Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Bill Hicks - Salvation.... Everything and More

I've kind of ignored Bill Hicks in this Blog up to now. Strange really. He's the top Stand-Up Hero on my website. He's the comedian I listen to most. But I suppose I'm thinking about him and his work so often that it feels like I'm writing about him every day. So that's why I haven't actually done it.

Until now. I think it's worth saying a bit about the latest audio CD release "Salvation - Live in Oxford" - a COMPLETE UNEDITED two-hour performance from Bill's tour of the UK in late 1992. I emphasize that because 'samples' - you can hardly call them 'highlights' - of this show have already been released as "Shock & Awe". That album now becomes redundant, because their selection was based less on quality and more on whether the material was a duplication from previous CD releases.

Yes. Much of "Revelations" and "Arizona Bay" is here on "Salvation". The duplication on the new album is hardly a problem though. In fact it's a GOOD thing. What we've been given here is as close to a "Bill Hick's Greatest Hits" album as we've ever had, and what's more, this is a continuous performance getting an enthusiastic response - the British audience are actually laughing! - rather than edited bits and pieces from different times and places.

All the regular routines from this period of his career are here... Rodney King, L.A. Riots, Drugs, the Presidential Election, Terminally Ill Stuntmen, Kennedy, Marketing, British food, and Snooker. Plus there's familiar stuff that survives from 1980's Hicks. But there's more. The curse of marketing leads to a new bit about Joe Eszterhas, and there's a recurring theme about how we are all becoming 'puppet people' for our governments. There is much that's new for Hicks fans to savour.

There's plenty more to say about Bill Hicks right now. The new "Sane Man" DVD has also arrived recently, and that's another posting waiting to be written. Stand by.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Ian Cognito... Worth Another Chance

How could I not go along? Stratford-upon-Avon is familiar territory for me, and Ian Cognito is a comedian I've been waiting to see. From what I'd heard, he's one of the few 'wild men' of the UK comedy club circuit, if not the wildest of the lot.

What a disappointment!

What I was presented with was a chap in a business suit wandering on and off the stage, SHOUTING at the audience, with a pint of beer permanently in his hand and never far from his lips. Occasional trips to the bar, into the audience and onto table tops was unconventional but seemed rather forced.

His manner reminded me of the stage show that Warren Mitchell used to do as Alf Garnett, especially the way that any big laughs he got were followed by a moment of smug grinning and posturing with his beer glass.

One or two of his lines were sort of controversial and challenged the audience, but they were swamped by lots of crap wordplay and old gags I had heard before... which makes me question the origin of the good lines too.

But for all my criticism of Ian Cognito, I know that the real problem on Thursday evening was that I hoped for too much. I suppose that I'm spoilt in knowing the work of US comedians like Sam Kinison, Bill Hicks, George Carlin, and closer to home, Jerry Sadowitz... and I wanted a performance of their power and authority.

So... I'm going to give Ian Cognito another chance.

I'm looking forward to seeing him again... on a day when my hopes and expectations will not get the better of me. Today I checked out his website and downloaded his book "A Comedian's Tale" which I can see will be an enjoyable read on my PC monitor over a few glasses of beer when I'm not working.

I like anecdotes about the comedians and comedy club circuit of the last fifteen years, and it will make a change to be reading about it rather than trying to write about it.

I'm doing my best!

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


I have... today... in the pub... and previously over the last eleven years in many other places, with and mostly without his Balaclava.

I decline to mention his name - like Superman, Batman, and Lib Dem MP Mark Oaten, he has multiple identities known to many people - but he is a comedian and philosopher of sorts... and one could suggest that he is a key player in West Midlands comedy... but not legitimately, of course.

Today I met him openly in a pub within two hundred miles of Nuneaton, and we talked openly of many things, most of which I have long since forgotten.

However, one tangible result of this meeting is a paper napkin on which is written a shared list of the our favourite comedians alive and working... as GENUINE comedians... NOT full-time B-list celebs or second-rate actors.

I'm sure you'd like to know what names are on this sacred document. Arranged in a rough pecking order, they are:

Jerry Sadowitz
George Carlin
David Cross
Billy Connolly
Ricky Gervais
Lee Evans
Ken Dodd
Ivan Stewart
Mark Thomas
Mark Steel
Mick Miller (HIS choice only)
Billy Pierce (HIS choice only)
Eddie Izzard (MY choice only)
Dave Dinsdale (MY choice only)

But wait a minute??? IS Dave Dinsdale still alive and working as a comedian?

Let's hope so.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

I Like Books. I Like Preston Sturges.

Yes. I like books. I also like DVDs, but books have always been a part of my life, and I'm sure that will always be the case.

At any time there will be about six books that I'm working my way through at different speeds. Now and again, a new book will take over my reading time exclusively - like the Eric Morecambe book I got for Christmas - but generally I have a selection of books that I get back to as the whim takes me.

My favourite books are those that are by or about the creative artists that I like in comedy or drama. Oh yes! Drama too... Dennis Potter, Willy Russell, Harold Pinter, Alan Bennett, Alan Bleasdale, Alan Plater etc. etc... Lots of Alans it seems.

But NOT... I repeat NOT... Alan Ayckbourn! I've tried... I've been to three or four of his plays in the theatre, but they were all very painful experiences. I can never work out what the other people in the audience are laughing at. I'm not saying that those people are wrong. I'm just saying that I don't get it myself.

But... Back at the books, the latest one that I've come to the end of is "Madcap - The Life of Preston Sturges" by Donald Spoto. And if any of you comedy fans out there don't know who Preston Sturges is, or don't know his work... then you SHOULD.

Preston Sturges was the writer and director of a series of comedy movies, most of which are amongst the best of all time. He started as a screenwriter in the 1930's, and by 1940 his stature was such that he could induce Paramount to let him direct one of his own scripts - "The Great McGinty".

This was a great success, and led to his golden period. Between 1940 and 1944, he wrote and directed a further seven movies: "Christmas in July", The Lady Eve", "Sullivan's Travels", The Palm Beach Story", "Triumph Over Pain", "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek", and "Hail The Conquering Hero".

Those of the above that remain are all brilliant, but "Triumph Over Pain" is lost. The completed film was taken out of Sturges' hands, edited, chopped up, mixed around, and made into a disappointing movie called "The Great Moment".

This brought an end to the relationship Preston and the Paramount studio. From 1945 till the end of his life, the choices he made in his personal and professional life led to diminished creative output, and a rapid fall from grace, and his death in 1960.

But the quality of those movies from 1940-1944 remains. My favourites are "The Lady Eve" and "The Palm Beach Story" - with which many other movie critics agree - and I wholeheartedly recommend them and the others to anyone who loves great comedy, especially great dialogue.

Go on... Treat yourself to the DVD Box Set.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Comedians... Class Comedy and Class Drama

Evening. A classroom. Six adult students... there to learn about comedy. The teacher is an experienced comedian... determined to promote comedy as a progressive art form in which real feelings and ideas about life are shared and explored... and equally determined to condemn the abuse of comedy as cheap entertainment based on slick technique, stereotyped characters, contrived wordplay, and prejudice.

No... That teacher isn't ME at Stratford-upon-Avon College in 2006, although I share those values. That teacher is Eddie Waters, in the Manchester of 1975. It is the play "Comedians", written for the stage by Trevor Griffiths, but also produced in a version by Richard Eyre for BBC television in 1979.

I have seen the play on stage, but it is the TV version that I've been prompted to dig out of my home-recorded video collection and watch again, after one of my students mentioned it in this week's class in Stratford. I wasn't thinking of introducing my students to this play, but I'm now thinking that I will.

It is a serious play, not completely authentic, but truthful about what it says about the choices that comedians are faced with, and illuminating for anyone interested in comedy. I've probably watched it more than a dozen times, and I still finding it absolutely compelling.

I can do no better than leave my own words here, and devote the rest of this posting to Eddie Waters' address to his students, imploring them to take the right choice for their future as comedians. I only wish all comedians were listening.

...If I've told you once I've told you a thousand times. We work through laughter, not for it. If all you're about is raising a laugh, OK, get on with it, good luck to you, but don't waste my time. There's plenty of others as'll tek your money and do the necessary. Not Eddie Waters...

...It's not the jokes. It's not the jokes. It's what lies behind them. It's the attitude... A real comedian - that's a daring man. He dares to see what his listeners shy away from, fear to express. And what he sees is a sort of truth about people, about their situation, about what hurts or terrifies them, about what's hard, above all about what they want.

A joke releases the tension, says the unsayable, any joke pretty well. But a true joke, a comedian's joke, has to do more than release tension. It has to liberate the will and the desire. It has to change the situation...

There's very little won't take a joke. But when a joke bases itself upon a distortion - a stereotype perhaps - and gives the lie to the truth so as to win a laugh and stay in favour, we've moved away from a comic art and into the world of cheap entertainment and slick success... You're better than that, damn you. And even if you're not, you should bloody well want to be...

...A joke that that feeds on ignorance starves it's audience. We have the choice. We can say something or we can say nothing. Most comics feed prejudice and fear and blinkered vision, but the best ones, the best ones... illuminate them, make them clearer to see, easier to deal with. We've got to make people laugh till they cry. Cry. Till they find their pain and their beauty.

Comedy is medicine. Not coloured sweeties to rot their teeth with.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

So Far... Even Better

Last night was the second class of my current Comedy Writing course at Stratford-upon-Avon College.

It went very well again, and the group seems to be coming together, sharing their thoughts and questions about comedy, and most of all enjoying the experience of being amongst like-minded people.

The group are already being creative in class. The exercise with the cartoons resulted in some good new jokes, and even multiple jokes about the concept of 'Happy Hour' that could have been combined into a stand-up routine.

From this week the class seems to have extended. The two hours at the college last night were followed by an hour or more in The Bell at Shottery. I think I can live with that. No need for overtime payments.

Next week, I know that we will be practicing telling humorous anecdotes and ideas of our own (including ME), and talking about sitcom development. I can hardly wait! I bet you wish you were coming too.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Geoff Pontificates: 1) Joke Technique

I have a rotten time. At one o'clock this afternoon I was laying back in a hot bath, accompanied by jazz music, a glass of beer, and an A4 sheet of cartoons blu-tacced to the wall beside my head - to look at and think about. Such are the ordeals of the presenter of an evening class in Comedy Writing.

Tonight is the second week of my latest ten week course, and we will be continuing an exercise we started last week. I issued the sheet of cartoons, with the task of identifying the 'comedy idea' behind each cartoon, and adapting and improving that idea to be presented purely verbally as a joke that could be told by a comedian.

So... to be half a step ahead of my pupils tonight, that's what I was thinking about in the bath... most of the time. Plastic ducks are very distracting, aren't they? But I did the work, and I thought you lot out there might be interested in this stimulating process.

So... to illustrate and illuminate, see the two selected cartoons above.

Right let's take the first one. What's the 'comedy idea'? Not difficult. It's simple wordplay. THIN hair and THIN body. A diet should result in a THIN body, but not THIN hair.

NOW... With a wordplay joke like that, an important technique is to make sure the key word or words come as near to the end of the joke as possible. And I think the key word is not THIN but HAIR. That's the word that creates the surprise in the 'punchline', after hearing about the diet in the 'setup'.

So I think the new joke:

I've been on a diet for a year, but the only thing that's got thinner is my hair.

is marginally better than:

I've been on a diet for a year, but it's only my hair that's got thinner.

Think about it. Am I right? It's a poor joke however you tell it, but even a poor joke can be made as effective as possible.

And what about the second one. What's the idea? Again not difficult. The wife is waving her husband goodbye in the morning, but so is the milkman. Infidelity in marriage. A classic subject for humour. And with the MILKMAN!!... Top cliche.

So how can I tell that one? How about:

Every morning when I leave for work, my wife always waves me goodbye... So does the milkman.

But here we have the opportunity to employ another technique... the 'topper'. That's when a joke appears to have finished, but following the punchline there is another line to extend that joke. Some sort of escalation or the addition of a more controversial element.

So with the topper the joke becomes:

Every morning when I leave for work, my wife always waves me goodbye... So does the milkman... I wouldn't mind so much, but from the bedroom window??

Well... I'd like to say more, but I'm running late. Time to go out and teach some Maths. Aren't I versatile?

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Lenny Bruce: Busted... The Ultimate End to a Gig

Any comedian will try to find a good ending for their performance - preferably something dramatic, which is the culmination of what has gone before. Lenny Bruce always found this difficult for himself, but that's where the police came in.

When I say "where the police came in", the police actually came in, went onto the stage and arrested him. This was a regular occurrence for Lenny Bruce wherever he worked towards the end of his career, because after one state had decided that his act was obscene, it was difficult for another state to say that it was not.

On December 4th 1962, Lenny performed at the Gate of Horn in Chicago. The show that night was recorded... and that's the recording I've been listening to in bed some early mornings recently with my eyes closed. Well... You've got to do something when you can't sleep.

This is a recording that needs more than one listen without distractions. This is not an accessible comedy album of selected and edited segments to be easily enjoyed. This is an unedited performance, often hard to follow, with diversions, dead ends, interruptions, and walkouts... including whole tables of the audience leaving... and not quietly.

This is not Lenny Bruce as crowd-pleasing comedian, whose prime duty is to get five laughs a minute. This is Lenny Bruce as Lenny Bruce, who feels free to talk about anything and everything he wants to talk about... even if he defies the standards of the time... and defies the audience to laugh.

Religion, the police, politics, sexuality, marriage, the death penalty, the Holocaust, the H-Bomb, war crimes, infidelity, race, the Kennedy's, homosexuality, Rock Hudson, and drugs.

And that's when the police start to walk towards the stage. Lenny sees them. He knows what to expect. One last and hasty improvised 'bit' about a possible escape, and he is escorted from the stage. We hear a few bars of distant music, before somebody flicks a switch and the recording has ended.

It's usually light in my bedroom by now. Time for a cup of tea, and a little reflection on stand-up comedy... then... now... and in the future... hopefully MY future.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Max Wall... True Comedian

Max Wall was a master of comedy. A modern audience for comedy may not know him or his work at all, but if they do he is most familiar for his eccentric dancing and the grotesque faces he could pull. But for anyone who can recognize good comedy and a true comedian, there was always more to him than that.

This is the conclusion I have come to after studying the video I recorded of the Channel 4 'Heroes of Comedy' tribute from a year or two ago. I watched it last night while sitting at home nursing a twinge in my back, and was captivated by him... so as there's so little worth watching on Saturday night telly, I've watched it twice more tonight.

Max was born in 1908. His father was a comedian, his mother and step-father performers also, and Max became familiar with all the great comedy performers of that era, such as Little Tich, Robb Wilton, and the clown Grock. He brought all their influences to his own work, as he was always ready to admit.

By the 1940's he was a successful stage and radio performer. Then in the mid 1950's he reached the peak of his success with the West End stage musical "The Pajama Game", but at that point marital problems and scandal in his private life interfered badly with his career, as it could in those days.

By the 1970's, he had been reduced to working in working men's clubs and doing the bits and pieces of variety TV that he was offered. But the recordings that exist from that time show a comedian who was genuinely ahead of his time - a phrase that is so often abused.

As the best comedians do today, he doesn't slavishly stick to a script or a particular character or style. He worked inside, outside and around his material - his comedy instinct always being more important. He continually commented on his own technique, performance and his imagined reaction of the audience. Plus he still had his physical stuff to add to the brew.

It's sad there's so little dangerous, unpredictable comedy and true comedians around us today. A visit to your local comedy club can be a depressing experience. Flipping the remote control tonight just demonstrates how bland television is. What is one to do?

Easy... I've still got that tape in the VCR. The next thing I've got recorded on it is 'Derek & Clive Get The Horn'. That'll do until it's time to go to bed.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Barbara Nice Situation

No... That's not the title of a new show on primetime ITV... Thank Goodness!... Such a title would seem to imply something about the content of such a show that would not make it essential viewing for me.

Oh... There I go again... Slagging off that nice Barbara Nice... Isn't it terrible?... And no... This isn't the first time. I've been making a habit of this. You should have SEEN the shocking things I wrote on my home-made website about her. (Sorry... but if you want to read them, they've gone now.) I seem such a nice chap, don't I? You would have thought I'd have come to my senses by now.

But I haven't.

Anyone who is interested and involved in comedy as I am will have opinions about it. What they like. What they don't like. Who they think is good. Who they think is... not good. And all I'm doing is expressing those opinions - Sharing my views with anyone who wants to read them, who perhaps have views of their own, and may even be more inclined to share their own views in future.

Especially people on the comedy club circuit. Perhaps then we can get away from this terrible culture there seems to be among comedians that their egos are all so fragile that genuine views about each other's acts should be repressed and replaced by the compulsory mutual back-slapping that you hear in back rooms or "comedian's corner" at every comedy club. "Oh... You were good!" "Oh.. And YOU were good." Never mind how many laughs they got.

Unfortunately for my popularity on the circuit, that's NOT what I tend to say to (and about) other comedians, and it seems to come as rather a shock to them. Especially ones who are far more successful than I am. What a shame.

And what DO I think about Mrs Barbara Nice? Simply... It's an old-fashioned comedy character, deeply boring to me, clearly not to others. I think Hilda Baker did it better. Ten minutes of an act like that I can comfortably sit through, but half an hour or MORE in one show! Come on!! I think audiences deserve better... but again, that's just MY opinion.

In fact Barbara is INCREDIBLY popular with some comedy critics. A review in the Scotsman said that she is "as hilarious as it is possible to get." A very good review, and I'd only change one word of that.

She is popular. But what I'd say to anyone who thinks that popularity is an indication of quality is this: What is the most popular daily newspaper in this country???

By the way, it's only the Barbara Nice character I don't like. I have genuine respect for Janice Connolly, the successful writer and actor who performs it. She done some very good things. She's worked with Peter Kay. She's been on Coronation Street.

So how long will it be before this latest unprovoked attack of mine on Mrs Nice brings an inevitable response? Well I'm ready. What I say is this: What level of fascism am I dealing with?? Is it that I shouldn't be EXPRESSING my opinions, or that I shouldn't HAVE opinions??

Right... Which successful comedian shall I slag off next?? I know... Silky. No... Just a joke. He's very good... Only I think Jasper Carrott did it better.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

So Far... So Good

So... My new Comedy Writing course has started, and the first class went well. In fact it was... "first class" (JOKE!)

I've got six (perhaps seven) students, and that worked really well with the plans I'd made. The two hours went very closely to what I'd hoped for. I'm really pleased, and confident that everyone will come back next week.

One of the group is Steve Jackson, who I've known for a good few years. After the class we stopped at the Wharf Tavern in Hockley Heath for a pint... on our way back to Dorridge and Solihull respectively.

What a conversation we had!... Tonight's class, Hovis Presley, poetry, Stephen Fry, my stand-up comeback, Steve's greetings cards, the similarity between the Solihull News and the Solihull Times, Steve's dead sitcoms, Barbara Nice, Janice Connolly, and artistic integrity and how it stops you being successful. And then it was 10.55, so we decided to go home.

Right... Tomorrow I'd better start planning next week's class.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

New Year... New Opportunity

I'm back! Happy New Year to all my readers. I've spent a relaxing Christmas holiday away from home, but now I'm here again, and getting back to work.

The photo shows where I'll be tonight. It's the first meeting of my latest course of Comedy Writing evening classes at Stratford-upon-Avon College. This is the first course for a few years, and I'm pleased to be doing it again, and will be trying to make this the best so far.

There's more information on my home-made website Geoff Parfitt Online, and if you're interested in seeing what the classes are like, I am happy for people to visit one week to see if they might like to enrol for the following term.

Stand by for more out-of-sequence postings about Christmas. There was lots of comedy on the telly that I want to talk about.