The pain of prop comedy | Louise Reay wonders if she shouldn't just write some f***ing jokes...

The pain of prop comedy

Louise Reay wonders if she shouldn't just write some f***ing jokes...

This morning I was listening to the Seymour Mace episode of the Comedian’s Comedian Podcast while sewing a giant Monster Munch out of a flannel. 

Host Stuart Goldsmith gently asked Seymour: ‘Do you have to prove to an audience you are doing [daft slapstick] because you’ve chosen to rather than because you can’t write a proper joke?’ They laugh in recognition. 

And it got me thinking… 

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that prop comedy is the Frodo Baggins of standup. Jay Leno once said ‘props are the enemy of wit,’ and if you type ‘is prop comedy dead’ or ‘I hate prop comedy’ into Google, you’ll get a lot of hits. Some years ago, I did a comedy course where no props were allowed – we all accepted it unquestioningly, such is the prejudice ingrained.

But it’s safe to say Edinburgh 2015 was when props had their Leicester City moment, where many of the most celebrated shows featured props, such as Sam Simmons, Seymour Mace and Spencer Jones, amongst others.

Yet, for all the accolades, there was Stuart’s tongue-in-cheek question and there were the knowing laughs on the podcast – touching on something many feel to be true.

I swore to dramatically reduce my props after the trauma of getting them through Dubai airport en route to Adelaide Fringe. I’ve got a ‘clown jacket’ with watches sewn in that contains enough metal to blow up a fairground. It’s far too expensive to put it in my suitcase yet I was afraid of taking it through security in case they thought I was a suicide bomber. I wore it through the scanners and warned the Gatwick security staff. They laughed at the contents of my pockets and waved me through… how British and alarmingly gauche. 

But in Dubai, a woman in a hijab had to search me. I tried to warn her but she shrugged - and I couldn’t help but blush violently as she fingered the prosthetic boobs in my suitcase. Needless to say she was not amused by my jacket. Not ten feet away from the plane I crouched on the floor as she towered over me, my beads of sweat running to rivers as I desperately unpicked the 48 watches in my coat praying my flight wouldn’t take off without me and I rued the day I became dependent on objects seemingly despised by the rest of the world. I thought to myself, why don’t I just write some f**king jokes?

My new show has got a life-sized Zoltar machine in it, like from the movie Big. It’s 6ft tall and making my life a nightmare because I can’t physically see when I am transporting it. 
Clearly, I’m not doing a very good job of reigning it back. 

So I thought I would ask for some advice. Seymour said: ‘I think some people see props as a thing to hide behind if you’ve got no jokes. Character acts and musical comedians are often judged in a similarly harsh fashion.’ 

Master prop-maker and comic Martin Soan thinks any ill-feeling towards props came from the fact ‘prop comics got more laughs.’ While Spencer Jones was blissfully unaware: ‘I didn’t know prop comedians were looked down on. If I had have known I wouldn’t have gone on stage with them in the first place. I just booked gigs and didn’t get round to writing any material. Then the night of the gig would come and I would just take some funny bits and pieces with me. I reckon some people just think it’s lazy. "JUST WRITE SOME JOKES MATE!" Or maybe it’s a bit cheesy to some people? A magician but without the magic. I reckon it’s the gimmick factor.’

I guess all types of comedy come in and out of fashion; it’s cyclical, but I am intrigued by the notion that prop comedy is lazy when it takes so much effort to cart them around.

Spencer Jones recalls: ‘The first Edinburgh festival I did I went on the train. I had so much stuff it took me 40 minutes to walk across Waverley Bridge.’ While Ben Target was once barred from boarding the plane in Wellington, New Zealand by the border guard ‘because I had a fake fire extinguisher in my bag. I had to pay a fine and declare my sins before they confiscated the offending item and I sheepishly slunk off to cringe in my seat for the entire flight.’ 

And if we forget stuff, we are really in trouble. Seymour said: ‘I do often forget stuff. At my preview last night I had to go on an emergency dash for sausages and bananas. I think I’ve had bananas in my last three shows and this will be the second appearance of sausages, the two funniest foods.’ 

Spencer says: ‘Last week I went to a gig and only realised on stage my son had emptied my case and filled it with his toys. I did a 20-minute set and maybe got three  minutes of material out of it. Gutted. Also one time in Manchester I did a raver character bit which ended in my face being covered in fake coke (talc) I forgot to wash it off and stopped at 3 service stations along the way. No one said a word.’

As one goes through life on the lookout for what might be funny, it is really easy for the number of props to just keep on growing. My new show has more than 300 props (I can’t be sure of the exact number, I can’t collect all of them up after each show).  I’ve even had to make an inventory of them so I don’t forget things when setting up in a hurry.  

Seymour says: ‘Props should never be a crutch for a comic, they should enhance the comedy. Your props should never be funnier than you are.’ Oh dear. 

Are my props functioning as crutches? If so, am I inadvertently disabling myself? I tend to think of the story or sketch I want to do and then make the props I need to do it. I don’t usually question it because the props are simply driven by the narrative. 

But I’m worried now. Is it possible to have too many props?  Martin Soan jokes: ‘Yes….if you have too many to get in your van.’ 

Jon Davison, clown, clown teacher and author says: ‘You’ve got too many props only if they distract you from performing or they don’t perform a function.’ 

Paul Jones, who has made props for the likes of the Mighty Boosh, League of Gentlemen and Little Britain, says: ‘When it comes to props, usually the bigger the better – an audience like to see you’ve put effort into it! A good rule of thumb is if you’re spending any more than 5 seconds setting up a bit or you have to go off stage to get something and you are disturbing the flow of the show because you are getting a load of props from a bag  - then that is too many.’ 

Oh god. I’m going to have to do a preview with someone holding a stopwatch aren’t I?

The more I use props, the more I worry about getting too attached to them or becoming too reliant on them. Anyone who saw Nina Conti’s documentary Clowning Around, and how worried she was as Monk span around in the washing machine will understand why this is a real concern. 

But Spencer Jones: ‘I have no emotional attachment to my props. I buy them in pound shops and charity shops and online. It’s just a load of crap. I could perform on stage without any props if I wanted.’

Seymour agrees: ‘I don’t like to hang on to stuff for too long but I have hung on to a cool red telephone in the shape of a helicopter and am currently very fond of a rubber nose that I’ll be using as a chin in my new show. I try not to get emotionally attached to my props, I struggle to maintain relationships with real people so doubt I’d be any better with imaginary stuff.’

Yet, Ben Target is much more ‘Nina’ about it all. ‘My favourite prop is a foam pig I found while hitch hiking through Les Cevennes in France. The sun was scorching, I needed water and hadn’t seen a shop in miles. Finally I found a petrol station but inside the shop all they had were Gauloises and shelves upon shelves of these identical, pink, foam pigs. 

‘When they go missing I get sad. Some have been everywhere with me and take on the form of an old acquaintance from another time… I feel it’s my duty to look after them and make good use of them.’

I personally spend weeks building my props and always carry spares and a repair kit in case anything goes wrong. Seeing as I built them, I know just how likely this is to happen.  Martin Soan thinks ‘you can have very expensive technical props, very simple props, and props that are just inanimate objects from life. You must treat every prop with love off stage and irreverence onstage.’ He adds: ‘The only thing that makes a prop good is the performer using them.’

Oh god, I need to stop this exercise before I have a nervous breakdown.  He also recently asked me, ‘wwhy are you writing an article about props? Why should we have to defend ourselves? Seems an odd thing to do.’ Well quite, I’ve got flannel Monster Munch to be sewing.

• Louise Reay: Que Sera will be at Just the Tonic at The Caves at 15.20 during the Edinburgh Fringe

Published: 8 Jul 2016

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