Frank Skinner has a recurring dream in which he is standing on stage in front of an audience and has absolutely nothing to say to them. On Monday, that dream (nightmare?) came true.
The 59-year old has spent the week in the basement of Soho Theatre, London performing, well, nothing. The Man with No Show is an hour of pure improvisation, or an experiment to see “what happens when a man who wants to do stand-up comedy doesn’t have any stand-up comedy to do”.
It sounds like a terrible idea all round but Skinner is a safe pair of hands. Having made his stand-up debut at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1987, he won the Perrier Award four years later, beating Jack Dee and Eddie Izzard, and has been playing to giant audiences ever since. More importantly, he is a consummately relaxed ad-libber, whether sparring on Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned, chatting on his Sony award-winning radio show or interviewing guests on Room 101.
Add in the fact that no comedian with 30 years in the business can ever truly be without material, and £5 for an hour in a small room with Skinner as he meanders from thought to thought via the odd jibe at an audience member and even the occasional proper joke looks like a bit of a bargain.
On Monday night he began by stating firmly that he had no prepared material and outlining all the desperate tactics he hoped to avoid to fill the show – asking audience members where they are from; requesting suggestions for topics and so on. “If I ask you for a type of film, you know inside that I’m dying,” he said.
In the end, he didn’t need prompts – he told a Rolf Harris joke he’d never dared tell before, riffed a bit on Donald Trump, touched upon dementia and Catholicism and talked for a long time about giving up pornography. This was a close-up (too close, perhaps) look at the old Skinner – filthy and unfiltered. It wasn’t all funny but it was fun to watch: no jaded script, no big screens, low-key and low-price.
Towards the end of his set, Skinner gave an inkling as to the motivation behind the show, when he told a story about weaving the same deliberate mistake into one of his sets for 40 nights running, because it got a laugh. It made him hate stand-up, he said, and now here he is at the other extreme, with not one word prepared. In the end, he surprised himself by over-running by 10 minutes. “I thought I’d break down and cry after seven minutes,” he said, thrilled. That was never going to happen.
Skinner is not the only big name going back to square zero. Last night, Eddie Izzard revived One Word Improv for the first time in 20 years. An hour and a half before he went on stage in the West End with his Force Majeure stand-up show, he reunited with Stephen Frost, Suki Webster and Neil Mullarkey for a new take on the old show that was a hit in the late Nineties; it toured the country and had a sell-out run in the West End.
The conceit is that the performers ask the audience to shout out a single word and then build a sketch around it. Skinner wouldn’t approve, but there’s a thrill in these big-name comedians going back to nothing – for them, as well as for us.
People power is the future for comedy shows
What to do if the BBC makes a pilot with you, then goes quiet? You make your own series and stick it online. That’s what the cast of People Time, first seen on BBC iPlayer last year, have done. Ellie White, Liam Williams, Al Roberts, Daran Johnson and Jamie and Natasia Demetriou now star in 2016, a monthly web-series that charts the lives of six friends over a year. “The show stems from a desire to be creatively free to make something in the way they want to make it, to experiment... in a difficult time for traditional comedy broadcasting,” said producer Blink Industries. One to watch.
How about ‘The Trip’ to Wales?
Ready the Alanis Morissette CD, The Trip is coming back. Rob Brydon confirmed a third series in a Twitter Q&A this week. But where should he and Steve Coogan go for their next gastro-comic tour? I can see them indulging in Bordeaux and mimicry in France but given Coogan’s new Hollywood projects – playing Stan Laurel in Stan and Ollie and starring in The Dinner with Richard Gere – perhaps they’ll go for cabernets and kale in California. Or will Brydon guide his sparring partner around the Welsh valleys? After all that Italian sun, it’s time they saw a bit of rain – or raiiiin, as Alanis sings.