Thursday, December 24, 2015

The last two tunes in the Xmas misery megamix

On the last day before Xmas, I wanted to add a final “footnote” to my Xmas misery megamix (go here for the full dose) with perhaps the most unusual items. There are only two of 'em because... hey, it's Xmas Eve when I'm posting this and you don't have a lotta time, do you?

First, a skronk-y Xmas carol that is an epic of discordance and irritation – you'll either love it or hate it (it's entirely possible you'll have both reactions). I have friends who rave about James Chance's music, and I can't help but think that's because they saw him live. Experiencing him through recordings is still a confrontation of a sort, but it also can be sorta tiring – although here I note that he's backed by women backup singers, who lend a tiny bit of on-key-ness to the proceedings (esp in the final repeated refrain, “Are you weepin' and waitin'/for Christmas with Satan?”).

The song is a ten-minute opus called “Christmas with Satan” and it contains not just Chance's meditation on meeting the Horned One on Xmas day, but also horn-driven "skronk" riffs on various familiar holiday staples, including “Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town,” “Winter Wonderland,” “White Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Raindeer,” and “Hava Nagila” (who knows?). This aspect of the song makes it a nice one-stop-shop for those who want to cover the usual Yuletide territory quickly and with irreverence.

Take the trip, the fare is cheap.

And the piece de resistance (thanks to friend Rich Brown for this!) has to be Willie Tyler and Lester's sad little December ditty – it's less an Xmas song than an end-of-year song about going home and seeing the family.

It's a somber affair, but the best part is that Willie didn't forget his little wooden pal (who he's been touring with for something like five decades!) – Lester duets with him on the tune and even gets a little Stylistics-like trill (around the 1:23 mark). I can think of no better way to seal off my “Xmas misery megamix” for 2015 than by giving you this song that I believe Willie wrote himself.

The more I watch this video the more I love Lester's hat and the way his tiny little wooden hands move to accentuate lines in the song.

The "Xmas misery megamix" can be found here. Happy Holidays to all

Monday, December 21, 2015

The holiday approacheth... and there *is* listenable music (plus: bonus Xmas misery!)

I posted a few weeks back about the misery that accompanies the Yuletide each year – the salesmanship (on many levels), the creation of an American mythos of the holiday, and the music... oh yes, the music. I of course first and foremost want to draw your attention to my “Xmas misery megamix” here, but I also wanted to add a few “footnotes” and draw some attention to some older pieces you'll find on this blog.

First, there's the question that some folks might've asked themselves after reading my celebration of the imaginative ways that songwriters have celebrated/chronicled the emotional underside of the holiday: “well, what DO you like in terms of Xmas music?” Four years ago I celebrated three brand new (well, they were then) Xmas songs. I still love all three of these tunes – one by Tim Minchin, one by the mighty “Sherwin Sleeves,” and the last by Andy Ditzler (with a no-budget music vid by Funhouse deity George Kuchar). Watch them here.

Each year there's generally one new Xmas song that I do enjoy, usually because it's catchy or amusing. This year I'd nominate a tune by “Loose Tapestries,” the band headed up by the Mighty Boosh's Noel Fielding and Sergio Pizzorno (of Kasabian). The gent doing the midsong rap is none other than actor Idris Elba. The whole thing is damnably catchy (even if the video is unashamedly “Gilliam-esque” – perhaps to promote Terry's new autobio?):

I also direct your attention to another blog post I put up in 2011 (a busy holiday that year!), concerning Jewish comedians doing songs about Xmas: the Albert Brooks (his track wasn't a song but it was a 45!), Marty Feldman, and Jerry Lewis. I uploaded to YT the Feldman and Lewis songs. Listen to 'em all here.

Now for a few “footnotes” to my Xmas misery playlist. First, a “glitter” pop band doing a Fifties-sounding “I'm sad during the holidays” ditty. I didn't want to include “Blue Christmas”-esque items in the misery megamix but was intrigued to find this sucker after I wrote the piece. The band Mud were best known for their hit “Tiger Feet” (in which the singer praises his gal's “tiger feet” – I have no idea....). Here the lead vocalist does his impression of a classic r'n'r singer (in 1974) as he laments his upcoming solitude:

For a lovely statement of purpose, we have the British indie band Denim (whose leader formerly ran Felt – material jokes should be inserted here). Their Xmas tune was the wonderfully mopey “I Will Cry at Christmas." The song has the singer rejecting his lover, so he's not as innocent as the title suggests. Catchy, poppy misery:

And because everything I've offered up thus far in this entry is pretty damned upbeat and catchy, here's a song that is mostly gloomy atmosphere, Suicide's “Hey Lord” from 1981. This is some heavy Yuletide depression, truly the antidote to (I summon its sprightly soul again) Andy Williams' “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”:

Please do check out my original, extremely entertaining Xmas misery megamix post here.

As the merry-bells keep ringing, Happy Freakin' Holidays to you! 

Thanks to Steve Korn and Merry Brosnan for two of the musical suggestions above.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

What time of year is it, kiddies?

America is at a crossroads. (Then again, America's been at the same crossroads since the Fifties.) Terrorist attacks are dreaded in every major city on the planet. The American political process is now the purview of people saying the craziest shit imaginable – and people cheer them for doing so. Black Americans are fatally shot by the cops for being “suspicious” (or whatever pretext is created). American culture is cookie-cutter to the max, with comic book movies being the biggest hits at the box office, and the only really quality TV series being made for pay channels. Pop music ate itself long ago, and literature of any kind is now subject in institutions of higher learning to “trigger warnings,” telling the young folk that they may encounter objectionable words or concept that might offend them.

So what can we do in this time of strife, discord, and general miserable-ness? (See below for the next holiday's blast of seasonal annoyance.) We can laugh at a former TV spy being needled by volunteer clowns as he reads the U.S. constitution (and misses a line in the process). I suspect there will be no sequel to the recent U.N.C.L.E. "reboot."

Repeated viewings make this clip even more patriotic. (For me, the clown wiggling his nose is only the surface level -- the guy stroking his chin is the real deal.)


On a more somber, mawkish note, I thank you folks for reading this blog, watching the Funhouse TV show, and for being so generous in your praise for this work.

The Funhouse TV show will be undergoing a MASSIVE change in the next month. Our access organization is converting from the tape format that has been working *splendidly* for the last few years to only accepting digital files that may or may not play properly on-air (the last formats that were used by the org both had several different Playback troubles, so I'm assuming the same will occur with this conversion to digital broadcasting). The recent for the conversion? Because, well... things have to move on, and things just have to get screwed up again (they're been working too well for years now!).

I am doing my best – and spending an *inordinate* sum of money I don't have – to learn the new specs and will be giving in the best possible files I can create with the best possible technology. If the Funhouse show starts getting wonky in its on-air, it isn't for lack of hard work from myself, my camera folk, and my tech-guru (the master cineaste Paul G.).

So I'll close out with another thank-you to youse and yours for checking this stuff out. I enjoy doing it, and your positive feedback when it arrives makes it all worthwhile

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Confessions of a Humbug-aholic: the Christmas Misery Hit Parade

Halloween is now over, and I'm not the only one who laments its end and the onset of the Yuletide season. The latter is represented by a non-stop barrage of television ads, promotions in e-mail, picturesque store displays, and garish red and green products that bear the likenesses of Santa, Jesus, Rudolph, the Three Wise Men, Frosty, or the Virgin Mary.

And the music. Oh god, the music. Some of it is sublime, some amusing, but the vast majority of it is pure mulch. I've written about this before on this blog but the most irritating part of the whole Xmas music debacle is that the “selling season” is the only time older musical artists are played on the radio, on store loudspeakers, and all over the streets of the city — but you're only going to hear a handful of songs that fit the season and provoke either grimaces or sad memories. That's the true key to the marketing of any holiday, making the public feel an obligation to purchase or making 'em feel lonely and wretched.

And all this after Halloween, the most enjoyable of all holidays, because it is so irresponsible and lacking in obligation. Xmas is fun for kids and a burden for adults (unless they're parents, who now exist *through* the progeny). Halloween, on the other hand, is for extroverts and introverts, exhibitionists and voyeurs, those who are religious (and thus welcome the lapse into bad behavior) and those who know religion is the biggest marketing ploy of all.

The marketing push for Xmas now begins right after Halloween (and in some stores slightly before it). It used to be that Thanksgiving was the portal into Xmas — why else would Santa be shamelessly plugging Macy's at the tail-end of their wondrously overblown annual parade/store promotion? The “door busters”/Black Friday mindset is now a deeply entrenched part of the holiday. It is supplemented by department stores and other emporia du crap staying open 24/7 on the week before Xmas — something that never happened when America was prosperous but somehow became a habit right after the financial crash of 2008.

From Nakaryah's Photobucket
But even if you're able to set aside the horrifying Xmas marketing and the sad memories that are part and parcel of the Yuletide season (and the nearly-as-oppressive New Year’s Eve holiday that follows), you're left with that one major factor: the music. The mass media embraces, for a short time only, a finite amount of old culture — great dead recording artists, classic lit (of the Dickens variety), and a small handful of old movies and Xmas episodes of series from the pre-Norman Lear/pre-Three's Company days.

Halloween, on the other hand, spotlights rockers who've played with horror elements in their music or performance. The range of films is anything at all that could be frightening or scary, from murder mysteries and psychological thrillers to monster flicks and horror movies. There's no dictated “playlist” and there seems to be a broader outlook on what the holiday can embrace in terms of entertainment.

Both Xmas and Halloween can inspire memories. But would you rather be forced to recall heart-tugging memories of relatives who have died, lovers who have left, and kids who have grown up – or that ridiculous time you wore some silly-ass costume and had a ball? (or just stayed home and watched your all-time favorite horror/monster movies)

When it comes down to it, I choose joy over sorrow — and marketing. Mark me down as being in the Halloween camp. But since we're now firmly in Xmas territory (although the fact that the holiday begins so fucking early is now a running gag on both sides of the Atlantic), I wanted to remind ya what Xmas is really all about, by sharing the all-time best Yuletide misery tunes.

I've classified them into little groups, but I'm sure I still missed some gems (feel free to comment and add your own personal fave if I missed it). At the end of the piece, I thank those of my Facebook friends who reminded me of some prime Xmas misery or intro'd me to things I'd never heard before.

Let it be known that I do think “Have Yourself a Merry Little Xmas” is indeed a grade-A primo wrist-slashing piece of Yuletide sorrow (“… if the fates allow…” is the masterstroke). “Blue Xmas,” “I'll Be Home for Xmas,” “The Christmas Blues,” and “Please Come Home for Xmas” are equally gloomy and grim for the holiday. However, you know those — it would be like including the over-played (and barely tolerable) “Grandma Got Run Over by a Raindeer” to illustrate kooky Xmas tunes. I wanted to reach for the 100-proof Xmas misery ditties.

There are also songs that are just so treacly sentimental that they make YOU, the listener, miserable. There are dozens and dozens of these, but a particularly creepy one is “Shake Me I Rattle (Squeeze Me I Cry),” sung from the point of a “dolly” waiting to be bought by a sad, poor little girl (thanks to Roy Edroso for this misery “starter” kit). Here the Lennon Sisters act it out on — where else? — The Lawrence Welk Show.

The biggest subgroup of holiday-unhappiness ditties target that gift-giver emeritus, he of the beard, stomach, and creepy-ass laugh. Some of the tunes are lyrically miserable, but they are just too damned upbeat — thus I’m not including “Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me” and Dwight Yoakam’s “Santa Can't Stay” on this list. I will, however, start off with one of the truly weirdest tunes that appeared in the Dr. Demento universe several decades ago, the tune for fucked-up kids that hope to find parts of St. Nick underneath their beds:

One of the more peculiar depressing tunes about Santa is “The Little Boy that Santa Claus Forgot” by Nat King Cole. In this case Santa was a dick to a small child (because “he hasn’t got a daddy” — single moms raise disappointed children!).

The songwriter’s imagination goes to strange places when pondering the toy-making factory of St. Nick. The misery-epic “Death of an Elf” by Reverend Glen Armstrong is astoundingly grim:

And then children like the kid in the Nat Cole song grow up and take their revenge on Santa. There’s the wonderfully titled “Millie Pulled a Gun on Santa” by De La Soul. This is one of my all-time favorites, though: Ray Davies vision of a street corner Santa being attacked by angry poor kids. (“Give my daddy a job because he needs one/he’s got lots of mouths to feed/And if you’ve got one I’ll have a machine gun/ so I can scare all the kids on the street…”):

The next one probably belongs with the unhappy family Xmas tunes, but its raw r&B sound makes it perfect for the Santa-is-a-mean-fuck-up subgenre, “Santa Came Home Drunk” by Clyde Lasley and the Cadillac Baby Specials:

The sorely missed Tiny Tim came up with the single most depressing image of Santa in his absolute masterpiece “Santa Claus Has Got the AIDS.”(“He won’t be yelling out ‘Ho-ho-ho-ho’/But he’ll be screaming out ‘No! No! No! No!’…”) It’s a disturbing song, a bizarre one, an endlessly funny one (most likely because you can’t figure out if Tiny is kidding — I don’t think he was), and perhaps the ultimate expression of our twisted relationship with the man who comes down people’s chimneys and wolfs up their cookies. Tiny, we miss you so…

The nexus of the Xmas holiday (at least they keep telling us) is the family unit. The bulk of the miserable Xmas songs have to do with the lack of family and loneliness on the holiday, but there’s just as much misery that can be doled out by one’s relatives. 

Robert Earl Keen’s “Merry Christmas from the Family” is the best dysfunctional-family-at-Xmas song ever, but it’s still too chipper a vision: the sweet, fucked-up family that Keen describes is us, and they’re charmingly tacky. (The song gets major credits for being the only Xmas song I know of to mention tampons.)

Commander Cody’s “Santa's Drinking Up Our Xmas” is more in line with the family misery that gets communicated in song. Consider it the first great country ode to holiday pain in this list (more to come!):

And because it has the single most spiteful title in the whole canon of Xmas music, I have to include Sufjan Stevens’ “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (well, you deserved it!).” Stevens came up with the words of a bickerer who is the exact opposite of the guy in the Ramones song “Merry Christmas (I don’t want to fight tonight).” His character is happy he’s made his partner miserable for the holidays:

The blues are the ultimate expression of sadness in song, and so there needs to be one unhappy Xmas blues tune on this list. Thus, Victoria Spivey tells us how low-down miserable Xmas can get in the  “Christmas Morning Blues”:

Blues masters have other things to be unhappy about, but country-song writers have a laser-focus on Xmas misery. There are songs in which people try to ignore the whole thing — as with Dolly Parton and company singing “Hard Candy Christmas” in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (a stunningly poorly-made movie musical).

Although it isn’t the single saddest Xmas-sucks country tune, the award for best title has got to go to “Please Daddy (Don't get drunk this Christmas).” Here the ever-pure John Denver warbles this timeless tale:

The “coal miner’s daughter” gave us one of the most perplexing sad-ass country tunes, “Christmas Without Daddy.” I’ve listened to this sucker more than once trying to figure out where daddy went — did he leave Mom and the kiddies? Is he in prison? The military? Is he dead? (She says he’s “so far away” and the son is writing him a letter, but then again, kids have been known to write to dead folk.) The songwriter supplies no answer, but it’s still a downer of a tune:

Ernest Tubb altered his big hit “I’m Walkin’ the Floor Over You” for the holidays as “I'll Be Walking the Floor This Christmas.” The best line? He’ll be “decoratin’ the tree with tears…”:

Arguably the all-time king of sad country songs, George Jones gave us “Lonely Christmas Call.” It’s a letter from a sad husband and dad, asking his departed ex to come back for the holiday. (“Why not show consideration/to the ones whose heart you’re breaking?/Give them your gift of love/this Christmas day…”)

The above are all great tunes, but the gut-punch best is definitely Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December.” It’s beautifully written, is about the eternal subject of lack of money, and isn’t just about the holiday. The narrator has been laid off and hopes that, if the family can survive the month of December (“the coldest time of winter”), they can move to a warmer climate where he can get a new job. It’s so non-sentimental and clear-minded in its point of view it’s emotionally wrenching:

A really great example of how Xmas music has been depressing since the get-go is the “Coventry Carol.” Intended to commemorate the order from King Herod to kill all the male children under the age of two in Bethlem, it’s a gorgeous-sounding carol that tells of the needless, horrid slaughter of innocent children. (Suddenly your losing your lover during the holidays doesn’t sound so bad, eh?) Here’s a beautiful version by Allison Moyet:

And continuing the massacre theme (I rarely get to write that phrase), next up is a discussion of Xmas songs revolving around the Vietnam War. Proving that the ridiculous phrase “EVERYTHING is on the Internet, Granddad!!!” is indeed ridiculous, I was unable to find a posting of one of my personal Nam-era faves that references how bombing in wars is sometimes stopped on Xmas Day (and then picked up as soon as the calendar changes). 

The song is “The Rest of The Year” written by David Buskin (of Buskin and Batteau) and recorded most prominently by Mary Travers. This song was on YouTube, but was taken down, so I mention here, because it is both beautiful and sad.

But onto a record you can hear online: “Christmas in Vietnam” by Johnny and Jon, surprisingly hails from relatively “early” in the war (1966) — although we all know the Vietnam quagmire was being ramped up during JFK’s presidency and during LBJ’s first years.  The song is a fascinating “news story” that contains the bluesy line “I’m in a foxhole, baby!”

Now the final, most sublime Xmas-misery songs.  And yet *another* note about a song that is NOT online, “My Most Miserable Xmas Blues” by Charles Brown (which accuses the listener, the singer’s lover, of making this Christmas “the most miserable Christmas” of his whole life — Brown’s pronunciation of it as “mis’able” makes it even better). I love the song to pieces, but can’t present it here, because no one has uploaded it to YouTube.

Again, I will try to dispense with songs that have depressing lyrics but are just too upbeat melody-wise (a great example is “Christmas Will Just Be Another Day” by Brenda Lee). What are we left with? Sheer unmitigated seasonal misery, like Aimee Mann's “I Was Thinking I Could Clean Up for Christmas”:

Some early Seventies soul, the Emotions with “What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas?” The jingle bells are a ridiculous touch that play against the whole arrangement, but I guess the producer felt it “lightened” the depressing lyric.

Sometimes, during the year, when it's decidedly not Xmas, I begin to sing the next number to myself. Wall of Voodoo's amazing story song, “Shouldn't Have Given Him a Gun for Christmas.” (“He put two slugs in the neighbor’s door/and kicked apart the manger scene/The plastic baby Jesus he blew to smithereens/I can’t think of all the nine-year-olds who won’t be seein’ ten/Or how he went-a caroling to the doors of now-dead men!”)

The Sensational Alex Harvey Band gave us the lovely rocker (yes, I'll include upbeat tunes when they're nasty rock) “There's No Light on the Christmas Tree,” which concerns a killer being executed on Xmas Eve. There are indeed some sublime Xmas misery ditties about the Big House, including “Christmas in Jail,” the 1956 rocker that boasts beautifully deadpan delivery of the lyrics by the lead singer:

The always sublime John Prine went a similar route with his catchy “Christmas in Prison”:

Now, we come to the home stretch: the crème de la crème of sad Xmas songs. Tom Waits has written some of the most memorably depressing songs of the past few decades — to the extent that he has been impersonated for a novelty tune called “Christmas Sucks.” Tom's own Yuletide masterwork is the memorably downbeat “Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis.” It gets to the essence of the holiday in a few short minutes. A smiling, happy facade concealing all kinds of sad truths.

The vision of owning a used car lot is the grace note. (“I'd just drive me a different car every day/depending on how I feel...”)

A good part of the strength of garage rock was its raucous, unpolished sound in an era when the Beatles and Beach Boys were releasing gorgeously crafted pop-rock “teenage symphonies" — thus the main reason the notion of Little Steven's Underground Garage makes so little sense, since he decided the perfectly polished, million-selling hits belong with the raucous items by more obscure acts, just because he says so.

There was also the refreshingly short duration of the songs. Here the Sonics from Tacoma, Wash., offer up their feelings about Xmas in less than two minutes. Brevity is indeed the soul of Xmas-misery wit.

And because punk was built on the shambles left by garage rock, we have Fear's exceedingly succinct summation of the situation:

It's not like the notion that Xmas is a dreadful drag is anything new. This brilliant piece (also very concise) from 1962 skewers the holiday beautifully. Vocalist Bob Dorough wrote the lyrics (“It's a time when the greedy give a dime to the needy/Blue Christmas, all the paper, tinsel and the folderal/Blue Xmas, people trading gifts that matter not at all/What I call/folderal/Bitter gall... folderal”). He composed the melody with some guy named Davis.

Hard to beat the conclusion of Dorough's lyrics (“Merry Christmas/I hope yours is a bright one, but for me, it bleeds...”). Leave it to the beautifully blended voices of the Everly Brothers to supply the fell blow that demolishes the holiday, “Christmas Eve Can Kill You.” (“And Christmas Eve can kill you/When you're trying to hitch a ride to anywhere/The icy air I'm breathing's all that keeps me on my feet/I feel like I've been walking all my life...”)

And because I have to leave you with one dram of hopefulness after this death-orgy of Xmas-music (which is actually just more *honest* than the music you normally hear; Andy Williams' “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is a horrific but tuneful deceit from any angle), I turn to the much-loved “Fairytale of New York.”

The strength of the song is its mixture of beauty and ugliness (something that those from Eire are masters at). The fact that the music is beautifully arranged, gorgeously sung (ah, Kristy...), and so wonderfully evocative of dreams that are promised and the reality that is delivered makes it perhaps the perfect urban Xmas song.

I can think of no better place to close out than with a rollicking, boisterous, emotional Xmas song that contains the charmingly romantic lyric, “You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot/Happy Christmas your arse/I pray God it's our last.” What more can you add?

Thanks to these Facebook pallies for reminding me of, and in some cases introducing me to, some of the songs found above: Doug Brod, Rich Brown, Nick Bruel, Zach Crowell, Roy Edroso, Ed Edward, M. Faust, Tony Gordon, Greg Gutbezahl, Judy Hennessey, James Marshall, Arnold Neimanis, Garo Nigoghossian, Suzu Renaud, and Louis Sessa.

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.