Fringe 2011: Comedy sketches with an edge
Featuring Late Night Gimp Fight, Christmas for Two, McNeil and Pamphilon and The Three Englishmen
This article is from 2011.
With the near-veteran likes of the Penny Dreadfuls and Pappy’s opting not to appear in their collective forms this Fringe, it’s a golden opportunity for some of the newer sketch acts to make a mark. But with ever-increasing competition at their level, how do these groups get themselves noticed? Cunning viral campaigns? Frenzied flyering? Or do they go for the jugular with hardcore material to grab headlines and entice the curious bystander?
Last year, Late Night Gimp Fight! attracted a mixed bag of reactions for their full-on sketch fare, which featured unusual takes on the Psycho shower scene and the Oliver Twist begging bowl, while gags about paedophilia, nudity and violence were in plentiful supply. Yet they also had the gall to throw in some Beckett, a tactic that flew over the heads of those baying for more ugliness. ‘We don’t mind testing taboos though we don’t set out to do that,’ insists David Gimp (real surname Moon). ‘We were a little surprised at being described as the darkest sketch group on the Fringe, but then it just seemed that the darker stuff tended to be funnier and we’re not going to hide away from it. But there’s an instinct about going too far, and if it’s shocking for the sake of it, then it won’t go in.’
Certainly, Moon bristles at the memory of their show (which received a Best Newcomer nomination) being dubbed as ‘lowest common denominator’ comedy. ‘Ultimately there will be some reviewers who just won’t like our stuff and that’s fine, but why come to a show with that name? What were you expecting?’
That’s a question which Sarah Campbell, one half of Christmas for Two, must have asked when a sketch she penned for a BBC Three pilot show called Laughter Shock was rejected on the ground that it was, weirdly, too shocking. ‘They specifically commissioned me to write something shocking and I thought, “Well, fair enough, I can write to a brief.” They said they loved it and that they would film it but at the very last minute, the BBC cut the sketch because it was too much for them.’
The upside of that frustrating experience was that Campbell met her Christmas for Two cohort, Amy Hoggart, who appeared in the scene which presumably now lies in a BBC vault marked ‘toxic’. Happily, it will receive an airing in Edinburgh, but the pair don’t want to be viewed purely as merchants of filth. ‘I’m naturally a prude,’ insists Hoggart. ‘I think my stuff is weirder and Sarah has to really edit it. But when something is quite rude, I always just giggle at it quite shocked but I want it to stay in. I’ve worked it out so that Sarah always has to say the rude word. And I look about 15 so I need to be consistent. But if people come to see us looking for something shocking, they’ll be massively disappointed. It’s more of an odd characters hour.’
Characters and oddness spilled out from all sides when Steve McNeil and Sam Pamphilon unleashed their debut sketch affair last year, entitled Addicted to Danger! There was material about religion, terrorism, rape and race, but at no point did you ever sense you were ever in the presence of terrible, awful people.
After all, as McNeil puts it, they have a pretty solid benchmark from which they analyse every joke or scene. ‘The acid test is: could Jim Davidson perform this at an adult panto?’ If the answer is a resounding and confident ‘no’, then it has a fighting chance of making it to the final cut. If the answer is ‘yes, quite possibly’, then it joins the pair’s litany of regrettable experiments. ‘If anyone questions anything Stewart Lee has said, you feel confident in your own mind that he could turn round and say, “I know why I’ve said this, what my intention is and where it has come from,”’ says Pamphilon. ‘We have files of scenes that we can’t justify came from a good place. It’s marked Do No Touch. There’s no point in just throwing something out there that you’re not 100% behind just because it seems edgy. We have a big bunch of stuff that no one is ever going to see; we’re ashamed that they’re even there. It’s like phlegm: it had to come out but I’m not going to show it to anyone.’
The pair have the comedy equivalent of a safe word for each piece of material they’re working up. ‘The stock phrase is, “I’m not sure that this is OK,”’ says McNeil. ‘We had a thing called Hustlebusters, a sort of Crimewatch, the idea being that these programmes fearmonger about ethnic minorities and cause trouble with the media spreading fear about “other people”. We tried to make a comment on that and deconstruct it but we never found a way to do it that didn’t make you feel a little bit awkward. We did it at one gig but, like at an Al Murray show, we were never quite sure whether they were laughing with us or if they’ve taken the joke in an entirely literal way.’
When it comes to The Three Englishmen (of whom there are four), no such worries about offending the audience arise, with Nick Hall recalling how they were seen last year by everyone from ‘7 to 70’ and welcomed the crowd into their space (last year a dank, dripping cellar, this year a bigger, less damp arena) with a Pappy’s-esque joie de vivre. Still, if any macho Brazilians with a samba obsession had been in attendance, they may have walked (or sashayed) out at the vibrant opening scene as the machismo culture peeled away to reveal a vista of femininity. After that came some mild ribbing of the Bonham-Carter/Burton/Depp triptych and a blustering student continually messing up his French oral exam.
Little wonder that they later appeared on Dick and Dom’s Funny Business, performing their ‘human basketball’ sketch, an increasing avenue for new acts to display their wares. ‘Dick and Dom are like the Peel Sessions for young comics,’ is how Ben Cottam puts it. If appearing on kids TV seemed an intriguing after-effect of their Fringe success last year, things got even stranger when an exotic fan stayed behind to meet the quartet.
As Hall recalls: ‘When an East European with a massive moustache is waiting for you at the back of a dank cellar in Edinburgh and says [feigns Polish accent], “Meet me in a bar, I have a proposition for you”, you start to wonder.’ Turns out that the mystery gent ran an English-speaking theatre project in Poland, and The Three Englishmen played a week out there. While they are a group who like to play with words and ideas, the fact that there is more in their locker helped the trip to go smoothly. ‘The only rules we have is to make it as broad and varied a show as it can,’ insists Cottam. ‘So we have physical things and visual jokes and long dialogue character things. Ours is a fun, cheery show. There are targets being caricatured and stereotyped but it’s warm, not a snide show.’
The Three Englishmen: Optimists, The Caves, 556 5375, 6–28 Aug (not 17), 4pm, £8–£9 (£7–£8). Previews 4 & 5 Aug, £5.
Christmas for Two: Friends with You, The Caves, 556 5375, 6–28 Aug (not 17), 4.55pm, £6.50. Previews 4 & 5 Aug, £5.
McNeil and Pamphilon: Which One Are You?, Pleasance Dome, 556 6550, 6–28 Aug (not 17), 5.40pm, £8.50–£9.50 (£7–£8). Previews until 5 Aug, £5.
Late Night Gimp Fight!, Pleasance Courtyard, 556 6550, 6–29 Aug (not 20), 10.30pm, £9.50–£12 (£8–£10.50). Previews until 5 Aug, £5.