The Shoe Leather Express

Writing and Comedy from James Harris

A Cup of Tea with Mark Silcox

I assume like all comedians Mark Silcox wants above all to make people laugh. And he does; he can tell a joke, he can subvert an expectation, he looks funny. Mark Silocx has an aura of diffidence and mildness, this middle-aged chemistry supply teacher, which in and of itself can raise laughs. But his show contains something more than that; it contains a simple gesture which I would like to focus on here in more detail.

Silcox’s show ‘Helping Aamer’, a show themed around both Silcox and the audience’s attempts to send good vibes to ‘angry Australian comedian’ Aamer Rahman, ran at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. On the day I was there, there was a small but appreciative crowd present. When we entered the room one of the first things to be seen was a selection of teas and coffees piled up on a table. And this is a crucial aspect of good anti-comedy: when what is happening is minimal – in this case Silcox quietly talking about his ‘research’, not even normally holding the microphone to his lips – everything that is there becomes charged with significance. Just the sight of those stacked, dormant custard creams becomes funny to the audience member whose eyes stray over them.

Mark Silcox.

Mark Silcox.


A cup of tea.

At the top of the show, Silcox states that he would like to both investigate the causes of Rahman’s anger and also demonstrate that eggs could be boiled in a kettle, a process which he duly set in motion. I later received and enjoyed an egg. Good as that egg was – lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, and cut in two – I want to focus on Silcox’s offer of caffeinated beverages. After making us laugh hysterically with his own corpsing, which I later learnt to my surprise was not preplanned and had occurred as a one-off during the performance I saw, Silcox announced a tea break and took orders from the audience; whether we wanted tea, coffee, milk, sugars, a biscuit etc.

Clearly, even for a small audience, preparing a selection of beverages is a lot to ask of a single performer, so Silcox solicited the help of another audience member to assist in making the hot drinks. The audience member, from what I remember a friendly middle-aged woman, did not seem to be an obvious aficionado of either audience participation or anti-comedy, but was in fact relating to Silcox on a simple, humane level, namely as a man who needed some help in making the teas. (Often I think average audiences, as opposed to reviewers, grasp much more readily why anti-comedy is funny, rather than making such a big fuss about the reasoning behind it. Children, too, seem to instinctively both get and generate anti-comedy).

As the order was prepared the moment became profoundly funny. I think it was because of the sense that Silcox had given himself so much work to do, and that having to work so hard in this context was a form of self-deprecation; an antidote to the idea of the ‘star-making’ quality of an Edinburgh show, even an act of self-abnegation before us. He laboured over the teas, this small middle-aged man, and as he did the audience began to talk amongst ourselves; and as we did, we could occasionally look up and check on Silcox, in the corner, dipping tea bags and sweating. (Bizarrely enough, I was sat in the show next to the comedian Henning Wehn, who in almost parodically German fashion had bought his own tea bag with him). The audience was able to chat amongst ourselves, and we were also actually getting tea – and in my case a biscuit and a half, Henning having wanted only the top of a custard cream. He’s clearly a man with particulars.

Comedian Henning Wehn.

Comedian Henning Wehn.

In the context of a hectic arts festival, just chatting and having a tea seems almost like a subversive act. First of all, it is simply nice to be offered a beverage; people like tea, and to be offered it; a hot drink is something that, like children, you don’t know you want until you have. Being offered tea is in many cultures an almost sacred act of hospitality and ritual. Speaking to my friend Pete after the show he asked me, ‘Did you have a tea?’ After my replying in the affirmative Pete continued, like a man naming his inalienable rights, ‘Got to have a tea.’ This is in effect the simplest form of marketing from Silcox: Come to my show and have a free drink. I don’t think the appeal of a free drink should ever be underestimated, and I’ve lost count of the number of events I’ve reviewed to friends with the words ‘There was a free drink.’

Secondly, though, the audience has been given a space, and in that space pretty much anything can happen. What is most likely to happen, with the show being on in the afternoon, is that the audience chat to each other, and that tallies with one of my own most important realizations about performing comedy: that it is more about the audience than the performer. It is always the unique moments the audience provide which will create the abiding laughs of a performance, even if an act has actually cleverly engineered their coming into being.

Finally, and this seems to me the most radical aspect of the act: Silcox has at this moment given up control of his own show. He has taken his hands off the tiller and gone below deck to make a brew. The relationship between performer and audience is as commonly understood one of master and servants, but here is a performer abdicating captaincy of their own show and letting it drift, uncentred, standing in the corner making beverages. There is something about that absence of control – anarchy, in the purest sense – which is, in a scene oversaturated by dominant comedy performers, and indeed comedy itself, deeply appealing. It is a space for reflection which still manages to be funny.

On a final, practical, note, Silcox’s gesture is presumably going to be hard to sustain if his audience does begin to grow substantially: That is unless his entire show becomes the making of tea for large crowds. Certainly I wouldn’t begrudge him an expanded fanbase, as his is anti-comedy of a most inviting and even humble kind. The gesture of receiving that tea and having such entertaining conditions to drink it stayed with me long after the Fringe, and I’ll be back to see him next year, even if only for the egg.

Photos from





How the EU saved my life

In Britain’s upcoming EU referendum, I am a passionate supporter of the #Remain campaign, for both pragmatic and sentimental reasons. Watch me explain why in this short video, made with help of my friends Jenny Chamarette and Paula Varjack.

20 things to do in your 20s

1). Sleep with Ryan Gosling. Handsome, well-read and articulate – and you are too. There’s never going to be a better decade than your 20s to sleep with the Gos.


2). Put a pen up your arse. Because nothing says ‘I’m in my 20s’ more than having a biro shoved up your backside.

3). Turn 20. Because what can be more authentically 20s than actually being 20.

Jumping woman

4). Learn a language. Why not start with the language of the country you live in? Take advantage of that plastic 20s brain!

5). Visit Paris – and do a shit in the toilets at the Louvre while quietly crying to yourself. Vive la France!

Photo by Moyan Brenn under a CC-BY-2.0 license.

Photo by Moyan Brenn under a CC-BY-2.0 license.

6). Go on, right the way up there, the whole pen.

7). Your 20s is the freest time of your life. So amuse yourself and others by paying in restaurants with little notes saying ‘I’m young and you are old!’


8). But your 20s is about preparing for your 30s, too. Try to decide which of your future children you would save in an eventual Sophie’s Choice style scenario.

9). Run up crippling emotional, financial and spiritual debts. You’ll have the rest of your life to pay off those bad boys!

Viaggioroutard/Flickr/Creative Commons.

Viaggioroutard/Flickr/Creative Commons.

10). Manu Picchu.

11). Spend a year answering all questions put to you in a Christopher Walken accent. Because twenties.

12). Bury a wooden chest full of doubloons to form the object of a zany but ultimately uplifting quest for your grandchildren in their 20s! Did someone say magical wacky adventure? Did someone say 20s?

13). Fight and die in World War Two. Nothing says ‘I’m in my 20s’ like making the ultimate sacrifice in this great historical conflict.


Courtesy of the Deutsches Bundesarchiv (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany).

14). Now bring it out to the nib.

15). Your 20s can be a time for reflection too. Spend a few months in the stomach of a giant whale, ruminating on God’s mystery and the gravity of the demands He sets upon us earthly mortals. Don’t forget to floss.

16). Feeling bold? Gently break to Pierce Brosnan how badly he’s aging. He’ll be comforted by your youthful vigour, and gracefully retire from action roles.

Pierce Brosnan GIF

17). Mother.

18) Do begin to accept your own mortality, insignificance and increasing loss of physical and intellectual capacity.

(Just kidding! Save all that for the morning of your 30th birthday. If there’s one thing that your twenties teaches you it’s that anyone over the age of 29 is an evolutionarily-redundant bumtoad!)

19). Do learn to stop putting additional pressure on yourself by setting arbitrary milestones in the form of random and meaningless lists.

Lady apple

20). What do you mean the pen is stuck?

Three poems about comedy


Tonight I stood on stage in front
Of a thousand, and they laughed
For me. The cameras ran.
I celebrated the greatest triumph of my career,
A television host shook my hand.

Now I am sat in a Chinese restaurant
With my notebook open before me.
The restaurant is quiet, aside
From an old man drinking soup and
Soya sauce crossing my plate.


Somehow a bad comedy evening is
Easier to bear than a poetry one;
At least you can get drunk.
Poets are so much nicer,
At times they grab each other’s shoulders
Out of pure delight.
Comedy is rougher – it takes all sorts
And has strong elements of a brawl,
Its agents are like boxing promoters
Talking their guys up.
And yet despite this roughness and
Poetry’s exquisite charm,
In the belief it makes a difference
I choose comedy.


After the show

There is always one act of comedy
Who doesn’t do so well,
The gentle kid or one-time champ
Who is beginning to coast. The consolation is –
Nothing. All the faces know it,
And the only remaining option’s to be funny while you drink.

Mohammad Jangda/Creative Commons 2.0.

Mohammad Jangda/Creative Commons 2.0.

‘The giants’

I dreamt a sadness deep as pillows
These giant pillows on which giants slept.
And when the giants woke they felt the sadness
And, nodding sadly, wept.

My heart – a broken thing
And yours, a courgette.
The giants waited outside the windows
Of our fifteenth-floor apartment.

As the day went on there was a deepening
Of the way I felt about you,
No almanac recorded this, and what the giants sang
Simply wasn’t true.

I cannot say it. Can you say it?
It seems too profoundly deep to say.
Let the giants say it, say it, say it!
Ah but those giants have gone away.