Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Tales of the unexpected


There's a passage in Harry Pearson's brilliant football-themed memoir / travelogue 'The Far Corner' which details the author's running battle with his lunch while sat on a bus and which concludes with the observation that "I don't know who it was that invented egg mayonnaise sandwiches, but I suspect it was someone with a heavy investment in the dry-cleaning industry".

I now know how he feels.

Hurriedly stuffing an egg mayo sarnie into my face pre-gig, some of the aforementioned filling drops out, I presume onto the pavement. No such luck, however - as I discover to my cost when I later reach into my pocket for my ringing phone, press it to my ear and inadvertently squidge egg mayonnaise into my lughole.

This kind of thing is only supposed to happen in bad sitcoms. Tonight's entertainment will have to go some way to be funnier.

Ronnie Golden, the King's Head's regular compere, appears to be the lovechild of Derek Acora and Roy Walker (if that's possible and not too grim to contemplate). He kicks off proceedings with a number of standards with his band The Rex, before taking requests to perform one song in the style of another. James Brown's take on Leonard Cohen is obvious enough (peppered with yelps of "Yeah!", "Get on up!" and "Get down!"), but the larynx-shredding Tom Waits cover of Gloria Gaynor's 'I Will Survive' is wondrous - not least because Ronnie's somehow still able to talk afterwards.

Ivor Dembina is probably better known in London as the host of comedy nights in Brixton and Hampstead (presumably to two very different types of crowd...) than as a stand-up in his own right, but, though his short set is a fairly disjointed series of gags, he's got a far sharper mind than his appearance - woolly hat, awkward-looking - might suggest.

Foregrounding his Jewishness from the outset, he sets out to say things others probably couldn't, claiming "I'm all for giving the Occupied Territories back, as long as we can keep New York" and later pushing the boundaries of taste by playing up the Jewish indignation at being lumped in with gypsies, homosexuals and the disabled in the holocaust memorials: "'It's not Yourschwitz, it's Auschwitz'!"

From a man who looks like he might wander around London collecting dog-ends to a man who wrote a novel featuring a character who wanders around London collecting dog-ends. Regular readers will no doubt realise that Stewart Lee is the reason I'm here.

Lee begins by ridiculing the oft-repeated cliche that being a stand-up must be "the hardest job in the world" - his point only partly compromised when he's forced to deal with the drunken interruptions of a bloke at pains to let everyone know his mum's just arrived.

The bulk of the set involves Lee reading from "celebrity hardbacks" and deconstructing even the most seemingly innocent sentences. While taking pot-shots at Chris Moyles's 'The Difficult Second Book' is hardly a challenging course of action for a comic of Lee's talents, he does it so well. Every time he reads out a line, repeats it, closes the book and says slowly and deliberately "Well..." or "Now...", we know that it's destined for dissection by his ruthless logic. His observation about the way Davina McCall's celebrity endorsement suggests Moyles has failed even in his lowly ambition to write a book that can be enjoyed on the shitter is brilliant. As for Asher D's comparing himself to Jesus, I think we can all see the direction in which that material might be taken, given Lee's past...

When he leaves the stage, I'm suspicious that his time's been cut short for some reason - and that reason soon becomes clear, Ronnie Golden announcing to the stunned surprise and delight of the whole room that none other than Eddie Izzard has popped along for a quick set. Such are the bonuses of going to well-established and well-respected comedy nights in the capital, it seems.

Now, at the risk of seeming ungrateful at getting the unexpected opportunity to witness a seasoned and celebrated stand-up accustomed to playing theatres and stadia performing in front of barely 75 people (a full house), I remain largely unmoved while everyone else swoons and falls about with laughter. Just because it FEELS I should do likewise doesn't mean I ACTUALLY should, and while his latest material has its moments - particularly a section about Noah's Ark and his musings about what was cutting-edge in the Stone Age - it doesn't have the same impact as what's gone before.

Part of the problem is that Izzard's predecessor on stage has in the past been critical of his simulation of spontaneity, and I've got that thought on the brain - a rare occasion indeed when one comic not only heckles another but does so a few years previously...

To his credit, Izzard has at least confessed to this deceit, having done so most recently in a televised conversation with Graham Norton a couple of days prior to tonight's show - but on that occasion he also took the opportunity to brazenly shoehorn the not particularly funny Wikipedia routine into the flow of their couch chat, so some of the material is already familiar. Why do I feel as I do about this routine and yet lap up Stewart Lee's closing gag about poisonous berries, one I've heard him use several times before?

Ultimately, it probably comes down to the simple fact that I prefer Lee and, no doubt unlike nearly everyone else here (with the exception perhaps of The Actor Kevin Eldon, lurking by the door with a bevy of female companions), would actually have rather enjoyed an extra half-hour of ritual Moyles savaging. Ungrateful git that I am.

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