Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sin in the Suburbs: Deceased Artiste Joe Sarno

Joe Sarno, who died earlier this week at 89, was one of the most unique figures in movie history, simply because he evidenced true talent in the pretty murky business of sexploitation, where having talent is something of a liability (and largely unnecessary). Sure, there was Radley Metzger, the king of artful Euro-chic soft- and hardcore, an incredibly talented (and yes, occasionally “incredibly strange”) filmmaker. There was Russ Meyer, who was one of the finest film editors there ever was, in any genre. Findlay was fascinating; Wishman unpredictable and mostly amusing; Friedman and H.G. Lewis thumbing their nose at the whole silly thing.

But Joseph W. Sarno, as he was often billed, was a guy who made dozens of softcore features in the Sixties and early Seventies, and he invested them with an identity. He had a very distinct look to these features (particularly the ones in b&w), and he wrote screenplays that included ample amounts of sex, but also contained an element that you just were not going to see in conventional adult cinema, which was guilt. Joe started making films in Sweden in the Sixties, and his films are very much in tune with Bergman and the Scandinavian cinema of the time (in fact there is very little chance you’d guess his biggest hit, Inga, was directed by an American).

I interviewed Joe three times, and sadly the one that aired on the Funhouse TV show was perhaps the weakest chat of the three, as his memory was very poor when it came to specific details about his films. Granted, the man made as many as a half-dozen films in certain years, and continued to toil in the sex industry on hardcore films/videos that had no personal content from the mid-Seventies to the late Eighties (a fact he concealed, and talked around, in our interview). When I later interviewed Joe, I knew to avoid trying to get specific details on specific films from him, and instead just discussed his memories of making films under severe budgetary constraints, and had him speak about his writing and crafting of images.

My last interview with him was in person at his apartment, when I was writing the DVD booklet notes for his “comeback” feature for the New Jersey mini-studio Seduction Cinema, Suburban Secrets. The film was quite a bizarre and welcome move from an old pro: a very low budget feature of the kind he was used to, but with an original script by Joe and “final cut” on a director’s version of the material. What the company wound up releasing was pretty much unprecedented: a two-disc set of the “hot cut” of the material (the cable 90-minute film that emphasized the sex sequences), and a two-and-a-half hour (you didn’t read that wrong, two-and-a-half hour!) “director’s cut.”

What resulted was a film that was intimately connected to what Joe had done in is Seventies “suburban” films, albeit with the limitations of today’s softcore market (which forbids a number of things that showed up in films before the rule books had truly been written) and some off-kilter performances. Joe’s dialogue was nothing if not emphatic and declarative, and two of the actresses — porn star Tina Tyler and Seduction starlet A.J. Khan — were the only performers who really truly nailed the “heightened” (and, yes again, “incredibly strange”) nature of what he was up to.

In any case, I don’t think I can further describe the tenets of Joe’s style better than I did in the booklet for Suburban Secrets, so I will excerpt here some of what I wrote there (noting that this was first published in 2006 in a Seduction Cinema release, and appears here with the written permission of the author and publication of first instance.) We start off at the point where I’m mentioning a major part of Joe’s appeal, as a filmmaker and as a person, his sincerity. Probably the key aspect here is that Joe was a genuinely nice person, who happened to have made some uniquely kinky movies. Which is never, ever a bad thing.

Revelations drive the storyline of Suburban Secrets, but the key “secret” here is that this feverish sex picture is the product of a genuinely sincere moviemaker who is 84 years of age as of this writing. Erotica is considered a young man’s game, although anyone familiar with Antonioni’s later works (Identification of a Woman, Eros) knows that an artist over 70 can still produce blissfully carnal works of art.

Sarno’s earnestness may cause some folks to be amused by his highly stylized approach, but the fact of the matter is that Secrets contains several object lessons for the younger directors who create “steamy” fodder for the delectation of late-night cable viewers and DVD renters with an eye out for “couples” erotica (those wanting to “get her in the mood” or, conversely, “wake him up”). So take a lesson, young pornographers, as Professor Sarno imparts his secrets:

Focus on women’s libidos. When asked about the central theme in his films, Sarno unhesitatingly answers, “strong women!” The ladies here aren’t shy at all about their desires — “I desperately want to be wrapped around him when I come,” proclaims Cynthia at one point. As a result, Sarno’s movies don’t alienate female viewers in the way that “money shot”-centric porn does… and it goes without saying that many men get turned on by the sight of a strong-willed female conquering all the men, and women, in her path.

Ditch the “mood music” and flashy editing. “I’ve had a number of producers who were embarrassed by the films I made, because the sex looked so real to them,” declares Sarno. Although his 1970s softcore work is notable because the actors were often having real sex onscreen (as in the Girl Meets Girl Trilogy, distributed by Retro-Seduction), Sarno emphasizes that he has no problem working with the present-day limitations of the softcore genre, the so-called “three Ps”: no penetration, no penises and no “pink” onscreen.

“Even in a film like Abigail Leslie…, the sex was really what I call ‘assumed contact.’ I work with my actors to regulate their breathing as it would be under a sexual situation. If you do that, work on the sounds and the breathing, you get the feeling that it’s real… that’s what I’m looking for.” Thus, Joe has no use for the faux-jazz and rock music used in standard sex movies. He also favors “long takes” which keep the action moving at a steady pace, and contribute what he calls “a certain truth” to a sex scene.

Vary the angles in sex scenes. The long-take sex scenes requires that the actors change position in the frame as they proceed to the nearest bedroom; at one point Laura and Aunt Cynthia move to the background of a shot as they grope each other towards a doorway. Unconventional framing like this brings home to the viewer the fact that the characters will literally stop at nothing to satisfy their lust.

When a character’s not having sex, they should be obsessing over it. Here the “expectation” factor that is a trademark of Sarno’s work kicks into high gear. His central characters often are so intent on getting into each other’s pants that they talk obsessively about their intended’s anatomy or just fixate on it while attending to daily tasks.

Ignore the prevailing attitudes about age and body types. Sarno has made a practice since his black-and-white “swingers” pics in the early 1960s of using older actresses, as well as thinner women and the occasional zoftig babe, as sex objects. Here Joe is ably aided by Seduction Cinema’s very appealing stable of “natural girls”: Suburban Secrets features curvy chicks, ultra-thin vixens, and an immaculately hot fiftysomething character whose passions rival those of her twentysomething niece.

Aspiring filmmakers can learn a lot from Sarno, but there are certain elements that are unique to his work. Chief among them is his stylized dialogue, which combines street sex talk, whimsical words (like the Yiddish shtup) and melodramatic declarations like Cythnia’s frank, “I’ve always worshipped at the altar of my own intense orgasms….” One sees echoes of great filmmakers like Bergman in Joe’s work, but his dialogue reminds us that his softcore was influenced more by the great playwrights — Ibsen, O’Neill, Williams – who created “hothouse” environments for their tormented, lusty characters. He explains that his dialogue is “intended to be a little above reality. What the audience hears is the tone of the words, and that’s what I want.”

The last, most important, element of Suburban Secrets is its controversial subject matter. Sarno has dealt with incestuous relationships in a few of his previous films — from his 1969 Swedish feature The Indelicate Balance (found on the Seduction of Inga release from Retro-Seduction) to Confessions of a Young American Housewife (1974) and Abigail Leslie… (1975). He included it in this film because “this situation happens more than you think. In high school, a friend of mine was involved in an incestuous relationship with his mother. I was with him so much it was obvious, I knew something was going on. I base the sexual situations in my films on things I’ve seen, things I’ve heard over the years….”

There is also the matter of the female characters’ frank discussion of their teenage, and even preteen, encounters with sex. Contemporary “indie” filmmakers like Todd Solondz (Palindromes) and Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin) deal with this theme in honest, open ways in their works, but for a softcore director to introduce it in his dialogue is challenging and unusual.

“The hardest thing about that is to say to yourself, ‘am I willing to go into it, and should I?’ I always say to myself, yes I should. I’m not looking to titillate anybody as far as that’s concerned, but I think you can utilize this subject to make a good story….” Asked if he has considered the response this topic provokes in more conservative souls, Joe replies curtly, “I’m not afraid to terrify people. I utilize those little thoughts in the back of people’s minds, and bring them to the fore….”

From my interview with Joe:

From my interview with Joe, about one of his most intriguing creations, Young Playthings:

And a scene from the film (no good copy of the picture has of yet been found in the U.S.):

And from one of his favorite films, Abigail Leslie is Back in Town (aka Abigail Lesley...):

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Arias instead of monologues: Deceased Artiste Werner Schroeter

Most American film buffs know of the big troika of New German Cinema directors (Fassbinder, Herzog, and Wenders), and those who haunt the rep-theater circuit also know Schlondorff, Straub, and even Syberberg. Of that very loosely knit group of filmmakers, Werner Schroeter remains a mystery to American viewers.

Schroeter, who died of cancer this week at 65, was a busy “underground” filmmaker in the years 1967-1972, using the wonderfully named Magdalena Montezuma as one of his stars. He not only made films during this period, he also acted for Fassbinder, Wenders, and Rosa von Praunheim. During the period that the New German Cinema was getting much attention in America, we didn’t see Schroeter’s films so much as hear about them. His most noted film, The Rose King,was released in 1986, after the “new” German filmmakers had pretty much been absorbed into the mainstream of European film production. He only made five films after that one, and I thankfully was able to see at least two of these, because of the presence of Isabelle Huppert (who is one of the few European names that can still get films at least a cursory showing in the U.S.).

The only word that can encompass Schroeter’s filmmaking style is “operatic.” The narratives of the both of the Huppert films, Malina (1991) and Deux (2002), are multi-faceted and function as a Cubist painting or a novel from the nouveau roman school would. In other words, you are given the raw elements of a plotline, in fact several plotlines, and you can choose to assemble them yourself or just revel in the imagery and raw emotion. Unlike Straub, who strips storylines of all of their action, Schroeter only emphasizes the emotional and overpowering actions in these films.

Before I delve into the films too much, I should note that I am a devout fan of Huppert (seen right with Schroeter), for the mere fact that she is one of the most talented actresses on the planet these days, and is willing to not only submerge her ego in a character, but is also willing to be disliked as a lead character in a film (something very few American stars will do, even the ones who have loads of acting skill). She also happens to be the performer who melts down the most immaculately on film — she has played a number of characters who have emotional or psychological breakdowns in her films, and always sketches a beautiful downward spiral as she descends….

Malina finds Isabelle playing two sides of the same woman, or twins. One interpretation I read online noted that Schroeter had vamped off of the novel that supplied the source material for the film, and in fact both Isabelles and the two male lead characters were different sides of the same female character. Whatever the case may be, the film is overwhelming and, yes, extremely operatic. It ends in spectacular fashion with the apartment of “the Woman” (Isabelle’s character name in the credits) in flames. She and her lover continue to communicate rather calmly as their surroundings are becoming a very attractive — and oddly not all that menacing — funeral pyre. I offer two short clips from the finale:

The later film Deux is even more of a phantasmagoria plot-wise (and I assure you, I pretty much never use that phrase to describe a non-psychedelic film). Huppert plays twins whose mother is Bulle Ogier, who may or may not have been killed by a serial killer called “The Flower Killer.” One Isabelle is impetuous, the other solemn, but Schroeter seems to have made the film to simply showcase the brilliance of Huppert (to whom he dedicated the picture — rare for a filmmaker to dedicate a picture to someone who is in it who is still alive!).

Schroeter seems to have let his imagination run wild and summons up images, situations, and characters for Huppert to inhabit. In the process, she plays her characters as two little girls, inhabits her mother’s identity, is lesbian, becomes a heroin addict and a drunk, sings opera, dances ballet, wears giant wings, dresses as a WWI-era soldier, is a murder victim, is a murderer, becomes a human puppet, and is seen both as a well-lit, made-up screen goddess and as a plain (but beautiful) middle-aged nobody.

It’s hard to encapsulate the film in a sentence, but if you can imagine a feature that would counterpoint Isabelle romantically dancing with her woman lover (who says in English, “fuck me, fuck me, darling…”) with her mother Bulle Ogier watching two young Frenchman doing a recreation of a Civil War battle, in the woods, at night (and then later watching one whip it out and pleasure himself), then you can sort of imagine the visually gorgeous madness that is Deux. Here is one of the film’s many operatically scored scenes:

Thanks to superior cineaste Paul Gallagher for unearthing these rare subbed copies of these strange and great films.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Birds fly, bullets rain: Deceased Artiste Dede Allen

Let me move backward chronologically through Dede Allen’s superb career as the first celebrated woman film editor. Yeah, she did a Spike Lee movie and Wonder Boys in recent years, but Ms. Allen, who died the other day at 86, also assembled that thoroughly entertaining but way too beloved hallmark of Eighties mainstream angst, The Breakfast Club. She also in 1981 co-edited Warren Beatty’s pretty damned good epic Reds, which of course would have its important concluding moment in full public view:

It was noted in her obits that not only was she the first critically lauded woman editor, but she was also “among the first” editors to share in a film’s profits (I wonder who the other first ones were). She edited two of Sidney Lumet’s absolutely perfect NYC films, Serpico and the indelible Dog Day Afternoon (1975). I link to a trailer here, with the proviso that Ms. Allen more than likely didn’t cut it, but it offers a good reminder of the film:

In 1972, she edited a film by the underrated director George Roy Hill that, although its lead is miscast, perfectly captures both the trippiness and the emotion of its sublime source material, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut:

Of course she was best known for having worked on a string of classic films with Arthur Penn when he was on his gorgeous streak of revisionist genre films. Looming extremely large in her legend was the last scene of Bonnie and Clyde:

A more sedate scene from the latterday noir Night Moves:

And let us end where she began (almost), by noting that she edited the perfect The Hustler by Robert Rossen, and a noir that ranks up among the very best, the film that Jean-Pierre Melville was wholly obsessed with (and rightly so), the extremely haunting Odds Against Tomorrow. The whole movie can be found here, but here is the trailer:

and a representative sequence that shows off the film’s gorgeous pacing:

Friday, April 16, 2010

The seriously silly Mr. Neil Innes: the Funhouse interview

This week I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Neil Innes, the terrifically talented singer-songwriter-humorist who co-founded the Bonzo Dog Band, has been dubbed “the Seventh Python,” and, most prominently, was (and is) the driving force behind the Rutles.

As a preview of our chat, which lasted over an hour, and yielded great anecdotes about the Bonzos, the Beatles, and the Pythons, I offer a trio of clips. First, Neil reminisces about the early days of the Bonzos:

Next, he holds forth on the current state of pitching television programs in England (and, one would assume, over here). He also sings the praises of YouTube, and slams b.s. in general:

And, last, he talks about his less-discussed serious side, and his latest "identity":

Of drinking songs and the "Aintree Iron": I'm led to the Scaffold

When I interviewed Neil Innes (more info above!), he brought up a British band that I had heard for what I think was the first time ever earlier that very day — the oddly organized site that is had supplied me with “music that is related to” the Bonzo Dog Band, and thus I was presented with the insane catchiness of the Scaffold. It turns out Innes wasn’t just personal friends with the members; his second post-Bonzo band was in fact GRIMMS, which was composed of the three members of the Scaffold, himself, a gent named Andy Roberts, and the one and only Viv Stanshall.

The Scaffold existed off and on for 11 years (1966-77), and was composed of a trio of Liverpudlian poet-songwriters who sang their own material but played no instruments. They were Mike McGear, Roger McGough, and John Gorman; McGear’s name was actually McCartney, and he was indeed the brother of that guy Paul. It is noted on the group’s Wikipedia entry that on their early records they were backed by, among many others, Graham Nash, Jack Bruce, Elton John (still named Reg Dwight at the time), and Jimi Hendrix.

All the above is merely trivia — what matters most is the insane catchiness of the band’s four best-remembered songs. Three of them function as drinking songs, and all of them have a chorus you can not forget. In the case of their first big hit, “Thank U Very Much” (spelled that way three decades before Prince and four before texting), I was familiar with the song, but as covered (and lyrically altered for American viewers) by the Smothers Brothers on their Sixties variety show.

The phrase “Aintree Iron” means nothing to Americans, and I found that most English folk can’t even agree on what it means: it is noted on various sites that the phrase could refer to a noted English footballer, an area in Liverpool, or Brian Epstein! In any case, the song’s chipper hookiness can’t be disputed. You do know you’re listening to something from the Sixties when the singer brings up both “the family circle” and the napalm bomb as things to be thankful for.

A Scaffold song that is both catchy as fuck and also has the simplicity of a kids tune is “Gin Gan Goolie.” And the band’s last chart hit was a sort of anthem for their hometown, “Liverpool Lou.”

The one that got me, though, was this totally bouncy ditty that pays tribute to Lydia Pinkham’s pills for women. It’s called “Lily the Pink” and a somewhat awkward live TV performance of it can be found here, but the recorded version is the one that will stick in yer head. Never has the phrase “medicinal compound” been used so musically (then again, this was the Sixties…).

Thursday, April 8, 2010

He wasn't fond of them, but here they are: Robert Altman's Scopitones!

Ranking right up there with “Uncle Jean” in my personal Pantheon of filmmakers is the ultimate American maverick, Robert Altman. I only encountered the gentleman in person three times, all extremely brief. He was very, very sick (but nobody knew it) in the last instance, when he made his final public appearance in NYC with Garrison Keillor at the Museum of TV and Radio. Thus, he looked extremely cranky when ensconced in a chair in the “green room” area where he was supposed to meet and talk with press.

On the first occasion, however, at a book signing/promotional event for Short Cuts, he was in fine form, and I wound up asking him if he would ever think of releasing his short films, which included things he lent out to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria for a comprehensive Altman retro (Pot au feu, The Katherine Reed Story, etc.). He said they weren’t very good and, no, he didn’t really want them to be released on a laser disc (this tells you how far back this was).

In the case of one of them, a Scopitone called “The Party” or “In Crowd,” he said he didn’t own the music (“Bittersweet Samba” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass), so that one couldn’t be released. Well, it has now shown up in public, and is available for public perusal and saving as a download.

The Scopitone is a piece of vintage Sixties filmmaking that adheres to the “party principle” of Sixties pictures, whereby any comedy or music picture could be shaken up by a sudden party sequence, preferably with girls in bikinis in attendance. Here, Altman had to visualize a Herb Alpert track, and so the actual movie is gone, we’re left with just the party. Which is just fine with me:

And because the Internet is a source of constant wonder, here is another of the FOUR Scopitones made by Altman (you learn something new every day), “Girl Talk” by Bobby Troup (who later of course got the last line in M*A*S*H). Here again the “chick factor” is in full effect, and had to be, since Troup was a great musical talent as a songwriter, but as a singer and personality… well, he just wasn’t Buddy Greco!!!

The third Robert Altman Scopitone found on YouTube is Lili St. Cyr shaking her money maker to “Ebb Tide.” This leaves only one Altman Scopitone (“Speak Low”) unaccounted for, but I never thought, as a diehard fan of the man’s work, that I’ve even see these three in public view.

Thanks to M. Faust for pointing the way to "The Party." As I often say on the Funhouse TV show, the Sixties are the gift that keeps giving, and giving, and giving….

Godard's latest provocation, and a tribute to his "brother" in cinema

This week on the Funhouse I’m paying tribute to filmmakers whose work I love: the Kuchar brothers, Nicholas Ray, and Marco Ferreri. Thus, I thought it would be only fitting to pass along links to two new short works by a gent who dwells in the top of my personal Pantheon, Jean-Luc Godard, aka “Uncle Jean” for those who care.

Godard’s “older brother” Eric Rohmer died some weeks back, as I chronicled here. Well, there was a very special night Feb. 8th at the Cinematheque Francaise, where various friends and collaborators of Rohmer shared their memories of the man. The participants included Barbet Schroeder, Arielle Dombasle, and Claude Chabrol. Uncle Jean was present in the form of a short film that he and the Cinematheque have allowed to be shown on the Internet. The page containing Godard’s film and tributes by the other celebrities (in French, no subs) can be found here.

However, for those who don’t speak/read French, and would like to have the “in” references to Rohmer and Godard’s friendship decoded, I’d recommend visiting “The Auteurs” website to read the comments that were posted below the film, which basically translate Godard’s narration, and also explain what his references are about. The film is beautifully done (no surprise) and perhaps the grace note is JLG’s final citation of the last line of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, “That was the happiest time we ever had.” Uncle Jean is getting sentimental in his old age, and it’s very touching. We’re very lucky to still have him around.

And because he is still primed and ready to make cinema, I should direct you to the weirdest “stunt” associated with any of his recent-vintage films. Various trailers have been posted online for his latest film, Socialisme, which is set to do the film festival circuit shortly. I linked to the original trailer for the film here.

Because he will always be a provocateur in addition to one of the premier cinema poets, though, he also has provided two other trailers that are wholly unique: their visuals comprise the *entire movie* played at very fast speed. Thus, you can “see” the whole film in its visual state, which means that Godard is either commenting on the nature of trailers “revealing” the heart of a movie — or he is possibly pissed at his producers or distributors. In any case, it’s a very weird experience to watch what is surely a 90-minute film flying by in four minutes, with onscreen titles explaining what one will encounter in the film (things, words, etc.).

Here is the four-minute version of the trailer:

And for those with real ADD, here is Godard’s one-and-a-half minute version:

And for those who’d just like to see the actual, “normal” trailer for the film, replete with English subtitles, here it is. The fact that “god” is part of the man’s name is not at all in accurate.

Few managers ever received as much attention: Deceased Artiste Malcolm McLaren

McLaren stands with Brian Epstein and Colonel Tom Parker as one of rock’s most famous managers, and what he did as the “mind” behind the Sex Pistols is indeed legendary (his work with Adam Ant was equally cool but too late in the game, and there’s no clear evidence that he helped the New York Dolls at all). Of course, it was charged that he ripped off the band like mad, and thus you have the eternal dilemma: they wouldn’t’ve been famous without him, and so he allegedly decided to nab the lion’s share of the cash.

McLaren was nothing if not unstoppable, and so he went from Situationist troublemaker to fashion designer to rock manager to musician to video artist to shameless participant in English reality shows. Here’s a full South Bank Show portrait from 1984 that outlines his career up to that point:

He helped thrust hiphop culture into the mainstream with his terminally catchy “Buffalo Gals” in 1983:

And he dabbled in “high art” as well, with his “Madame Butterfly,” Hey, if you’re going to try to sell opera to the multitudes, sweating supermodels is not a bad place to start:

Here’s his “duet” with Catherine Deneuve on “Paris Paris”:

Friday, April 2, 2010

Do not forget to honor the Sabbath day

Easter is once again upon us, so I feel compelled to re-tout clips I put on YouTube some years back. First, "Jesus Gets Nailed":

And then, the world of crazy Xtian entertainment I love to cover on the show (and will be doing so again this year, tomorrow night!). A few slices from the wonder that is the "Donut Hole"

Christ rap by the token black child:

One of the many insidious songs you won't be able to get out of yer noggin:

I was very sad to learn of the demise of the "Christian supermarket" in the Times Square area that had ample amounts of this insane stuff on its shelves. I will feast off its bumper crop of weirdness for years to come....

And thanks to comic writer-artist Bob Fingerman for the first look at "the Donut Man" (oh, Rob Evans, where have you gone?). Bob's latest graphic novel From the Ashes is out now in book form, info is here.

Atheists, Assemble! A stew of brilliant English and Irish comics for Easter

It’s all about the sharing of pop-culture obsessions in the Funhouse, and so I have to offer you one of my latest preoccupations, exploring the world of British standup comics. This particular excursion began when I encountered the work of a number of American standups who seem to be “children of Bill Hicks,” meaning they’re following in the path of the late cult comic who made some very great performance work of his own personal obsessions (that word again!) and insights.

I found a few really solid examples of standups over here who are following in Hicks’ footsteps, albeit with less of the poetic and whimsical touch (I tend to think of them as the “open wound” school of comedy). Their work is indeed funny and absorbing (especially when there is a “trainwreck” performance, as there seems to have been a few times with really hard-edged standups like Doug Stanhope). Since the extremely American Hicks became a cult figure in the U.K., though (his birthday was actually pitched to Parliament as a possibility for a holiday), I was curious to hear if there were similar comics over there.

And so I went back to (where else) YouTube and consulted the uploads of “Padraic 2001eire”, who is an Irish fan of Bill’s, and had put up some great (now unfortunately gone from YT for copyright reasons) compilations of how his work was stolen by Denis Leary and seemed to be “lifted” on occasion by George Carlin (whom I of course worship from way back — check this Deceased Artiste tribute, with many links now also sadly gone from the Net).

“Padraic2000Eire” clearly has a fine-tuned sense of comedy, and is also clearly inspired by intelligent arguments for atheism (but more on that below). His montage post ”My Top 10 Favourite Comedians” introduced me to the work of five English and Irish stand-ups whom I became instantly fascinated by (one other, David O’Doherty, I like, but he’s a bit “gentle” compared to the others in the list). And thus I provide below the fruits of my months-long excursion into the work of these gents, with many thanks of course to the posters on YT and blogger JimG, who continues to post some truly mind-warpingly rare old vinyl and CDs.

For those who are completely unaware of Bill Hicks’ work, I heartily, heavily recommend watching his best performance video here. Just to run down the aspects of his comedy I’ve seen in other standups of his age group and younger, I’ll note that the American comics who open their emotional closets on stage (Marc Maron, Doug Stanhope, Janeane Garafolo) owe a big debt to Hicks, as do those who analyze the process of standup comedy while performing their act (not the standard Johnny Carson/Borscht Belt acknowledgment that a gag has failed, but a literal deconstruction of their own standup set — as when the very funny Maria Bamford, a comedian who does dozens of voices in her act, has her “mother” chime in and summarize what she's doing: “we know what your act is: low voice/high voice. We’ve got it!”).

The other dominant characteristic of Hicks’ comedy besides its highly personal content (in this regard, he was preceded by the twin gods of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, no question) was his fierce Left-wing politics and devout atheism. The English and Irish comics below are all in the same camp politically and in religious (or should that be “superstitious”?) terms.

Always best to start out with a song, so I’ll first spotlight the work of Bill Bailey, who plays the keyboard and various guitars onstage while he does comedy. He also has done a touring “Essential Guide to the Orchestra” which cannot be sampled on YouTube, sadly. In fact, YT contains very little of his standup, favoring his appearances on talk shows and the famous Never Mind the Bullocks gameshow. But you can check out his playing of a theremin on The Jonathan Ross Show, his bit on hard rock and the city of Milton Keynes, and his mock Brel/Scott Walker love-has-left ballad .

Here is a chunk of his stand-up, including the nice insight that certain types of jazz horn playing sounds like a “surrealist car alarm”:

From England we move to Ireland, and comic Dylan Moran, who is very straightforward and wonderfully deadpan, and discusses the more pleasant (or is that deadening?) forms of hypocrisy as his main theme. Here he summarizes religion as “people talking about their imaginary friend”:

Some more standard standup, as with this discussion of the battle of the sexes. Moran’s pleasant demeanor lets him get away with acidic insights:

And actually, there is one other element that links these comedians to Bill Hicks: their razor-sharp takes on Americans (Hicks’ standard line on whether he was proud of being an American was to note that the U.S. “was the place where my parents fucked”).

Setting aside atheism for a moment (although I have the feeling this next comedian is pretty much on that page too), Padraic’s montage helped me discover the work of Robert Newman, who was part of a well-loved team with a comic named David Baddiel (and did impressions of British rockers like this one), but who has worked on refining (bad pun — you’ll see) one long and brilliant set of material on world history, and the U.S. and U.K.’s devotion to oil, into a really tight piece of television, called from “Caliban to the Taliban,” or “The History of Oil.” Some helpful soul has put the entire show on YouTube — the video and the audio are slightly unhooked (the video lags a few seconds behind), but the show is definitely worth your attention. Part one can be found here. Here’s part four of the “History of Oil” show, summing up Newman’s political take on politics in the 2000s:

And now, we hit the comedy team that was a major discovery for me, Lee and Herring. The team did some amazingly funny work for BBC Radio and TV — their “Inexplicable World of Lionel Nimrod” show is just excellent, and they co-scripted episodes of "On the Hour," the absolutely brilliant Chris Morris radio news send-up that spawned the Alan Partridge character.

Stewart Lee has become an utter obession for me in the past few weeks, but his ex-partner Richard Herring also does top-notch standup, and he qualifies as the U.K. comedian who seems the most interested in delving into joyously blasphemous waters (I have no idea what his upbringing was like, but the man is obsessed with puncturing Christianity, and for that I salute him). Herring’s onstage persona is that of a sort of chubby shlemiel, but as a result of that playful-dolt front, he can get away with some terrifically nasty humor. Here is a sample of his standard, non-atheist standup, on the ever-popular topics of the phys. ed teacher at school and sexuality:

Herring did an entire set of material about Jesus, called “Christ on a Bike,” that can be found at the “Fist of Fun” website,” which contains lots and lots of free downloads of audio material from Herring and Stewart Lee. The opening part of the “Christ on a Bike” show can be found (as audio with a still picture) on YT here:

Herring has professed his love of the genius comedy of Cook and Moore in their “Derek and Clive” guises, and the single most Derek and Clive-ish bit of material I’ve heard him do is this slice from his “Collings and Herrin” podcast with fellow comic Andrew Collins (their blogspot blog is here). UPDATE: Since I wrote this, I've discovered Herring's solo podcast, As It Occurs to Me, which is a fast-paced sketch series that he writes and gives away for free on the Net (I love these kinds of artists!). You can download that terrific show here. And now back to the regularly scheduled slice of blasphemy from the "Collings and Herrin" 'cast:

And an amazing piece of stand-up by Herring, where the title is only the beginning of the gorgeous blasphemy. This is some of his latest material, with you-know-it’s-2009-or-10 references to Susan Boyle and Tiger Woods. And Rich asking Christ, “wank me off with your stigmata”:

Finally, there is Herring’s ex-“straight man,” Stewart Lee. Lee is one of the most deadpan comics and one of the funniest I’ve seen in years. His comedy is smart, yes, but he also works a concept thoroughly, through wonderful repetition and a sublimely straightforward sense of the absurd.

One of his nastiest routines routines about the English (he’s also done some superb U.S.-bashing) is a longer piece on the commemoration of the death of Princess Diana. He also weighed in on the Harry Potter phenomenon. As for Lee’s own reading habits, he is indeed a fan of William Blake, and also loves comic books — one of his interview “scores” was Alan Moore, whom he’s talked to more than once. Audio of a radio interview of Moore by Lee is here .

His tale of meeting a homophobic taxi driver is a fine piece of post-Hicks storytelling that also has much resonance for Americans, if one thinks of the “party of no” and their crappy debate tactics:

Lee tackled the touchy subject of joke-stealing in this terrific routine. I’ve never heard of the comics involved (although a Michael Redmond clip on YouTube is worth a look), but I’ll forever know the name of Joe Pasquale now.

The Pasquale routine, like another one Lee does on a comic named Tom O’Connor, shows his superb way of driving home a comic point. Here he works in a similar vein, eviscerating the Celebrity Big Brother show, and the TV advertisers:

One of Stewart’s most durable routines, which he’s reused and even done a fourth-wall commentary on, is a bit called “Jesus is the Answer”:

Lee wrote and hosted a serious tele-docu meditation on religion in modern society, “Don’t Get Me Started,” that can be found in its entirety here. Lee goes on about his own connection to Jesus in this routine (audio only). The “not him, I’m not” stuff is just terrific:

The fullest comic flowering of Lee’s thoughts on religion is this episode of his show Stewart Lee’s Comic Vehicle:

And because I’m posting this two days before Easter Sunday, and yes, because I was raised Catholic and now really don’t want anything to do with the religion, I offer a link to the YouTube poster named “Atheist Reference”, who seems to have quite a large video collection, including much “heathen,” non-believer comedy.