Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Buster Keaton... First Thoughts

I pride myself on having a wide interest in comedy, with a resulting wide knowledge. But one area where I still have much to experience and learn about is early silent film comedy.

There are the three acknowledged geniuses of the genre... Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. Currently, my DVD and video collection is without any of the celebrated works of Chaplin or Lloyd, but I do have a package of nine Keaton movies (three features and six shorts) that cost me £3.44 from DVDPACIFIC.COM - a website by the way which I would recommend when buying Region 1 DVDs from the US, for good service and great value.

I have already seen the Kevin Brownlow documentary 'A Hard Act to Follow' and 'Steamboat Bill Jnr' which are in my girlfriend's video collection. This morning I was having a cup of tea in bed at 5.30am, and decided that the short time before returning to sleep could be quietly spent getting better acquainted with with Buster. I started with the earliest short in my DVD package - 'The Boat' (1921).

I enjoyed it. I can't say that I actually laughed, but visual comedy is less likely to have that effect on me than great dialogue. Many of the physical and visual gags in the movie looked familiar - mainly from the dialogue-free work of Eric Sykes ('The Plank' etc.) and especially Michael Crawford in 'Some Mothers Do Ave Em'. Now I know where it was all stolen from.

Like all great comedy characters and performers, Buster Keaton has his very own look, mannerisms, and movements. In the midst of an eventful, dangerous world, he maintains his reactionless face. There is his trademark delayed reaction, before extreme bursts of energy. His character is forever inventive, and snaps into action, with an innocent confidence that anything he attempts will succeed.

Now I'm looking forward to my next early morning cup of tea, when I want something peaceful to watch for twenty minutes. I can further enrich my experience of the visual comedy of Buster Keaton, before returning to sleep and my dreams of becoming the new Bill Hicks.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

What's Happened to the Bear?

It happened like this. This week I got an email from Ken Jenkins who organizes the Stroke Comedy club in Lichfield, where I'm doing a spot next Thursday. He asked me if I would put a link to the Stroke website on MY home-made website.

You see, I've got a page for Midlands Comedy - where I show a summary of the current comedy club venues in Birmingham and nearby, plus links to their websites. Thus I was prompted to update that page of my website, and do it properly - check for new venues to include, and check the ones already on the page, and delete the dead ones.

That's when I knew for sure something that I sort of knew already. There was no news of any comedy going on at The Bear.

The Bear Tavern in Bearwood, Birmingham has been putting on live comedy since 1989, when Frank Skinner was regular compere. In those days it was called the XXXX Cabaret, and the promoter was Malcolm Bailey. By about 1991, Frank had gone to be replaced by Alan Davies.

My first visit to the XXXX Cabaret was in mid 1992, by which time Alan had also departed. Before the end of 1992 - 22nd October to be exact - I had done MY first spot there. That night Bob Mills was the headline act - doing his genuinely great stuff on the prospect of the Olympics in Manchester - and Tim Clark was MC. Malcolm Bailey was still in charge, but before long, he had gone too.

In the thirteen years since then, comedy at the Bear has continued on and off, never being off for too long. The shows have been organized by such household names as Nick Bonneau, Rob Wilkinson, and others. In recent years, local acts James Cook, Dan Smith, and Andy White have all had a hand in keeping it going.

There have been times when the standard of the entertainment has dwindled. I remember being in the audience one night when the show was continually being interrupted by the sound of people laughing in the bar downstairs. Not a good sign at a comedy club.

I must admit that I myself have never had as good a response from audiences in Birmingham as I have in London - where I first started as a comedian. After I'd done five gigs at The Bear, I prepared the following joke for my next spot. "This is the sixth time I've performed here at the Bear. I'm planning to turn the story of my previous five gigs here into a movie... I'm calling it "Four Funerals and a Funeral".

I've done about seven or eight gigs there up to now, the last being in December 2004. This year I heard that Andy White had handed over the organization of shows to Karen Bayley to be part of her Comedy Junction chain of comedy clubs. And now, a few months later, there is no news of the Bear Tavern on their website. And you know what they say... "No news means live comedy at the Bear seems to have been discontinued".

Let's hope that comedy returns to the Bear Tavern soon. As I know myself, it has been a great place to see good acts from the national comedy circuit, and also for giving stage time to locally based performers as they work their way up the comedy ladder.

And I'm thinking of one locally based performer in particular... I haven't got any gigs lined up after next week.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Aristocrats

Last Wednesday afternoon I treated myself to a trip to the movies. I saw 'The Aristocrats' at the Picture House in Stratford-upon-Avon... A great way to spend an hour and a half between lunch and starting work for the day. On saying that, this seems like a good time to tell you that my day job is as a self-employed private tutor in mathematics, and many days I don't start work till 4pm. Envy me as much as you like. It's a great life.

I'd been looking forward to seeing this film, if only on DVD when it becomes available in January, and my hopes were high. Luckily, I never let my expectations get to the same heights as my hopes. My hopes were high, my expectations high-ish. As I expected, my high hopes for the movie were not reached, but my high-ish expectations were surpassed. I love to hear comedians talking... as I like to myself... if I can find other comedians who are willing to talk with me or even just listen to what I've got to say.

I knew that this was a documentary film where a large cast of comedians talk about one particular joke... "THE ARISTOCRATS'. What this joke is you can find out for yourselves, but I'll warn you that the punchline has already been revealed in the name of the joke, so don't expect that surprise element - so crucial to a punchline - to be as evident as you would like. And therein lies the particular interest and fun that creative comedians find with this joke. The surprise element of the punchline is not as important as the effectiveness of the set-up, and the effectiveness of the set-up in this case is directly proportional to the level of sexual perversion and detailed scatological description that can be combined in such a way as to most disgust and revolt the listener. Lovely!

By the way, the principle within a joke that the set-up is more important than the punchline - is actually true for ALL jokes with a punchline. The punchline of a joke needs to be what it is, but there is great variation possible in content and phrasing of the set-up to make the punchline as appropriate and yet surprising as possible. (For more discussion and explanation of this fascinating comedy theory come along to my Comedy Writing evening classes at Stratford-upon-Avon College. The next ten week course starts on Tuesday January 10th at 7pm. To enrol, phone 01789-266245.)

I knew that this film featured a cast of many well-respected and successful comedians, mainly from the US. In particular George Carlin featured, my Number One Stand-Up Comedy Hero. George is an important presence in this film, but two of my other stand-up heroes, Billy Connolly and Eddie Izzard, make contributions, although less significant. Billy seems happy to talk about the joke, but not get his hands dirty by telling the joke himself. And I'll need to see the film again to try and discover what Eddie was saying - or trying to say. His interview seems to be cut repeatedly and haphazardly while he was in mid-flow. This film was also the first opportunity for me to meet many US comedians who until now I knew only by name, reputation, or second-hand anecdote... People like Shelley Berman, David Brenner, and Don Rickles.

This feels like a man's movie... because as I've had to explain to my girlfriend - "men like dirty jokes". The major female contribution comes from Phyllis Diller, who seems to be there purely to do her trademark laugh, and.. I'll have to check out the DVD later to check if she said anything of interest. But the movie did give me my first encounter with Sarah Silverman, who in her short segment does get into the spirit of the joke. Since then I've become more familiar with her stage work after finding some streaming video clips on the internet of her new concert movie that's showing in the US.

My only real complaint with this movie is that it is too short. I would have been content to sit with it for as many hours as they had got available footage, and hopefully more will be offered in the DVD package. That DVD will be excessively viewed after it arrives in the New Year, and rest assured I shall develop my own version and delivery of that famous joke - "The Aristocrats".

Monday, November 14, 2005

What's Happening?

So... What's happening? What am I doing right now comedy-wise or - MORE USUALLY IN MY CASE - what SHOULD I be doing if I could summon up the purposefulness I should have.

Well firstly, I have a gig to prepare for. On Thursday 1st December, I'm supposed to be doing a ten minute spot at the George Hotel, Lichfield. And when I say 'supposed' I WILL be there... unless the show is cancelled or something happens that against my will stops me from getting there. In other words, I'm not going to back out.

The problem is... what am I going to do, set-wise? As ever, I'm determined to prepare an honest truthful set of intelligent material - NOT the contrived setup-punchline stuff I always end up doing.  I have two weeks and a bit. I need to get busy thinking about what I WANT to talk about, decide what it is I have to say about whatever that is, and see if I can make that funny. It sounds so simple, but my life is SO FULL of distractions. Anyway, I will see what happens, and hopefully having to report back here will help.

What else is on my 'TO DO' list? There's my new Comedy Writing course starting in January. I have broad plans for the ten weeks, and I have more developed plans for the first week. I should look ahead and plan some activities and work for other weeks, but I'm quite confident that my exact plans will build from week to week. Or in other words, that's my excuse for putting off doing too much work right now.

Anything else I want to do or should be doing? YES! My sitcom idea that'd been around for about five years (which I'm not revealing too much about as yet) seems like a good project to develop based on what's been successful on TV of late. The two Ricky Gervais series' 'The Office' and 'Extras' have shown that successful comedy characters no longer have to be as politically correct or have a heart of gold that will lead them to do the right thing in the last five minutes.

And it's not just here in Britain that this has happened in sitcom-land. HBO in the US certainly started the ball rolling with Larry Sanders, and are keeping up the good work with Larry David's 'Curb Your Enthusiam'. I finished watching the second series on DVD this morning while I was eating breakfast in bed.

I suddenly seem to get an idea why I don't get things done.

Where do I stand?

A week from today, I will be 48 years old. I know that's old, but that's how old I am, and as much as I don't like it, I'm not going to be getting any younger. So as much as I'd like to be making plans for my life starting at 25, 30 or even 40 years old... I can't! I have to make plans that start from where I am, not where I'd like to be.

So where am I as my life stands comedy-wise?

I have been actively doing bits and pieces in comedy - as writer and performer - for about fifteen years now. I did my first gig as a stand-up at the beginning of November 1990 - at Try-Out Night, Downstairs at the King's Head, Crouch End. So... fifteen years and about 250 gigs later, how far have I progressed as a working comedian?

Not as far as I'd have liked - certainly. But how far? I'd like recognition and respect from other comedians - and, hard to believe, I think I do have (have had?) that to some degree. But no breakthrough in impressing audiences or promoters. No regular paid gigs doing over ten minutes sets.

Do I still hope for that? Sort of... although I'm quite sure that I'm not temperamentally suited to driving round the country doing one-night stands to audiences who wouldn't know progressive intelligent stand-up comedy if they saw it - and what's more - wouldn't like it if they did see it.

Does that make me sound bitter? Yes... but that's only because I am. By the way... I'm not saying that I can actually DO progressive intelligent stand-up comedy, but when I dream of doing regular paid gigs, I extend the dream to doing good work like my heroes would - George Carlin, Eddie Izzard, Bill Hicks, and friends. (For more on my heroes, go to my home-made website 'Geoff Parfitt Online'.)

And what about my claim to be a comedy WRITER? Well, so far in these fifteen years I have made about three thousand pounds from selling jokes and sketches. I haven't added it up exactly, because it's probably less than that.

These sales have been mostly quickie sketches for those progressive comedy heartlands of Belgium, Germany, and Wales. I have had sales to mainstream British TV, but one sketch for Hales & Pace, one more for Freddie Starr, and simple stuff for Children's TV is not much to boast about.

ALTHOUGH... I HAVE made it into the latest edition of the 'Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy'. There I am on page 317 (and the index on page 888) for my contribution to that ground-breaking show 'Giggly Bitz!' for Children's ITV.

I suppose the best recognition I have had as a writer is from the gags I sold to Bob Monkhouse. These were primarily for his banter with the contestants on his lunchtime BBC1 quiz show 'Wipeout', but he did use a joke of mine during his spot of a prime-time Friday evening BBC1 entertainment show, hosted by Jim Davidson. I didn't keep a video of that, because I didn't want that to be the pinnacle of my career as a comedy writer. I wish I'd recorded that.

But let's not forget my comedy TEACHING. Since 1999, I have put on a few courses of evening classes in Comedy Writing at Stratford-upon-Avon College - plus one failure at trying to get being get started as performers. After a break of a couple of years when I couldn't get the students, I'm due to start another ten week course in Comedy Writing on Tuesday 10th January 2006. Enrolment information is on my website. Don't delay. The class might be full!

Friday, November 11, 2005

First Blog

I've just set up my blog, and this is me having my first go at it. I've set this up thinking that this will be my way of sharing my thoughts and experiences in the wonderful world of COMEDY. God... I sound like an anarak (spell check please) already.

No thoughts or experiences to report right now. Later!