The Shoe Leather Express

Writing and Comedy from James Harris

Category: Comedy

Sketch

A pub in the northeast of England.

Andy. And I must say, for my part, I’ve never seen four standing ovations…

Dave. Andy.

Andy. Alright Dave.

Dave. Is it true?

Andy. What?

Dave. What people’ve been saying.

Andy. What?

Dave. You know.

Pause.

Andy. Dave, I’m not getting into this.

Dave. Is it true that you’ve been saying there’s a marked deterioration in the quality of Bob Fosse’s later work?

Andy. Now’s not the time pal. I’m here with my family.

Dave. And do your family your opinions on America’s greatest 20th-century choreographer? That although you acknowledge ‘Cabaret’ as a masterpiece you consider ‘All That Jazz’ to be self-indulgent? Do they know those words have come out their Daddy’s mouth?

Andy. It’s just my opinion Andy, alright.

Dave. No! It’s not alright! I won’t let people talk about Bob Fosse that on Teeside!

Pause.

Andy. (to himself) Well, if that’s how it has to be. If you must know, mate, I don’t like the way you’ve been talking about Stephen Sondheim either. Someone told me you said that he was ‘slightly overrated’.

Dave. Well he is man! His portfolio may be lyrically deft but it’s lacking in truly memorable numbers.

Andy. Can you hear what you’re saying? In front of my children.

Bartender. Now come on lads! You know this pub’s open to all kinds of tastes. If you can’t sit down like men and have a civilized discussion about musical theatre, you best take it outside.

Andy. Alright, that’s right.

Dave. Andy.

Andy. Dave.

Dave. Wait – are you turning your knees inside in a parody of one of Fosse’s signature moves?

Andy. No, I’m just making myself comfortable.

Dave. I’ve seen you man – you’re doing it again! That’s it, outside now.

Andy. Alright, outside it is. I’ll be back in a minute – once we’ve settled this for good!

Dave drains his pint.

The bartender pulls a chalkboard down. The left reads ‘Dave/Fosse’ and the right ‘Andy/Sondheim’, with chalk marks for their respective victories. They have had this fight before.

Sounds of shouting and fighting outside.

Dave. You punched me! (singing) And suddenly everything seems clear…

Andy. (singing) I’m punching you! You’re punching me!

Dave & Andy. (singing) Just two men fighting in a car park… Tonight!

Bartender. Settle in everybody – it’s going to be a long night.

*

 

Photos © 1979 Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation/Wikicommons public domain.

‘Scratch my back’

A meeting room.

A Minister and Helen, a civil servant, are waiting.

Minister. Do you ever feel, you know, absolutely bloody awful?

Helen. Come again Minister?

Minister. Just generally bloody awful, you know.

Helen. I’m taking it you do.

Minister. All the time actually. I mean, I’ve felt completely bloody awful since at least the age of 36.

Helen. And how old are you now Minister?

Minister. 52.

Helen. Oh.

Minister. Is that a long time? It is rather, isn’t it?

Helen. Well, today at least shouldn’t present you any problems. Our teams have already done the hard work – you just need to sign the paper and the first stage of trade negotiations will be officially complete. We’ll then go out and speak to the media – Ah, here they come!

Mr. Bao and his interpreter, Ms. Liu, the Chinese trade delegation, enter. The British delegation rise.

Minister. Ah, Mr Bao! And you must be –

Ms. Liu. Ms. Liu. I’m the interpreter for today.

They sit down quickly; the British follow, trying to look as if they were first to do so.

Ms. Liu. Mr. Bao would like you to know that he speaks fluent English, but out of respect for the Chinese people, who he knows are following this broadcast keenly, will be speaking in Chinese today.

Minister. Broadcast?

Helen. I believe this is going out live on Chinese state TV, Minister.

Minister. Of course it is. And about – how many people are watching?

Ms. Liu. No more than a hundred million.

Minister. Then I wish I’d worn a tie. Anyway, this is Helen, my Mandarin-speaking Mandarin. She’ll step in if there are any communication difficulties on our side.

Helen nods.

Mr. Bao speaks in Mandarin and is interpreted.

Mr. Bao. Wǒ hěn qī dài yǔ zhè gè wēi bù zú dào de xiǎo guó hé zuò, yóu qí shì zài nà niǎo bù lā shǐ de wēi ěr shì yùn zuò de feì wù chǔ lǐ chǎng.

(Translation: I anticipate our collaboration with this negligible nation, particularly the operation of the waste-processing plant in Wales, a place where birds don’t bother to shit).

Ms. Liu. Mr. Bao is delighted at the cooperation between our two nations, particularly the opening of the waste-processing facility in Aberystwyth.

Minister. Ha, tell Mr. Bao it’s just a shame that he can’t buy Wales entirely!

Ms. Liu interprets it back; Mr. Bao reacts with interest.

Ms. Liu. He asks how much Wales costs.

Helen. No, no –

Minister. It’s just a joke.

Helen. Kāi gè wán xiào.

(It’s just a joke).

The Chinese delegation nods.

Minister. I mean, Wales probably is for sale on some sort of level. I haven’t really thought about it to be honest. Above my pay grade.

Silence from the Chinese delegation.

Helen. Right. Shall we move on to the signing itself?

The Minister takes out a fountain pen.

Minister. My lucky pen! Would you believe this pen belonged to William Gladstone? A great pen to hail a great new liberal age! Where do I sign?

Helen points; the Minister signs.

Helen (pointing). Also there.

The Minister signs.

Minister. Over to you, Middle Kingdom!

Ms. Liu. Mr. Bao is very happy to proceed to the signing of the agreement. However, first he has just a little request, or two.

Minister. OK.

Ms. Liu. First of all, he’d like you to do a little twirl.

Minister. A little what?

Ms. Liu checks with Helen.

Ms. Liu. You know, (gestures) spinning –

Helen. Yes, twirl, that’s right.

Minister. And sorry but why does Mr. Bao want me to do a twirl exactly? Weshy-ma?

Ms. Liu. Ah, Minister, you do speak some Mandarin I see.

Mr. Bao. Wǒ xǐ huān kàn zhuàn quān.

(I like watching twirls).

Ms. Liu. Mr. Bao likes watching twirls.

Minister. Just let me consult with my mandarin. I mean her – well, her. (as an aside) Helen, what’s the Foreign Office policy on twirls?

Helen. No official policy on that, sir.

The Minister thinks it over.

Minister. Well, I can’t see why it’d hurt. A little twirl from this, particular, British lion to show he is not just a fearsome but a, ah, amicable beast.

The Minister stands up.

He gestures to the delegation, smiles, and gives a little twirl.

The delegation applaud.

Minister. I’m glad you like it. Now, my pen is ready to go…

Ms. Liu. Mr. Bao has another request.

Minister. He does.

Ms. Liu. He’d like you to sing his favourite song. It’s the song about the little teapot.
Pause.

Helen (sings). I’m a little teapot, short –

Minister. I know the song, Helen! We all bloody know the song. It’s a children’s favourite.

Ms. Liu. Then you can sing it.

Minister. I don’t want to –

Helen. Minister, I’d remind you of how delicate the negotiations are at this stage.

Pause.

Minister. Oh for goodness sake…

The Minister stands. The Chinese delegation film him, singing.

Minister. I’m a little teapot –

Ms. Liu. And the actions.

Minister. Actions?

The Minister turns to Helen, who demonstrates the actions.

Minister (singing, with actions). I’m a little teapot short and stout

This is my handle, this is my spout

Um – can’t remember the – steam up!

Tip me over and pour me out.

The delegation applauds with polite enthusiasm.

Minister. Alright, listen, that is it! We are now signing that document and I am not putting my finger up my arse or whatever it is that you want from me next, alright!

Mr. Bao (in English). Little teapot!

Everyone excpet the Minister laugh.

Helen. Sorry, Minister.

Ms. Liu. There is one more thing.

Minister. What do I have to do now?

Ms. Liu. Nothing. Just make a short statement about our new trade deal.

Minister. That’s it?

Ms. Liu nods.

Minister. I suppose that doesn’t sound too bad. Sort of thanks to both our nations, best of luck for the Year of the Rat, that sort of thing?

Ms. Liu. We’ve prepared the statement that we’d like to hear.

Ms. Liu pushes a piece of paper towards them.

Helen picks it up and reads it to herself.

Helen. You can’t read this Minister. Nonetheless, you can’t not read it either.

Minister. Remind me what exactly we pay you for.

Helen. Not enough to work under Dominic Cummings.

The Minister stares at the paper again.

Minister. How many did you say are watching?

Ms. Liu. About three hundred million as of now. (checks phone) Oh, four.

Minister looks to camera. He begins to read.

Minister. Great people of China. Today I am speaking on behalf of my tiny little country. Look what happens to small islands which aggressively assert their independence! Now the English lion is humbled, and forced to twirl and sing like a stupid old baby. This serves me right for the opium war and stealing other people’s territory – which is all my personal fault. Yes, I am a large baby, a – what’s that? – oh, shit-eating baboon, right – and my only friend is Yorkshire pudding. I suck. Shay shay.

The Minister sits down, deflated.

Minister. Rather like Yorkshire puddings actually.

Mr. Bao, laughing, gestures for the pen.

Ms. Liu. Mr. Bao is now ready to sign.

The delegation huddle around the table signing. Mr. Bao is now quite animated, signing and being demonstratively friendly to the team.

Ms. Liu. Is Wales really for sale?

Helen. Twenty billion ought to do it.

Ms. Liu. Thank you. Before leaving, we would like to offer you a gift.

He hands the Minister an ornamental backscratcher.

Mr.Bao. You scratch our back – you scratch your back!

Laughter from everyone except the Minister.

The Chinese delegation exit.

Helen begins using the backscratcher to scratch the Minister’s back.

Helen. Well done Minister, well done.

Minister. It was absolutely bloody humiliating. Still, I suppose things can only get better from here.

Helen. I wouldn’t be too hasty, Minister. The Indian delegation is due next week.

Pig and scratcher

Two Comedians

A Parable

There were two comedians and they were friends, but they were also comedians, and that meant rivalry. They had both started doing comedy at the same time and indeed had both moved to their new city at the same time, and both had attained the same level of success in the city they had come to.

They used to hang out before shows together, the older comedian guzzling Club Maté, a natural energy drink beloved in their new city, and the younger comedian drinking first water and then later, if his gigs went well, the cheapest local beer. ‘It’s shit,’ the younger comedian would say, ‘But I drink it’, and like so many of his private jokes it became part of his act.

Because the comedians were the best comedians in the city which they lived in – which was not it should be said the most famous city, and was in many respects a strange city for them to be in at all, a city which had in fact only recently been unified – they began to tour outside of it. They began to take the trips around the country they had moved to, through its forests and past its lakes on cheap communal buses or fast expensive trains. And as they did, they grew a little older, and it soon became time for their youth to end and for them to move back to the countries which they came from.

After they did this, the older comedian to a big liberal young country, the younger to a small traditional old one, they began to live rather separate lives. The older comedian met a woman, an understanding young woman, and got married, while the younger man worked nights in a basement. And still both of them continued to do comedy, and years passed.

Years passed, and both grew more famous. They each took all the lessons they had learnt in their adopted city and put them into use in their home countries – spontaneity, openness, tolerance. The younger comedian even sometimes still performed shows in the language of their former adopted home. And every year the older comedian came to visit the country of the younger one and they sat together and drank Club Maté like it was old times when they had sat together before shows eating pickles.

But the younger comedian became jealous. Jealousy is a poisonous thing for a comedian, because there are so many opportunities to put it into use. For the young man now came many nights of humiliation and rejection, came many nights of watching others – less talented, his heart cried – succeed. And eventually, finding himself not as successful as he wished in his island home, he began to travel again: to small new countries in the east, to small old countries in the west, to bars in mountains and theatres near the sea. He brought his smart shoes with him and did his little show, and after every performance he took off his smart shoes and put them back in his bag, and shook hands with his hosts and headed off again.

But all the time the older comedian did the same. Sometimes it seemed like that in every little town the younger comedian visited the older one had been there already. ‘Yes,’ his promoter would say, ‘we had him here last month. That guy is so funny.’ Or: ‘We gave him four rounds of applause’, and the younger comedian would bristle at this, never mind that he had got four too. It seemed that the older comedian had been everywhere first, and that every European town had a bollard of that face, that smirking little face of his old friend grown biggest rival.

You might ask at this point why the younger comedian got so jealous, why he wasn’t satisfied at the evident acclaim he was himself receiving. That would show, however, your complete lack of understanding of the natures of comedians, who grow anxious if nobody laughs at the way they say ‘Hello.’

club-mate

Photo by Christo under CC 4.0

One day in a restaurant eating dim sum in an industrial town in Europe’s east, he saw a documentary about the coldest part of the world, the North Pole, where seals and Eskimos congregate, and a scheme was born within him. He would go there, or as near as he could! He would go there and do a show and would be for once in his life indisputably first! With that kind of publicity he would surely settle the rivalry once and for all.

It wasn’t too hard to arrange – in the big city on the little island somebody always knew someone, even so far away. And soon he was booked, for two days at a trading settlement a few hundred miles from the most northerly point of the world. He even tried to learn a few phrases of the local Inuit dialect, North Baffin, in case some of the First Peoples of the area came to see him. He planned for the show for months, documenting his physical and comedic preparation in an increasingly popular blog, called, if you must know, ‘Snow Jokes’.

It was summer when the younger comedian flew north. When he landed he took another flight and then finally sailed in a red-hulled boat to the edge of the world. This, he thought, will surely help me with my future plans. This will give me inner peace and anecdotes to tell the beautiful woman who will surely one day come into my life.

The ship dropped him off at the settlement and for its part continued on north. When he disembarked, the locals were waiting beneath a banner for him, for him, so deeply honoured were they apparently to have him there. The Mayor of the settlement, Brian, self-proclaimed promoter of ‘The World’s Most Northerly Comedy Night’, greeted and embraced him warmly, almost in tears that he had come. The first show would be tomorrow night; for now, they took him to a wooden hut, where, under the clear freezing sky in a vast darkness, he slept like a newly-minted child.

In the morning he walked on the ice, and met the ice fisherman, who showed him how they did it, and took him out to see the walruses and whales.

Then after his dining on tinned fish and condensed milk it was show time already. He took out his sound recorder and his shoes and a bottle of Club Maté, with which he took a selfie. He stood in the frost and felt himself growing up at last. Mayor Brian came in, asking: ‘Are you ready?’ and walked with him to the venue. It was amazing – they had built a giant igloo and from all around people had come and were waiting seated there. Mayor Brian warmed up the audience with some local material, about why sea lions were funny and what he thought of his now ex-wife.

So here he was at the Arctic. While he waited to go on he looked over the rows of locals, thin-haired researchers and fur-pelted hunters who had come to see this, his most adventurous show to date. Would he do his Obama joke? What about his song about having kids? And as he contemplated this he noticed one of the igloo’s central pillars, on which a photograph had been stuck, and which he almost couldn’t bear to see.

The photo showed a man stood with Brian, his arm around him and a date – just one month previously. The man was drinking a beer and smiling, and behind him the massed ranks of an audience – a very big audience – were sitting filling this same fake igloo. His rival wore the smile of a comedian who was big enough to play a secret show at the Arctic.

Brian was finishing the material about his now ex-wife. Having done so, he placed the microphone gently back in the stand, and gestured to the younger comedian. ‘We’re ready for you now!’

The younger man held frozen a moment before, after a brief moment of sadness, going on stage to perform with great brilliance for the next two hours.

Later, both comedians died.

igloo

Photo by Ansgar Walk. Licensed under CC by 2.5.

Proposal For The Second English Civil War

Angus Kirk Fight

Photo from Angus Kirk. Licenced under CC by 2.0.

What a tremendous pickle this country has got itself into. Eighteen months on from that referendum the UK remains hopelessly divided, between young and old, north and south, university graduates and people who hate them. Our lamentable political class are circling each other like ducks with bread up their bumholes and as for our press – well, those guys are currently exploring the previously unheralded territory between fascism and music hall. Our country is going to the dogs who we will be shortly forced to eat.

In this context, please allow me – a balding 35-year old from Nottingham and frequently-rejected supplicant to the metropolitan elite – to propose my own solution. In my view, there’s nothing about our current collective national imbroglio that a good old-fashioned English Civil War wouldn’t fix.

It seems so obvious when you think about it. After all, in such matters, England has always been ahead of the continent. We got to our own previous Civil War as early as the 1640s, a full three hundred years before our Spanish neighbours. Typical Spanish idleness! Plus we already have all the conditions in place for our society-destroying reboot. We have two bitterly opposed camps, one of which advocates parliamentary sovereignty regardless of its human cost, and another of disorganized loyalists to a recently-toppled regime. Just like the Royalists of old, with their sympathies to continental ‘Popery’, the Remain masses are seen as open to foreign ideas to a suspicious degree, all in good contrast with the stout, bitter-drinking Roundheads of Brexit. And just like Cromwell’s lot, the Brexit bunch seem to have no qualms about threatening the actual really-existing Parliament when it disobeys them.

Clearly the New English Civil War will be a little different from the first. For example this time around, executing our monarch is unlikely to resolve many issues and may even complicate them. Also, unlike last time, Scotland and London are firmly in the hands of loyalists to the ancien regime, stocked as they are by an unholy alliance of freelance creatives, German IT consultants, and Polish people who can fix things. Just like back then though the Parliamentarians base their success on extraordinary victories in places no-one has ever heard of: What, for example, is Spalding? To communicate this blend of historical similarity and difference, I suggest supporters of the EU retain the previous term Cavaliers, while Brexit puritans are from now known as Blockheads. After all we are currently being told Brexit will allow us to diverge and harmonize at the same time.

How the war will go is anyone’s guess. On one hand, the New Cavaliers have youth on the side; on the other they, with their hipster beards, need to caffeinate constantly and inability to commit to long-term relationships, look far from battle ready. In contrast the Blockheads are clearly an older army – but one brief clip from Question Time tells you they’re one more than ready to kill. Indeed are actively looking for an excuse to do so. As battle is joined, can we see really the cosseted denizens of Richmond Park or Cambridge putting up much resistance to pitchfork-wielding northern pensioners? On the other hands – if the New Cavaliers destroy Grimsby, how will we be able to tell?

In keeping with modern sensibilities I suggest the war be pacific in nature. Instead of guns, each side will be armed with symbolic weaponry. On the pro-EU side, soldiers will carry yards of ‘Brussels Red Tape’, used to baffle and tether their foes (until the need for a response creates the even more nightmarish British Red Tape, able to induce migraines from over two years away). For their part, the Leave hordes will drench enemies of the people from water guns mounted on white vans filled with lashings and lashings of weak English lager supplied by General JD Wetherspoon. Fighting will be intense, but bloodless; the clash of croissant on powerful non-EU regulated vacuum cleaner, the battlefield ringing with the ‘God Save the Queen’ against the pinging of the Duolingo app. War is no reason to neglect your language learning! Once a soldier is fallen, either a Cavalier from exhaustion at making the same two repeated arguments over a period of many years without any response or, in the case of the Blockheads, chlorinated-chicken poisoning, they are to be daubed with a symbol of their hated foe. This will either be a tiny Euro sign or a pound sterling symbol, with the total of such currency symbols then counted at the end of the battle to determine the overall winner. However before said counting, 18% of pound sterling’s value will be deleted, and this will be subject to further depreciation over the course of the war. To counter this, Leave commanders will deny that it is even happening.

Having a good old-fashioned internecine conflict is simply the honourable British thing to do. To this end I plan to raise the New Cavalier standard on March 30 at London’s Old Street roundabout, after which we will have a rare vinyl auction followed by a live DJ set from Gina Miller. The same day, a similar Blockhead ceremony will take place at Barnsley Town Hall, after which there’ll be ham sandwiches and a public execution. As I look out of the rows of boyish man-buns and Chinese-character tats I’ll be better able to assess the chances of those who wear the Blue and Gold. And if we Cavaliers are to lose again we can always console ourselves that the last time parliamentary sovereignty became a moral absolute in English politics its advocates only held onto power eleven years before everyone got thoroughly sick of them and their joyless bullshit. Victory or no, we Cavaliers can march on regardless to 2027 when a delegation to Brussels will be dispatched to solicit our re-entry to the bloc, and the most tremendous piss-up held for the UK’s ecstatic EU Restoration. The bonfires of blue passports will burn all night.

Registers

Doctor. So, Fred, what seems to be the problem?

Patient. It’s my knee doctor, it’s gone all creaky-weaky.

Pause.

Doctor. You’re having mobility issues?

Patient. Yes, when I go bendy-wendy my knee goes poppy-pop-pop.

Doctor. I see, ah. Perhaps you would like to demonstrate for me.

Pause.

Demonstrate?

Patient. Oh, right, demonstrate.

The patient does.

Doctor. Ah yes, I do see what you mean.

Patient. You

can hear it?                        Doctor. I can hear it.

Patient. Poppy-pop.

Doctor. Yes, exactly, popp-itsy-pop. And tell me – do you have to miturcate more?

Patient. What?

Doctor. Do you have to go more widdly-diddly?

Patient. Widdly… diddly?

Doctor. Er… Piddly… widdly?

Patient. Oh yes, I have to go piddly-widdly in the nighty-wighty. Sometimes more than three times!

Doctor. And what about flatulence?

Patient. Flat-u-lens?

Doctor. Bum pops?

Patient. Oh yes Doctor, lots of bum pops. Pfff! Bwf! Bfff.

Doctor. Bum pops, right, frequent, and bum drops? What about those?

Patient. Yes Doctor. Very big bum pops. Big stinky! Poooo! Bummmm!

Doctor. Well, you’ve given me a lot of clues. You’ve got a creaky-weaky knee that goes pop-pop when you bendy-wendy, you need to go piddly-widdly in the nighty-wighty, you’ve bum pops and big stinky bum drops, and also marked cognitive degeneration. Yes, it’s quite clear what’s happening here. You’re getting older.

Patient. Doctor is it serious?

Doctor. In the sense that anything is. Pretty soon you you’ll be deady-weddy, Freddy. Deady-weddy-forevs-no-teddy-Freddy. No more bum pops or piddle-dee-diddle for you; you friend are going to die.