Laughing Horse New Act Final 2008

Note: This review is from 2008

Review by Steve Bennett

Anyone considering becoming a stand-up be warned: the competition is fierce, and standards sky-high. That’s the unavoidable conclusion from this year’s very strong Laughing Horse new act final, where merely being great was not enough to win honours – you had to be excellent.

Around 670 people entered the contest, a staggeringly high number of comedy hopefuls, and by the time 98 per cent of them had been eliminated, the final 13 made for an impressive bunch indeed.

Paul McCaffrey set the bar high from the get-go, thanks to a hugely professional delivery. He’s likeable, animated and fluid with a first-rate sense of timing, able to throw in a few gags relevant just for tonight alongside his more polished material, all helping the illusion of spontaneity.

Material-wise, he has a stylish way of slowly building up on his observational premises, wringing every possible laugh out of it. A couple of the segments skirt dangerously close to hack territory – the automated phone booking systems that misunderstand your instructions or the over-literal interpretation of advertising slogans spring obviously to mind – but he more than redeems himself with fresh takes on cash-machine queues or train travel. It’s all very accessible stuff about the frustrations of life, very nicely executed, and once he ditches the more obvious routines, he’ll be a very appealing act indeed.

Andi Osho won the Funny Women competition last year, but tonight she failed to set the room alight. She, too, has a very confident delivery, a product – no doubt – of her acting training, which ensures a certain level of laughs from the rhythms and emphases of her speech alone. But the material doesn’t really entice, and hasn’t moved on much in the last year.

Her division of Nigerian women into either princesses or ‘bushwomen’, as seen on the No 25 bus out of East London, offers her the chance to impersonate both archetypes. But often it’s little more than a comedy foreign accent that’s getting the results, rather than any sharp gags or intrinsically funny observations. She’s a winning performer, but the writing is fairly mundane.

Tom Canty struggled, too. He doesn’t seem at all at home on the stage, coming across as stilted and nervous. It’s an awkwardness that ill-suits his jokes, which sail very close to the wind. When you’re covering such standard bad-taste territory as rape, disabilities and abortion, you need a ballsy swagger – not an almost apologetic air. And because he doesn’t appear comfortable with his own material, neither do the audience, meaning the harsh one-liners fall on stony ground. His chatty, more natural material went down better – but there wasn’t so much of that.

Next up was Canadian Pat Burtscher, who seemed here in body but not in spirit. He has the air of an acid casualty, gazing at an angle to the floor or to the middle-distance while random thoughts tumble out of his mouth, the words struggling desperately to clump together into coherent ideas. Within the chaos are some nice, offbeat ideas, such as his plan to harness the power of crack junkies, which is an undeniably funny premise. Other segments, however, can feel like good alternative theses in dire need of punchlines. It’s all rather shambolic, making it very ambiguous as to whether he’s a random genius needing to distil his original thoughts into comedy, or just a slighty unhinged oddball.

Nat Luurtsema is definitely an original thinker. Her inventive, witty routines demonstrate a wonderfully warped logic, taken to the limits of imagination. She starts one such chunk by wanting to disrupt a line of ants, and ends up talking about a snowman in a seamlessly twisted train of thought. But for all the bold, distinctive writing, she struggles to engage with the audience completely. It’s easy to find yourself impressed by her talent, but quite a bit harder to connect on an emotional level.

Mind you, much of set, delivered with well-spoken aloofness, is about how she’s not good with people, who – as a species – annoy her. Still, if it’s solitude that’s made her such an original writer, there’s something to be said for it.

That was the end of part one, and so far it was par for the course for a new act competition with plenty of promise on display, plenty of it needing some work to be fulfilled, and a couple of weaker, but not dreadful, acts. But things were about to step up a gear… and never let up.

Hearts sank as the running order revealed part two would start with Darren Ruddell ‘as Kev’, which seemed to portend yet another chav character. The sight of a man waiting to go on in shabby clothes, looking dense, was not a good sign. However, expectations were quickly overturned when he took to the stage and set out the startlingly original premise. Ruddell could not be arsed to come to the gig, so had recorded his set and sent along his braindead plasterer, Kev, to deliver it, verbatim, as he listened to the playback on his headphones.

You will have never seen anything like this on a comedy stage before, but it was more than a clever gimmick – as Ruddell peppered the script with plenty of genuinely funny lines, plus a subversive deconstruction of audience banter. Something very different, and funny with it, which earned Ruddell the gold medal – or more accurately the glass trophy and £1,000 cash – on the night.

This was a tough act to follow, but Henry Paker was more than equal to the task, with a mightily impressive set that was rarely less than superb. With his brusque middle-class pedantry, the cardiganned comic is similar in style to established circuit act Simon Evans. But his material is funny in its own right, and expertly delivered with perfect pace and phrasing.

His inspired observations come from his strict opinions of how things should be, and skilfully teased out in small but distinctive logical leaps, each revealing a new laugh. Something as simple as the phrase ‘I’m good with faces, but not names,’ is enough to launch an inspired chunk of comic brilliance, and even much-covered topics such as predictive text messaging or people pretentiously making inverted commas symbols with their fingers are given a fresh, original breath of life. The language he uses is precise and effective, too. Things don’t ‘annoy’ him, they ‘irk’ him; the careful use of that synonym alone speaks volumes about this well-defined persona.

In the close-run final, Paker came second, but on most other nights he would surely have been a clear winner. The man will be a star.

After two such strong acts, Ben Hayman had his work cut out, and ultimately couldn’t reach their heights, even though he’s certainly a solid act in his own right. He is a straightforward, no-nonsense observational comic, nicely recreating everyday experiences. He, too, has a nice turn of phrase, though not quite a strong enough personality to be memorable. But he’s certainly competent in the stand-up basics, giving a sound foundation for such a newbie.

Nathaniel Tapley is an actorly character turn very much similar in style to Al Murray’s loud, declamatory performance – not to mention his ill-thought-out right-wing opinions derived from his many psychological, emotional and social failings. In fact, this rabid Tory boy would probably see the Pub Landlord as some sort of namby-pamby liberal.

His veins throb and his eyes bulge as he harrumphs his way through his personal manifesto against political correctness. He’s imperialistic, homophobic and sexist – and very, very funny. The comically exaggerated opinions crystalise into wonderful one-liners, including a gag about his ‘handicapped boy’ that was the best single joke of the night. There are a couple of formulaic lines in the mix, but they are done with such panache that it matters little. A powerhouse performance, and funny with it.

After the second breather came another scintillatingly lively act. Whippet-thin Imran Yusuf is almost cartoon-like in his physicality, prancing nimbly round the stage, striking clownish poses and gurning when comically when it’s called for. It’s a tour-de-force delivery, full of infectious vigour and life. Vocal dexterity adds to the appeal. He talks mostly like one of the urban ‘yoot’ tribe, never asking for something when he can ‘aks’ for it instead, but dropping into accents at the drop of a punchline

The writing is lean, too. He has a ruthless efficiency in getting from one gag to the next without a wasted second. It all adds to the breathless urgency of his set, sweeping up all before it.

He is, however, let down by often pedestrian writing. He proclaims himself, self-effacingly, as the ‘topical ethnic act’ and constantly quips: ‘They love that down the mosque they do,’ making it an unlikely catchphrase. But his take on subjects is often short on surprises – talking about finding it easy to get seats on public transport in these days of terror, for instance. Elsewhere some tired old puns are given a dusting down, and the thought process rarely moves on from the obvious.

The exciting performance means he’s a joy to watch; he just needs better material so he’s a joy to listen to, too.

Tom Rosenthal dissipated the energy Yusuf had built up with the instincts of a pro. He referenced the act just gone and skilfully negotiated the gear-change to acclimatise the audience to his more normal pace. He promises jokes long and short, and that’s exactly what he delivers. There’s more than a hint of Ricky Gervais in his attitude, with ironically illiberal gags scattered through the act, even adding one-word commentaries to his own set, as The Office creator would. Awkward.

This sits alongside some more relaxed observational material, with entertainingly wry comments on the likes of the British version of Pimp My Ride. He’s an amiable, relaxed act, though again without that added ‘wow’ factor needed on such a high-quality gig as this.

Next up, Daniel Simonsen, a bone-dry Norwegian with a more-than agreeable line in weird observations. He admits to being nervous in social situations, and wittily describes his anxiety at an office induction day or his tendency to say ‘hello’ to strangers in the street way too early. His personality is a little hard to fathom, but he makes the most of this awkwardness, coming across as ethereal and disconnected – an image helped by the heavy accent. Indeed, he gets laughs even from the way he says something like ‘walkie-talkie’. He hasn’t yet fully capitalised on his apparent strangeness, but shows a lot of promise as a relative newcomer.

The luck of the draw meant that the Norwegian was followed by the Finn, adding an unexpected Scandinavian twist to the end of the night. Like Simonsen, Ismo Leikola is as cold and desolate as his country, and capitalises on his softly-spoken charm well. Rather than trying to connect with the audience, he gets laughs of his isolation from them. Again it’s the disjointed attitude that amplifies the laughs, but there are some inventive surreal gems among his punchlines, earning him third place in such a competitive field.

The Laughing Horse class of ’09 are going to have to go a long way to trump this year’s impressive line-up.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

Review date: 1 Jan 2008
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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