The Big Yin

[ 5 Dec 02] Finished reading Pamela Stephenson's biography of her hairy husband a couple of days ago, which a year after publication is still one of the bestselling books in the land. That's hardly surprising—Billy Connolly is a funny man—but I wonder whether Billy is everything its half a million purchasers hoped it would be.

A book written by his spouse, and an ex-comedian spouse at that, promises a rare insight into the man and his muse—even more so when we learn that nowadays she works as a shrink. But although there's plenty of insight here, and an obvious affection and sympathy for her subject, there's also something missing.

The book is strong on Connolly's Glasgow childhood; it's heartbreaking to read of his abandonment by his mother, abuse by his father, hectoring by his aunts and teachers, and impoverished surroundings. It's also strong on his early working life in the shipyards and the territorial army, where he gained in confidence and independence of spirit. Stephenson's account of these formative experiences certainly benefits from her position as partner of twenty years' standing and as a trained psychologist, even if the occasional slip into shrink-speak does seem out-of-place in a showbiz biography. The prose is too pedestrian in places, but Billy's story is compelling enough to overcome that.

The book is strong enough, too, on the past twenty-odd years, the years when Stephenson has known and lived with Connolly. Since he was already one of Britain's most successful comedians when they met, this is standard career-highlights fare, full of tours, TV work, and movie roles—the work of an assured performer who has grown comfortable with success and come to terms with his demons.

The problem is the decade or so in-between: the late 1960s through 1970s, when Connolly went from banjo-playing with folk bands in small Scottish clubs to selling out nationwide tours as a comedian. The essential outline is there, but what's missing is the how—how did this mad-looking Scot grab Britain by the lapels and shake it up so much with laughter that it couldn't breathe? How did he take off? What was so funny about Billy Connolly?

For a book about a comedian by a comedian, there's surprisingly few laughs in Billy. Hardly any of his actual material is present. When we do read his words, they're earnest early-1980s diary entries about his efforts to kick the booze. Apart from a few passing references to famous Connolly subjects—diced carrots, for example—it's almost impossible to learn from the pages of Billy what his comedy is about. All we learn about is the overall trajectory of his success.

For most readers, I guess, that will be enough. They'll already own his records and videos; they'll already know just how funny he is. Even though I don't own any Connolly product, I too can remember listening to a friend's tape of the 'pink milk' routine again and again on teenage camping trips (which often involved beverages just as bad), and laughing so hard at a routine about incontinence pants on TV one New Year's Eve that I thought I would suffocate.

But it's surely a missed opportunity to have next to none of that in what is, after all, a lasting record of the man. And by not showing us just how funny he is, Stephenson doesn't fully explain how he rose to fame—which is usually the most interesting aspect of any showbiz biography. Yes, he had a terrible childhood, and some of his enormous drive to perform must have been a drive to overcome it—but so did many other people, and they're not famous comedians.

Stephenson's own background and unique relationship with her subject, which elsewhere in the biography are strengths, may here be the problem. She met Connolly on the set of Not the Nine O'Clock News, the series that had turned her, a recent immigrant from Australia, into British television's latest comedy sensation. As one who has herself experienced sudden fame, she may not have felt the urge to explain her husband's own that an 'ordinary' biographer would have. (The constant name-dropping in the latter part of the book suggests that her own sense of the ordinary has been skewed by two decades of success.) And, as one who didn't live in the UK when his rapid rise occurred, she doesn't have personal experience of having watched it happen—of having been part of a national audience whose preconceptions about regional comedians were being so comprehensively overturned by this man. Neither do I—which was why I wanted to read Billy.

It's understandable that a psychologist would focus on her subject's childhood, and that a second wife might not want to dwell for too long on the years when he was married to his first. But the result is that, even though it's readable and entertaining enough, Billy isn't everything it could have been—which you certainly couldn't say about the man himself.


[23 Sep 02] You could forgive Jerry Seinfeld for feeling that he has nothing left to prove after the success of his Show About Nothing. But apparently he's spent the last few years re-inventing his act, which is also the theme of his forthcoming movie Comedian:

You have to motivate yourself with challenges. That's how you know you're still alive. Once you start doing only what you've already proven you can do, you're on the road to death.

[Thanks, provenance: unknown.]


Things I Like

[27 Aug 02] The Fringe is over; the evacuation of Edinburgh begins. We sent it off in style, seeing Perrier-nominated Phil Nichol's last show. Nichol has a manic stage presence; by the end of the night his shirt is soaked and his neck a glistening pink stump. The effort pays off, because he's damn funny, whether he's licking some unfortunate girl in the front row, singing about Helen Keller's feller who can't smell 'er, or coming back on in an open-fronted shirt and curly-haired wig as an Italian star to belt out a song called 'Sleazy Massage'. A great show to go out on, for him and for us. He may have lost the Perrier to Daniel Kitson (a deserving winner), but he didn't let it slow him down one whit.

I'll miss the Fringe. It's been a great month. Great for the shows, great for catching up with friends. One of those times when you feel thoroughly pleased to live where you live. The place is going to feel empty without it.

We've still got a few more shows to see at the Festival, which finishes on the weekend; making the most of the five pound classical music concerts, which are being discontinued next year. They're losing money, goes the argument. But so is everybody else—unless you run a pub, a restaurant or a B&B.


Behind Box-Office Lines

[22 Aug 02] Been to one more Fringe show in the past few days: Omid Djalili's Behind Enemy Lines. Djalili, Iranian-descended, British-born and many-accented, has been getting four and five star reviews everywhere—'no pressure', he joked—and his show suffered just slightly from being hyped beyond all reason and having some of its best gags revealed by reviewers. But he still did a good job of finding something to laugh at in the events of the last year, and his caricatures of mad Mullahs, mad media tactics, mad Scots and Englishmen were all consistently funny. Worth it just to see what all the fuss was about.

Seeing Djalili means that we've seen half of this year's Perrier Award nominees (and a fourth, Adam Hills, in Melbourne last year). Leaving aside the two we haven't, it's a close call for me between Noel Fielding and Daniel Kitson. Fielding's show was wondrously surreal, blossoming from familiar stand-up (memories of running off with childhood friends to see a dead fox) into the bright impossible flower of Seroovial Brookes, the woodland man with ram's legs, Mario, the shadow-bumming wolf, and the Moon, with his 'chalky white face', wondering if the men in little buggies would have come back if he'd made them tea. The final short animation of Seroovial and Mario travelling to see the Jellyfox to present him with gifts of 'gold, Blu-Tac, and a magnet with little breasts' was one of the most enchantingly funny things on offer this August. Fielding strayed from the same-old safe-old into areas hitherto unexplored yet still damn funny.

And so, in a different way, did Kitson, who showed up most stand-ups as run-of-the-mill wannabe hipsters by being unashamedly shambolic, corduroy-clad, foul-mouthed, drug-free, filthy-minded, erudite and intelligent. What would come across as false self-deprecation in most comedians seems amazingly open and honest from Kitson, and all the funnier for it. His exploration of the quirks and contradictions of language and the social masks we wear gave his hour-long show a depth that most rarely achieve, yet he still found time to riff off comments from the audience and spontaneous loud noises from outside (the cannons at the Castle marking the Queen's presence at the Tattoo that night).

So who do I think should win? Tough call. Both made me laugh a lot, but so did other shows this Fringe. Both are exploring new comic territory at the risk of leaving their audience behind and losing laughs. Perhaps Kitson has a slight edge for risking polarising his crowd and inciting the hecklers, whereas Fielding's act is more likely to bewilder than antagonise. I'm not sure, and I'm glad I don't have to pick between them—just glad to have seen them both.


Pages, Stages and Images

[19 Aug 02] Another weekend of festival-packed fun. On Friday night we went along to one of the £5 concerts being held as part of the Festival proper at Edinburgh's Usher Hall. The seats were way up in the gods, but the acoustics were perfect for hearing Angela Hewitt's fine performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations (not so good for seeing her individual finger-movements, but you can't have it all). Wonderful music, too; I've never been a big Bach fan, but this could make a convert of me.

Saturday was a profusion of riches: all-too-rare warm weather, the streets packed with visitors, and the festivals in full swing. Started the day by hearing Neil Gaiman talk about his new book, Coraline, at the Edinburgh Book Festival. From the readings he gave us, it sounds like an excellent dark little fairy-tale. The questions from the audience were also thoughtful and interesting, prompting explanations of Gaiman's childhood fascinations, his wanderings across genres, the differences between the British and American publishing industries, and how Good Omens came to be one of the funniest books ever written (both Gaiman and Pratchett were racing against each other to get to the next "good bit" in their tag-team collaboration).

In the evening it was Fringe time, with Club Seals at the Pleasance Dome doing a terrific set of sketches about 'The Museum of Everything'. Well-observed and performed, with great use of props and video segments: the animatronic Merlin talking about the History of Wicker while perched on a skateboard; shrunken heads bitching about the New Acquisition; a talking whale and a reggae-loving octopus; an audio guide that compares every exhibit to 'your mum'; and the mystery of Jack the Wippah revealed. Good stuff.

Rounded out the evening with another Festival concert, Schubert's song cycle Die schöne Müllerin (The Miller's Beautiful Daughter) performed by Jonas Kaufmann (tenor) and Helmut Deutsch (piano). A revelation; I'd never heard classical song in concert before, only ever on record or TV. It's amazing to hear a single human voice fill a huge hall without the aid of speakers and amps; rock concerts suddenly seem amateurish by comparison. And Kaufmann—who looked the part, with his big Beethoven hair—was a marvel, conveying every emotion of the songs even when every word was in German. Beautiful music; the hall wasn't as packed as Friday night, but I enjoyed this concert even more.

We finished the weekend at the Edinburgh Film Festival screening of Philip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence. Noyce himself was there, as were the lead actress and the writers of the screenplay and the original book. The film is not without flaws—the social and historical context could be fleshed out a little better, especially for the benefit of international audiences—but it has an undeniable emotional impact. Ultimately, its greatest importance is as testament against the lie that white Australia and its current government have no need to apologise for the wrongs done to the Stolen Generation.

Here's an idea. Let's take any member of federal Parliament who refuses to apologise on behalf of white Australia to aboriginal Australia—let's call him 'John H.'—and fly him to Edinburgh to watch Rabbit-Proof Fence among an audience of intelligent fair-minded Scots. Then let's see if he can make it all the way to the end without feeling a deep sense of shame on behalf of his country and its majority culture, and an overwhelming desire not to say a word until he's well away from the cinema in case anyone hears his Australian accent. Hey, it worked for me.

(Coincidentally, a thread on MetaFilter prompted a few more words along related lines today.)


Hits and Memories

[14 Aug 02] Welcome to Radio Edinburgh, where it's All Fringe, All the Time. Four more shows seen in the past week, along with several pints, multiple cappucini, lots of eating out, and having the entire cast of Gladiatrix over for dinner on Sunday night. Oh, and going up to Aberdeen and back on Friday for a meeting.

Let's get the reviews out of the way, then. Howard Read has garnered much attention for his clever mix of Flash-based cartoons and flesh-based stand-up, some of which can be found on his site. His show was good fun, and well-received by the audience, even though some seemed baffled by his vegetable-based songs (which I thought were great). He didn't exploit the possibilities of the cartoons-and-reality combo quite as much as he might have, but given the potential for catastrophic system failures that's understandable; and the interactive Little Howard was a true star. My favourite bit: when Little Howard found someone Australian in the audience (not us) and asked, 'In your language, is Big Howard a galoot or a galah?'

DoodRock is a Korean drumming and dance troupe in the vein of Stomp, and apparently played in the World Cup opening ceremony. Their Fringe show opened strongly and peaked a couple more times, particularly at the end. The weak spots were the dance, which was adequate but not amazing, and some of the comic interludes, which weren't that comic. But the reverberations from those huge drums in the finale, and the dazzling effect of flourescent drumsticks under ultraviolet light, made up for that.

John Oliver on Monday was another in the long line of English stand-ups parading through the Pleasance, but stood out by virtue of his brave stab at a grave topic: death. Treading the fine line between bad taste and good comedy, he punctuated moments of poignancy with hilariously bad childhood photos and some guest appearances from Death himself. And any comedian who exploits the comic potential of penguins is fine by me. I felt sorry for him, though, for having to perform in the sweltering Pleasance Below, which by the end of an hour was seriously sapping our will to laugh. (And even sorrier for James and Mark, whose show follows his.)

Best of the week—and one of my favourite shows of the Fringe so far—was Tiny Ninja Theater Presents Macbeth. One man, hundreds of inch-high plastic figures, a table covered in black, and fifteen audience members squashed into a miniature theatre. It sounds like one of those jokes that would wear off after five minutes, but Dov Weinstein's brilliant forty-minute reading of The Scottish Play captured all of its drama and its famous lines; and his voices, sound effects and special effects (using laser penlights and Japanese fans) actually improved on it by adding some boffo laughs. Forget authentic period costume and the Finest Traditions of Theah-tah: this was one of the most enjoyable Shakespearean performances I've seen. I can only agree with the audience member who went up to him afterwards and said, in finest Emphatic American, "Dude! That was awesome!" (Weinstein's response: "Thanks, man. What part of England are you from?")

[Now that I've written these longer comments on a few shows, my brief comments of last week look a bit pathetic. So go and read what James had to say about Noel Fielding and Daniel Kitson, because he says pretty much what I should have. Another two of the best shows this Fringe.]


Fringe in the Fog

[ 6 Aug 02] While I'm watching James's site for the promised behind-the-scenes report on his Fringe show, he's been watching this one for my reviews. We've both seen each other around town this past week already, so none of it would be news to us anyway, but hey: words are good.

Jane and I have seen ten shows in the past week, two of them involving James, and nine of them good, very good, and even (hyperbole ahoy!) excellent. The good-to-excellent were: Gladiatrix, Hollow Men, Ross Noble, Dan Antopolski, the Black Light Theatre of Prague, Bob Downe, Noel Fielding, Daniel Kitson, and Bachman and Evans. Hard to pick the best out of such a strong bunch, but I'll have to go with Noel Fielding (half of the award-winning Boosh), who spun a deceptively normal introduction into a fantabulous tale of woodland creatures, a talking Moon, a man with ram's legs, a wolf with a hoover tail, and an animated Jellyfox. Captivating and utterly strange. Of the stand-ups, Ross Noble was as brilliant as ever (and gave me my one bladder-dangerously-out-of-control moment), and Daniel Kitson also excellent. Hollow Men, a house-padding freebie on the first night, were a very good sketch comedy troupe. James and Mark's show had some classic moments (small aeroplane, I'm looking at you) and a terrifically goofy plot; their stage characters are developing very well indeed. And, uh, alltheothersweregoodtoo.

With such a great strike-rate so far, it makes choosing other shows to see all the harder; but with a couple more weeks to go, no flat-hunting this year, and UK pounds to spend instead of converted A$, we'll be seeing a fair few more before the end. (Unlike the taxi driver who drove us to the Pleasance the other night, who proudly proclaimed that he'd never seen a Fringe show in his life. Or the inside of the Castle. Or Holyrood Palace.)

And the not-so-good? The much-lauded Men in Coats, already selling out every night: great ad in the Fringe guide, good gimmick, and about fifteen minutes worth of decent material stretched out to an hour.

Stop Press: James retrospectively updates.



[28 Mar 02] A world without the Goons, Graham Chapman, Douglas Adams, and now Pete and Dud. Dudley Moore is being remembered today for 10 and Arthur, but I'll remember him more for being half of one of the funniest comic duos of the 1960s. Cook may have been the driving force behind the sketches, but Dud was the musical force behind unforgettable tunes like 'Isn't She a Sweetie', 'Lovely Lady of the Roses' and 'Goodbyee'. It's a continuing annoyance to me that their classic Not Only... But Also albums and later ones like Good Evening aren't available in their entirety on CD. The world deserves a digital audio version of the Frog and Peach sketch.


[ 7 Mar 02] "There is very little of his work that is easy, conventional or blandly acceptable. It's all so Spiky."—Michael Palin on Spike Milligan.


Gunner Milligan: His Part in My Downfall

[27 Feb 02] It takes a fair bit to make me laugh out loud at comedy on TV or on stage; I'm more a smiler and a silent chuckler. Makes me a terrible audience member at comedy shows, even though I usually enjoy them.

The number of times I've laughed to the point where I couldn't stop, to the point where my sides ached and my eyes were awash, is so small I can just about count it on one hand. The number of times I've done that in an audience is exactly once: when watching childhood hero Spike Milligan at Hobart's Theatre Royal at the age of sixteen.

I can't remember the jokes; all I remember is Spike having to come back again and again to satisfy the cries for encores. By the end he was sitting on the edge of the stage just talking about nothing, about uneventful bus trips and such, and we were still entranced. I doubt there was a single person in the audience who wanted to go home that night.

Spike was simply the best there was. You rotten swine, you deaded me, and now you're dead.


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