Unhappy ending

High On Laughter review

"Other than that, Mrs Lincoln, how was the play?"


When the headline act, a comedy legend making a rare London appearance, collapses moments before he's due on stage, it does put something a damper on an evening's comedy, to put it mildly.

Jerry Lewis was the certainly reason much of the audience was at the Palladium for the High On Laughter benefit, and certainly the reason why top-price tickets went for £60, a price that goes a long way to explaining why the iconic venue was barely a third full.

But you did get a lot of comedy talent for your money - four hours' worth in fact. And until the deeply worrying and somewhat surreal bombshell that brought the night to the uneasiest of ends, a seemingly endless parade of comics from both sides of the Atlantic provided a hearty portion of entertainment.

Yet they did so despite all the best efforts of the production itself - drowsily overlong, ineptly hosted, poorly programmed and with unnecessary but worthy soundbites repeatedly derailing both the flow and the atmosphere.

American comic Steven Alan Green certainly did a sterling job in gathering such an impressive bill, and he had the unenviable task of making the evening's final announcement. But as a compere, he blatantly lacked the warmth or ability to keep the audience's attention or to generate any sort of atmosphere.

It may have been the distractions of organising the evening - in which case the wisdom of also appearing onstage has to be questioned - but with a tired and mostly unfunny set, you do question whether he would ever have graced the bill had he not put it together himself.

Especially when he had such a brilliant potential compere as Boothby Graffoe there, who instead provided the all-too-short opening act alongside 'talented immigrant' guitarist Antonio Forcione.

Introduced by showband Ronnie And The Rex and the show's other compere, Huw Thomas (who warmed the audience up with a Hindustani chant that proved surprisingly effective) Graffoe's laid-back and innately funny banter proved an ideal mood-setter.

Referring to the night's beneficiary, Turning Point Scotland, Graffoe mused: "A benefit to help drug abusers is not so much a charitable act for me, as an investment."

With witty songs such as Poor Umbrella-Head Boy, Graffoe is in a league of his own, but the evening did suffer from far too many guitar-based acts, providing little stylistic variation. There are only so many musical parodies you can enjoy. For me, it's usually zero.

After Green's own set came compatriot Paul Provenza, with some assured observational material and a fairly predictable anti-Bush tirade. His set didn't really stand out, though it was resolutely amusing.

The show was then interrupted by the first of several pointlessly brief clips about the work of Turning Point, which took as long to introduce as it did to play. Even then, all we learned was that the charity was opened by the sainted Princess Diana. While some explanation of what the night was funding is only to be expected, these recurring insets were intrusive and uninformative.

Talented diva Jason Wood suffered from the collapse in atmosphere this unwelcome interruption provided, but his hugely powerful voice and uncanny impressions soon turned things around again.

Next up was one of the discoveries of the night for British audiences, the pianist-comic Zach Galifiniakis whose shuffle over to the grand in cloth cap immediately called Dudley Moore to mind. However, he has a style of his own - clever and beautifully timed one-liners spaced out with a few bars of atmospheric tinkling.

Fat bloke Max Alexander was initially a lot less impressive - moving the microphone stand out the way with the hack line "so you'll be able to see me". Old-fashioned in style, and covering mainly generic ground, albeit with his own material, he did produce a few nice lines, but nothing memorable.

Shelagh Martin was next - a relatively unknown British act playing a venue some leagues above what she's used to, which is no doubt why she appeared a little nervous and intimidated. But after the faltering start, which bizarrely comprised some of her weaker gags, her offbeat one-liners won over the audience - reducing a handful of them to hysterics. Her inexperience with venues this size meant she never dominated the room, but her writing shone.

The silly and geeky Jim Gaffigan similarly seemed unable to command so large a theatre, though this likeable American presented a promising array of nice ideas and neat pay-offs.

Rick Right was the night's biggest disappointment by a long chalk, with his uninspired musical impressions (of the 'what would this song sound like if sung by somebody else' variety) and abysmally limp puns sent to music ("Join the Tali-ban of love") having little comedy merit.

In complete contrast, the sublime Daniel Kitson closed the lengthy first half with a downplayed, sensitive and incisive extract from his Perrier-winning Edinburgh show - interspersed with some well-placed swearing, naturally.

After the break, an off-form Emo Philips ran out a mostly fresh collection of his trademark weird one-liners, to mixed effect, followed by the sinisterly seductive tones of horny-mouthed Earl Okin, who contributed to the night's growing stock of musical parodies.

Bobcat Goldthwaite was another revelation - though hiding behind his screeching Police Academy persona, he had some smart observations and a playful manner. At times, his manic, borderline aggressive, style gave his opinionated spleen-ventings an extra boost, but elsewhere it seemed at odds with the considered and clever material underneath.

But either way, he proved an impressive act, with a quality of act far removed from what you might expect from someone with his big-screen history.

Rick Overton, however, stuggled to overcome the audience's increasing weariness after such a long night's comedy. His material was solid, and with enough tricks of delivery to get the most out of it, but he didn't have the sort of explosive energy that was needed to revive the sleepy atmosphere at this time of night.

Then it was the moment we'd all been waiting for. After an awestruck introductions from Goldthwaite, a selection of Jerry Lewis's finest moments rolled on-screen, and the huge band took their seats.

But no Jerry.

Steven Alan Green struggled to gloss over the 'technical difficulties,' and Goldthwaite drafted his pal Tony V to make an unscheduled appearance to fill the time.

As this complete unknown admitted, it didn't matter how he went down, he would have a story to tell. Yet he appeared confident and at ease, despite the circumstances, and fared surprisingly well, with his light, hip but inventive routines proving an unexpected hit.

Of course Lewis never made it to the stage, having collapsed moments before he was due to make his entrance, providing an sad, if unforgettable, end to the evening.

But that's how an audience ended up paying up to £60 a head to see an unknown American comedian headline the London Palladium

Earl Okin hits back

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Published: 9 Sep 2002

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