Friday, April 2, 2010

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.

No comments: