The Week in Comedy: Jack Dee turns agony aunt

If you needed some friendly anonymous advice, who would you turn to? The kindly Denise Robertson on This Morning, perhaps, or the eminently sensible Virginia Ironside of this newspaper? Whatever happened, you probably wouldn’t confide in a comedian. And certainly not in Jack Dee, who has built a career on caustic asides to the audience and made four series of Lead Balloon, a sitcom about a stand-up who is miserably obsessed with his own problems.

And yet this week Dee embarked on a new career as an agony uncle. Or rather he has launched a new show, Jack Dee’s Help Desk, in which he encourages audiences to share their problems and then feigns concern from behind his black-rimmed glasses while making jokes at their expense. Audiences at the very first show, in the intimate basement of Soho Theatre in London this week, were handed a card and Biro on their way in and asked to write down an issue or dilemma that was troubling them. Dee then read them out and offered advice. Sympathy, unsurprisingly, did not come easily to him. “You’ve got gout?” he spluttered in response to the second question. “Pirates get gout. What the hell is the matter with you?”

Fortunately Dee also had a panel of co-counsellors to smooth things out. On the first night, these were Matt Forde, Shappi Khorsandi, Jon Richardson and Peter Tatchell. Seann Walsh, Lucy Porter, Greg James and Lembit Opik helped out on the second night. Between them, they offered a mixture of concern and comedy that was good fun to watch, in a Radio 4 sort of way. The week of live shows has surely been a trial run for a new television or radio format, and on the evidence of Tuesday night, it has the potential to work very well indeed.

The show had a freewheeling, collegiate feel, with the panellists riffing on themes as diverse as hefty veterinary bills, family reunions and holiday destinations and audience members describing their woes and pitching in with advice. It was not a one-way street: Forde shared that he had trouble getting up in the morning, while Khorsandi asked for dating advice. Meanwhile Dee chaired with a characteristic sneer to stop it becoming too touchy-feely.

Comedy has a rich lineage of amusing agony aunts - kindly looking souls who offer acid and barbs over tea and sympathy. Maureen Lipman played a particularly hapless one in the 1980s sitcom Agony but it was Dame Edna and, most gloriously, Mrs Merton who perfected the art of the wicked Samaritan. More recently, Sarah Millican’s Support Group on Radio 4 discussed fictitious problems with a real audience to often hilarious effect. At last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Rachel Stubbings made other comedians’ problems the topic of her multimedia live show.

Comedy agony uncles have been thinner on the ground. Will Adamsdale won the Perrier Award with his spoof life coach Chris John Jackson. Graham Norton had an advice column in The Telegraph for a while. So Dee could be on to something with his new comic direction, and while he might not solve his audience’s problems, or even attempt to, at least he might send them away smiling.

Be a Panellist

Could you watch 100 hours of comedy in a fortnight? Do you have a relaxed attitude to audience participation, enjoy spending time in small, windowless rooms and have an encouraging laugh? If so, the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Awards need you. The competition is now open to join the judging panel for 2014 and help to choose who wins the biggest prize in comedy. Previous winners include Daniel Kitson, Steve Coogan, The League of Gentlemen and, last year, Bridget Christie.

Public judges should be comedy zealots who are prepared to watch up to 6 or 7 shows a day over two weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe in August, and then share their opinions with a panel made up of comedy critics, producers and commissioners. Accommodation, travel and all show tickets are provided. I was a judge last year and saw the very best, and the very worst, that comedy has to offer. For the fan, there is no better or more brutal way to immerse oneself in the scene - and if you pick out a Skinner or a Minchin, you can dine out on it for decades to come. 

More details here http://www.comedyawards.co.uk/panellist_comp.asp

What I Watched…

Bad Neighbours

Puerile and formulaic it might be but Seth Rogen’s new frathouse comedy starring Zac Efron has more than a couple of gasp-and-laugh-out-loud moments. Rose Byrne is excellent and there is a nice cameo from Lisa Kudrow, too.

Miller’s Mountain

Despite a fine turn from Sharon Rooney as a bolshie barmaid, this BBC Comedy Playhouse sitcom was largely witless, crude and noisy with canned laughter. Think Mrs Brown’s Boys in the Highlands. It’ll probably be a huge hit.

The Beygency

Andrew Garfield plays “the man who said the unsayable” – he doesn’t love Beyonce’s new single – in this neat Saturday Night Live skit. On the run from the vengeful and shadowy “Beygency”,  he turns to Kiefer Sutherland for help. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGxe83lXgJg

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