COMEDY / Laugh? The audience nearly died

Ben Thompson
Saturday 13 August 1994 23:02 BST

WHY DID the comedian cross the road? A motive has yet firmly to be established, but experience suggests the Edinburgh Festival probably had something to do with it. The primeval migratory impulse, which every year causes comedians to flock north to the Firth of Mirth in a time-honoured quest for career advancement, is no laughing matter. Trying to be funnier than an awful lot of other people for three weeks in a confined space must be a brutal test of endurance. And endurance is something The Tokyo Shock Boys (Music Hall) know a good deal about.

A cyberpunk Three Stooges (except that there are four of them), Gyuzo, Danna, Sangojugo and Nanbu drink Finish dishwater fluid, eat cigarettes, put scorpions on their heads and let off firecrackers inside each other's mouths. These and other stunts of the only-Michael-Portillo-should-try-this-

at-home variety might easily make for a dreary wallow in the perceived Japanese predilection for sado-masochism; but this turns out to be telling and very funny satire, of the samurai ethic itself and of Western audiences' expectations of it.

'Please laugh,' it says on the poster, 'we're risking our lives.' But the Shock Boys' risk- taking is leavened with a measure of cowardice (though one trial of strength, involving a man with a harness tied round his testicles, certainly made a few eyes water) and they are just as likely to (jokily) put the audience in peril as themselves. In between stunts they dance to horrendous sushi-rock backing tapes, and make an ironic show of difficulty in pronouncing English words. 'Sorry, sorry, sorry,' dissembles the crazed nappy-clad Nanbu. 'It's just Japanese joke.'

Stewart Lee (Pleasance Attic) bills himself as 'the third most theoretically rigorous comedian in Britain', but he may be selling himself short. Lee starts with a very funny 10 minutes of analysing the body-language on a picture postcard of two kittens and a dog playing the piano - 'Perhaps that kitten had a much more formal musical training' - and finishes with an impassioned assault on the worthlessness of 'Hey, does anybody remember Spangles?' lifestyle-crutch comedy.

In between, he distributespeanut-butter sandwiches with pictures of celebrities and fortune-cookie mottoes inside ('Your income will remain slightly below average, and you will always shop carefully') as a means of undermining organised religion - no, I'm not quite sure how this works either - and delivers a small but select group of conventional jokes. 'I was talking to my grandad, and he said one of the things that he'd hated had been watching all of the friends that he grew up with dying off one by one. I said to him, 'Well, Grandad, you fed them those berries.' '

Richard Herring, Lee's radio partner in shows like Fist of Fun and Lionel Nimrod's Inexplicable World, offers a brave innovation in festival finance. He sells tickets for his very enjoyable free-form chat show, 'This Morning' With Richard Not Judy (Pleasance), by auction. Friday's prices start at pounds 1.10 and then go down, with combined gate receipts totalling pounds 3.89. Takings should go up considerably in the weeks ahead, because Herring and friends' unscripted musings on the events of the day - 'I haven't seen too many shows: they bore me' - are a good deal more entertaining than most scripted ones.

For more conventional stand-ups, first-night nerves are still an obstacle. Donna McPhail (Gilded Balloon) forgets about a quarter of her act, but is funny enough to make up for it. Audiences warm to her because when she says something is a true story, it probably is. Baby-faced Dominic Holland (Pleasance), on the other hand, could do with telling a few more lies. At the moment, he is such a demure presence you hardly know he's been on.

Ivor Dembina's Stand Up Jewish Comedy (Pleasance) makes difference a virtue, down to the quote on his poster: 'Almost too true to be funny - Jerusalem Post'. 'It would be better to be a Buddhist comedian,' maintains twice-divorced Dembina, 'then at least if you die you come back next week.' Less predictable than many younger, more self-consciously dangerous comics, Dembina leaves you wondering until the last minute where his jokes are going - 'When Jews go to Israel for the first time, we always burst into tears . . . The prices]'

There's no doubt about which way Mel & Sue (aka Melanie Giedroyc and Susan Perkins) are going to go, and it's not down. Their unpromisingly-titled Kittens Go Grrrrr] (Pleasance) turns out to be an impeccable hour of character comedy. Video-age Joyce Grenfells with attitude, their gallery of paramilitary brownie- pack leaders, lovelorn Australian PE teachers and deranged Dutch MTV presenters is beautifully presented. Their material is not always quite as clever as they think - Cleo Laine and George Melly are not 'free jazz' - but their Emma Thompson impersonations are second to none.

Edinburgh Music Hall, 031-226 2428; Pleasance, 031-556 6550; Gilded Balloon, 031-226 2151.

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