Bruce Dessau, the founder of the comedy website Beyond The Joke, is a very popular writer and arts critic. His career has seen him interview most, if not all, of the biggest names in comedy. His novel Beyond A Joke: Inside the Dark World of Stand-up Comedy, explores the hidden side of entertainment that is not necessarily widely known, and considers what it is about a comedian’s mentality that makes them want to take to the stage in seek of audience approval. Dessau has also written various biographies as well as writing a regular column for the Evening Standard
To learn more about Bruce’s work as a writer, I asked him a few questions…
1) Which aspects of your work make you the most proud?
I’m not sure if I would use the word “proud” about what I do, but I guess I’m reasonably proud of the fact that I’ve been going to the Edinburgh Fringe every year for two decades and I’m still relatively sane. It’s three weeks of madness but I’d recommend it to anyone. Comedy really does still excite me, it’s not something I think I’m ever going to grow out of. It amazes me when I meet people who say they have never been to a comedy gig. Yes, there are some. The fools.
I’m a little bit proud of beyondthejoke.co.uk. I was quite intimidated by the idea of setting up a website after years as a print journalist, but actually it has been pretty straightforward. Hard work at times, but not anyway near as scary or stressful as I expected.
2) Is there anyone that you regret never getting to interview?
I’ve been lucky enough to interview a few greats and heroes. Rik Mayall, Billy Connolly, Joan Rivers, Daniel Kitson. I’m not sure if I like interviewing comedians that much because they are rarely as entertaining one-to-one as they are onstage. Maybe they go onstage to avoid talking one-to-one. And they are often unable or unprepared to talk about the mechanics of their work.
I interviewed Bill Hicks when he was at his peak. My big regret is that I recorded over the tape* shortly afterwards.
3) What advice would you give to people who run their own websites?
Don’t pay anyone to advise you on search engine optimisation. Use spellcheck. Make sure you post new original content every day, even weekends… hang on, I’m not giving my rivals any tips.
Save all your correspondence. I’ve thrown away personal hand-written pre-fame letters from Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand among others. And don’t record over/wipe interviews.
4) What is the greatest thing to come out of your work so far?
That’s an almost impossible question to answer. I’m a journalist. I’m not saving lives, striving for world peace or even attempting to make people laugh. I’m just lucky enough to have the opportunity to write about something that I really enjoy. I think John Robins might have tweaked a line in his show after he read my review a few years ago.
5) Are you currently working on any writing projects?
I’ve written a number of books about comedy, on Reeves & Mortimer, Billy Connolly, Rowan Atkinson and Red Dwarf and a few others, but I’m never completely satisfied with them. When I look over them I see some things I’m glad I wrote but mostly I wish I could start all over again. Books are a very long haul – so different to the rapidfire reviews I write for beyondthejoke.co.uk or the Evening Standard. They are a different discipline and I’m not sure if I’ll do one again. I’ve written unofficial biogs, semi-official biogs and official biogs and none have worked out as expected.
So at the moment I’m really concentrating on writing for the Evening Standard and running beyondthejoke.co.uk.
*What journalists who couldn’t do shorthand used in the olden days.
It was a surprise to hear that one of my favourite television shows had suddenly been axed last week, and though something tells me that we haven’t heard the last from you, I wanted to send you a fond farewell, just incase.
Thank you Buzzcocks for showcasing new talent from the worlds of comedy and music, to name just two, and for supporting artistic intuition in the young, the old, and everyone in between. Thanks for stressing the importance of music in our society over the last eighteen years, and for recognising the relevance of all its forms, from the works of Adam Ant to One Direction, from Scissor Sisters to Dido. You demonstrated how music does, quite literally in this sense, bring people from all different cultures, backgrounds and lifestyles together under one roof, evident in the diverse array of panellists, line up guests and hosts over the years. And yes, thanks even for the hissy fits, the bitchy comments, the storm outs, the smashed mugs. They made for honest, if almost-guilty, entertainment and showed the true effects of throwing so many big personalities together.
Thanks for giving Noel Fielding a platform to show off his interesting sense of style, particularly the time he wore a dress with the clown from It pictured on it, where he was able to protest against Stacey Solomon’s accidental gender stereotyping. For the height difference between Tinchy Stryder and Greg Davies; for Richard Ayoade’s deadpan reading of the autocue; for Adam Buxton’s YouTube comments (or sutin). For Simon Amstell’s cushion; for Dragons Den’s Peter Jones’ pronunciation of ‘N-Dubz’ and for Paul Foot’s energetic interpretation of a traditional Ghanaian dance. And lest I forget that beautiful group rendition of Summer Nights.
From those with bold personalities like Paloma Faith and Russell Brand to the ones who shocked us with their wit and crudeness such as Ed Sheeran and Rita Ora. From James Acaster’s adaptation of the dance to Saturday Night to Lorraine Kelly’s exploding bra. From Amy Winehouse’s declaration that she’d rather have “cat AIDs” than work with Katie Melua to Tony Law’s vuvuzela and lederhosen. From Alice Cooper’s Elvis Presley anecdotes to Bernard Cribbins’ tips regarding how to kill Coldplay’s Chris Martin. From Hughes to Bailey to Fielding. From Lamarr to Amstell to Gilbert. For Phill Jupitus, who only missed one episode out of 262. And for Rhod Gilbert, who so excellently hosted the last series but is unfortunately prevented from continuing due to the show’s cancellation.
It is a regret of mine that I never managed to attend a recording, particularly as I was once invited but couldn’t make it. But I have seen the joys your show has brought to those I know who were lucky enough to see the show live, from those who returned home with a signed watermelon, to the comedians that I consider to be friends who have had helpful career boosts from featuring on the programme in recent years (and rightly so). I think a lot of us owe something to this show. It aided the countdown to Christmas each year and filled the hours, if nothing else. And there were many hours.
So thank you, Buzzcocks. We had fun. I hope to see you again soon.
From Becca (and the rest of us).
Rod Woodward is a Welsh stand up comedian with a particular interest in sport, which adds an interesting and ‘niche’ dimension to some of his material. He has supported the likes of Paddy McGuinness and Russell Brand as well having performed at the ITV1 Royal Variety Performance in 2014. Rod will be at performing his latest show The Journey Starts Here at various venues across the UK during May and June 2015.
To learn more about Rod, I asked him these seven questions…
1) Should humans be trying to live longer?
That really depends on what kind of human we’re talking about. Good people should be brightening the world for as long as possible. Badduns should really have the decency to check out at their earliest convenience. In the words of the great Ken Dodd, “I hope to live long enough to see the end of the DFS sale!”
2) Can you knit?
No. But I admire those who can. I read that the world’s longest scarf was knitted in my hometown of Cardiff and measures nearly 34 miles long. How many times would you have to wrap that around your neck?! By the time you got it on, the winter would be over. I wonder how long the previous record holding scarf was. I have visions of some old woman calling the Guinness Book of Records and saying, “I’ve just knitted what I think could be a record breaking scarf. How long is it? Well it’s from here to Swansea!
3) Why is sport important to you?
My Dad was a sports writer before he retired so I was brought up on sport. He covered soccer and boxing. In boxing, I can never understand why they hug after the fight. Maybe if they did the hug at the start they wouldn’t feel so obliged to try and kill each other. That’s why they get in the ring in their dressing gowns- it’s cause they know they’re going to hospital after the fight. If you look in those kitbags, they’ve got Lucozade and grapes in there. My favourite sport to play is golf thanks to the handicap system where you can be rubbish and still win. Years ago they worried that the term ‘handicap’ was offensive to people with disabilities but they weren’t bothered. They said, “Handicap?! I’m not the one wasting five hours in the pouring rain dressed like a blind pimp!”
4) Do you watch panel shows?
I have stopped watching them as they give me flashbacks to a pilot for a sporting/comedy panel show I was involved with when I had to go head to head with Frank Lampard in a keep-up competition. I was allowed to use a football and Frank beat me… with a pickled onion!!! I am still in therapy over it.
5) Would you say you’re a brave person?
You never know how you will react to a proper fright until you get one. The other day my wife told me she was staying at her friend’s house overnight but changed her mind and decided to go home. When I got back from a gig very late, the house was in darkness and I assumed my wife was out like she’d originally told me. Little did I know she was hiding inside the darkness. She waited for me to turn on the lights, make myself some tea and toast, switch on the TV and start flicking through the channels. Then she jumped out from behind the sofa and shouted “BOO!”. Embarrassingly, my spontaneous reaction was to throw the tray in the air and scream “GET AWAY!” I don’t know what effect I thought the ‘GET AWAY’ would have. As if an actual intruder would say, “No, fair play you are right… I shouldn’t be in here really.”
6) Which person on the planet scares you the most?
My wife (see previous answer. Incidents like that one are becoming a regular occurrence which makes me think she must have me insured to the back teeth). Last night she woke me up with a start and told me there was a noise downstairs and that I should go and investigate and flick the kettle on while I was downstairs. “Arm yourself,” she said handing me a backscratcher with a plastic hand on the end. “Great! If there is someone in the house let’s hope he’s an itchy burglar!”
7) Which comedian working today is the most admirable for you?
I am a huge fan of Jerry Seinfeld and was lucky enough to see him live at the O2 arena.
Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe may just be the smoothest comedy programme on television. It is also one of the bleakest satirical programmes I have ever seen, but I am well and truly addicted.
Here we have a programme that makes me hate so many aspects of the world, but then laugh at them and regain control. Charlie Brooker expertly exposes everything that is wrong with humanity but also shows that we’re not the only ones who are disheartened by it all. Stick with it, and you can find the positive message.
With comment on topical media-related things as well as politics, this programme doesn’t spare many people from the mockery. Jake Yapp regularly relays various programmes like The One Show and The Voice in a matter of seconds, flawlessly encapsulating their most irritating elements and imitating an array of presenters and celebrities in the process. Brooker also scrutinises over phenomena like Eastenders, Broadchurch and Fifty Shades of Grey, aided by comments from Philomena Cunk and Barry Shitpeas.
A common downfall that I have found with shows like Weekly Wipe is the quality and originality of the sketches used to break up the larger proportion of denser comedy. However, this programme is truly unique in its creation of innovative and hilarious weekly sketches, from the wonderful Philomena Cunk and her “Moments of Wonder”, to the arrival of Morgana Robinson. Robinson (House of Fools) proved a fantastic addition to the Weekly Wipe team with a scarily faultless YouTuber-parody and humorous impersonations of Russell Brand. Yet again, the great minds behind this show have proven such specific observational skills as well as, in Morgana’s case, a talent for impressions (which was already common knowledge for those who watched Very Important People, I’m sure).
Brooker is undeniably a very intelligent man and has a mysterious ability to articulate what millions of us seem to be feeling, even if we hadn’t realise it yet. Weekly Wipe is a perfect example of a programme taking control over political matters that we can’t seem to change in a valiant attempt to regain power, by laughing at it. And there are many laughs indeed.
Noel Fielding has recently embarked on his first live tour since the second Mighty Boosh tour over five years ago, and this time he’s got a whole new agenda. Noel is my comedy hero, and I was honoured to be invited to talk to him about his tour, An Evening With Noel Fielding.
How’s the tour going so far?
It’s going well. Well, it’s alright. It started off well and then I got a bug so I was really sick… but you can’t really stop, that’s the problem. You’ve got to keep going; got to keep doing the gigs! The tour won’t stop so you just have to sort of get on with it.
But it’s going well. The best one, so far, was Halifax.
You’ve added more dates recently as well.
Yeah, tonnes more, I think there may be another thirty or forty, and then twenty after Christmas. I think we’re going to Australia and maybe America, even some parts of Europe or New Zealand, we don’t know yet.
I’d love to do something in America at some point; something completely different. But this is going to be quite a big tour. We’re only at the beginning of it really.
Artistically speaking, what were your aims for this tour?
Well, I wanted to try and make something good, and have it be interactive and have animation so I could make a show that showed all aspects of what I do. But something you’d still be able to enjoy without you having to have seen the Boosh or Luxury Comedy or my stand-up.
I wanted it to be funny for people that hadn’t seen me before and have some audience interaction as well as stand-up, some music and a narrative. We’ve been working on it religiously all year. My brother’s in it, Mike, from The Mighty Boosh and Tom Meeten, who’s a really great comedian.
What kind of ages have your audience members been this time?
I think it was pretty broad even with the Boosh. There were lots of young screaming teenagers but that’s okay, and there were lots of older people in the audience as well. This tour has been quite mixed. There’s a bit where I go into the crowd as a character called New York Cop and I have to interrogate the audience and I chat to them. It’s much more mixed than I thought it would be, which really pleases me.
How have you found the process of writing for a tour compared to writing for television?
It’s a different thing really to writing a TV show; I wrote TV shows back to back so I was getting stir crazy.
I like working with an audience and I love the energy of live gigs so when you’re making TV shows, you don’t really get much feedback other than on the Internet and a few reviews. It’s a bit like working in the dark or in a tunnel so when you come out and do live stuff it’s great to get a reaction straight away.
I had a lot of ideas for the tour show already because I hadn’t toured for a while and I just sort of brought them all together to make one show and made sure it wasn’t too lumpy or too much like a collage of different ideas. I wanted to try and make it flow.
Are there any comedians that you’d like to work with in the future?
I love Tony Law, Paul Foot and James Acaster. Being on Buzzcocks means you get to work with them, but, yeah, I’d love to do stuff with Paul Foot. He’s brilliant and so underrated. He should be a household name.
Russell Brand’s just written a book and I’d quite like to do something with him as well; an improvised show, something unplanned. I like working with Russell. He’s very brave.
What else would you like to do?
I’ve fallen in love with stand-up again whilst doing this tour. There’s about forty minutes of stand-up in the show, and I was very scared because I hadn’t done stand-up for a while, but I managed to do it and I was really enjoying it much more than I thought I would be.
I would like to do a pure stand-up show now as well. And with the Loose Tapestries, Serge and I are always talking about going on tour so that would be fun. I’d like to write children’s books too, so maybe I could do that. I want to do everything!
COME BACK NEXT WEEK TO READ PART TWO OF MY INTERVIEW WITH NOEL, FOR EXCLUSIVE INSIGHT INTO THE WRITING AND RECEPTION OF LUXURY COMEDY SERIES TWO.
With recent appearances on Russell Howard’s Good News and Alan Davies: As Yet Untitled, Australian comedian Felicity Ward has made quite a name for herself in the UK. She recently presented a documentary called Felicity’s Mental Mission, which explored the stigmas surrounding mental health, and will be performing her latest show What If There Is No Toilet? at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, where she discusses her experiences with IBS and anxiety.
I asked Felicity these seven questions…
1) What are the biggest difficulties with being an Australian comic when gigging in the UK?
Trying to convince British audiences that I have something to say that might interest them. I feel a lot of them sit there when I walk on thinking, “What could you possibly have to say that will make me laugh. After all, we made you.” Occasionally I get to buck that trend.
2) Are sharks just misunderstood?
That’s a great question and I’m glad you brought that up. In short. Yes. In Long: More people die from choking than sharks, but you don’t see people going on a throat cull do you? I think Jaws did a lot of damage to the “brand”. If Free Willy was a shark instead of a whale, we might have a new generation of shark conservationists. And a lot better shark merch.
3) Do you think that worrying is ever useful?
It’s really good if your goal is to have wrinkles and stomach ulcers. Then you’ve really nailed it. Also some decisions take time to get right: you can’t just waltz up to a buffet and put any old shit on your plate. You need to deliberate. Situation: you’re looking at some buffet prawns, but you realise you’re in a landlocked area. Should you worry about food poisoning? Yes. Should you worry about missing out on discount seafood? Yes. You see? Lot to worry about. It can be very useful.
4) What personality traits make a comedian?
Poverty. Desperation. Some poor parenting seems to help. That’s really it.
5) Do you listen to movie soundtracks?
I bloody love a compilation and soundtracks are the ultimate. Footloose and Blues Brothers soundtracks were the first double sided (recorded illegally from a friend) cassette tape I ever owned. Yes, cassette. Back in the Jurassic period. Big Chill. Amazing soundtrack. Pulp Fiction. Obviously. But I don’t really do musicals.
6) What inspires you?
I’m very inspired by sleep. Sleep, cups of tea, staring out the window, buying individual tracks off a “best of” album knowing full well that Nelly never had 18 hits.
7) What would you tell your younger self?
Stay weird: It’ll give you the basis for a lot of material in later years. Oh, also, you grow into your nose and that undercut is a terrible idea.
2014 has been a massive year for comedy in Britain;
There have been countless brand new television programmes broadcast this year, with some of my favourites including Uncle, House of Fools, Doll & Em, The Walshes, Inside No.9, Alan Davies: As Yet Untitled and Siblings. In this sense, 2014 has certainly proven itself to be twelve months of creativity and innovation in comedy, which will pave the way for televised comedy in the future.
As well as new projects, there have been many top-quality programmes that returned to our screens this year. Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy: Tales From Painted Hawaii was a special one for me, as Noel Fielding is my comedy hero, and considering the fact that the first series was broadcast all the way back in January 2012. Ricky Gervais’ Derek, Toast of London (Matt Berry) and Big School (David Walliams and Catherine Tate) returned for a second series and the brilliantly funny Friday Night Dinner came back with a third.
At the beginning of the year, the BBC announced that they were to make a conscious effort to include at least one woman on every episode of every panel show broadcast by the corporation, and it inspired me to write this post. It’s fair to say that to begin with, I was disheartened. I felt embarrassed that female comedians were being made to look like poor little lambs that can’t fend for themselves as it is absolute nonsense. However, the situation improved later on in the year (which I also documented here) as the thirteenth series of Mock The Week aired and so many talented female comics were given the screen time they deserve. It is my hope from here on in that people forget about the publicised rule and appreciate that these women have earned their right to be on these programmes, and acknowledge their immense talent.
Another shock announcement was that there are plans for the channel BBC3 to be axed in order to fund other projects within the BBC. Amongst other things, the broadcaster wants to create a BBC1+1 which seems pointless as we already have iPlayer, and the decision has, understandably, not been well received. We are told that when BBC3 disappears from our TV screens, it will still be available via BBC iPlayer. Maybe we are just reluctant to give in to the age of the computers, but it definitely feels like the space for new comedy on television is being made smaller by moving its main platform online. “We know those +1 channels are very important to people”, well, Mr Cohen, so is our comedy.
The Edinburgh Festival this year saw a new winner of the Fosters Comedy Award crowned. John Kearns’ show Shtick is the first Free Fringe show to have ever won the award. There have also been some HUGE live comedy tours this year from the likes of Russell Howard, Miranda Hart, Sarah Millican and Noel Fielding, as well as the return of Monty Python for five nights of nostalgic silliness at the O2 Arena.
COME BACK NEXT WEEK TO READ PART TWO OF THIS YEAR IN COMEDY
This is a brand new feature on MoodyComedy and I am creating it with the intention of passing on new names to as many people as possible. Each month I will choose my favourite comic discovery of the past four weeks and write a short piece on why I liked them, where they can be found and why you might be interested in their work. So here it goes…
I first became aware of the Norwegian comic, Daniel Simonsen in the middle of January when the first episode of Vic & Bob’s new show: House of Fools but the series ran throughout February and this is where I feel Simonsen really came into his own. I said in a post a couple of weeks back that House of Fools is an absolutely incredible programme and though I may be biased because I have adored everything Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer have produced in the past, I still stand by my judgement.
Daniel is an absolute gem here because he brings a youth-like feel to a show otherwise dominated with more ‘mature’ actors and comedians. I think Bob Mortimer has a very good eye when it comes to finding new comic talents (such as Angelos Epithemiou, or Dan Skinner, who featured on Shooting Stars and as Bosh in House of Fools) and though I can’t be certain if he is also the one who spotted Simonsen, it was definitely a wise decision. He plays Bob’s son, Erik, who is witty, hateful and possibly very evil. He provides many of the biggest laugh throughout the series, especially in my house.
After watching and loving the whole series of House of Fools multiple times, I looked up Daniel Simonsen as I just knew that if he did stand up, I would find it brilliant. He does and I do. I watched this clip from Russell Howard’s Good News Extra in 2012 and fell in love with Daniel a little bit more. He is interesting; foreign: an outsider. I find that so refreshing as I always feel that an accent that isn’t typically British adds something special to a performance and I like the idea of people from other countries looking in on our comedy scene and joining it, yet also passing comment that wouldn’t usually be made (such as Henning Wehn’s material).
Simonsen’s style is brilliant as he seems so young yet has such in-depth and critical opinions on things like your basic observational comedians. One of my favourite lines from him is his thoughts on when a person asks him why he isn’t talking at a social event and he replies with: ‘oh, I forgot’ and his simple statement of ‘it’s really difficult to be a human being’.
For more information, follow Daniel Simonsen on Twitter.