We always enjoyed the darker side of comedy

Max & Ivan pick their favourites

Bo Burnham: Art is Dead

Bo Burnham tore through the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe like a lanky, preternaturally talented adolescent wordsmith with one of the most extraordinary debut hours of comedy in recorded history – which is lucky, because that’s exactly what he was.

His show, ‘Words Words Words’, opened with a blistering one-liner (‘My girlfriend has this really weird fetish… she likes to dress up as herself and act like a total bitch.”’ and then launched into a peerless melange of songs, theatre and poetry, held together with a biting, angular wit and Burnham’s sneering performance.

That August he was younger (he had his 20th birthday halfway through the month), taller (6ft 7in, or something ridiculous) and better (infinite five star reviews, capped off by a Foster’s Award) than every other comedian in Edinburgh. On the show that we went to see – an extra afternoon show, booked in by Pleasance due to feral demand for tickets, almost everyone in the audience was a comedian.

We sat, open-mouthed, as Burnham sung song after song – densely packed verses, loaded with epigrams and quadruple entendres – and our eyes shone with a combination of awe and jealousy and arousal. Art Is Dead isn’t his funniest song, but it is his best.

The Two Ronnies: Mastermind Sketch

It’s sort of assumed that everyone hates the Two Ronnies these days – they’ve become seen as an act that is both old-fashioned and embarrassing, like a mangle made of dildos. But they were brilliant, and this sketch (which, admittedly, they didn’t write – all credit should go to the inspired David Renwick) is just flawless.

Once you’ve accepted the conceit – Ronnie Corbett answering each question with the previous question’s answer – the rest of the sketch is basically pure, unadulterated punchlines.

It’s about as far as one can get from the modern vogue for introspective, thought-provoking comedy. It doesn’t raise questions about the fabric of the universe, or the truth behind human interaction, or what happens to us when we die, but it is magically witty, and that’s something which is just as difficult to write.

(Obviously I’m not defending the monologues Corbett did, they were utter atrocities.)

Daniel Kitson: Stories for a Starlit Sky (Forest Fringe, 25 August 2011)

A three hour gig, starting at 12.30am? How very Daniel Kitson*.

All it took was ten minutes of storytelling magic, set to the Basden-esque musical stylings of Gavin Osborn, for Ivan to fall in love with this then-bearded man. Kitson's stand up is sublime, and we'd happily add Where Once Was Wonder to the playlist (thankfully we were two of those people who got tickets), however last year's one-off theatrical marathon deserves special recognition - there's no feeling greater than shedding a few deliriously tired (happy) tears, at 3am...

Regardless of how much he may not want you to see him; you must. You really must. See him for the ridiculously dense material he so effortlessly spouts. See him for his ability to hold a crowd in his hand. See him for how we he can pluck at your heartstrings whilst punching you in the gut. Just see him.

*He'd hate that phrase, in fact he'd hate this entire entry. Ah well. Fuck you, Kitson. You shouldn't have done such an amazing show.

Woody Allen: The Lost Generation

Quick, everyone! Stop the endless, synapse-shrivellingly tedious debate about whether Woody Allen’s most recent film is a return to form, or whether he ever had any form in the first place, or whether he married his daughter, and just focus on the unarguable fact that he was once one of the funniest stand-up comedians in the universe.

Allen’s stand-up was a big part of my formative comedy education – I [Max] listened to his routines on a ‘tape’ (essentially an iPod which only contained an hour’s worth of songs and didn’t have any games) on long car journeys with my parents, and remember fighting for breath as tears cascaded down my face – due to laughter, not abusive parenting or some form of seizure.

Allen’s Complete Prose is a similarly essential printed document of the man at his most brilliant, but there’s really nothing like hearing him deliver his own material in that awkward, nasal, Jewish New Yoiker accent. He could marry his own granddaughter and I’d still worship him.

The League of Gentlemen: Season 3

The third and final season from the League of Gentlemen was the culmination of many years, finely sculpting the genre of horror comedy.

Watching the likes of Monkey Dust and early Little Britain (yeah, that's right, we liked early Little Britain. And so did you. So deal with it), we always enjoyed the darker side of comedy; however it was the League that took it to a whole new level.

The conceptual through-line that connects each of the six episodes is second to none, however it's the disgusting, pathetic, lovable lives of the Royston Vasey villagers that puts this firmly on our list. Turn Again Geoff Tipps, the story of a would-be stand up comedian, is possibly the best episode, and the phrase ‘You always knew I had this gun...’ is, well, just watch it.

For an extra effect, why not do what we did and watch Episode 3 in the Canal Cafe Theatre, only to realise that's where it was set... weird...


This isn’t your conventional comedy set, it’s from American Inventor (essentially a US Dragon’s Den), but watch it – it’s incredible.

Basically, you don’t know pathos until you’ve met Marc Griffin. He’s the inventor of a ‘high calibre table game’ known as Bulletball, and that he’s poured an unfathomable amount of his life (26 years, at the time this clip was filmed) into making the concept a reality.

The game he has invented essentially boils down to backhanding a ping-pong ball across a circular table. That’s it. Yep.

Somehow, though, in pursuit of making this game an Olympic sport, his marriage has dissolved (he has sold his ex-wife’s wedding ring, as well as his house and his good car) and his life has completely fallen apart. Well, not completely – he’s got his dream; he’s got Bulletball (and also Bulletball Extreme, a version of the game that is apparently different, in some unspecified way. Possibly the table is lubricated with Griffin’s tears).

It’s fascinating to see someone this passionate yet misguided – a masterclass in character comedy, from a character who simply had the misfortune to be a real person. Does he convince the judges and win the money? That would be telling. But, no, of course not.

Published: 23 Aug 2012

Live comedy picks

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