The ten most memorable comedy gigs of 2012

Chortle editor Steve Bennett’s personal look back at the year

1. The Muppets, Place Des Arts, Montreal, July

No matter how cynical you are, hearing the opening strains of the Muppet theme as the curtain rises on those multi-storey arches full of adored childhood characters is a truly joyous thing. There’s a vast theatre full of fans all palpably going: ‘It’s the freaking Muppets!’ – not on telly but in the actual fur. That you glimpse behind the magic to see the nimble black-clad puppeteers do their thing only adds to the experience. The sketches were pretty funny, too – and while most human stand-up guests ploughed through the same slick seven-minute set that the Just For Laughs festival demands, Adam Hills was clearly so chuffed to be there, that his whole routine was Muppet-based.... and ended with some banter with the Swedish chef. A genuine high point for the newly refashionable foam vaudevillians – before Ricky Gervais ever got involved.Original review

2. Boy With Tape On His Face, Pleasance, Edinburgh, August

Talking about reminiscing back to childhood, The Boy With Tape On His Face perfectly captured the innocent play of youth. His years of street performing have taught him how to select just the right patsies from the audience – willing, but not too much so – and their dawning realisation of what’s going on, as household object become props in imaginary epics is priceless. And since we’re talking about memorable images, the vast Pleasance Grand filling with more red balloons than Nina could ever have thought possible for his grand finale, has to be right up there.Original review

3. Tim Minchin, Udderbelly, London,  July

‘Nothing kills comedy like arenas,’ croons Tim Minchin in one of his typically astute lyrics – yet such is his burgeoning fame, that’s pretty much the only place to see him now. If, indeed, you can get to see him do comedy at all amid starring in Jesus Christ Superstar, co-writing the biggest West End hit of the year, and being an all-round entertainment genius. But in July, as a warm-up to the festival season, Minchin and a small band played a wonderfully intimate gig in the purple upside-down cow on London’s South Bank – offering a rare chance to hear all those lyrically brilliant hits up close. He performed a similar set at Latitude a few days later, but crammed shoulder-to-shoulder into the packed 2,000-capacity comedy tent wasn’t nearly as enjoyable.Original review

4. Pappy’s Last Show Ever, Pleasance Edinburgh, August

Not just a return to form for the cheerily silly threesome, but their best work yet – and something of a surprise treat after a couple of more workmanlike Edinburgh shows lowered expectations. But  Ben Clark, Matthew Crosby and Tom Parry approached this with renewed vigour, pin-sharp writing and a wonderful dynamic to create an hour of unadulterated, joyous fun and knockabout siliness. Easily one of the best comedy shows of the 1,000 or so on offer in Edinburgh this August. Pray it’s not *really* their last.Original review

5. Jerry Seinfeld, Birmingham NIA, May

Smooth, classy and apparently effortless, Jerry Seinfeld returned to the UK for a second year - and even if he hadn’t turned over a whole show’s worth of material in the intervening 12 months, he underlined why his exasperated everyman persona makes him the undisputed king of universal observational stand-up. Accessible topics such as marriage, children and modern electronic gizmos all get laughs of recognition, but there’s so much more to his precision-engineered comedy than that. Still a master of his game after all these years. Original review

6. Altitude, Mayrhofen, Austria,  March

Location obviously counts a lot here, with the comedy festival nestled in the Austrian Alps, aimed at late-season skiing. It’s been going several years – formerly in Meribel  – but this was my first time there (and first time skiing, although that comedy of errors isn’t what we’re talking about here). The first night was probably the strongest comedically, headlined by Jimmy Carr who’d flown in just for the one gig, with an impressively strong supporting line-up that included Ed Byrne, Brendon Burns, Frankie Boyle, the festival’s playful co-founder Andrew Maxwell and Police Academy’s Michael Winslow entertaining with his sound effects. Theatre-filing headliners to a man, you rarely get a line-up like this without the offer of a free ski pass to lure the top comics.Original review

7. Establishment Club, Ronnie Scott’s, London

Not necessarily memorable for all the right reasons, but almost any gig in the jazz-lover’s Mecca of Ronnie Scott’s is an occasion. These two nights were convened by the one-time bete noire of the comedy scene, Keith Allen, with the noble intentions of reviving Peter Cook’s legendary Soho soirees to challenging the complacent observational stand-up so prevalent on TV. Sadly, though, he was out of touch with the genuinely alternative scene that’s enjoying a revival, on the live circuit at least, and failed to plug into that and instead produced a messy couple of nights that might have been eclectic, but never shone. Allen’s fawning to George Galloway on the first night was uncomfortable, especially as the politician had just been accused of being a rape apologist for some typically ill-judged comments. I went on the slightly better-organised second night and, although it had its moments (Paul Sinha), it failed to live up to Allen’s promises – though the messiness was nonetheless memorable. Original review

8. Alternative Comedy Memorial Society, Soho Theatre, London, October

Now THIS is how you really showcase the most interesting acts around. Where else would you see all on one bill woman with a pumpkin on her head bashing herself with a hammer; the spirit of Saddam Hussein reincarnated in the body of a cat; four physical wrecks running lengths of the stage while knocking back vodka, lager and milk; a trombone-playing troubadour in sparkly beard and flamboyant hat reading the speeches of Winston Churchill, and a time-traveling Tony Law. Not just one memorable moment, but dozens of the bastards, all in one night. Kudos to ever-inventive hosts Thom Tuck and John-Luke Roberts for creating the atmosphere where, in one of the night’s many catchphrases, the audience celebrate every act as a failure... but a noble one. Original review

9. Masters Of Comedy: Dick Gregory and Paul Mooney, Brixton Academy, London, September

As messy as the Establishment Club, if not more so; this gig was late starting, ridiculously over-long and packed with all sorts of random acts who had very little to make them worthy of sharing a stage with the veteran American comedy heroes who were the dual headliners. Nonetheless, this was a chance to fulfill a bucket list and see Dick Gregory and Paul Mooney before THEY die. Mooney, who closed the night, was a shambles - a reputation-damanging mess of semi-coherent thought and frequent N-bombs that it was impossible to follow. But Gregory proved precisely why he is held in such esteem with a thoughtful, provocative slice of stand-up wisdom about ageing, religion and the big social issues, especially race - a mature guru of comedy still showing he’s got what it takes.Original review

10. Alexei Sayle, Soho Theatre, London, January

Talking of comedy legends, Alexei Sayle made a long-awaited return to live comedy at the start of the year, compering a series of nights at the Soho Theatre. His contributions were limited, but showed an astute sense of mischief - the ranting mania that defined him in the pioneer days of alternative comedy replaced my a more mature, unforced wit that still delivered the laughs. And the next month he would cement that return to form, doing a grand job of hosting the Chortle Awards. Original review

Honourable mentions:
Michael McIntryre, London O2, September
Rhod Gilbert, Guildford G-Live, October
BBC New Comedy Award Final, Blackpool Empire, November
Austentatious, The Counting House, Edinburgh, August
Mike Birbiglia, Soho Theatre, London, May

Published: 31 Dec 2012

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