English Comedian Of The Year final

Note: This review is from 2009

Review by Steve Bennett

So who would be your English comedian of the year? Michael McIntyre maybe? Russell Brand? Horne and Corden?

There’s obviously a point beyond which comedy isn’t a competitive sport. Everyone at Edinburgh might want to win a Perrier – or whatever it might be called this year – and Chortle Awards and British Comedy Awards are certainly coveted accolades. But to go in front of an audience and vie for the title best comedian of the night, well that’s only the domain of open spots, starved of decent gigs and keen to stand out from the ever-growing crowd of newcomers, right?

Well, not if promoter Alan Anderson has his way. After launching the successful Scottish Comedian Of The Year, he’s now turned his attention to England, with a competition technically open to any comedian of any experience – although how many established acts are likely to risk entering for the £1,000 top prize is a moot point.

The expansion into England isn’t such an obvious idea, either. Clubs are comparatively thin on the ground in Scotland, and there’s a unifying national identity north of the border you don’t get to the south – both of which are good reasons for the Scoty, but don’t apply to England.

But for all the flaws in the reasoning behind the contest, the under-attended St George’s Day final in London’s Leicester Square Theatre did provide a strong showcase of mostly newish acts; so that can’t be frowned at.

Well, I say ‘newish’. Opening act Nick Wilty has about 19 years under his belt, a rare example of a more established act taking part. But while experience proved invaluable, even that couldn’t completely extricate him from a very tough slot. The audience weren’t particularly enamoured of compere Stu Who, so it was a very cold audience that Wilty faced.

He slowly won them over with his relentlessly gaggy set, much of it based on his experiences as possibly Britain’s most travelled comedian. These are not involved stories, merely pegs on which to hang his one-liners, some of which are reasonably straightforward, but other of which conceal a delicious twist.

His delivery is rather conventional, almost old school you might say, but it is effortlessly done and laced with self-deprecation – a light touch which sits well with his cheerily resigned material. Wilty is a bit of a blokeish Jack-the-lad, but the style is silly rather than aggressive, appealing to a broad audience. Indeed he won everyone over tonight, creating a livelier atmosphere for all the acts who followed him. But his allocated seven minutes was not long enough to both turn around the room, and to allow him to shine in his own right. As one of the judges said backstage, he took one for the team tonight…

So a better atmosphere greeted Matthew Osborn, who won the So You Think You’re Funny? new act competition seven long years ago but has been off the scene for a while, which has definitely been the circuit’s loss.

His primary strength is in the clearly defined persona: a smug, jumped-up, privileged twerp who wouldn’t look out of place in a Young Conservatives conference. It gives him an arrogant sense of entitlement that runs through his material like lettering through rock, lending plausibility to his often harsh material.

The gags themselves are expertly crafted, perfectly timed and outrageously funny. The impact is exaggerated by a very deliberate delivery that’s all his own, but with hints of Matt Berry. He’s the full package, and a deserved winner on the night. And as one of the most quintessentially English acts on the bill, his victory can only help establish this fledgling competition’s identity – even though that was no factor in the judging.

Ben Davids is a low-key, parochial act, starting with material about his life as a librarian in smalltown Tamworth. The delivery is about as interesting as that sounds: one-liners barked out without much emotion, perhaps indicating that this newcomer is not yet relaxed enough on stage to put much of his personality on show.

Such a deadpan style leaves jokes very exposed, and unfortunately many in his repertoire don’t Cut the Mustard on their own, especially with the air of familiarity that surrounds parts of his routine such as choking during charades and masturbation damaging the short-term memory.

Simon Gunnell is another newish act, and another who’s chosen a slow, almost characterless delivery, standing nonchalantly on stage with his hands thrust deep into his pockets. But he has come up with a nifty construction on which to frame his material – ambitiously attempting a rundown of his top 100 films, with detailed reasoning, within his brief set.

Even more cleverly, he doesn’t really stick to it, using the concept as loosely as he possibly can. The writing’s up and down, and the set runs out of steam even in few short minutes, but with his strong timing and original presentation, he certainly shows promise.

Gunnell was followed by another dry, deadpan merchant: Albion Gray, who didn’t get off to the best start by using an old Emo Phillips ‘by and large…’ gag. He’s a sort of cut-price Jimmy Carr – not so harsh in tone, perhaps, but using a similar mechanical process to generate one-liners, then delivering them dispassionately, fixing a frozen expression on his face while he waits for the penny to drop.

It’s a pun-driven set, and often he seems to be generating the sort of wordplay you might find in local newspaper headlines. A few notable lines rise above that sort of thing – especially the self-deprecating ones that reveal his gags’ inner workings – but it is definitely hit and miss; and about 30/70 in the wrong direction. Gray was also noticeably nervous, you could actually hear how dry his mouth was under the lights, and that doesn’t engender much trust.

You couldn’t say the same about confidence-filled Doc Brown; a rapper-turned comic who looks as if he was born on stage. He’s brought some of the swagger of his old job to his act, but with an irresistibly amiable demeanour that gives him an effortlessly charismatic aura. After a brief bit of banter – and a so-bad-it’s-good opening pun – he unveils a set that fuses his rap skills with comedy.

Like many of the more traditional musical comedians, performing to a backing trap gives his set an inherent rhythm and energy – and almost guaranteed applause breaks. But, also like some of the hackier musical comedians, the comic quality of the set pieces is suspect. Listing euphemisms for STDs or rapping about internet porn shows a disappointing immaturity in the writing.

Still, he’s only been performing comedy for about a year, so there’s plenty of time for him to develop. If he can stretch his inspirations, he could yet be the Bill Bailey or Tim Minchin of rap. Brown took the bronze on the night, for sheer stage presence alone.

Second place went to the acerbic Sam Gore, a haughtily disdainful relative newcomer with an unremittingly nasty set. He describes himself as ‘cynical, horrible and misogynistic’, and it would be hard to argue with that. Not that you would be advised to. Spite may drive the act, but what makes it work so well are the flamboyantly baroque insults with which he voices his contempt for mankind in general, and Jamie Oliver in particular.

There are some nicely sneery lines about PE teachers, an Marmite gag to wrong-foot you, and a shockingly funny Michael Barrymore joke. You might think that subject’s passed its tell-by date, but if the material is as strong as this you can get away with it. You’ll probably wince at some of Gore’s more outlandish material, but those with a strong constitution will love him.

Luke McQueen was a smiley, relaxed act, who bantered more with the audience than any other finalist, showing an easy confidence even in this high-pressure environment. His set is quite silly, with enjoyable material about how he doesn’t feel manly enough, why babies should be given more original names, and how to undermine your girlfriend’s confidence, given an extra lift by his slick, likeable persona. Possibly more journeyman than genius, but he’s certainly good company.

Jane Hill has a nice poise on stage, too, but her material is rather too mild to make an impact. It’s largely about being middle-aged and middle-class, with observations about dating when you’re older, Christmas round-robin newsletters and You Tube that are likely to raise a smile, rather than a hearty guffaw. And when she moves onto gaggier material or comments about her ‘lady garden’, she appears to be trying too hard for it to be naturally funny. Only a stand-out gag about line dancing bucks the trend.

Hill’s the sort of act that might make agreeable dinner-party chat, or possibly a wryly amusing newspaper column, but doesn’t have enough oomph for a memorable live set.

The similarly well-spoken Ian Smith, you probably will remember. With his flipchart and preposterous hypothesis about breasts, testicles and fruits he certainly has a unique set. He executes it well, too. Despite the ridiculousness of the idea, he presents it with the solemnity of an academic lecture, taking us step-by-step through his bizarre reasoning. That allows him to draw out gags with pleasing regularity, skilfully extending his tenuous premise into a fully formed set, with plenty of twists and turns, with the juxtaposition between silly gags and serious delivery adding an extra layer to the satisfying lasagne that is his act.

Mark Simmons mumbled his way though lacklustre set about his hairstyle and whether he looks like Rhys Ifans, as if we could really give a stuff, before moving onto flimsy surreal nonsense about owls doing kung-fu. Oh, and there’s a ‘topical’ joke about the whale that was in the Thames a mere three-and-a-half years ago. Kent boy Simmons – who coincidentally shares his name with a black Chicago comic – has an appealing way of saying his catchphrase ‘have you ever…’ but that’s hardly the basis for a comedy career.

Next up, fellow newcomer Joel Dommett has the confident, excitable delivery and quirky geek-chic good looks of a natural-born TV presenter, but the material is rather mundane. There’s a long routine about fare evasion that goes nowhere, and a fantasy about a gay gym that simply has him camping it up as a screaming queen. Not that he’s gay, he just likes the stereotype…

Archetypical English Andrew Watts has been around a little longer – having made the final of So You Think You’re Funny? in 2006. His posh, fey style is as effective as ever, with a well-defined mix of inherent authority and social fretfulness, so obsessed with ensuring he does the right thing that Hugh-Grant style humiliation is almost inevitable.

He trained as a lawyer – which comes as absolutely no surprise to anyone – and manages to mix ‘ropey puns’ with sound legal advice. He has a cricket metaphor – what else? - to help with the ladies, and manages to squeeze ‘quantitative easing’ into a routine about modern communications that starts as a mild complaint but escalates into a tour-de-force rant.

He has been performing this reliably strong routine since he broke onto the scene, and although it would be nice to see him stretch himself with new material, he was never going to go off-piste at such a high-profile final with £1,000 at stake.

Watts might have been unlucky to miss out on a place, but Matthew Osborn was certainly a worthy winner – a well-deserved triumph of the twerp.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
April 2009

Review date: 1 Jan 2009
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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