The Week in Comedy: Stand-up comics lead art gallery tours for Fancy Meeting You Here

It is 4pm on Saturday and our guide at the Tate Modern has just dismissed a stainless steel sculpture as "the leftovers from last night's dinner party", spent five minutes talking about a fire door as if it were a piece of conceptual art, and finally told his group to go to Tate Britain. “They have proper paintings there.” If it wasn’t already abundantly clear from his Ray-Bans and offhand manner, he is no ordinary guide, and this is no ordinary Tate tour.

Rather he is the comedian Harry Deansway and this is Fancy Meeting You Here, a pop-up tour of the gallery led by stand-ups. Josie Long is on the second floor in a room of Russian revolutionary art, battling a hangover, swearing loudly and, confusingly, talking about Joseph Wright of Derby. Meanwhile Tom Meeten is leading a group on a merry dance around the empty Turbine Hall, talking entirely in gibberish. Maeve Higgins is standing on a wall outside the café riffing on Tate cake.

The afternoon is the brainchild of two American stand-ups, Dave Hill and Carl Arnheiter who staged their first comedy heist at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2009. They had been looking for a venue for a new stand-up night but could not find a back room they liked. Instead, they hit upon the idea of a walking tour, that would start in Washington Square Park, say, “bump into” various stand-ups along the way and end up in a Greenwich Village bar. To test out the walkabout concept, they started at the Met. “Because it’s a controlled environment with several floors, is open late on Fridays and has a rooftop bar”, explains Arnheiter. 

It turned out that the Met offered far more than a controlled environment; indeed, that there was something inherently funny about letting comedians loose in the hallowed halls of a museum. The mix of the usual hushed respect for art and the boisterous irreverence of a stand-up set is an explosively silly one. The paintings and sculptures, meanwhile, offer a uniquely dramatic and inspiring backdrop.  “We always like to say we’re the only comedy show that takes place on a $350million stage”, says Arnheiter.  Since 2009, they have played the Met tens of times, museums in San Francisco and this week the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and Stockholm’s Moderna Museet. 

In the UK they have played the National Gallery and the British Museum before last Saturday’s debut at Tate Modern. It was a popular choice. Over 200 people signed up (all shows are free; the only cost is museum entrance, if applicable) via the website and had to be split into somewhat chaotic groups. Usually Hill and Arnheiter lead one group, dropping them off with local “guides” or stand-ups along the way. “The only thing we ask of them is that they do not do their regular set”, says Arnheiter.

Tate Modern, it turned out, was particularly ripe for ribbing. Standing in front of a wall of Dan Flavin neons, Hill announced, “These are on loan from the Tate giftshop.” Later he rushed the group through a hall of cubist masterpieces with the pithy assessment, “Everything in this room is bullshit!” It turned a few heads, but that is part of the subversive joy for audiences. Event exhibitions like those at the Hayward by Antony Gormley and, most recently, Martin Creed can be fun but it’s rare to hear belly laughs in a gallery.

Not everyone sees the funny side. Some join the tour by accident and are unimpressed. On Saturday, Long had a contretemps with a security guard who didn’t understand why she was swearing at her group. “We always tell galleries that we want to do a tour,” says Arnheiter. “We don’t necessarily tell them we’re comedians.”

Now back at the Met for the summer, they plan a return to London soon. In the meantime, they are working on a podcast guide for museums they have yet to infiltrate – like The Louvre. “They would never let us in in a million years”, says Arnheiter.

Promising start for quick-witted Brit John Oliver

John Oliver is quietly cementing his position as the UK’s most credible comedy export. This week the former Footlights performer graduated from being Jon Stewart’s sidekick on The Daily Show to his own topical late-night show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. It was a promising start. Best of all was his head-to-head with General Keith Alexander, former head of the National Security Agency in which he ribbed Alexander’s defence of data spying and offered ideas of how the damaged NSA could “rebrand”. First suggestion, rename it the Washington Redskins. “It’s a slightly less tainted brand than yours,” said Oliver. This was smart, watchable, quick-witted interviewing. Available to watch in the UK on Sky Atlantic (and in parts online), it made you wonder why no-one has yet made a similar format work in the UK. As Oliver proves, the talent exists. 

Watch the interview here:

What I Watched…

Incredible Women

On Radio 4. Rebecca Front stars in a series of 15-minute spoof interviews, conducted by her brother, Jeremy. She plays a reality star, an MI5 whistleblower and Olympic equestrian, among others, and improbably nails every single one. That’s talent.

Trying Again

On Sky Living. Chris Addison’s and Simon Blackwell’s relationship sitcom is warming up. The third episode was the best so far with a spot-on skewering of an awkward spa date. 

Richard Gadd

There’s something a bit electrifying about this young stand-up. It’s neurotic, absurd stuff and not all of it works but the bits that do stick in the mind. Plus he eats a whole cake on stage.

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