Documentary examines the Comedy Terrorist

Can there be anyone who’s still interested in Aaron Barschak?

His sister Tamara certainly hopes so. For although the media quickly and understandably tired of the antics of the self-proclaimed Comedy Terrorist, she has put together a documentary about her headline-grabbing sibling, which she is touting around distributors and TV stations.

Rebel Without Applause, which charts the last year in Barschakís unconventional life, previewed last month in Edinburgh, the city where he was justifiably mauled by critics after unveiling an abortion of a Fringe show just six weeks after gatecrashing Prince Williamís 21st birthday party.

Comedy, it was universally concluded, is not his forte. Shameless self-promotion is.

But even that dubious talent is deserting him. With most newspapers now wary of covering any of his stunts, the oxygen of publicity is running thin. Would his tiresome parading outside Windsor Castle merited any more than a footnote in a local newspaper had that dayís events not turned out the way they did? Certainly, as he paraded through the streets of Edinburgh in only his Y-fronts to advertise his Fringe show this year, he appeared indistinguishable from countless other Royal Mile exhibitionists desperate for nothing more than attention.

But when, 12 months previously, he did get more attention that anyone could possibly want, he didnít know what to do with it. The pressure to live up to it took its toll on him mentally, too, as this frank behind-the-scenes documentary shows, which is worrying for someone who already considered wearing a pink ballgown and bushy merkin acceptable public behaviour.

The film depicts the events that led him to the front pages as mere accident. Not only the events at Windsor Castle itself, which have been well-documented before, but his whole ‘career’.

Barshack was once a mere Ali G lookalike. Indeed, the documentary reveals the very character of Osama Bin Laden in drag came about only when ITN executive David Mannion called his agency to ask for a lookalike of the terrorist chief for entertainment at Trevor McDonaldís wedding.

After that Barshack started invading comedy gigs in this guise, from small pub rooms to the Spike Milligan tribute at Londonís Guildhall. On film, he says his motive was to put a spirit of punk back into comedy, irregardless of his own talents. ìThe Pistols couldnít play an instrument, I canít tell a joke,î he says.

It’s an attitude that divided those trying to make their own way in the comedy business. Many people misguidedly enter the business for fame above anything else, and once Barschakís Windsor Castle stunt gave him that in unprecedented levels, jealousy was inevitable. That he had no jokes to back it up only fuelled their exasperation.

In the film, newish comic Dan Willis calls him ìa jumped-up hecklerî, even though established act Paul Provenza, was more accepting of Barshackís aims to make comedy more spontaneous and unpredictable. He even makes comparisons with the strange offstage antics of the late US comic Andy Kaufman.

Another interviewee, film-maker Jon Roson, adds particular insight; especially with the observation that Barschak wants to become part of the world of stand-up more than he wants to subvert it. That he is seen willingly hobnobbing with the guests at a Tatler party reinforces the idea that heís hardly anti-Establishment. His stunt in throwing paint over Turner-nominated artist Mark Chapman equally panders to Middle-England sensibilities.

Though made by a blood relative, Rebel Without Applause is no hagiography, or blanket apology for his actions. Though itís very sympathic to his case, it does raise enough questions to be surprisingly interesting.

Barely concealed conflict between Barshack and his respectable Jewish father add spice, as do the tense scenes as he prepares for his Edinburgh show under the searing media spotlight, with no idea what he is going to say.

Often Barschakís on-screen justifications for his actions seem disingenuous, even when theyíve been concocted with the advantage of hindsight.

He complains he was ìjust a media accidentî. But what do you expect when you break into Windsor Castle? And he certainly has tried to play the game and capitalise on his infamy.

He also argues his disruptions are good for comedy, aimed at puncturing the egos of comics who are too obsessed with their own image ñ which is rich from a man whoís the sole subject of an 80-minute documentary at the end of which he strips almost naked on the summit of Arthurís Seat, overlooking Edinburgh like some sort of Messiah.

While comedy doesnít need to be about image, it is about being funny, and Barschak is learning, like every other stand-up before him, that there are no shortcuts for that, simply a huge investment in writing and performing.

His 2003 Edinburgh was allegedly taught him a valuable lesson, showing marked improvements after those ill thought-out early gigs. Scotsman critic Kate Copstick is seen praising his show on the film, but halfway through its run it was still abysmal ñ even if endearingly so.

Given Barschak's image, it's hard to imagine a cinema audience for this film. Even a free screenings in festival-time Edinburgh, full of potential viewers with a direct interest in the subject, could only muster a handful of cinemagoers. More likely it could be made into an hour-long TV documentary - and, to be honest, could do with the cut.

Even if it does find a wider audience, itís unlikely to make anyone more sympathetic to Barschak, or even understand him much better. What it does do, however, is make for a good talking point - something the Comedy Terrorist himself has always provided.

Steve Bennett
September 6, 2004

Published: 6 Sep 2006

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