Britcom 2008

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

The North American stereotype of the British man is someone fey, camp, intelligent but slightly weird and crippled by social awkwardness. Well, pretty much all those bases were covered in this year’s Britcom line-up in Montreal – and that was just Paul Foot.

Quite what the audience made of this strange, otherworldly creature is a mystery. He paced up and down the stage, his legs and arms apparently working under their own devices as his brain was otherwise engaged, obsessively fretting about such crucial issues as the moistness of home-made cakes.

‘I’m quite normal, really,’ he insisted from the start, convincing no one.

Whereas most comics aim to get the entire room laughing at the same time, Foot’s audience all work at their own pace. Random enclaves of chuckles break out all the time, while everyone else sits in stunned confusion. You can be bemused by his obsessive, trivial ramblings, then out of nowhere will come a line that really tickles you – and it rarely seems to be the same line that works for everyone.

He will take an idea and squeeze it dry. The arrogant futility of ‘baby on board’ signs on cars was once a hack comic staple, but Foot still attacks the topic for a good few minutes in a doggedly pedantic deconstruction. In his twisted mind, the mundane becomes the all-important. So discussing the origin of the phrase ‘living room’, he claims, is ‘the ultimate taboo’.

There’s something very endearing about his strange, affected approach, and don’t let the flightiness of his performance persuade you that there are no good gags in the meanderings. But he is almost certainly an acquired taste, and one that a brief showcase appearance can only whet the appetite for.

Fortunately, the Montreal audience was given a bit of a warm-up before being plunged into Foot’s strange world. Compere Craig Hill made a glittering entrance in his leather kilt, pumping and gyrating to Madonna’s Hung Up. He flirts predatorially with men in the front rows, belts out a few extracts of power ballads, and bitches about divas such as Mariah Carey, Cher, Celine Dion and Shirley Bassey. The eagle-eyed punter might notice a slight homosexual undercurrent to his act.

When it comes to comedy, Hill offers little but a few cheap innuendos and tired routines such as wondering what a working-class pilot might sound like. A few catty putdowns raise a chuckle, but his presence is less about original stand-up than it is about making a big, fabulous, showbizzy impression for himself. On that score, at least, objective achieved.

Opening act Hal Cruttenden pushed the effeminacy level even higher, with his witty routine about having a gay man’s voicebox trapped inside his chunky heterosexual body.

Actually, his voice is very versatile, allowing him to bring his observations to life with little impressions of everything from a gruff bloke to his girlfriends’ intimidating-but-sexy Northern Irish accent. More importantly, he delivers every gag with just the right emphasis, so it’s the tone of his voice as much as the joke that gets the laugh. That’s never more true than in his set-piece finale, in which he mocks the manipulative oratory techniques of political speeches. The irony being, of course, that those same tricks prove just as effective in winning him the reception he wants.

The writing is lean and efficient, too, with few words that aren’t necessary to power from one punchline to the next; and alongside routines drawn from his own life are some very strong comic ideas. An Olympics for people with mental disorders, especially, is inspired.

Cruttenden’s an under-rated stand-up, but even faced with this initially reluctant Quebec audience, he persistently pushes on, until they finally crack.

After Paul Foot, Paul Tonkinson faced a similar sluggishness, which might be down to a period of acclimatisation to his unfamiliar Northern accent. After all, no one really talks like Daphne from Frasier, which is probably their nearest reference point.

It’s his John Cleese-like silly walk, and his cartoonishly high-pitched voices that eventually break the ice – things that are obviously meant to be funny in any language or accent. These come as he describes the domestic tensions between him, his wife and his three children. It isn’t so much what he says as the way he says it.

Still, the audience only really buy into his set when he gets fruity, with a skilful routine about persuading his wife to give him a blow-job. It’s a shame he will never be allowed to use this on the conservative, filmed-for-TV, galas here, as it’s by far his funniest bit.

So You Think You’re Funny? talent contest winner Richard Sandling struggled to make a connection, too. His extended analogy between his passion for obscure arthouse films and that of a soccer hooligan didn’t really work in this ice-hockey-obsessed city where a French film isn’t foreign language. It didn’t help, too, that this is essentially one simple gag played out too long with too few punchlines.

Elsewhere, his Christopher Walken impersonations seemed a bit hackneyed (‘Christopher Walker impression’ returns 123 results on YouTube alone), though the one-liner with which he signed off had the distinct advantage of being a proper joke. This cuddly bear of a man has got a lot of on-stage charm, but needs more solid punchlines to back it up.

Comic magician Pete Firman’s always a crowd-pleaser, and tonight proved no exception. He’s taken old-fashioned showmanship – and a few old-fashioned jokes, it has to be said – and infused it with silliness and self-deprecation.

You’re never quite sure whether his set pieces are going to be proper conjuring tricks, so-called ‘geek tricks’ which test the tolerance of his own body, or just a daft prop gag writ large – which provides an appealing sense of unpredictability.

The only problem is that from the back row of this 500-or-so-seater theatre, his close-up illusions were completely lost. We could barely see the workings of the Vegas-style interlocking rings trick, let alone the blood drawn when he punctured is own arm with a needle.

Closing the show was Matt Kirshen, already known to audiences this side of the Atlantic for his appearances on NBC’s Last Comic Standing reality show. His success is understandable, as he is quite American in style, with his brisk jumps from one sharp punchline to the next, with little time for needless chat.

After dispensing with the obligatory material about his youthful looks, he embarked on a routine about the stereotypical American impression of the English accent, which would probably be better appreciated on home turf where the differences between the two would be more clearly understood.

But his routine derived from a simple encounter with two Texans on a plane was a strong demonstration of his ability to extrapolate gag after gag from the simplest of situations. There’s a nice whimsy behind much of his material, too, but never at the expense of a solid punchline.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Montreal, July 2008

Review date: 16 Jul 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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