All entries for November 2010

November 26, 2010

More on student fees / riots

What I would have written yesterday were I less angry.

A few other thoughts on the riots

Violent protest has always been a part of direct action. It’s not big or clever, but boy, does it get people’s attention. The problem is that one gets the impression that when these student protests turn violent, it’s because somehow some students think “well, that’s what we do on protests, isn’t it?” and then start smashing things. Violent protest and destruction of property is a huge statement, and as such has to be direct with thought and in the right place. I genuinely don’t think that’s been happening here. People weren’t smashing stuff because they were angry with the government. They were smashing stuff because they were a bit drunk, wanted to smash something, and saw the protest and ‘direct action’ as a good excuse. That is simply not good enough. The bigger the gun, the more carefully it must be aimed, lest you accidentally hit something you didn’t mean to.

Claiming that the rising tuition fees mean that you can’t go to university is, in 99.9% of cases, wrong. Of course, the tuition fees shouldn’t be going up. The fact that it’s taken only 12 years to go from giving students money if they attend university to charging them up to £9000 a year is ridiculous. Students applying to university next year started school when grants still existed! The whole thing is a total travesty.


The fees are not paid upfront, you get a loan for the cost of the fees and that is paid back later. The loan has an effective zero-interest rate, and repayments only kick once you’re earning more than 15k (shortly to be upped to 21k, and then at a flat 9% of income over that figure. I’ve only just started repaying mine, and while it is a loan, effectively it’s more like a tax. Most agree that a Graduate Tax would be a fair alternative to a fees hike, and really, that’s sort of what this is. The problem is that it’s unfair, as rich kids can have mum and dad pay the fees upfront and not have to worry about it.

Nevertheless, no-one is asking parents to stump up 9k a year for their kid to go to university. In fact, this system puts the onus for paying the fees pretty much entirely on the student themselves: there will never be a situation where the student has to make loan repayments and can’t afford them. As such, no-one is actually being prevented from going to university. You want to go do an Arts degree and spend your life eeking out a fun and fulfilling existence as an artist on the minimum wage? That’s fine, you get your fees paid for you and you’ll never pay them back. Unless you become Banksy or something and start making a fortune, and then you will.

The idea of that much debt is scary, and it can put potential students off. And to be frank, if it makes kids think twice about whether to go to university or not, then that’s a good thing I think. An end to the Blairite ideal of “50% of school leaves should go to university” is a good thing. It’s not for everyone and it’s something that people should consider at length before making a choice. But if it’s always been your dream to go to university, the fees hike doesn’t actually make it any harder, and the out of pocket expenses aren’t any greater. The only difference is that you’ll be paying off your loan for a lot longer than the generation before. That should give you pause, but it shouldn’t stop you.

On torturing school children

I wanted to write a sort of even-handed article about how this whole protest thing has a lot of disingenuousness on both sites. But then I read this. Oh look, police torturing school kids. They’re detained for hours, in the freezing cold, with no food, water, or toilet facilities. Did you know they did actually get a pot to piss in at Guantanamo. The police call it ‘kettling’. I call it what it actually is: torture. Purposely inflicting physical distress in order to break the spirits of the victims. That’s exactly what torture is. Seems like an appropriate response to a peaceful protest doesn’t it? Because god forbid you let a peaceful protest actually happen. This kids are clearly now going to grow up with such respect for the police now. Ugh. Sometimes I have sympathy for police officers in situations like this. They’re just ‘following orders’ – that’s not really good enough but I get it, y’know. But in this case they’re clearly all cunts.

See, I can understand why some police chief, up in a nice office behind his desks, hears about an ‘angry mob’ moving towards Westminster and orders his men to intercept and detain them. Because he doesn’t know what the officers down on the street are seeing: that they’re bloody school kids. There comes a point where even police officers should be expected to track down that small still-working part of their brain and realise that their orders are ridiculous. The response is straight-forward: “there were also some hardcore radicals involved in that protest.” Okay. Maybe. In which case why don’t you, hmm, again, engage the brain and let the school kids out. It frankly baffles me that supposedly intelligent adult policemen could be so dense. It probably shouldn’t, but it does.

The kids involved in that protest are, frankly, heroes to our civil liberties. They deserve the upmost respect. The police officers involved deserve nothing but our scorn and disdain. If you’re unsure about that, ask yourself one simple question: you have a choice – you can either torture a 13-year-old child, or lose your job. What would you do?


November 22, 2010

Pissed off with Tim Minchin

I’m pretty shocked and upset to see that Tim Minchin’s song, White Wine in the Sun is to be featured on the Spirit of Christmas CD, with the proceeds going to The Salvation Army, a group with a strong Christian ethos.

That Minchin, one of our top skeptics and rationalists, would align himself with such an organisation is frankly sickening. People fought and died to protect his right to free speech, and he wastes it with this awful, soppy, conciliatory ballad. Minchin could have written a biting piano-rock satire on the modern-day commercialisation of Christmas, an RnB track that attacked those that only attended Church at Christmas (the twist is they’re still better than those that do it every week), or a beat-poem picking apart the entire story of Mary, Joseph and Jesus.

Instead Minchin tells us he’s looking forward to Christmas, despite it being all about God and stuff. He even uses the name Christmas instead of acting like a true skeptic and calling it Winterville. It’s here Minchin’s true hidden religious beliefs are outed, as far more words rhyme with Winterville than do with Christmas – this wasn’t a choice made out of rhymical necessity, but a sinister decision to embrace the birth of Christ.

Later in the song, Minchin talks about churches, claiming the hymns that they sing have nice chords. Perhaps they do, but only because those chords are used to brainwash the innocent and the ambivalent in to becoming full on God-squadders. In much the same way as the chords to Killing In The Name were exploited last Christmas to brainwash the people of the UK in to voting Tory (the original release of Killing In The Name was in 1992, the same year the Tories won a shocking and surprising victory in the polls. Proof).

Only a for a single three lines does Minchin bother to show his claimed skepticism, and they’re brushed under the carpet as he tells us instead how much he likes Christmas songs. Like this one. A cynical and subliminal attempt to get listeners of this album to buy more copies of its Christian-filled nonsense for their friends and family.

And to top it all off, the name of the song itself, and the main line of the chorus, Drinking White Wine in the Sun – Minchin may try and hide his theism under a veneer of white wine, but we all know he’s talking about Holy Communion and the consumption of wine that has been transubstantiated in to Jesus’ blood. He thinks we’re too dumb to notice, a clear sign of man who holds his fans in contempt.

This is frankly the biggest blow to the skepticism movement since Ben Goldacre announced he liked to eat christmas cake, and Minchin should be ashamed of himself. By associating himself with this CD he’s making a mockery of all of us proud, God-baiting fundamentalist atheists across the world.

I for one will be selling my tickets for his winter arena tour on Ebay, as now it looks like it’ll basically be him, an organ and hymns all night. No thanks grandad!

(Context )

November 21, 2010

On comedy reviews

I was going to send this in to Chortle, but wasn’t happy with it and never got around to fixing it up. Too many ideas clashing together and I couldn’t find a solid argument to frame them around. Anyway, since the moment has past, I figured I’d stick it up here for the curious

Ed O’Meara wrote a fantastic and thought provoking article on critics in comedy, but I can’t help but think his ire was somewhat misdirected. The problems he highlights are genuine, but they’re not caused by the fact that we have comedy reviewers. They’re caused by the fact that we don’t have enough of them.

I was going to start this piece with something trite like: “If you think it’s tough making a living as a professional comic, spare a thought for the professional comedy critics”, but then I realised: there are none. Granted, there is work available in that field, especially in August, but I’d wager there’s not a single person making a living in this country from comedy reviewing alone. Sure, you can be an ‘arts’ writer for a national paper and cover comedy as part of that. You can do a bit of freelance for the local papers and the few websites that will actually pay for content. You can run your own comedy blog and try and make a few pennies off the ads. You could even set up and run your own comedy news, reviews and listings website, though someone else may have beaten you to it. But no-one is making a living purely from writing about comedy.

That alone cuts the quality of your average critic. Why spend years honing your knowledge and critical appreciation of comedy when the rewards are so tiny?

And a lack of reviewers inevitably leads to a lack of reviews. There are so few places that actually review comics at the club level that a single bad review, written on an off-night, can have dire consequences. It can be on the front page of Google results for the next five years. But that’s why we need more critics, so that review has another review right next to it, and hopefully another one too. The more reviews, the less chance of them all covering a brilliant comic on a bad night. Or a bad comic having a momentary flash of brilliance. The world without critics isn’t any better, incidentally. With the reliable sources gone, all the punter has to rely on is a badly worded rant someone posted on a comedy forum after they saw a 30-second YouTube video of the act.

Ed makes the great point that some of the best analysis of an act can come from more experienced comics. I’d agree entirely, it’s probably the best way for new comics to get constructive feedback. Unfortunately what works one-on-one won’t work for the punter. I wish there was a way to harness the immense critical faculties of our top comics. Alas this is still a fairly tight-knit industry, and for a comic to start posting his own reviews of other comics is pretty much tantamount to career suicide. That’s also, incidentally, why you won’t see many critics ‘showing the comedians how it’s done’.

A professional comedy review isn’t just an opinion, it’s an informed opinion. This means that sometimes the audience reaction is not the be-all and end-all for judging a performance. Most comics would agree that part of a critic’s job is to look past the conditions on the night. If the audience are being unduly disruptive, if not many people turned up, if there are tech problems, and so on. It’s perfectly possible to get a good review while having a bad gig, if the critic can see that the material and performance has merit. It’s a fairly common occurrence. The flip-side, of course, is that just because you ‘stormed it’ by doing 20 minutes of cock gags to an audience of stag and hen parties does not guarantee you a good write-up. In both cases it is a factor: how you succeed or fail in working a room and reacting to the unexpected matters, but it’s far from the only criteria on which a critic will judge.

Still, it would be nice to see punters place a bit less emphasis on reviews and star-ratings. Turn them in to a guiding hand rather than the make-or-break of a show. One way to do that is to offer more and varied reviews, but another might be for shows to stop shouting quite so loudly on their publicity the second they get a four or five star review.

November 18, 2010

On Jenny Eclair and responsibility

Some things annoy me disproportionately.

A few weeks ago a I had a really shit weekend. And on the Monday, I had a comedy show to run and MC. The last thing I wanted to do was get up on stage and be all nice and jolly and try and make a room of people laugh. I contemplated pulling the gig. For about three seconds. Then realised that would make me a cunt.

‘The show must go on’. It’s old cliche, but for some reason it’s one I believe in with a level of fervour. Perhaps it’s just general politeness. If you advertise a show and then pull it, you’re inconveniencing a bunch of people who had planned to go to that show. You’re ruined their plans for the night. If nothing else it’s rude. In my case it was probably just thirty or so people, most of whom wouldn’t have really minded. But still, the principle of the thing stands. Especially if you’re then going to go and ask them to come to future shows.

It’s a principle that I feel I apply fairly. Yes, I used it to mock Oasis when Liam cancelled gigs because he felt like being a dick. But I also dragged my favourite band, James, over the coals when they cancelled a show due to the singer having hurt his back and being told he couldn’t dance. Everyone else seemed to think that was perfectly reasonable. I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just get him a chair. In that case the crowd would have been robbed of the delight of singer Tim Booth’s insane dance moves, but when it comes down to it, he’s not Bez. His job is to sing, not to dance, and he was perfectly capable of doing that.

Still, that was a borderline case. And obviously there are circumstances where pulling the show is the only option: if the performer is genuinely too ill to perform then not much can be done about it. Unless you’re Frank Turner when you just perform anyway before running backstage, throwing up and fainting two songs before the end, then apologise profusely and try and sort out free tickets for a future gig for people.

Some cases though, aren’t borderline at all. If you’ve been avoiding it (good for you) you won’t be aware that Jenny Eclair has joined the cast of I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. Even if you are, there’s a good chance that what you don’t know is that she cancelled 11 tour dates, including one on the afternoon of the gig itself, in order to get on the show. So what happened? It’s hard to say exactly as none of what she’s said about it makes any sense, but it seems she was on a list of eight reserves, who were flown over to Australia as potential replacements.

Now while I’m no fan of the show, I can see why she’d want to do it. It’s a big profile booster. It’ll help her sell more tickets for the rest of the tour. But the show is about two weeks long. Even if you’re a reserve, it can’t be hard to just avoid booking anything else in on those weeks. She basically knew there was a chance she couldn’t do the shows, but let the promoters and her audience continue to think she would until the day of the first show. Which frankly is hugely unprofessional and shows a disgusting level of contempt for her fans and the venues that booked her.

Still, I’d have let it pass. I’d have shut up because other people do this sort of thing all the time and why make a big deal of it. Then I read the official statement her spokesperson gave: “Jenny apologises profusely to all her followers and ticket holders who will be were planning to see her. She has never cancelled a live show before in over 20 years of performing and hopes her fans appreciate these are very exceptional, unexpected circumstances and looks forward to seeing everyone again very soon.” Sounds fairly reasonable, let’s just re-read a bit of that “exceptional, unexpected circumstances”... oh no, my mistake, it’s a bare-faced lie. If you’re booked as a reserve on a reality TV show, it’s not ‘unexpected’ if you’re then asked to go on it. It’s… what’s the word? “expected”. That’s it. Lovely of them to just insult the intelligence of her fans there.

My advice? If you’re a theatre comedy booker, and thinking of booking Jenny Eclair, check that the date doesn’t clash with any celebrity reality TV shows, as there’s a good chance that the producers of said show won’t actually want her to be on it but might end up asking her to do it if someone more famous drops out.

Dean would also like to point out that no, he didn’t have tickets for one of the cancelled shows, and you’re wrong, he really does rate Jenny Eclair as a comic

November 15, 2010

Frisky and Mannish, Warwick Arts Centre, 31st October

They lost me in the first ten minutes.

There’s something in comedy you have to do when playing clubs, or even the smaller rooms in Edinburgh. I call it establishing audience “buy-in”. Basically, you need to move the minds of the crowd from being a passive observer, asking themselves “will they be funny” to someone invested in the performance, by establishing rapport, getting them involved and re-framing their mindset so they’re thinking “this is funny, I’ll enjoy it”.

Frisky and Mannish have established a pretty good way of doing this: they do a bit of light audience interaction, some light mocking (which also establishes authority, important for managing more unruly crowds) and then they get everyone standing up and dancing. It’s good technique. Alas what works in other contexts is entirely inappropriate for dealing with a small, mostly sober crowd on a Sunday night in an arts centre.

See, when you’re playing a venue off the beaten track (Warwick University campus) you can be fairly sure that everyone their made the conscious decision to go and see you. It’s hugely unlikely to have been a spur of the moment thing, they’ve probably done some research, figured it’s something they’ll like, and so gone along. They’ve bought in already. Or at least they had, until you made them get up and dance.

Since the preceding opening number was decent but not brilliant, in the first ten minutes Frisky and Mannish basically throw out all the good will the audience came in to the show with. It’s to their credit, then, that by the end of the first half they’ve already won us all back around, to the point that one can’t help but wonder if they’re bored by everyone loving them and tanked the start on purpose to make it more interesting.

That overly rambling introduction hides the fact that Frisky and Mannish are a very difficult act to describe, and even more difficult to analyse. There are generally two types of musical comedy: the one where you write your own original comedy songs, and the type where you parody existing songs, generally by changing the lyrics. Except there’s barely a single original song in the whole show, nor do they ever change any lyrics to existing ones. Instead they draw comedy out from the music itself, playing with styles and forms to create something hilarious. The only comparison that I can think of is Bill Bailey. And that’s a ridiculous comparison as they’re nothing alike: Bailey’s deer-in-headlights confused-hippy performance style couldn’t be further from Frisky and Mannish’s assured self-confident delivery. But at a very high level, that notion of finding humour in music, rather than just ‘being funny with music’ is something they have in common.

And so they offer a wonderful couple of hours of musical manipulation. Noel Coward and Lily Allen sing each others songs. They explain how horror is the over-riding genre in pop music by showing just how sinister some songs become when done in a minor key. They entirely deconstruct Florence from Florence and the Machine beautifully. And when you least expect it, they’ll do a dance routine to B*Witched.

I can’t urge people to go and see this show enough really. It’s not for everyone. Indeed, watching it I was consciously aware that I had certain friends who would enjoy it a lot more than I did. But that’s down to my lack of knowledge of most music from the past ten years. Indeed, one could argue that musos would probably get more out of it than your average comedy fan. But for that average comedy fan it’s also a revelation, as it shows a due doing something that feels original, which is such a rarity in today’s comedy scene that it should be embraced whole-heartedly.

November 14, 2010

On comedy promoters

Sometimes you read something that just makes you angry. So it was with Wend Smith’s amazing article on Chortle last week.

When I read the opening I thought that this was going to be one of those pieces that both annoyed me and made me feel a bit guilty. I like to think I’m something of a feminist, but I’m not the sort that will deny their own sexuality just to prove it. Obviously someone physically grabbing a woman at a club or on public transport is wrong. Equally it’s pretty bad shout sexual remarks at a woman you don’t know in public. But then some people always take the argument too far and start saying that even checking out a woman wearing a low-cut top in public is just as bad as the rest. And while you can’t argue the point that being looked at in that way makes some women uncomfortable, at some point one’s right to wear what they want has to be measured against one’s right to look in whatever direction they want.

So I thought it would be with this article. I imagined that it’d highlight the shocking truth that some promoters book female acts based on their looks, and after doing so they flirt with them. Obviously a promoter shouldn’t be book acts based on anything other than comedic ability, but to assume it doesn’t happen is naive.

Luckily the one night I run has a pretty open booking policy, with a mandate to find stage time for anyone that wants a chance, regardless of level. So it’s never been a call I’ve had to make. But yes, lots of promoters are sad lonely men approaching middle-age (I count myself in that) and might well book a young female comic based on her looks in the pathetic hope they might get lucky. I’d like to think it’s not something I’d ever do, but I can certainly imagine not living up to that hope. So I expected to mostly be made to feel uncomfortable by the article and find myself disagreeing with it in parts. Then I read through it.

Bloody hell.

Go read it, but if you can’t be bothered, a few quotes:

“receiving communication from a middle-aged man using unsavoury language based entirely on my appearance, my gender and my sexuality is somewhat hard to swallow.”

“I have been told by one promoter that he ‘must be in love with [me] as [he] is willing to offer more work’.”

I’ve talked before about the backwards relationship between promotors and open spots. Specifically that, as far as I’m concerned, the open spots are doing me a favour by performing at my gig, and I feel awful that most of the time I don’t have the budget to even buy them a drink. Hell, I feel too guilty to even accept drinks from open spots when they offer.

So the idea that a promoter wouldn’t just book an act based on her looks, but then proceed to pretty much tell her this and make a point of it just boggles my mind. In an ideal world, it shouldn’t happen in the first place. Gender and appearance shouldn’t be part of a booking policy. We don’t live in an ideal world, but we do live in a world where a degree of basic human decency is expected, which surely should include not sexually harassing your open spots.

In an industry that’s worked hard to shed the aggressive, laddish image that’s been built up around it, it’s depressing to see that parts of it are stuck in the 1940s.

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