The Shoe Leather Express

Writing and Comedy from James Harris

Category: Comedy

Refugees welcome

Photo under a CC0 license via Pexels.com.

Two Civil Servants are waiting for the Hone Secretary, who enters.

CS One: Ah, Home Secretary, so glad you could join us.

Home Secretary: I was just watching daytime television.

Cs Two: Pointless?

Home Secretary: Not as much as dealing with you idiots. Now, what have you got?

Cs One: Right, Home Secretary, so we do have a few ideas based on your proposal.

Home Secretary: Use gigantic waves to push refugees back across the English Channel. Pretty cool, right?

Cs Two: Ye-e-e-s…. The thing is, ‘cool’ as the idea undoubtedly is –

Home Secretary: I saw them do it at Center Parcs. So much fun!

Cs One: But we would obviously be talking about a much-larger operation here.

Home Secretary: I like the word large!

Cs Two: It would cost 500 million, Home Secretary.

Cs One: We don’t have 500 million, Home Secretary.

Cs Two: We don’t have five million, Home Secretary.

Cs One: Also it’d be illegal under international law.

Home Secretary: But not illegal under British international law.

Cs One: Is that… a thing?

Home Secretary: Well what about a cheaper option, like sinking their stupid little boats?

Cs One: Sometimes the weather’s bad.

Home Secretary: Yes, I can imagine the headlines if we lose any of our sailors… Well, what about sending them to remote islands?

Cs Two: The issue there is the people who already live on the remote islands. A lot of them feel terribly British, you see, right down to not liking foreigners.

Cs One: There is one other possibility…

Cs Two: You sure?

Home Secretary: Come on, hurry up, I’m very hungry!

Cs Two: We let the refugees in, but… We’re really mean to them.

Cs One: You know, follow them around making intensely belittling comments all the time, like ‘You’ve got a big nose’ or ‘You’ll never get a job in those shoes’, and keep this up until they eventually leave of their own free will.

Home Secretary: But isn’t that just the current system anyway?

Aide Two: Here’s the twist –

Aide One: – in light of current unemployment figures  –

Aide Two: We could make benefits claimants do it.

Aide One: Or community-spirited volunteers.

Aide Two: ‘Drive out to help out’, we thought.

Aide One: Basically: We get the public to get rid of the asylum seekers for us. And we don’t pay them.

Pause.

Home Secretary: I absolutely… love it! It’s just the combination of cheap and cruel we’re looking for. Well done morons – treat yourself to a glass of water! It’s this kind of innovativeness which makes Britain such a great country. After all, why else do so many people keep wanting to come here!

End

Last orders

“Pub Night” by igormazic is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings in hi-vis jackets.

Boris Johnson: I’ve told you before Dom, I have no desire to witness the consequences of my own actions.

Dominic Cummings: Prime Minister, it’s necessary. The focus groups are saying the public want to see you getting more directly involved.

Boris Johnson: It just seems against my, you know, liberal British values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Dominic Cummings: Those are American values, sir.

Boris Johnson: Well, I am American, even if I gave up my citizenship to avoid paying tax!

Dominic Cummings: That is very American, Prime Minister.

Boris Johnson: Do I look alright?

Dominic Cummings:  They’re all pissed, sir.

Boris Johnson: They’ll eat me alive like a lump of fried lard!

Dominic Cummings: Yes, but you need to be their lump of fried lard. Get in or I’ll kick you!

Sounds of a busy pub.

Boris Johnson: Listen up, er… er… boozers!

Drinker:  Hey, it’s Boris!

Boris Johnson:  Yes it is, your upstanding Prime Minister and, and as it’s now 9.55 in the evening, and I have to tell you to, er, er… drink up and go home!

Drinker: Home?

Boris Johnson: Yes, sort of ‘drink up then get out’, to paraphrase Rishi, not that any of you should pay any real attention to him.

Drinker Two: But I’ve just ordered –

Dominic Cummings: Tough. Out!

Boris Johnson: It’s the new rules, terribly, er, er, sorry.

Drinker Three: But I’m eating.

Dominic Cummings: Throw your food in the bin!

Drinker Three: But –

Dominic Cummings: Scrape off the veg!

Sound of a breaking glass.

Female Drinker: Prime Minister!

Boris Johnson: Yes, attractive young woman.

Female drinker: I voted for you. And I thought you were freedom loving. And now you’re telling us that we have to go home right in the middle of our night out?

Dominic Cummings: Don’t listen to her, Prime Minister.

Female drinker: Do listen to me, Prime Minister.

Boris Johnson: Dom, Dom, do listen to this, er, I must say, buxom young woman. How could anyone tell the Great British Drinker that he cannot have his or her or their pint? Or in this person’s case pint, pie and gravy and what’s that?

Drinker Three: Mushy peas.

Boris Johnson: Well I say you have a right to your mushy peas!

A murmur of agreement.

Boris Johnson: And, and this vile policy that I – I – just introduced – as well as any other ones you don’t like – now or in future – well just I say – to hell with it! How dare my government interfere with your lives!

Cheers.

Boris Johnson: Never! Never! Barkeep – buy everyone a round! We must and shall defeat this horrendous government overreach by – drinking all night! And later – all doing shots!

Loud cheers and singing of ‘For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow’.

Dominic Cummings: It’s going to be a long night.

End

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.