Heard the one about the festival?

Mark Wareham spent last week at the London Comedy Festival. Something f unny was going on.But not the jokes
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The Independent Culture
You didn't have to attend the first London Comedy Festival to know that something wasn't right. Other comedy festivals - Newcastle's, say, or Brighton's - at least go to the trouble of throwing in a new face or two from the New York circuit. But h ere, aglance through the programme told you there was nothing radically new, no hidden gem waiting to be unearthed, to tempt you to Hammersmith on a rain-lashed December night. The line-up, a few honourable exceptions apart, consisted almost entirely of a handful of home-grown acts re-running their Edinburgh shows from four months ago.

In his programme notes to the Festival, director William Burdett-Coutts (who is also the artistic director of Edinburgh's Assembly Rooms) tells how "we've set out in this Festival to celebrate what is going on now, to provide a showcase of the comedians of today". What he fails to point out is that this "showcase" was drawn largely from the narrow roster of comedians who were at his own Assembly Rooms for this year's Edinburgh. Any festival seeking to represent "what is going on now" can ill a fford, ifit wishes to become a part of the comedy calendar, to ignore comedians who just happen not to hail from the Assembly Rooms clique. A truly representative festival might have included at least one of the likes of Robert Newman, Frank Skinner, Ha rry Hill, Jenny Eclair, Richard Herring, Stewart Lee and Alan Parker Urban Warrior (all of whom, funnily enough, belong to a rival comedy stable).

Anyone who saw the festival on television (in two one-hour highlights specials last week and last night) could be forgiven for believing that comedy these days is all about stand-up. A comedian, a microphone and the trouble with condoms. The programme's format, granting a series of stand-ups five minutes each to demonstrate their jokes, was almost guaranteed to send them to their deaths. (Years ago, the producers of a similar programme, Paramount City, turned Eddie Izzard off TV stand-up for ever.) But away from the cameras, there were raconteurs, clowns, poets, musicians, an origami impressionist, slapstick, a few sketches, the odd revue, jugglers (yes, jugglers) and Nicholas Parsons. Of the festival's 44 acts, less than half were traditional stand-upcomedians. So, while it may be misleading to say, "Never has there been so much Variety in comedy", it wouldn't be out of place to say, "Never has there been so much variety in comedy."

The one advantage the festival did hold over Edinburgh was that it wasn't teeming with the media. Consequently you got the impression that the audience knew its comedy - or at least that it wasn't made up of slumbering hacks and blank-faced tourists. Like Edinburgh, however, it served as a reminder that watching stand-ups back to back can become a trifle wearing. Not only do the same jokes crop up routine after routine, but so does the padding. Take the following scene: comedian confesses to his, or occasionally her, masturbatory habits, encouraging the audience to nod in recognition of said act. When this fails to generate the expected reaction, the comedian will remark knowingly, "Oh, so it's just me on that one then, is it?"

Lazy patter, straight out of Stand-Up Comedy: A Beginner's Guide.

Two comedians who don't play it by the book are John Mann and Phil Jupitus. Relative newcomers, they are proof personified that politics and the latest influx of stand-up comedians are no longer bedfellows. Bob Boyton, one of alternative comedy's original lefties, would have been on the first plane to Cuba had he listened to Mann and Jupitus's peculiarly Nineties brand of revolution. For Mann, rebellion takes the form of nicking the "Next Customer Please" signs from supermarket check-outs, while Jupitus advocates Tipp-Exing bar-codes. No cutting edge here, though both are, nevertheless, funnier than Boyton ever was.

Jupitus, in particular, is a name to watch. A sweaty Essex beer boy, he delivers from the opening "Two fat blokes walk into a pub . . . Me and me dad had a great night," and never lets up. A rampantly twisted imagination guides him through 45 minutes of alcohol-inspired bonhomie, broken only by the odd tangential gem - "I dreamt Peter Stringfellow was sellotaped to a vaulting horse, naked, in the front window of Evans outsize store, and some fat women were ramming courgettes up his arse, saying `You're letting me in now, aren't you.' " You'd like to believe such stories are nothing but comedic elaboration, but with Jupitus you suspect this really is the kind of dreamland he inhabits.

Two decidedly more sedate acts delivered shows notable for an even stronger autobiographical content. Owen O'Neill's "It's a Bit Like This", which won a Perrier nomination at Edinburgh, begins and ends with five minutes of identical material, a radical device which succeeds in opening the eyes of the audience to the repetitive drudgery of performing stand-up. In between the two "gigs", O'Neill mulls over his Northern Irish upbringing, savouring in particular his first job (being paid five shillings by a mad fisherman to shit in the woods, thereby attracting a better class of bluebottle) and his childhood diet ("the Ulster Fry killed more than the IRA ever did"). The joy of O'Neill's show is his fearless ability to resist the customary cheap laughs of s tand-up in favour of the well-spun yarn, culled from a world of fascination not unlike that of Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke.

Someone who resists joke-making altogether is the dodgily cultish Nicholas Parsons. The so-called Straight Man (he claims to have worked with more British comedians than any other) wisely eschews the punchlines for a rambling reminiscence which, through sheer naivety of the story-telling format, pulls him through. You wouldn't catch Peter Ustinov dropping banal phrases like "It was quite an amusing experience really", but at least Parsons' natural modesty just about exonerates him from charges of excessluvvieness. Remarkable for a complete absence of irony, this was the perfect easy-listening gig. The atmosphere was best summarised when Parsons paused to ask the small audience if they had time for one last anecdote. "Feel free to go if you want," he offered, at which three old biddies in the front row waved their sticks and struggled to their feet, with a helping hand and a peck on the cheek from old Nick himself.

A show no one considered leaving for a moment was the Right Size's Stop Calling Me Vernon, in which Hamish McColl and Sean Foley play Austin and Porter, a hopeless music-hall double-act for whom life is one long and painful rehearsal. The competitive nature of their working and living relationship (naturally, they sleep together) is portrayed in a series of magnificently inventive turns, the pace and precision of which are, at times, bewildering. Watching this, it was hard to believe that the Australiandouble act, Lano and Woodley, had won this year's Perrier award for a broadly similar yet vastly inferior show (all slap and no stick), which lacked the wry introspection and clever blurring of lines on display here.

An Australian who does know a thing or two about farce is the man who played Joe Mangel in Neighbours, Mark Little. On stage, he is a charming maverick, who starts out by warning us of his penchant for "channelling". Five minutes later, he's gone from Blobby to Damien Hirst (rebels both) via Tiananmen Square. His forte is a breathless talent for running with an idea and not knowing when to stop. Devoid of any recognisable structure, the show verges on the anarchic. At one point, tiring of pe ople slipping out to the loo, he declares an impromptu 10-minute interval, electing to stay on stage and banter as the audience traipses to and fro. "Jeez," he exclaims, "I wish I knew a joke."

And that was probably the most apt comment of the festival. For it seems the best things in comedy at the moment are joke-free.

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