The compere was Robin Ince. I'm sure this isn't news to anyone who's seen one of these nights, or just thought about it for a minute, but the compere really is a great gig. You can do all your short-to-medium jokes, no need for any particular structure, if you're better than the acts then the audience are glad to see you, if it's the other way around then they're going to still be on a high for most of your links. It helps that he's quite good, though I recognise some of his stuff from his appearance at the first Crystal Palace Josie Long night I went to (when he was the opener!)
Scott Capurro is a very thin tall American, screechingly camp and sarcastic, he gets away with a lot by being offensive to everyone. He's also apparently famous on the telly, which makes me think that I haven't actually been watching much comedy on the telly for quite a while now, the sort of situation where I'm afraid to ask in a querulous tone "do they still make Have I Got News For You/Never Mind The Buzzcocks/Whose Line Is It Anyway/Just For Laughs?"* both in case they don't and in case they do. I do like that new show QI though! Or I did the one time I saw it.
A confession: I've never actually seen Popworld. I know I know, a life wasted, but the only thing I've seen Simon Amstell in before now is the YouTube clip where he's interviewing Babyshambles. I've sort of fallen into the trap where, because what he does isn't set-up joke set-up joke, I don't really think of him as a stand-up comedian (more of this later). As it turns out he's not really going to challenge my preconceptions tonight - he's going to test out some new material, he's just broken up with his boyfriend, he basically just Is Sad at us for 20 minutes, natters on about how the self doesn't exist, after all, "Look at you there sir, with the beard. You've probably been quite proud of the beard, amongst your friends you're known as the man with the beard. Maybe this is starting to get to you, you're thinking that you might shave it off, that you're more than the beard - and the truth is you're less". Sighs a lot, debates whether to sit down on the front of the stage or not. He's definitely got something - he manages to ostentatiously look at his watch a few times, which considering he's not actually putting out the funny should be annoying instead of endearing - so I'm thinking that I'd like to see him when he's on form. And he does finish with a proper joke: "So, what have we learned? I don't exist. You don't exist. Joke's on you though, because you paid". Okay, it was funnier when Woody Allen did it 40 years ago, but that's always true.
And then it's the fantabulous Josie Long! Who is unfortunately not so fantabulous for some reason. Possibly the size of the place - she tore it up in the second-largest room a month or so before, but the main hall of the Battersea Arts Center is pretty damn big. And a lot of her comedy has to do with creating a sense of intimacy, a connection with the crowd. Also there's the fact that when she shows that she's come to terms with her big belly by drawing a mural and the word MARVELLOUS on it, if you're at the back of the hall, you're not going to be able to see shit as regards that gag. Maybe she jinxed herself after announcing that her first fully connecting joke (the VD test one) was her most mainstream material. Also she seemed to be on for much shorter that Simon Amstell, but this might just have been a factor of me wishing that she'd start really connecting, you know?
I'd seen Stewart Lee twice before, both at Glastonbury, about five and ten years ago, and it was 75% the same set both times, and I still pissed myself laughing. He's very conscious about how he's playing the crowd, and how, for example, deadpan repetition of a surreal description builds and builds the humour. And he wants you to know it, that you're paying to be played. Which sounds quite easy, but really isn't: anyone who's seen his "I was talking to my grandad" sketch knows that you have to be a great judge of the crowd to actually keep on their good humour, and at his best, no-one can touch Stewart Lee at that. He's not the snake-hipped god he was when last I saw him - half of his (all new!) set is about the serious illness that's taken his last 12 months, and seems to have aged him ten years - but even at a fraction of his old self, he can still hold an audience in a fist of iron.
And then Mark Thomas, who I hadn't been particularly looking forward to, I had pegged him as 'worthy' from when I used to see him on telly a decade or two past, and I assumed he was the 'celebrity' guest, like Dan Brown at Tedstock. Which is of course complete bollocks. Even if you find what he does to be prattery, he was and is a fantastic comedian at what he does, which is tell a story. This one was basically an expanded version of the article in the Guardian about his campaign to overload the system under which you now have to ask written permission for anything that might be deemed a political protest in Parliament Square and environs. There isn't a lot of what you'd call jokes, but he has a great ear for the details that make a story, such as the unfortunate officer who has to vet all the applications warning him that his protest to protect Surrealism was fine as far as he was concerned, but there might always be conditions added on the day, "if the officer in charge thought it might get silly".
After all that, I headed over to a terrible pub off Commercial Road, where my friend Lisa was DJing inbetween godawful neonoise hipster bands. I saw a face there that I'd recognized, but didn't know from where. Eventually I realised he was the one of the two guys that had been monopolising the pool table when I ended up in The Castle (just up the road from there) in the small hours of St. Patrick's Day. The young folk would occasionally come up and stick money on the side of the table, and then there'd be a brief interregnum and the two oul lad's would be back to their unending game. So I said hello, and he says his name's "Chew", with appropriate pointing to mouth gesture, and that this pub we're in (I'm sorry, I've completely forgotten) is his local, and he can't stand the bands but it's where he drinks until they close up and he ends up in The Castle. I start talking about where I've been that night, and surprise myself by more-or-less repeating Mark Thomas's routine verbatim. He knows the name, approvingly says "socialist" as soon as I mention him, and I have to admit I'm enjoying an oasis of (ahem) authenticity in amongst these terrible people and their terrible hair. And then as I'm leaving he hands me a few square pieces of plastic and says "this is what I do, man", and it turns out he's not "Chew", he's Chu, graffiti artist and maker of a range of "your mum rang" stickers that he's been detourning the bejaysus out of the place with for years now. He's a joker too, though he probably doesn't know the joke's on me.
* Of course I know to my peril that they still make You've Been Framed, not that this has anything to do with comedy.