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Cool fun, a Manifesto and What is Wrong with the News

More frolicksome fun at the Free Fringe today.

I mentioned in an earlier article that Cool fun would seem to have potential (solely judged on the antics of one Jez Scharf. Based on this assumption, I dragged Ben (who normally has a real job, but who is currently on vacation and can therefore quite easily be persuaded to partake in entertainment of this sort) with me to an early morning (12.30 is rather ungodly when you are a student going to see standup) show in a pub in Canongate.

It has been my experience that pub-owners are friendly an nice (a stereotype I believe television also supports), but upon our arrival I came across a very scary pub-lady who seemed to resent the fact that her pub has become a Venue. I am not sure why. One would think she had been consulted on the matter. Maybe she had just realised that people are reluctant to put away massive amounts of alcohol in the early hours of the day (well, some ... there was a surprising number of people having beer for breakfast). Either way, I assume her resentment will only increase with time, so it would probably be better to catch this act early in the festival (I assume you have all already booked tickets and are now only frantically looking for somewhere to stay), as she may progress to full-blown axe-murdering before too long.

That last sentence did implicitly endorse the show, but let me make it official. It was really rather good. Keep in mind that this is the Free Fringe, and the likelihood of good comedy is not that great. We hadn't made an entirely blind choice though (see the linked post above), and that turned out to pay off. There was a certain amount of uncomfortable audience involvement, but it was limited to those stupid enough to seat themselves in the first row, so I cannot say it was too shocking. Ben also claimed this particular compére (Ed Gamble) as an example of audience participation Done Right, and while I maintain that this is beyond any normal concept of evil, I must acknowledge that others might find it better. Even acceptable. His assertion that "sperm is an after lunch word" went down quite well even in my generally prudish book; but the high point came later on with his advice to counter the spreading epidemic of living statues. I am not repeating it here: if you want it, come and get it.

The second man on stage as Tom Neenan, whose act consisted almost entirely of really very funny (if occasionally disturbing) poetry. I remember cringing at some unpleasant imagery in a poem on Susan Boyle (then again, cringing seems like the thing to do when the topic is Britain's Got Talent), but I was completely won over by his coverage of Brothers, Transformers and Fight Club. He dealt with sex and politics in a three-parter, and the credit crunch in another. I laughed rather a lot. The final poem does seem to have gone over my head, though. It started out on otters in Israel, but I think it ended in a pun. God knows which.

Jez Scharf was predictably brilliant. We had seen most of his act before, and the main difference was that he had forgotten to put on the costume of his character (sadly, no bow tie this time). And yet. And this is the surprise. He is funny even as a repeat. I am not sure I can put sufficient stress on the rarity of this situation. Usually, seeing the same standup more than once creates the impression of the person at the party who keeps repeating the same jokes. It is not conducive to laughs. But here we have it. That alone should gather a crowd. If the postmodern whimsy of it all is not enough.

The final act was Nish Kumar. And here I must make an observation. I suppose all standup relies on the creation of some character. Both Neenan and Scharf had taken it one step further, though, by marked ironic distance to the characters they used. Kumar not so much. And that may be why it suddenly jarred for me. Ben liked him. I found the return to "let me throw random jokes at you to see what sticks" a step back. That is not to say that some of those random jokes were not funny -- quite the contrary (even if he thinks a reference to Gollum these days has anything at all to do with geekiness).

All in all: go for it. It is most definitely worth the time, and I wouldn't begrudge them the money that ends up in the bucket on the way out. But stay away from the scary pub lady. She terrorised me (mentally, but that does not mean the scars are not real) into buying a bottle of Bulmers (or was it Magners) -- and I cannot stand that cider.


Following the success of Canongate, we thought it a good idea to keep at it while we were, as they say, on a roll. There was a topical news show at the Beehive Inn that looked promising. I like topical news shows. I love some of them. The problem, I think, is that Have I Got News For You has Ian Hislop. And there really is no replicating that. Especially not by taking random comedians whose main appeal is that they are in Edinburgh for the Fringe (and may I say, part of being a comedian in Edinburgh during the Fringe would seem to entail not watching the news so much as being funny and drinking a lot).

The really, really bad bit, though, had nothing to do with news. It was audience participation again, and no ordinary one this time. It was Hell. Proper Hell. Not the puny one with the devils and the pitchforks and the fire and brimstone deal. This lady (Kate Smurthwaite) didn't stop at the front row. She surveyed the origins of the entire room, finding at least four Norwegian "shepherds" on the way, might I add. It was sad. Needless to say, I was cowering, almost whimpering, the whole time. Once it was all over, though, things got markedly better.

The panel consisted of David Mulholland, an American ex-journalist from New Orleans (he made some gags about flooding, and I am sorry to say that was the best bit); Izzy Lawrence was somewhat better (British, with a show on religion); none of them reached the mediocrity of Tom Lomak (another American, but one who appeared to not quite have landed here yet); and Jools Constant was the high point of the show, mostly because he was the only one with a semblance of good delivery. None of them had any idea of what has been in the news lately, but they managed to cover such topics as flesh-eating plants (that could eat a rabbit), pregnancy tests (don't ask), the expenses of the new Speaker, Michael Jackson, the Taliban and Obama's health care reform. Other conclusions included that Jaffa cakes should be an integral part of any Britishness test; and that there should be a law encouraging the shooting of all Big Brother contestants.


While he had not impressed wonderfully during the news show, we followed David Mulholland to his next show: You Are Being Lied To. Sounds ominous, doesn't it? I confess, I did not go to this one looking for laughs. Well, not only. Mr Mulholland's credentials as a former journalist and the promise to prick holes in the sad, sad world of current journalism and the spin they provide on perfectly sensible stories did.

Again, there was no good beginning. To be specific, the horror of the opening of the Comedy Manifesto was repeated. Mulholland does not recycle quite as good as Scharf does. "Where are you from?" Something about a squid. Ten minutes in, the closest we got to newspapers was the question round that established there were few Daily Mail readers, but rather a lot of Guardian fans in the room. But just as I was giving up, it got much better.

I have not had time to check up on his credentials, which really is the first thing I feel I ought to do since the whole point on the show was to tell you to question what people tell you, but I can link you to his blog.

Basically his point was that newspapers are in trouble. I think his exact words were that they are being "squeezed". The effect of this is that news desks are losing reporters. A rather shocking example he used was the London desk of one of the big American papers having been reduced from 36 to 2 reporters. Another had gone from 15 to 1. And it stands to reason that when 1/15th of the people is going to attempt to match the output of 15 times their manpower, quality is going to suffer. He used Darfur as an example: sending reporters into a war zone is expensive; smearing together a story on shoes and a celebrity is less so. As is simply snatching up the ready-made story of a press release. Which brings us to the topic of serious misinformation.

Now, Mulholland may lack good delivery. but his material is good. Or bad. Or absurd. And certainly rather scary. I know, I know. I should ideally check up on it, but considering my already shaken faith in current journalism, I am inclined to believe him on all counts. And I do appreciate a good rant on stupid people attempting to discredit global warming. He went on a somewhat weird tangent on pedophilia, but over all I would say this is definitely a show that should not be missed.


Mary,  12.08.09 03:20

I probably would never find news comedy funny, as I always forget to keep up on the news. I like my bubble world of Doctor Who and Torchwood and the Big Bang Theory.

In any case, scary people are bad. I am glad you survived, and had a semi-good time. And as ever, I am jealous that you are at the festival and I am not. :P

Tor,  12.08.09 14:48

I am also a bit jealous, but I'll arrive on Sunday! Yay! Of course, I will probably have to go to the office more or less every day like a normal person, but hopefully I can make some exceptions.

Also, may I add that if I had been in charge, I would have changed the name of the manifesto-thing to «The Comedist Manifesto» or something like that, gladly sacrificing correctness to get something more similar to the original.

Camilla,  12.08.09 15:29

Would you have improved on the content as well?