What's So Funny? End of conference stand-up show

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Steve Bennett

The British Library is fast becoming an unlikely fixture on the London comedy circuit. Robin Ince has been here with his Book Club – which makes sense – Andy Zaltzman’s brought Political Animal here; and now a stand-up gig to close a day of discussions on some academic aspects of comedy.

Held in a comfortable lecture theatre, it’s the sort of gig where Ince, on tonight too, doesn’t stand out shuffling on with an armful of literature, Alistair Barrie brings on a portfolio pad and host Tiffany Stevenson brings on… a glass of red wine. It’s only a shame the audience can’t bring booze into these plush environs as well.

But it’s apposite as one of her nicest gags involves wordplay about why she’s like a bottle of plonk. There is a good smattering of nifty puns in her set, as well as a snappy malapropism or two, although her longer routines tend to lose their way – such as a roundabout yarn about her boyfriend tackling a mouse –  or start from an uninspiring premise: what if Hitler had Facebook (‘Himmler likes this’ etc etc etc).

Yet thought her amiable banter she mustered up something approaching a club atmosphere among the mix of students and older library regulars that comprised this unusual audience.

Not that Ince is exactly your standard club act. Rather than questions like ‘Who here smokes dope?’, he asks ‘Who here takes an empirical view of philosophy?’ But then this is the sort of audience who are always going to be intellectually flattered by such an approach.

Following the Wittgenstein material, our cardigan-wearing comic offers a more down-the-line observational routine about poor use of language that doesn’t particularly surprise, before returning to his favourite topic of bad writing, with readings of an overblown giant crab horror epic and an hilariously clunky Danielle Steel poem, sometimes accompanied by the willowy frame of Ben Moor, contorting into strange shapes to wittily, if unusually, illustrate the narrative.

Next up, Barrie took a line of very little resistance, with his easy and often superficial comments from his liberal-left standpoint. America as the world bully, with Britain his annoying mate goading him on, is an old and obvious idea, while picking apart Sarah Palin’s stupid statements is like shooting Alaskan deer in the head.

There are some good lines amid the unchallenging polemic – about Britain heading backwards or an obscure George Bush fact regurgitated – but overall the writing needs more intensity and focus, even though the delivery is slickly assured. His putting on of stereotypical accents and his routine about the British ‘discovering’ places to the surprise of the people already living there were both overplayed, and his translation of the slogans of the right into more civilised language (on the aforementioned pad) seemed weak.

Having spoken about offensive comedy in a panel earlier in the day, Shazia Mirza offered a few lines about Muslims and Irish people wanting to blow people up. ‘Don’t be scared to laugh,’ she asserted at another point… as if it couldn’t possibly be the laziness of the stereotype that muted the response.

More relaxed than she used to be, Mirza hit a more productive seam with material about arranged marriages and her overbearing parents. But when she directs her comedy outwards rather than inwards, the effect can be more brutal than funny. When it comes to moaning about white and Asian kids who think they are ‘black’ (whatever that means, I suspect they’re not impersonating Nelson Mandela), or teachers knocking off at 3.30pm, the material needs more than just a sneer to succeed.

If Mirza evoked the day’s earlier ‘offensive comedy’ discussion, and the proletarian Stevenson the class-based one, headliner Hal Cruttenden had the debate on camp comedy covered, his slightly effeminate posh voice meaning he’s forever being mistaken for gay despite his protestations, wife and children.

He claimed an inferiority complex about the venue – ‘I’m not one of the more intellectual acts’ – but his litany of middle-class concerns certainly struck a cord here, whether complaining about his rotund figure, minor ailments or lack of spark in his marriage. There’s an authenticity to the material, and he delivers it with affability, passion and rhythm, adroitly bouncing ideas around the audience as a set-up to each routine in a way that’s as charming as he is witty.

Cruttenden thought the audience might have been disappointed after he was announced as being ‘off the Royal Variety Performance’ but not being famous. But surely no one would have been, following this impressively strong set.

Review date: 19 Jan 2011
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: British Library

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