Note: This review is from 2013

From Steve Bennett at Downstairs At The King's Head, London

Television has long distrusted a straightforward stand-up routine, devising formats such as panel shows to mix up the formula. Increasingly, live shows are also finding new ways to mash up the genre, with ideas such as Paul Provenza’s improvised Set List... and now this.

Although provocatively titled, Joke Thieves is a simple premise. In the first half, comedians perform a few minutes of their act. In the second, each has to swap routines with a colleague on the bill as best they can. And, as compere and creator Will Mars explains in his preamble, the inherently competitive nature of comics means they’ll inevitably try to wring more laughs out of the material than the act they are mimicking.

Tonight was the very first presentation of the idea, in front of what turned out to be a modest audience, ahead of an Edinburgh Fringe run in August. But it proved an undoubted hit, with the participants mocking each other, creating brilliant in-jokes that would never survive beyond these four walls, or simply flailing amusingly in the face of a tough challenge.

And just to keep things even more spontaneous, the comedians do not know who they will have to shadow until the start of the gig, when a punter is invited to pair them up. The result is an intriguing, and often hysterical, scramble of styles and material that suggests Joke Thieves is an idea with legs.

First up, was the oddball Paul F Taylor, with a mix of cheesy jokes that really tickle; and cheesy jokes that fail – yet all sold with the same powerful but ramshackle delivery that amplified both the laughs and the groans. His surreal material about queueing ants, the problems of being a bird and deconstruction of stand-up would later have to form the basis of a set from fellow eccentric Pat Burtscher... but more on that later.

Then came Jessica Fostekew, thoroughly mining her talents in the accent department with an accurate mix of Lancastrian, received pronunciation, and even bovine. She stumbled a little at the start with a gig-specific gag about Crouch End, when her knowing looks to audience couldn’t overcome the clunkiness, but more than redeemed herself with an entertaining account of a stay at a odd Blackpool B&B that would have done Royston Vasey proud.

After the interval, her set was recreated by Jason Kavan, despite the very obvious handicap of being terrible at accents. His Lancastrian waitress became Indian... causing him to mock-explode at the audience, berating their apparent racism at not accepting someone from the North West could be Indian too. The joke here was definitely in his failing to match up to Fostekew’s performance, but he did so entertainingly and with good grace, happy to grab the laughs at his expense.

Back in the first half, the aloof medical man George Ryegold described discovering a high-altitude human turd while on a Himalayan trek with well-pitched, haughty contempt. But then he dropped his own toxic gift for a later adventurer, with a routine about gastro-porn in which he acted out in disturbing, extended detail, Nigella Lawson’s ‘beautiful, plump, oiled-up backside’ getting jiggy with Charles Saatchi.

The routine, funny enough on its own, was given extra frisson knowing that Milo McCabe would have to act that out later... And a formidable job he did too, although backing away from getting quite as gratuitous as his forebear, McCabe proved a faithful and amusing mimic of Ryegold’s mannerisms.

The next original set was from Kavan, though it was patchy at best – a mix of unadventurous observations about this area being posh compared to where he lives, a weak, long-winded gag about Heather McCartney having only one leg (topical!) and a complaint about the expense of funerals culminating in some more convoluted wordplay. His biggest laughs came from self-deprecating lines about how much he was struggling.

But it gave Fostekew’s subsequent take on his set something of an added bite, as – with crudely drawn stubble adorning her face – she reduced his hackier stand-up devices to the formulae they are. The tone flirted with cruelty, but just about stayed in the affectionate piss-taking territory that the night engenders.

Back with the initial sets, a huge Pat Burtscher-shaped spanner was about to be thrown in to the works. For, pre-empting the second half, the quirky Canadian used his first appearance on the show to reproduce, pretty faithfully, Taylor’s opening routine. Clearly the repetition was funny enough, but the audience were well aware that this would mean that when Taylor returned in the second, he’d have to impersonate Burtscher impersonating him. Was it a genuine mistake or mischief-making? The answer was the latter. What he perhaps hadn’t quite factored in was that it meant his own appearance in the second half would require a fourth performance of the self-same set – but a perfectly-timed audience cough gave him a brilliant opportunity for a callback, and a get-out for the hole of his own making.

The final set in the first half came from McCabe, billed as ‘A Glaswegian Trainspotter Who Thinks She’s Adele’, complete with tartan Tam o’Shanter and a Scottish accent you might think had gone out with Russ Abbot. It’s a big, stupid, and knowingly unconvincing character, a far cry from the subtleties of Dr Ryegold. Still The Good Doctor elicited a fantastic laugh from adopting a Jamaican, then Irish, accent for his take on the creation – achieving the near-impossible task of making it all the more preposterous.

Academically, Joke Thieves raises interesting questions about what makes a great comic performance: it it the material, or the person delivering it? Then it adds a huge extra ingredient – the specific situation.

With jokes at the expense of each others’ routines, this format might have been just for insiders. Instead, the audience are included in the clique, allowing them to appreciate the unique, spontaneous mockery between comedians. This could well be the birth of a new cult comedy night.

Review date: 11 Jun 2013
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Downstairs at the King's Head

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