The Shoe Leather Express

Writing and Comedy from James Harris

Category: UK comedy

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.

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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.

German comedy article

Last week I published an article about my experiences doing comedy in Germany. It’s in Spectator Life, the Spectator’s lifestyle magazine, so is probably the most prestigious publication of my career to date. I hope you enjoy it.

German comedy article

Page One Podcast

I recently had the pleasure of taking part in Charles Adrian’s books podcast, Page One, where Charles and a guest gift each other books and discuss their choices. Suffice to say, I loved appearing, and I think the results turned out well too. Hope you enjoy.

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.

1024px-Mug_of_Tea

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

Ohsofunny.co.uk

Factorylad

Loganberry