Top ten gigs of 2011

Chortle editor Steve Bennett's personal look back

As editor of Chortle, I see around 350 comedy shows a year... here is my personal top ten of the most memorable gigs of the past 12 months.

10. Dylan Moran, New Theatre Oxford, May

Another show densely-packed with ideas, wonderfully surreal images and perfectly-honed jokes that give lie to Moran’s shambolic delivery. Although on the face of it, he’s just another grumpy old man bemoaning the complexities of life and the fecklessness of humanity, the Irishman’s eloquent language and unique philosophy transcended into something quite special. Again

9. Nick Helm, Latitude Festival, Suffolk, June

The intensity of Nick Helm’s aggressive performance, raspingly abusing the audience, always makes for a intimidating experience in the mid-sized venues he normally plays. In the massive and often lethargic comedy ‘arena’ (ie tent) at the Latitude festival he upped his game for a proper rock-and-roll experience, shirt ripped open to the podgy navel as he ‘kicked the gig in the dick’, to use his own expression. His persona of tragic outsider on the verge of breakdown owes more than a nod to Johnny Vegas, but this performance proved – should it be needed – that Helm’s a rising star in his own right, with writing to match the mesmerising car-crash performance.

8. Stephen Merchant, The Hexagon, Reading, September

There were funnier shows that haven’t made this list – Stewart Lee, Tom Stade and Doug Stanhope are notable omissions – but Merchant deserves his place for not being a disappointment. With his back catalogue of TV work, his debut stand-up inevitably came with great expectations, yet he pulled off a confident and frequently very funny show based around his low-status awkwardness that easily surpassed the lazier effort of his writing partner’s last stand-up offering.

7. Tim Minchin, Metropolis, Montreal, July

2011 was far from a vintage year for Montreal’s Just For Laughs festival, which seemed to play it safer than ever before. But Minchin’s always a delight; squeezing in some intimate nightclub gigs between his orchestral arena gigs, co-creating a top West End musical and being an all-round musical comedy genius. With what was largely a ‘greatest hits’ set, albeit with a couple of newer numbers, he couldn’t really go wrong.

6. Late Night Gimp Fight, Pleasance, Edinburgh, August

Two years ago, this five-man sketch group’s much-hyped Edinburgh debut left me largely cold – so it was a revelation to see the breakthrough they'd made in the intervening months. A lot of this is down to pure showmanship: the impact of the visuals, music, physical business and slick attitude drag audiences into their comedy – theatrical devices , yes, but an important aspect so often overlooked by other sketch performers. However, it’s not style over substance, though, as the quintet (who won this year’s Chortle Award for best sketch or character act) frequently display great flashes of innovation in their writing, too. I’m glad my original verdict has been overturned.

5. Tommy Tiernan, Laughs in the Park, St Albans, July

This open-air festival was always Eddie Izzard’s gig. But while the surrealist disappointed many by doing much the same material as he did the previous year, Tiernan knocked him out of the park. On his day the impassioned Irishman is one of the world’s best comedians – and this was his day. He evangelised against conformity and shared touching anecdotes, all with an eloquent wit and often fierce delivery that made thousands of people forget the threat of impeding rain and be moved, entertained and enlightened all in one barnstorming set.

4. Jerry Seinfeld, O2 London, June

What’s the deal with Jerry Seinfeld? He talks about just boring everyday things, to almost a cliched degree, yet he makes it all appear so effortlessly funny. Yes, his first UK appearance in 13 years was preposterously overpriced, and, yes, arenas are to comedy what ice rinks are to chess, but there was no doubt the master of observational comedy has got a class that’s rarely matched. He makes it look so easy – but the parade of would-be Seinfelds who can’t match his everyman eloquence prove it’s not. I only wish I’d seen him in the more intimate confines of the Comedy Store, where he made an unannounced warm-up appearance earlier in the week.

3. Brendon Burns’s Wedding, Anyhoe Park, Banbury, June

OK, so not exactly a gig... but whenever a bunch of comics come together, including Ed Byrne, Barry Castagnola and Matt Kirshen, it’s going to turn into one. And when there’s a reviewer there, he’s going to write about it. For the speeches, master of ceremonies Adam Bloom perfectly skipped the line between affection and a full-on roast, creating a mischievous tone that all those giving speeches followed with aplomb. But despite stiff competition from some of the nation’s top stand-ups, the biggest laugh of the day came from the groom’s 11-year-old son Luke telling guests that bride Laura had made him forget all the previous women in his dad’s life. With the emphasis on ‘all’.

2. Eddie Izzard: Stripped, Théâtre De Dix Heures, Paris, June

A trip to Paris. Eddie Izzard in an intimate theatre. Performing in French. How could this not be memorable? Creaky schoolboy language skills – mine, not his – also made this the show that demanded the most concentration all year, but it was well rewarded. This was not a cod Franglais performance, but a proper second language show, running for several weeks, with only a couple of minor linguistic struggles, which were, in any case, entirely in keeping with his usual scatterbrained delivery. It speaks volumes for the English people’s attitude to languages that this was a notable event – after all there are plenty of European comics working beyond their mother tongue in the UK –but even without this unique selling point, Stripped is a fine stand-up show.

1. The Wrestling, Pleasance, Edinburgh, August

‘Only in Edinburgh’ is a phrase that’s applied to lots of shows, as the density of talented performers and uniquely gung-ho artistic atmosphere within the Fringe bubble leads to plenty of unique collaborations. But occasionally the scale and ambition of an idea expands the limits of even this unique environment. The Wrestling – like Mark Watson’s super-long shows – was one of those defining shows. The brainchild of Max Olesker, one half of comedy duo Max & Ivan and a one-time wrestler himself, the insane plan was to mix actual fighting, where people can and do get hurt, with comedians – who are, by and large, reckless and fragile. As a recipe for disaster, it’s like building a nuclear power plant on a geological fault line. But the result was astounding, turning a crowd of arty, liberal festival-goers into a brawling mob as brawlers executed breathtaking moves, and comics made it all brilliantly fun. Highlights included seeing Patrick Monahan almost pay a heavy price for his spotlight-hogging antics, enraging a wrestler who seemed genuinely unhinged, Nick Helm’s full-on ring announcing and Olesker’s acrobatic finale, in which he unfortunately sustained an injury. Plus special credits to Andrew Maxwell, who as the ‘good’ commentator opposite Brendon Burns for the heels, masterfully played the crowd, and producer Beth O’Brien who somehow made this nightmarishly complex event happen. We won’t see its like again… though it certainly won't be the end for ridiculous Fringe stunts.

Published: 29 Dec 2011

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