Thursday, February 26, 2009

Coarse fishing


(Ahem - er, yes, a little overdue, this one...)

For someone who's the regular compere elsewhere (the Shaggy Dog Comedy Store in west London), Ben Van der Velde seems rather nervy and a bit hesitant. It doesn't help, of course, that just when he's starting to settle into a groove a phone rings to jolt him out of it. How hard is it to take heed of the pre-gig announcement and afford the performers you - and, more importantly, others - have paid to see the decency of turning off your mobile?

The behatted Geordie evidently feels there's mileage to be had from his Jewishness (or at least feels expected to make some mileage out of it), saying that he doesn't tell jokes about the Holocaust "because there are funnier genocides" and that his Palestinian girlfriend has had her pubic hair waxed into a Gaza strip, but he's at his best when ruminating on the suggestive power of language - the one-word film review "Baffling" from a newspaper, Rick James being charged with "aggravated mayhem"...

Tonight's headline act Richard Herring isn't here to perform his 2008 Edinburgh show 'The Headmaster's Son' (that comes to Oxford in the spring) but to deliver a stand-up set that, it transpires, is so deliberately rude and provocative that it'd merit a firm clip around the lughole were the old man to be present.

He starts off innocuously enough, claiming that "The motto I choose to live my life by is 'My enemy's enemy is my friend'. But I'm my own worst enemy..." and going on to deliver a sequence of increasingly convoluted ripostes to his PE teacher's motto "There's no 'I' in 'team'" and the perverse logic apparently underlying it.

But after that - aside from a segment in which he rails about the stupid reasons people call 999 and the occasional references to being old and having a lifestyle that is pitiable rather than enviable (increasingly familiar these days in the wake of 'Oh Fuck, I'm 40') - it's pretty much what the Daily Mail would no doubt be inclined to label "a non-stop torrent of filth".

Particularly memorable is the section on the playground hand gestures of childhood which betray a fundamental misunderstanding of homosexual acts, Herring of course seizing the opportunity to suggest more realistic alternatives. He jokes of Baby P that his parents "could have at very least given him a name", basking in the nervous laughter of an audience wondering if it's too soon to be making comic capital out of tragedy before adding with a mischevious smirk "I've got worse" and alluding briefly to the Mumbai terrorist attacks.

Even the concluding segment, in which he dissects a simple phrase or comment with trademark persistence and pedantry from every conceivable angle (and some you simply won't have conceived of) - think 'Someone Likes Yoghurt' - focuses on a lewd T-shirt slogan, "Give me head until I'm dead", with predictably unsavoury consequences.

So, what's the point? (With Herring there's nearly always a point, even if it's not immediately obvious.) Is it simply a matter of deliberately pushing the boundaries of taste for cheap laughs, or is there something more going on? The latter, inevitably. As much as he discomforts the lily-livered and offends liberal sensibilities, he still elicits plenty of laughs and, crucially, at one point suggests he's performing comedy "just like Bernard Manning, but in a postmodern way - I know what I'm saying is wrong". Cue chuckles - but then the question that, for me, cuts to the quick: "But does that make it better - or much, much worse?" That seems to reveal the whole show to be a clever critique of the sort of comedy that pleads irony as a defence for saying the unsayable - albeit while at the same time effectively performing the same trick - as well as a robust challenge to audience attitudes and complacency: think for a moment what you're laughing about - you shouldn't be finding it funny.

A set that subverts itself? You don't get that with Jason Manford.

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