Frankie Boyle lost his joke book this week. To some – the Queen, Katie Price, other objects of his furore-baiting gags – this might be cause for celebration. To the comedian, the loss of the small brown notebook was nothing short of a calamity. His set for a charity gig in Glasgow was in it, for starters. More than that, to any comedian, their notes – whether in a book, an iPhone or on the back of a beer mat, are gold. “To you”, said Boyle with typical charm, “It will just seem like a lot of random sentences about rape, drone warfare & being fingered by a sign language interpreter.” What could anyone else possibly want with that? You can’t steal someone else’s jokes and pass them off as your own. Or can you?
Joke Thieves is a new comedy night which asks exactly that question. The two-hour show, at The King’s Head in Crouch End begins like any other mixed-bill night. Six comedians get up and do five minutes each. Everyone has a drink in the interval. And then the comedians come back and do the same jokes all over again. Only this time, they are not delivering their own material: they have swapped sets with someone else on the bill, as chosen by the audience.
The stand-up Will Mars came up with the idea earlier this year. In his previous life, working in management and sales for a holiday company, he used to encourage employees to swap patter and sales routines to keep them fresh and open to new techniques. What if comedians did the same, and a character act was forced to have a go at straight stand-up, or a whimsical storyteller tried to churn out one-liners? Is it really all about the way they tell them?
Mars started the night Downstairs at the King’s Head in June. In August, he took it to Edinburgh and the Free Fringe for a month, where it drew capacity crowds every night. “I turned away well over 1000 people over the course of the run”, he says. Now he is trialling the night with The Stand in Edinburgh, plans to take it around the festivals and to America and is developing it for television with The Comedy Unit, having turned away five other production companies.
The appeal is obvious. Joke Thieves gives audiences a glimpse of the workings behind the mic stand. Acts deliver sure-fire laughs with their usual material in the first half before having the rug pulled from under them as they step up a second time with unfamiliar set-ups and punchlines.
Most enjoyably, it really brings out the comedians’ competitive side. Determined that someone else should not spin more laughs out of their material than they do, acts often perform their hardest-to-immitate routines in the first half. This week Danny Ward peppered his set with a couple of tongue-twister lists while Will Franken did a quickfire run of oddball impressions. “One act did 35 accents in her five minutes, just to mess up the comedian copying her, who couldn’t do accents at all”, says Mars.
In the second half, the fur starts to fly as comedians repeat and lovingly, or not so, tweak the routines of their co-stars live on stage. Lengthily worked-up anecdotes are paraphrased in a single offhand sentence, gags are sarkily explained – “It’s funny because he’s blind” – routines are deconstructed and everyone tries to get more laughs than their rival did first time round. Often they do. It’s a comedians’ in-joke that everyone in the room can enjoy. And for the performers, it is a rare chance to hear what their peers really think of their act. “The type of comedians it attracts are used to trying out new stuff, being uncomfortable, taking an ego hit”, says Mars. “They are all itching to annoy each other, really. And they generally take it well. We’ve not had anyone throw a hissy fit, yet.”
Naked Gun returns
“Nightcap?” “No thanks I don’t wear them”. Detective Frank Drebin and his hilarious literalism are coming back. Ed Helms, best known as the dentist who accidentally marries a stripper in The Hangover, has signed up to star in a remake of Naked Gun, taking on the role gloriously immortalised by the late Leslie Nielsen.
From Arthur to Pink Panther, the path to the multiplex is littered with terrible comedy remakes but Drebin is an idiot for the ages and Helms has good pedigree on The Daily Show and The American Office so it might just work – even if OJ Simpson is unavailable to co-star this time.
WHAT I WATCHED…
If you like Will from The Inbetweeners, you’ll like this new stand-up. An out-and-proud nerd, in his own words: “When I was 18 I went to Magaluf with my friends for a week. And I got through eight books.” He won the BBC Radio New Comedy Award last week with this charming set http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01n2x54
At The Tabernacle, London. This promising young comedian had a brilliant debut at the Edinburgh Fringe and is getting better and better with every gig. He also has one of the best Christmas stories I’ve heard this year.
On YouTube. Richard Ayoade’s follow-up to Submarine is based on Dostoevsky’s novella and looks like a classy affair. This teaser trailer stars Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn and… is that Chris Morris in the final frame? (yes it is) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQgaqe0owIk