Kelvin McKenzie tries stand-up

We review ex-Sun editor’s only gig

Outspoken former Sun editor Kelvin McKenzie has tried his hand at stand-up for a new TV programme.

The controversial journalist and broadcaster performed a set at the open mic night at East London’s Comedy Café last night, partly based on his own experiences at L!ve TV.

The 62-year-old had been scheduled to perform a ten-minute set, but over-ran – only coming off the stage when the lights were flicked off to indicate he had spoken for nearly 20 minutes, to the obvious chagrin of compere Martin Davis.

His routine was initially well received by the near sold-out audience, but he gradually lost their attention, and several conversations broke out towards the back of the room.

Chortle editor Steve Bennett, who was at the gig, said: ‘He started off better than you might have thought, coming across as charming and self-deprecatory as he talked about himself. But when he started attacking other targets, his attitude soured, and he started to lose the crowd. And the bottom line is that his jokes weren’t strong enough to overcome that.’

McKenzie’s performance was being recorded for a new documentary series, believed to be for UK TV

According to an entry on Wikipedia, McKenzie turned up to a gig in central London last week, but fled before taking to the stage.

The online encylopaedia said: ‘A crowd screaming “coward” at him as he ran, head down, clutching his coat, failed to lure him back. It seems that, while he was happy to beligerantly [sic] heckle the opening acts, he was somewhat fearful of being on the receiving end of such behaviour.’

A staunch right-winger, McKenzie was editor of The Sun from 1981 to 1994, where his famous headlines included everything from Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster, the supposedly election-winning: ‘If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights’ and the controversial Gotcha! over the sinking of the Belgrano during the Falklands war. His paper’s coverage of the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 caused uproar, falsely blaming drunken and ticketless Liverpool fans for the tragedy.

After leaving the Sun, Kelvin had a stint as an executive at BSkyB and then joined the Mirror Group to work on L!veTV, where his contributions included topless darts and the News Bunny. He continues to write a provocative column for the Sun.

Chortle editor Steve Bennett’s review of Kelvin McKenzie:

At one time, this would have been unthinkable: an arch-Thatcherite journalist, editor of the hated Sun during its union-busting move to Wapping, on stage at a stand-up club? The politically motivated movers behind the early alternative comedy circuit would have lynched him before he got to the microphone.

But last night, the humiliation of a metaphorical death is the worst that Kelvin McKenzie faced. And, to be honest, it’s what we all expect of a 62-year-old with no stand-up experience, giving it a go only for the benefit of the TV cameras.

The surprise, then, was that he started off pretty well. He has the confidence you might expect given his brash journalistic style, but also a surprising likeability, which he supplemented with a string of self-deprecating gags about his age. His admission that he created the shamelessly downmarket L!ve TV won him a rousing cheer, as did his run-through of its finest moments: from dwarf weather-forecasters on trampolines to the News Bunny.

As he lobbed out a few anecdotes and ungracious jibes at the expense of former colleague Janet Street-Porter (‘she finished fifth in the Grand National’), he had the audience on side. It’s the sort of material he probably uses on the after-dinner circuit, and proves equally entertaining here.

But as his set went on, he snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Once he started to believe he had nailed it, his confidence slipped into arrogance. And when he replaced his anecdotes with what could charitably be described as jokes, he lost his audience. He didn’t get heckled much – it was far worse than that: he got ignored. Tables around me started up their own conversations, bored by the man on stage.

Ignoring the sage advice ‘If you’re doing badly, get off, if you’re doing well, get off’, McKenzie hugely overran his allocated time slot. Despite the lights flashing around him and the compere and staff making furious ‘wind it up’ gestures, he pushed on regardless.

Given his background in tabloid headline writing, there were a fair few puns – at least one of which elicited a sarcastic ‘I thank yew’ from the crowd, pointing out the music-hall origins of his style. But what works on the page rarely works on the stage, and his suggestions for TV programmes mostly fell on deaf ears. He suggested a reality show about assisted suicide – Celebrity Come Die With Me – and then a new vehicle for David Dickinson – Bargain Cunt. Despite the impression Kelvin might have of modern comedy, it’s more than sweary insults.

He grumbled uncharitably about Jack Dee, with a lame quip or two about the size of his wallet; which seemed odd coming from a high-flying media executive who hadn’t been funny enough to earn the right to be so biting about successful comics. And his beliefs in ‘political correctness gone mad’ were translated into a lame joke about Barack Obama’s BlackBerry (‘or as he would rather it be called, a Berry Of Colour’), which exposed him as out of touch with the increasingly restless audience.

Though the set went downhill, McKenzie escaped with his dignity, if not his credibility as a comedian. Had he stuck to talking of his own, often bizarre, career he’d have pulled it off – it was only when he started attacking others that he lost the audience’s sympathy.

Next time he passes comment on the state of comedy in the wake of something like the Jonathan Ross saga, McKenzie will now know that it’s not as easy as it looks. And he should remember that when it came down to it, his idea of comedy was to call an affable pensioner – David Dickinson – a cunt.

Published: 29 Jan 2009

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