Original Review: Comedy used to be an exclusive business. Now, with the glut of courses promising to make you a stand-up and flashing the irresistible prospect of fame as the ultimate reward, the world seems full of comic wannabes.
Just how many are there? Well, the national Laughing Horse competition, one of the most established outlets for new acts to test their mettle, attracted 545 entries. That’s a lot of comics and, I’d guess, a lot of dross.
But at the end of several rounds, only 12 made it through to the final, and a pretty strong bunch they turned out to be. Of course there were flaws, but most had something –a charming delivery, a killer line or two, or an appealing energy – to suggest they could have a future in this increasingly overcrowded industry.
First up, Tom Clutterbuck took to the stage as a Romanian, accordion-brandishing beggar, and quickly launched into a song parody using this most under-used of comedy instruments.
It’s an odd start, not least because his scraggly beard dents the peasant-woman illusion, but a distinctive one, even if the changed lyrics aren’t all that amusing. But once he sheds the headscarf and ‘reveals’ his true self, we’re into more familiar territory with a hunk of material revolving around his Jesus-like looks.
He’s slicker than this hairy weirdo appearance might lead you to believe, with an assured delivery and a rich, clear voice that would be well suited to radio. Yet his content falls short, with only a couple of stand-out lines in the shortish set, and it’s this he’ll have to work on.
South African Nick Cowen also has an agreeable, conversational approach, but his confident energy can’t elevate the rather pedestrian story that constitutes his set.
His line is that as a former resident of brutal crime-ridden Johannesburg, he cockily mocked London’s relatively safe streets – until his encounter with some intimidating juvenile hoodies. Cue observational material about chavs and an enjoyable, but not memorable, retelling of the incident. The youths’ comeuppance gives the set a pleasing conclusion, but otherwise it’s light on substance.
Dispassionate Finnish one-line merchant Tomi Walamies has been known to fall victim to his aloof stance, which isolates him completely from the audience. But not tonight, where his well-written material shone on its own merits, and was suitably well received.
With his staccato delivery and heavy accent, he talks like Stephen Hawking’s voicebox, and he’s also about as agile as the Cambridge mathematician, remaining steadfastly rooted to the spot.
He makes much of this lack of activity, and that works OK, but it’s the sharp, concise and imaginative jokes that make him stand out. The inspired ‘living the dream’ line alone is probably enough for him to retire on.
As he relaxes into his set, Walamies becomes almost imperceptibly more fluid, and the set works all the better for that flicker of human emotion which gives a softer edge to the great material. He came third in the final judgment, and on a different night could have done even better.
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. Wassup Wimbledon?’ Marlon Davis has clearly been watching a few too many Def Comedy Jam DVDs, and become a bit too immersed in the style of urban American comics.
Thus we have a performance full of energy and verve, with powerful vocal rhythms and – but oh-so familiar subjects. The domineering West Indian mother, check, black music, check, and a graphically acted-out reconstruction of sex, check.
Behind the brash loudness, there lies an appealing performer. Not only is Davis is charming, with a winning smile, his passion in acting out all the little scenarios that comprise his set is very appealing. If only he could apply that talent to less generic material.
The clearly posh Duncan Crawford started as he didn’t mean to, when an out-of-place laugh distracted him, allowing him to embark on a longwinded and slightly too well-prepared put-down.
His usual stock-in-trade, though, is a combination of anecdotal storytelling and impassioned rant, getting increasingly irate against whatever happens to have got his goat. If only he could find something more interesting than James Blunt to moan about.
His story, told in confident style, involved the pitfalls of trying to share a supposedly romantic bath with his girlfriend – which mostly concerned the perils of burning, or scalding, the testicles. It was well executed, but didn’t feel convincing enough to be more than an entertaining diversion.
Son of a preacher man Neil Price was an audience favourite, and with plenty of justification. He deals in good, solid jokes, artfully linked together and so tight you’re never far from a punchline.
Some of the gags are, admittedly, corny and obvious, but he sells them with such a likeable conviction that he’s easily forgiven. And even when the starting point is obvious, Price pushes so hard at a subject, and from a slightly obtuse angle, that you’re compelled to hear where he’s taking it.
Although, like all the acts here, Price is a relative newcomer, it’s easy to see him becoming a reliable circuit act within the near future - especially now he can boast about his second-place triumph on his CV.
Former street performer Stuart Goldsmith has a pitch-perfect delivery; with every nuance carefully calculated for maximum impact. The tricks of the comedy trade haven’t passed him by. But there are buts…
His short set comes in two halves. In the first, he finds himself walking intimidatingly behind a woman late at night and so tries – and fails – to convince her he’s no threat. Problem is, he’s not the first act to come up with this premise and the way he has it unfolding – even though Goldsmith does give the tale a strong ending, setting up a smart callback along the way.
The other, more enjoyable, half concerns British Sign Language translations – and it’s where his performance skills really shine, providing for a jaunty few minutes of undemanding entertainment.
Jim Smallman doesn’t start at all well, making a feeble joke about his surname and trying to pass off a bog-standard heckle putdown as genuine material. Only ten months into stand-up, perhaps he doesn’t know better yet.
Yet there is something intriguing about him, and it’s not just the self-consciously bad hair and bad clothes that comprise his deliberately awkward image. His outlook is sarcastic and frustrated, which he can, now and then, focus into a perfect gag. His bad-taste Pussycat Dolls is an instant classic.
He’s by no means fully developed, but give him time and Smallman’s status could well defy that ominous surname.
‘A female Peter Kay’ is how one overheard punter described Wendy Reed, and it wasn’t meant as a compliment. But it’s a little unfair. Sure, she’s got a bit of the Northern club style about her, and her routine does revolve around the peccadillos and vagaries of her extended family – but that’s as far as the comparison goes.
Instead of the cosy stand-up of Kay, Reed is a prickly character comic, powerfully portraying a range of exaggerated grotesques throughout her short set. Typical would be her perverted Elvis impersonator, afflicted by uncontrollable Tourette’s.
The caricatures are, perhaps, too broadly drawn, with an over-reliance on plunging into the disgusting to find laughs, but it’s performed with real vim, and there are some nice, subtle details beyond the bluster.
Seventies throwback Carl Donnelly, pictured top, is 24, going on 13, as proven by a routine that’s not ashamed to be petty and childish. But there’s a hell of a lot of innocent fun to be had from this uncomplicated standpoint, enough, in fact, to win him the contest.
He recounts an encounter with some actual teenagers – taking stupid glee in outsmarting them – has a nice line in ‘your mum…’ insults and describes himself, unironically, as a prankmaster. This is not sophisticated stuff, but it is funny, and delivered with just the right amount of conviction.
Lee Brace is also a very straightforward comic, so much so that he never deviates from the line of giving you exactly what you expect. It’s perfectly well done, but so short on surprises or real interest that his set just washes reassuringly over you, without making much of an impression.
There’s material on how he hasn’t got any friends, on how he looks like the Proclaimers (like every comic with thick-framed glasses since 1987)… and just how annoying are those recorded messages you get at call centres. If only there was an option: ‘Press 5 for better comic inspiration’. He has a nice line about lava lamps, but that’s not a solid enough basis for an entire routine.
Andy Sir is, at least aurally, the splitting image of Arnold Brown. It’s not just the laconic, educated Glasgow accent, but the exact same sense of slow comic timing.
His sense of humour is uncannily similar, too, with dry, wry observation-based jokes teased out into the audience. ‘I am, in fact, terribly hip,’ he drools – with all the self-deprecation this obvious young fogey can muster.
But the lines are smart, and the presentation appealing, despite being derivative. It’s not the sort of act who’ll have you in raptures, so low is the energy, but you will be reliably amused for the duration of the set.
And that wasn’t a bad note on which to end what turned out to be an incredibly long night of comedy. Of the 545 who entered this competition, maybe five or six of the finalists have a decent shot at success in comedy – although the road will still be long. Any would-be stand-up might want to consider those are odds. But there’s surely no shortage of hopefuls convinced they can beat them – and next year’s competition is likely to be busier yet.