Wednesday, October 14, 2015

British humor 10: Simon Munnery

We should’ve heard of this guy by now. Simon Munnery is one of the most unique standup comics currently working — and extremely funny to boot — and yet Americans have no idea who he is. I’ll try to offer a “101” in this entry, which will also allow me to revisit my favorite Munnery moments and lines.

The latter element, his “lines,” is perhaps the single most unique thing about him. For, besides being a great character comic and a brilliant “mad professor” of comedy concepts, Munnery is one of the only modern standups who regularly includes humorous aphorisms in his act.

Yes, aphorisms — sayings. I’ll call them maxims, because perhaps that might not make the reader run away, thinking that Simon’s sayings are of the “a penny saved is a penny earned” variety. Instead he was written a number of maxims that are not one-liner, set-up/punchline jokes; they are also not the kind of surreal observations that are the meat of the great Steven Wright’s act.

The closest equivalent we’ve had in America are Jack Handey’s “Deep Thoughts,” and even those (which I love) still function along the lines of surreal jokes. Munnery’s humorous maxims are, dare I say it, damned close to the kinds of things Oscar Wilde came up with in his day — perhaps it’s the caustic edge, but do not despair, for Munnery is not an artist in the strictest sense (that would seem to imply he's not entertaining). He is a comedian, albeit sui generis.

So reviewers struggle to describe what he does (as I am now). He responded by musing on how the worst thing you can call a comedian’s show is “close to art”:

I was hesitant to run through a number of his maxims (they are copyrighted material) until I considered the fact that many of them are on YouTube in his performance clips and that there are pages like this one that contain dozens of them. Thus, my 16 favorite maxims — I have tried not to duplicate some of the ones that are available in several places on the Net and ones that work only if spoken verbally (“If you want to take offense, take offense. If you want to build a wall, get some bricks.”)

Do not punish yourself, you deprive the world of its purpose.

All men are brothers. Hence war.

What should one say after making love? Thank you seems too much. I’m sorry — not enough.

“Brevity is the soul of wit,” said Shakespeare. “ I say, “Wank!” Thus I win.

Behind every great man there lies a great woman. And one in front of him as well if he’s lucky.

It is said that at the age of 55 each man becomes what he most despised at the age of 25. I live in constant fear lest I become badly organized trip to Bournemouth.

Have you anything to say? No? Then shut up. Unless you are a woman, in which case carry on — it’s delightful.

It is the vanity of women to spend hours in front of a mirror. It is the vanity of men not to bother.

If you only read one book in your life… I highly recommend you keep your mouth shut.

To the Italians I say this. “Rome wasn’t built in a day. Perhaps it could have been if you spoke less with your arms.”

Without a deadline I do nothing. With a deadline I do nothing. I do nothing until the deadline is upon me, then I panic. Which is doing nothing quickly. When the deadline has passed I begin work on my excuses.

Perhaps it was women who invented kissing — to stop men’s mouths.

Your importance in this world is incalculable. Now get some sleep.

Does pornography degrade women? Or does it merely raise the standard by which they are judged?

Whatever it says in the Bible the truth remains: You can read the Bible and dismiss it as nonsense if you like; you can dismiss it as nonsense without reading it to save time if you prefer.

A million monkeys were given a million typewriters. It’s called the Internet.

If you like the above, Simon is selling his book of aphorisms How to Live at his website. I am a proud owner of this strange little book.

Munnery is also a very talented “character comedian.” One of his first characters — which he performed onstage, on TV, and in a radio series — was a lunk-headed anarchist who called himself “Alan Parker, Urban Warrior.”

Alan is a uniquely British creation, as young Americans (on the whole — thankfully there are exceptions), are not politically motivated enough to be satirized. Munnery created Parker as an amalgam of people he’d encountered and made certain that the character does have a thoroughly consistent philosophy that of course makes absolutely no sense. Get a dose of Alan here (from ’94):

Here he is live, in 1993:

The 1993-94 radio show “29 Minutes of Truth” with Munnery as “APUW” and Stewart Lee as his dim-witted bandmate is available for download at the site. Like all the radio projects done by Lee, Herring, and their chums, it’s top-notch stuff. Alan also hosted a failed TV pilot, “London Shouting,” that counted among its guests Super Furry Animals.
Simon also decided that security guards needed their own standup routine, so he created a security guard comedian who exclusively tells jokes that people in that profession would find funny (what was it I was saying about him being a very unusual performer?). Here he does his security guard-specific standup in 2007.

Simon also played a Cockney newsstand hawker who offers a meditation on people who wear buckets on their heads. This links to his weirdest creation, standup “Billy Buckethead.” This isn’t one of my favorite Munnery bits, but it’s characteristically bizarre (and seemingly was *not* inspired by the American guitarist who wears a KFC bucket on his head). The full act that featured this character outlined a world in which everyone goes around with buckets on their heads (it’s available on an MP3 on Simon’s site).

For my money, Simon’s ultimate incarnation is “The League Against Tedium.” The League is a gentleman decked out in what looks like a military outfit (a renegade admiral) who wears a top hat and is dripping with loathing for everyone he encounters. The League is here to tell you that “you are nothing!” It’s a brave comic gambit, but Munnery is, again, an incredibly brave performer.

What makes the League so goddamned memorable is that Munnery made him subject of a TV series that I consider one of his greatest achievements — although Simon himself seems to partially dismiss it in recent interviews. Believe me, there has never been another show as willfully weird and cynically funny as the 2001 six-episode League Against Tedium series Attention, Scum.

Directed by Stewart Lee (him again!), the show is extremely hard to describe because it consists of a number of equally odd elements. First and foremost the League visits English towns and preaches to crowds about how inferior they are from the back of a truck. He also dispenses his special brand of acidly sarcastic wisdom (herein enters the aphorisms).

Add to this framework a number of equally discordant elements and you have what I described on the Funhouse TV show as “the perfect alien comedy.” Upon first seeing the show I felt as if I’d been dropped into another (far wittier, belligerently bizarre) universe. Punctuating Simon’s segments are odd sketches, including “24-hour news from a man who’s been up for 24 hours” (the brilliant raw-nerve comic Johnny Vegas), short gag sequences set in a field that are reminiscent of Spike Milligan’s visual work (in films like Lester’s “The Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film”), and “Kombat Opera,” musical sequences featuring poetically vulgar arias performed by Lori Lixenberg accompanied by composer Richard Thomas (who gave us the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole operas — and for some reason is dressed here as Nosferatu!).

Attention Scum is a matter of taste — when I showed scenes from it on the Funhouse TV show there were as many politely negative comments (“just didn’t get it”) as there were positive ones (“I can’t get it out of my head”). I happen to love its blatant weirdness and caustic intelligence. But judge for yourself — due to the fact that the show has never been (and probably never will be) on DVD in the UK, the entire series is on YouTube. The first episode starts here:

The series was an outgrowth of Munnery’s solo standup shows as the League Against Tedium (see one amazing clip here) and his involvement with a conceptual cabaret group he headed called “Cluub Zarathustra.” The book You Are Nothing by Robert Wringham, from Go Faster Stripe, chronicles the activities of Cluub Z and its influence on modern alternative comedy in the U.K. Wringham sums up “Cluub Z” quite handily:

“Cluub Zarathustra was a very real cabaret creation, developed between 1994 and 1997 by comedians Simon Munney, Roger Mann, and Stewart Lee. It was founded to showcase non-stand-up forms of comedy, and would eventually take the myriad forms of sketches, opera, monologues, poetry, pyrotechnics, dance, stunts, and high- and low-tech gadgetry....

Over the years it featured prop comics, violinists, punk rockers, postmodern interpretive dances, brightly-colored wigs, malfunctioning homemade contraptions, lectures, film screenings, slide shows, and melting ice.” (p. 12)

Wringham's book includes quotes from the major participants in Cluub Z. The roster of people that collaborated on the shows reads like a who's who of modern British alternative comedy: Munnery, Lee, Kevin Eldon, Sally Phillips, Julian Barratt (of the Mighty Boosh), Al Murray, Graham Linehan, Richard Herring, and Johnny Vegas.

The reflections of the comedians are fascinating to read, as the material they describe sounds absolutely brilliant, fully insane, and madly self-indulgent (as the audiences' experience began at some shows with a bouncer carrying them *in* to the proceedings). The pullquote from Stewart Lee featured on the book's cover sums up the bizarre nature of the experimentation: “It was the best and worst thing I ever worked on.”

Wringham's research into the Cluub Z phenomenon is very thorough, and the book is essential for those who are interested in this crop of performers. He discusses both the concrete details of what the troupe did onstage and also their influences — when Munnery was asked once about the connection his comedy has to the work of Beckett and Wagner, he answered “They're people I steal from. If you're a comedian you're entitled to steal from great literature and take it into the filthy world of jokes.” (pp. 120-21)

Among the many wonderfully insane events that would occur at Cluub Z shows was the “Opera Device”: “Imagine the scenario for a moment. A heckler drunkenly shouts, 'You're shit!' or some other unwitticism, only for a Valkyrie [Lori Lixenberg] to be trundled onstage, on a tea trolley no less, with the sole purpose of blasting the heckler with mezzo-soprano overtures of 'You remind me of chemotherapy' – a real example of one of Lixenberg's put-downs, devised and set as an aria by Richard Thomas. Richard remembers this as 'the mildest insult on offer.' ” (p. 75)

Another form of dealing with hecklers was the “self-knowledge impregnator,” described here by Munnery to Richard Herring on his must-listen podcast:

A pilot was made for a “Cluub Z” TV series. It is essentially a dry run for Attention Scum. Some well-meaning fan-persons have shared this rarity with the world:

The invaluable indie mail-order DVD company Go Faster Stripe has released three Munnery discs, all of which show the range of his material. He seems somewhat nervous in a few of the short segments you can see online, but then he tosses off expert lines at random and uses strange conceptual devices to deliver very funny material.

The first Go Faster Stripe disc is called Hello and it’s a portmanteau collection of many of Simon’s different routines and personas. It also includes a short segment where he reads aphorisms from his book How to Live:

The Fylm Makker DVD is a concept show in which he sits in the audience with a video projector trained on him. He talks to the audience from a large screen on the stage (he reminds them that “it’s the first time in history that you can shout at a screen and it can hear you”). Since the home viewer is watching what he projected on the screen, we enter straight “into” the act as he moves through various bits of no-budget animation and deft verbal humor. He explains the concept at the beginning of the show with a catchy little ditty:

Simon’s third DVD from Go Faster Stripe, Fylm finds the concept refined and Simon offering more absurdist material. Munnery has worked in a few punk-sounding bands and he uses that experience well in his standup, crafting odd songs that seem to be the bastard stepchild of punk and Spike Milligan’s “Goon”-ish puns:

One of Simon’s best poems (again with a hint of punk, as well as John Cooper Clarke), performed here without a musical backing (you can hear it with a steady drum backing on the Hello DVD). His feelings about London:

Another GFS offering is the 2-CD set “Mr. Bartlett & Mr. Willis.” It’s a radio series that, to my knowledge, never aired on the radio. The series follows two chatty men, played by Simon Munnery and Kevin Eldon, who make small talk and are prone to time travel. Here’s the only episode missing from the set, because of music rights:

Simon’s experiments in audience confrontation have reportedly not resulted in any irate “punters” belting him one, but his good friend Stewart Lee reported that Munnery got a lot of grief for showing how superior the League was by killing a worm onstage. That part of his act has been preserved in what seems like the earliest clip of Simon online (not counting his odd comedy team “God and Jesus” found here), from a 1990 film called The Edinburgh Years.

One of the best vehicles for the League was a music-video hosting gig on a show called “Futur TV.” Here Simon’s bon mots and plain old weirdness could punctuate other content and warp the minds of the souls who tuned in to see a bunch of prefabricated music-vids.

A 1999 standup clip in which Simon demonstrates what it’s like after ingesting shitloads of drugs and watching way too many Michael Caine movies:

One of Simon’s oddest routines is a paper puppet show in which he plays the parts of the thieves who were crucified with Christ. A Munnery fan has converted this bizarrely cartoonish routine into an actual cartoon.

A recent live Munnery show was as far removed from standup as theater can get he played various employees at a "restaurant" in an open field called “La Concepta,” at which there is no food (it's “all the rigmarole of haute cuisine, without the shame of eating”). I particularly like the cheapness of the props (and Simon's awful mustache). [Note: the website mentioned in the clip is now defunct quelle horreur!]

And if that is too conventional for you, there's always Simon's more recent show in which he “sings Kierkegaard.” Two things that I recently caught up to are further down the conceptual wormhole. The first is an event where Simon took a leaf from Andy Kaufman’s book (you remember him) and became an intergender wrestling champ for an evening.

The second is a gameshow (!) that Simon devised and hosted for a total of seven episodes. Named “Either/Or” (another nod to the melancholy Mr. Kierkegaard), the show features the League Against Tedium interrogating a bunch of audience members cloaked in hooded garments. If they win, they can leave and keep their anonymity; if they lose they are given fame, something the League has no use for.

The actual game is beside the point, and that of course is part of the problem — each of the seven episodes is remarkably similar to all the others. The only thing that changes are the League’s choices for the hooded viewers and the operatic insults hurled by “Opera Device” Lori Lixenberg (again accompanied by Richard Thomas). The other problem is that the show is seen mostly through a camera attached to the League’s sword, so we see a b&w, fish-eye image that is occasionally punctuated by a color view of the (mostly monochromatic) studio.

That said, there are some great off-the-cuff quips by Munnery, and some delightfully daft choices the hooded unknowns must choose between — my personal favorites are “Either… the Dalai Lama, Or… Bananarama” and “Either… Celine Dion, Or… heroin.” (Anyone who doesn’t choose heroin deserves a good overdose.)

Lixenberg’s insults aren’t exactly subtle (“Is that your face/or is it an armpit?” “Keep your toilet clean/by shitting on the carpet”), but the fact that she’s delivering them as mini-arias contributes to the overall weirdness of the show. For anyone unfamiliar with Munnery’s work I would not suggest watching “Either/Or” first — you’d do far better with the standup clips embedded above or “Attention Scum” for a better dose of the League and his minions. But I am very grateful that YT poster Christian Daugherty has decided to share “Either/Or” with us.

Munnery’s sole appearance in American media (that I’m aware of — feel free to leave comments) was an interview with Marc Maron on the WTF podcast (currently locked up behind Marc’s inimitable “pay cash for a formerly free podcast” firewall). In the UK, he’s been seen in recent years in sketches on shows hosted by his friends and colleagues Stewart Lee (Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle) and Kevin Eldon (It’s Kevin) and doing standup on the Comedy Central UK show The Alternative Comedy Experience (which isn’t excerpted anywhere online).

I know that Simon has buried his League Against Tedium and Alan Parker characters, but I look forward to a time when those of us in the U.S. can experience Munnery’s weird inventiveness in person.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Lost and found: an unofficial trilogy of films by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Quiet, understated works, flawed though they may be, deserve to be praised in this louder-by-the-minute era. Thus my love for the work of filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira), whom I interviewed on the Funhouse several years ago.

Kurosawa has kept on making haunting films since that moment in the early 2000s when a festival of his work made the rounds of the U.S. thanks to the now-defunct distributor Cowboy Booking International. One of his later pictures, Tokyo Sonata (2008), received strong reviews, but his other recent works since 2001 have either sunk without a trace in America or, thankfully, gotten some attention on DVD (my review of the U.S. release of his 2012 TV miniseries Penance, can be found here).

His latest film, Journey to the Shore, just played at the New York Film Festival and, as of this writing, has no U.S. distributor. He received the director’s prize for the film at the “Certain Regard” section of the Cannes Film Festival this year. The film’s first half is as touching and profound as Kurosawa’s best works. The second half is uneven in tone, but even KK’s flawed films need to be seen by dedicated cinephiles.

The plot concerns a piano teacher (Eri Fukatsu) who is visited by her dead husband (Tadanobu Asano). He promptly takes her on a series of short trips to encounter people he wants to see again. As the film proceeds, we learn that there are other dead souls dwelling among us, and that their post-mortem existences are guided by certain “rules.”

Kiyoshi Kurosawa
The first half of the film, in which the husband’s reappearance is not explained at all (he defines the situation simply by telling his wife that he died and didn’t abandon her, as she suspected), is reminiscent of Anthony Minghella’s beautiful Truly Madly Deeply (1990), in which a mourning woman is visited by the spirit of her dead boyfriend — with no explicit explanation given for his intact, corporeal condition. All that matters in both films are the emotions felt by the grieving female lead.

Like Penance, this new work by Kurosawa is based on a novel. Thus one assumption is that the less than compelling rules governing the dead characters come from the book. They move the film in a different direction, one in which honest understatement (that word again, the perfect label for KK’s work) is set aside in favor of a more conventional, more sentimental tone, as Fukatsu’s character beings to wonder how long her husband will remain among the living.

The aspect that must have drawn Kurosawa to adapt the novel is the theme of “getting back” a lost loved one. Journey stands as the third entry in an unofficial trilogy that includes KK’s first non-genre drama, License to Live (1998) and his more recent, Chris Marker-like, Real (2013).

License remains one of my favorite KK films because it because it hit me quite hard when I first saw it, right after the death of a close relative. The film concerns a young man who comes out of a decade-long coma in his 20s, causing his family (which has disintegrated while he has been in the hospital) to reform, to show him they care about his “rebirth.”

The film is a low-key drama that eschews what I call “the Spielberg Squeeze,” in which a director shamelessly tries to move the viewer to tears. Instead, Kurosawa involves the viewer in the story by depicting the world around the young man in an alien and static fashion, as he sees it. The only note of reality and honesty in the young man's life is supplied by a down-to-earth fishing instructor (played by Kurosawa stalwart Koji Yakusho).

Real offers romance as fantasy, but it has much in common with License and the first half of Journey. A young man wants to rouse his comatose lover back to consciousness by entering into her thoughts; a major twist follows near the midpoint, with all that we have seen being turned upside down.

Despite the fact that Kurosawa has made several crime and horror films, this is one of his oddest creations, since it is a raw, touching melodrama that is punctuated by computer graphics — these effects supply some fascinating imagery for most of the film, but result in a surprisingly bizarre, out-there moment in the final sequence. Aside from that moment, though, the focus here, as always with KK, is on the characters’ emotions, not a Spielbergian childlike sense of “wonder.”

As was the case with License and Real, the most poignant moments in Journey all concern that moment when the bereaved individual is able to be with their “lost” love again. License is alone in offering the POV of the “lost” individual, which is what makes it so singular and effective.

In my interview with Kurosawa he spoke about having a major admiration for John Cassavetes. That connection is clear in Journey, especially if one keeps in mind JC’s last films (Opening Night, Love Streams), which included potent doses of magical realism. Kurosawa continues to avoid mawkish sentimentality, but here the plot dictates that he indulge in over-the-top fantasy as the film moves on.

Thus the film is a bit of a bumpy ride encompassing both gorgeous moments of genuine emotion and plot exposition that seem closer to the tiresome American tearjerker Ghost than Truly Madly Deeply.

The musical soundtrack by Naoko Eto and Yoshihide Otomo is conventionally emotional, but the lead performance by Fukatsu is superb, keeping the film on an even keel from its earliest moments to the higher-key finale.

Kurosawa was unable to attend the NYFF, but sent tapes to be shown before and after the film. The introductory one was curious, in that he didn’t want to give away the fact that the husband is dead (one of the first things the husband says to his wife is to acknowledge that… he’s dead). The one after the film was really interesting, in that: a.) no one had announced the tape would appear, so only the people who sat through *all* the credits caught it; b.) he focused entirely on a moment I confess I missed entirely — the shadow of a bird that appears over a character in the climactic moment.

He revealed that the end of the novel is majestic and bigger than life, but that he did not want to use computer graphics for the moment, so he chose simply to accomplish the same effect with editing. He was overjoyed that a bird happened to fly over at that exact minute since, he noted, it was a beautiful touch that he never would’ve thought of adding on his own.

One hopes that Journey and the other “missing” Kurosawa films acquire U.S. distribution. Kiyoshi Kurosawa is too talented an artist to be overlooked.