekends. They serve numerous purposes. For the comics it’s a reminder of the day job, a tap on the shoulder telling you not to get too complacent in playing to tiny attentive audiences. Your main function remains, for better or worse, to make large rooms of drunk people laugh. Also much like said day job and unlike most solo shows, the late shows actually pay money, helping off-set the horrendous losses most comics make in bring their own shows to the Fringe. They’re also a good way for a comic to promote their solo show to the paying punters. Likewise it gives the audience a chance to check out a whole bunch of acts in one night, so they can note down the good ones and go and see them do a full length performance. Most comics are aware of this and do mainly material from their previous shows at the late-night showcases so you won’t be paying for the same jokes twice.

But with so many to choose from, which one do you go for? Well generally, the one with the best line-up that night. But unless you have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the comedy scene, you won’t know half of the acts. Fortunately there are other things you can base the choice on: each night has it’s own style, atmosphere and approach. But since the reviewers don’t cover the late shows it’s something previously only picked up on by experience. Until now, as FringeBlogs presents the ultimate guide to Edinburgh late shows.

Late ‘n’ Live Gilded Balloon Teviot, 4th-25th, 1am-5am
Late ‘n’ Live is the daddy, the big one, one of the Fringe’s first late shows and known by it’s reputation as one of the greatest. Past compères include the likes of Daniel Kitson and Russell Howard. The event runs from 1am-5am but the comedy is normally done by 3am after which there’s live music.
The problem with Late ‘n’ Live is it’s trading on a reputation. It used to be the best for a reason, I remember it being my first introduction to a late night comedy club when I was first at the Fringe in 2002 where it featured a man whose act appeared to be downing 5 pints of Guinness and a headline set from a not-yet-famous Jimmy Carr. It was wonderful and brilliant. But then the venue it was held in on Cowgate burned down a few years back. The Gilded Balloon relocated it to their other venue but there’s no room there that’s really suitable for this sort of show. The old venue was this ornate ballroom and it had cabaret style seating, people sat around tables with drinks and it was great fun. Now it’s in the big room at the Teviot and it just doesn’t work. If you queue early, get one of the 10 or so tables near the front and never turn around it can be great. But behind that people are squeezed into rows of seats theatre-style with little leg room and the whole thing falls apart. Not to mention that if you’re at the back you can barely see the stage. It’s hard to create an ‘anything could happen’ and ‘go ahead and heckle us’ vibe in that sort of room. It’s a shame. And for a gig that used to pride itself on regular comperes doing the job nearly every night, it appears to have 6 or 7 different ones this year.
It’s a shame, it’s not the gig it used to be but it can sell out every night on the Late ‘n’ Live name alone so there’s no incentive there to improve it. Like the website says, it truly is “one of the hottest tickets in town”. It just shouldn’t be.

Spank! – Underbelly, 4th-24th, Midnight-4am
Spank! is pretty much what Late ‘n’ Live used to be. And not just in it’s use of strange punctuation marks which make it awkward to type. The acts on slant slightly less mainstream than Late ‘n’ Live with a tendency to pick weird acts while maintaining the traditional bear-pit atmosphere. It’s in a lovely wide room with cabaret seating and rows with actual leg room at the sides. While both gigs go for the high energy, loud music, plenty of intervals for drinks approach to late-night gigs, Spank’s room is just more conductive to creating that. Neither are gigs you go to to see a specific act, more they form a fun part of a night out. Nor are most particularly tolerable sober!
But anyone that’s a fan of comedy but mainly sticks to the more arty end of the spectrum with theatre gigs and such really owes it to themselves to check out a gig such as this at least once. The highly charged combative acts vs audience atmosphere is at once unpleasant but still strangely alluring. It’s comedy in a very raw and primal form, where seeing an act die miserably while failing to win over the vicious crowd is often as entertaining as seeing one do brilliantly. Seeing such shows at Edinburgh offers a slightly different experience to your regular Friday night at Jongleurs, as the audience are generally more comedy literate (if also more drunk), the acts a cut above, and there are less stag and hen parties. So if you’ve ever wanted to see such a gig, Spank is your best opportunity. You probably shouldn’t sit at the front though. Like Late ‘n’ Live, it’s scheduled till 4am, but the comedy finishes about 2.30-3am, after which there is some sort of club night.
Also there’s always at least one naked person on stage at some point. 98% of the time it is a man.

Late Show – Underbelly, Thu-Sun 3rd-24th, 00:40-03:10
The Late Show is The Underbelly’s other late night comedy showcase. It’s in a smaller room so the whole thing is more intimate, and less Rock ‘n’ Roll than Spank, aimed slightly more at people that want to enjoy the comedy rather than get drunk. Not that there isn’t heckling and audience interaction but it’s a little more restrained. Nice if you’re finding it too early to go to bed but would rather wind down a little than be fired-up.

Political Animal – Underbelly, Wed-Sun 6th-24th, 22:30 – 23:50
Another Underbelly show, this one isn’t so late but is worth including. It mostly features political acts or acts doing political material and as such is a little bit more intellectual than the other late shows (though there’s not that much you’d really term ‘cutting satire’). Ably MC’d by Andy Zaltzmann it’s a great show that often showcases comics doing material they don’t normally do to an appreciative audience. Well worth checking out.

Honourable Men of Art – Sun-Thu 3rd-24th, 00:00 – 03:00
So at some point Daniel Kitson got bored of MCing Late ‘n’ Live and adopted a far less aggressive style of comedy. But he also missed having somewhere for him and his friends to hang out of an evening, and so Honourable Men of Art was born.
Up at The Stand away from the hustle and bustle of the more southerly venues and purposefully not running on Friday or Saturday evenings to avoid ‘that sort’ of crowd, Honourable Men of Art is a million miles away from your traditional late show. It features Kitson and some of Andy Zaltzman, David O’Doherty, John Oliver (via webcam) and Alun Cochrane.
It’s all quite laid back and silly and certainly the comedy connoisseurs choice of late show, even though Kitson would probably argue such a description made it sound far to elaborate.

We Need Answers – Pleasance Dome, 10th-16th, 00:15 – 01:25
Another rather different late show, this features Mark Watson, Tim Key and Alex Horne presiding over two other comics in a quiz format, as the comics compete to win. The catch? All the questions have previously been asked of AQA, a text message answering service that isn’t as good as Texperts (66000). You can text them any question and they’ll send you an answer for a pound. Quiz contestants have to guess exactly what answers AQA sent back.
It’s not at all serious, there may be cheating involved and it’s done in a brilliantly over the top gameshow fashion. Hopefully Tim Key’s sliding chair will make a return this year. If you want something totally off-beat and bizarre at midnight, this is the thing to go for.

Storytellers’ Club – C Central, Saturdays, 2nd-23rd, 23:45 – 01:15
This aberration of logic is a friendly, relaxed late night gig on a Saturday night in Edinburgh. Presided over by Sarah Bennetto the point of the gig is to offer a different sort of comedy gig. Interesting and amusing stories are valued over punchlines and traditional jokes making the whole thing the ideal tonic to the rest of Edinburgh on a Saturday. Come along, sit, relax and be taken on a funny journey by some brilliant comics. Especially on August 16th when they have an amazing line-up…

Everything Else
Those of course, are only a fraction of the options available. Off the top of my head there’s also Afterhours and The Bad Film Club at the Pleasance, The Stand’s weekend late shows, about 5 different Free Fringe and Free Festival Late shows, a Late Show at the Tron and probably a bunch of others too. But since I’ve never been to them, I can’t really write them up. But should I make it there this year I’ll be sure to write some addendums.

August 01, 2008

TV Review: Last Comic Standing, Finals Round 3

I have a confession to make. Despite my disappointment at Paul Foot being eliminated, and the mocking I did in my review, I really enjoyed last week’s Last Comic Standing. It had an interesting challenge that forced the comics out of their comfort zone and really demonstrated who could think on their feet, while the interactions and discussions in the house highlighted the differences between the acts comedic stylings and produced some interesting insights into how it all works. I liked it enough that I was really looking forward to this week’s episode. You can see where this is going.

It actually starts interestingly. Louis Ramey tries to get everyone to not pick Iliza if it comes down to it as he’s worried, somewhat rightly, that with it coming down to an audience phone-in then if Iliza keeps getting picked the entire show becomes about her constantly triumphing over adversity and hence she’ll get a lot of votes. It makes sense. Shows like this try and weave interesting narratives and make the contestants into characters in a story. They’re at risk of forcing Iliza into the hero role. That said, this particular show isn’t that good at creating such narratives so I wouldn’t worry too much.

They go to a Sushi Bar where they have to make female body-builders, the Deal or No Deal girls, some frat boys and some “little people”. It’s mostly just really cringe-worthy and embarrassing. Some of the comics are happy that they can finally perform their own jokes to someone as many of them haven’t gigged for nearly a month which is a long time for a jobbing comic that performs every night. They play “I’m Turning Japanese (I Really Think So)”. Yes, it’s that bad.
Louis Ramey
The clue for the task are those fake plastic breast insert things that you can put inside the bra to make things appear larger than they are. Sean Cullen goes off discussing a Star Trek episode: “Maybe we’ll be attacked by gelatinous monster creatures. Who knows?”. Alas, he’s not right. We end up at The Playboy Mansion. The challenge? They get allocated a random story title and have to come up with a funny ‘bedtime story’ and read it to three Playmates. They decide who wins. They’ll obviously be picking the funniest one, and not for instance, the cutest. The girls might be pretty but I can’t see under the two inches of make-up they all have on and the breasts are impressive but probably fake. Given those two factors, they’re really not that hot at all. Anyway.

They giggle lots at Ron G as he’s cute. Or at least the one girl does. He mostly just flirts. Adam Hunter gets off to a bad start as he reads the title “I’m The Same Age As My New Mommy” and they go “Huh”. Bit unfair really. They could have at least chosen titles the bimbos could understand. Adam Hunter does a joke filled story, the vast majority of it going over the head’s of the girls. Iliza does a good job: the jokes are pitched well (ie: low) and includes references to Playboy and such. But she’s not going to win because she’s a girl. Louis Ramey is a bit rubbish again when he has to improvise. It’s not embarrassingly bad but it doesn’t get any big laughs.

Sean Cullen mostly just scares them. Dragons eating people and stuff. It’s brilliant. Clearly he won’t win. Marcus does his movie impressions again. He weaves them together quite well and movie-star impressions are pretty much the level for dim blondes. Jim Tavare again falls into the trap of being far too clever for the crowd by y’know, having jokes. Jeff Dye sort of does okay. They don’t laugh at the bits he expected them to laugh at, but giggle uncontrollably at some throwaway lines.

Hugh Hefner makes a cameo.

One of the girls like Ron G because she has a crush on him. They like Iliza and Jeff but eventually Marcus (“Tattoo”) wins immunity. And: twist. There will be no voting, instead, everyone will perform and the nation will vote, and then someone will be eliminated. Maybe two. We don’t really know. It seems like they’re pulling the entire structure apart this year. Last year there were three head-to-heads followed by 4 weeks of “public elimination” where they all perform 5-minute sets each week, the public votes, and the one with the lowest number of votes each week is eliminated until there are just 2 left for the final. This year it looks to be 2 head-to-heads, this weeks weird one to narrow it down to 6 and then next week is the final final, where the most votes wins.

Interestingly, this could be the sort of twist which will open the door for someone other than Louis Ramey to win. As I have mentioned before, Ramey is solid enough that he’ll never finish last, and when it comes to the final two chances are any of the stranger acts will have been eliminated after 4 weeks leaving just traditional comics, and he’s the strongest ‘traditional’ comic in the line-up. But while he’s solid, he’s not exceptional. He’s nothing special, he’s not particularly memorable. Had we had last year’s structure he’d have made it to the final but he certainly wouldn’t have been first every week. With people instead voting for who they think should win out of 5 or 6 people next week, it’ll be a lot harder for him to win. And the more novelty-focused acts (Cullen and Tavare at this point) have a much better chance. It works out like this: in a small contest between 2 or 3 people, viewers won’t just vote for someone they like, they’ll vote against someone they don’t like. Novelty acts that appeal to a niche audience are therefore at a disadvantage, and those catering to the lowest common denominator at an advantage: “I didn’t like A that much, but I didn’t get B at all so I’m voting for A”. With 6 people to choose from it’s much, much more important to secure votes for yourself, because people that don’t like a given act have 5 other places to go to. So say Tavare and Cullen make the finals with their somewhat different style of performance. People that like their style will vote for them. People that don’t have 4 other places to cast there vote. It splits the vote of the comics that cater for the typical MTV audience. It certainly makes things more interesting.

Still, while that potentially makes next week interesting, this week still sucks. They have dinner. Sean Cullen does the walk of the dead Survivors. Well, he sits in a confessional for 2 minutes and chats briefly about the people that got eliminated. He’s funny: “Little Footy, with his elf-like charm”.

The down-side of everyone (except Marcus) competing is we don’t see the other comics chatting and reviewing their sets. Boo. Adam Hunter… is really really good. I mean he comes alive with this energy and almost feral aggression. The material is decent but there’s a real strength of delivery there. Iliza is up next and she’s doing a lot of new stuff. I don’t understand why, unless she really is running out of material. She’s quite good, but a lot of her jokes, while different, riff off the same ideas and themes. I’m not sure she’d be that interesting for anything more than ten minutes. She does a call-back at the end but it doesn’t work. There’s an awkward moment where Bill Bellamy has to do the “Here’s the number to vote for her” bit but she goes to walk on but he just holds on to her arm without her noticing and ends up getting pulled back and it looks sort of painful. By the way, you can vote by phone or online. Limit of 10 votes per method. Oh, fuck off.

Sean Cullen does a few jokes and then a song about farming. I like it, but it’s not actually that funny. It has a bunch of good lines, but not enough of them. In fact, Cullen is sort of funnier on the show than he is on stage. Which is odd. I finally know where I know him from now. He was in Corky and the Juicepigs with Phil Nichol. If that means nothing to you, watch the YouTube video on this post and it probably will. He’s the larger guy on the right. Would it be cheating for him to pull out that song for the final? I mean Nichol still does it live all the time… He pulls funny faces while Bellamy reads the numbers out.

Tavare is up next. One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that he’s actually bothered to go out and find US cultural references to do jokes about which I think impresses the crowd due to the English accent. He does some great one-liners and some funny stuff with the double-bass. And while Bill Bellamy reads out the number to call he climbs up on the double-bass. Awesome.

Jeff Dye isn’t great. A lot of his stuff just doesn’t work and it doesn’t hold together. Ron G is the same. He’s out of his depth and still has a strange tick. He dances and touches his nipples while Bill reads out his number.
Louis Ramey is on last. Again, he’s strong, handles the crowd well and gets laughs and applause. Nothing brilliant, and he utterly fails to understand the point behind bringing food into sex. He over-runs a bit as well but still, good job.

So who’s getting eliminated this week? Well turns out they do reality shows differently over in Yank-land. Although the lines are only open for two hours after the show, we don’t get to find out till next week. Fuck off.

This whole episode really wound me up to be honest. It was a massive let down. I doubt next week will redeem it but we’ll see. At least Fearne Cotton has gone.

August 2008

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