One of the pleasant surprises about moving to London has been the discovery of the abundant comedy shows where a number of up-and-coming and more established acts share a bill at a cosy venue, all for a price which seems disproportionate with the ballooning London economy. As well as the Up the Creek comedy club in Greenwich (as good excuse as any to release your inner child by pretending to drive the DLR train) there is the Knock2Bag comedy night, which alternates between being hosted at Rich Mix, just off Shoreditch High Street, and Bar FM in Shepherd’s Bush, where I received my initiation into this surprisingly economical comedy underworld.
Two hours before I was due to go the gig, an email flashed in my inbox informing me that two of the performers (Tony Law and Brian Gittins) had pulled out. It was therefore with a sense of reservation that I sat down for the opening act, Pete Johansson, not least because his resemblance to the other ruggedly bearded Canadian comedian who was initially scheduled for that evening seemed dredged from the deepest trench of the uncanny valley. Even with the help of a compere as supple and warm as Matthew Crosby, an opening slot is never easy, and this contributed to the slow start of Johansson’s routine, but he entered his stride with a routine about terrorist bees which began as a throwaway aside but then morphed into something with real depth. Nevertheless, as much as it is an easy and effective way of building a rapport with an audience, I feel that a comedian introducing themselves to an audience as being new to London and commenting on the fact that it’s weird and crowded and nice or rude is just too familiar, in part because it leads to vapid writing exercises like the one I am doing right now. I’d be interested to get other people’s views on this – I don’t feel that a comedian has to sympathise with me in order to make me laugh; I want to be surprised, intimidated, anything that I’m not expecting. Occasionally I find that working the audience based upon shared references makes the act feel like an extension of my life outside it, rather than a separate space entirely.
Still, the beauty of stand-up comedy is that laughs can be obtained from generating all sorts of artist-audience interaction, and the beauty of Knock2Bag is that each act had a different one at work. Next up on to the stage were Twins, a duo whose natural stage presence is in contrast to their internet presence.
It’s not their fault, but in researching them it struck me how the hegemony of search engines makes finding acts with a common name incredibly difficult. It’s therefore probably in the interests of Jack Barry and Annie McGrath to be at least as well-known as the diabolical Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger film.
If Pete Johansson was a good example of trying to win over a room by using familiar reference points, then Twins were almost the complete opposite, not trying to communicate to the audience by demonstrating an understanding of their point of view but offering a performance with its own distinct characteristics and daring the audience to follow. It’s very brave to put on an act which relies on generating humour from an ostensibly shambolic performance – the audience of a trendy bar in West London will at least provide sympathy for an act who is perceived to be earnest, whereas an unsuccessful attempt at awkward humour can be seen as treating the audience with contempt if the hits don’t land. Luckily, this was not a problem for Twins. There is a touch of Mitch Hedberg about Jack Barry’s delivery; all nervy glances across the room, heavy breathing into the microphone and words that trail arhythmically out of his mouth. His partner Annie was a good foil, a more reserved outlet of dry humour. While a sketchier performance may be more of a risk, it generates increased reward as it means that in the absence of obvious set ups and punchlines, the very cadence and choice of words and movements in their own right become sources of laughs. Their material and method of presentation is strong, so they should be more confident within it; at some points during their gig they were too keen to apologise for their act and momentarily stepped out of character in order to be self-deprecating. Still, they are both young and I’m sure this will come naturally as they refine their act.
If the essence of comedy is surprise, then Twisted Loaf packed more than most into their set.
Which was startling, because after 5 minutes I arrogantly thought that I knew roughly what to expect, after an extended stage entrance and a blast of Serge Gainsbourg. In equal parts comedy, burlesque, and mime, Libby Northedge (a sort of cross between Jessica Rabbit and Jennifer Saunders) and Nina Smith drew on an education in physical theatre to completely rip up the rule book that cocksure individuals like myself, used to watching one person (usually a man) talk on a stage, often at an extra step removed through the frame of a YouTube video. The invisible barrier of the stage counted for nothing in their gender-bending performance. A sudden lurch into something resembling sketch comedy came out of nowhere, which allowed Twisted Loaf to show off the skills picked up from an education in drama. As with Jack Barry before them, the minutiae of their stage movements and sounds were carefully honed to elicit the maximum laughter. Twisted Loaf’s style and their material in the sketches – which I will not mention here to attempt to preserve some of the impact of their show – is also the best riposte to the ridiculous myth that women aren’t funny. Twisted Loaf aren’t just funny, but they create laughs from rotating through a tableaux of completely vapid female stereotypes, providing belly laughs and knife-point cultural criticism at once. They also offered fascinating comparison to Pete Johansson, as different as their acts are. Johansson’s act featured an analogy comparing bees to terrorists, and made some smart points while doing it. Twisted Loaf’s act leaves you laughing out of terror, because you have no idea what boundaries they will overstep next as the artists become more and more involved with the audience. Neither method is innately superior to the other, but the latter example shows how varied a response in stand-up comedy to a world gripped by terrorism can be.
Sam Simmons was doubly handicapped by being promoted to the headliner slot at the last minute and by following an act as mind-mashing as Twisted Loaf, but he handled it with aplomb. Looking like a hybrid of Tobias Funke and Earl Hickey,
Simmons introduced himself as the ‘Michael McIntyre of absurdism’, and made the stage feel about three feet square as he bounded across it and over it, having us eating out of his hands. A two-time nominee for the Fosters Comedy Award at Edinburgh, Simmons is a whirlwind of comic Antipodean energy, and is a testament to how originally observational comedy can be presented. Standing up and reciting a long list of funny things that happen at a supermarket might be amusing, but it has been done that way a thousand times. The way Simmons does it, backed by a thumping techno 4/4 (with immaculate synchronisation to pre-recorded bits) and interspersed with comments that are more akin to something like Paul Foot’s ‘disturbances’, you are always kept on your toes as to whether Simmons gives you something realistic or fantastical. Thinking about observational comedy as a concept, this is one of the most effective ways of doing it. In fairness, most observational humour relies upon taking up an aspect of life that is often overlooked and taking it into a flight of fancy in order to demonstrate how absurd that aspect may be. But it becomes difficult to sustain this through, say, a ten minute slot on a prime time arena comedy show, where the interaction with audience and performer is so limited – the comedy becomes part of life’s routine program. Moreover, when observations of life’s verisimilitude like sleeping positions are mixed with more surreal creations as they are in Simmons’ act, then the absurdity of life is stressed even further, because reality is shown to be just as strange as fiction.
I’m still quite confused at just how I managed to see so many top quality comics for such a low low price, but I’m not going to complain any time soon. If their December incarnation is any indication, then Knock2Bag is a stimulating diversion for a weekday evening, and deserving of your time. You’ll have to wait until 31st of January at Rich Mix for your next chance to go, but with craic-dealing songsmiths Abandoman and stalwart Simon Munnery heading the bill, it should be more than worth your while. Just don’t spend the change you get from a tenner all in one place.