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December 2011

True Believer Sarah Townsend on Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story

Eddie Izzard Believe

Photo credit: Eddie Izzard, courtesy of Getty Images/ Kevork Djansezian/

"Documentary is a very difficult form, especially if it's not your natural bent," says Sarah Townsend, director of Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story. "It's like trying to learn to do math if you're a writer."

Read more.

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Talkin' Turkey: The CunningList's
Thanksgiving Episode

 

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Turns out today is Thanksgiving Day, an American holiday that's growing in significance in Australia like Halloween. Except that, culturally, Thanksgiving is more significant, not just cos you get to stuff yourself on more than just candy. It's like secular Christmas a month early. Of course I got to write about it in The CunningList.

 

Thanksgiving TLC
 

Notes:

Blue Plate Bar & Grill
Celebrating Thanksgiving Thurs 24 until Sun 27 November
24 Young St (Entrance on Grosvenor St)
Neutral Bay NSW 2089

Sign up to The CunningList. (Ignore that the page says 'coming soon'; once you sign up, you'll be receiving each issue via email.)

Happy Thanksgiving.


The CunningList: Luke, Leia & Lingerie

 

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At the moment, one of the exciting projects I'm working on is a brilliant new daily newsletter called The CunningList. To be honest, you should sign up to it more or less immediately (ignore that the page says 'coming soon'; once you sign up, you'll be receiving each issue via email).

I bring this up because a little while ago, when I was waxing a little to honestly about my attitude towards burlesque, I somehow forgot to mention Star Wars Burlesque - something that so appeals to my geek sensibilities.

So here's the CunningList piece from a couple of weeks ago now; Star Wars Burlesque opens tonight at The Vanguard, King St, Newtown.

 

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Here's a taste:

 

Star Wars Burlesque from Tenderloins on Vimeo.


Alan Davies' Aussie 'Life is Pain' tour

My conversation with Alan Davies, regarding QI, Whites and his own stand-up tour, Life is Pain. Bits of it were Tweeted and Facebooked earlier on. As Alan tours Australia, with tickets to some shows still available, Here it is in its entirety. Enjoy!

Alandavies

 

“The logic of it fails me,” Alan Davies insists. 

Davies – Stephen Fry’s excellent foil on QI and a comic in his own right – is currently in Australia. He came out to take part in a live QI tour and stayed on for his own stand-up tour. But our first topic of conversation is his most recent television project, the quite brilliant but sadly under-appreciated dramedy Whites, cancelled after its first season.

“Losing Whites is the biggest disappointment I’ve ever had in television.”

According to Davies, Whites took four years to reach the screen. Writers Matt King (a regular on Peep Show and Spirited, as well as a stalwart on the Aussie stand-up scene some years ago) and Oliver Lansley started by writing “a taster”, from which a pilot was commissioned. (They actually spent time training as chefs at one of Jamie Oliver’s restaurants, to authentically capture the feel). A year later, the series was made, followed by another year before it was broadcast. “It’s a long process,” Davies continues. “You can’t imagine a car company spending four years developing a car, putting it on sale, it proving really popular, and then stopping making it and deciding to make a different car. It just doesn’t make any sense at all.”

Not least of all because it was cancelled after the script for a second season was commissioned, and with nothing selected to replace it in the schedule. “It had been very successful with the audiences and critically. It was a real shock and a huge disappointment because it was an ensemble of actors who were the best and the nicest bunch of people I ever worked with.”

Indeed. Isy Suttie, whom we also know as ‘Dobbie’ in Peep Show, was Kiki, the kooky waitress. More significantly, Katherine Parkinson – who’d replaced Julia Sawalha as Caroline Quentin’s replacement as the female lead in the most recent instalment of Jonathan Creek – played restaurant manager and maitre d’ Caroline.

“She’s a super bright woman,” Davies says of Katherine Parkinson. “Very smart, witty, great company and tremendous comedy actress. We’re great fans of hers from the IT Crowd. She came in and auditioned for Whites. No airs and graces about Katherine at all. Hands down she was the best for the role. It’s just part of the huge disappointment about the cancellation that we won’t be able to do any more of those scenes or get those characters going again, because I thought they were really great. That’s television, unfortunately. It’s quite impenetrable at times, and even thought I’ve been working on television for nearly 20 years, I’m as baffled as anyone this time.”

 

Jonathan Creek

Nearly 20 years in television, huh? That in itself is baffling, given Alan’s perpetual youthfulness. Seems like only a couple of years ago he turned up as the tussle-haired lead with the cool accent in that – let’s face it – rather wussy, English kind of X-Files-lite (meant in the best possible way, of course) known as Jonathan Creek. You know, where he plays a magician’s assistant – the sort who helps devise the tricks offstage rather than donning lycra and tights to be sawed in half as part of them onstage – who also solves mysteries.

What was surprising was that – despite the presence of female lead Caroline Quentin, late of Men Behaving Badly, and the vaguely familiar Cleese-alike, in that first episode, who turned out to be an older Neil-of-the-Young Ones Nigel Planer – Jonathan Creek was ‘light entertainment’ more than ‘comedy’. No, actually, that wasn’t the surprise. The surprise was that, despite the show clearly being light entertainment rather than comedy, Alan Davies – whom we hardly knew in this country – started popping up in stand-up specials and shows that were more obviously sitcoms.

Turns out, hardcore comedy fans knew Alan Davies a lot better than TV viewers who’d stumbled onto Jonathan Creek. He had cut his stand-up comedy chops while developing his acting, as a student. Prior to Jonathan Creek, there was the excellent mini series Bob & Rose – as important a mainstream debut for writer Russell T. Davies as it was for actor Alan Davies. And as with Russell T’s best work, the drama was so potent because it effortlessly combined comedy in the process. Perfect for Alan. “I did a lot of acting at university and I always wanted to write and perform comedy, so the two things were going on at the same time,” he says. “I was okay in plays, but it was best if they were comedies.”

 

Early stand-up

Alan gave comedy a proper go after he graduated in 1988. It was also the year Alan first visited Australia, where – it turns out – he had relatives.

“My mum died when I was only six and she had one sibling, my Aunt, who lived in Adelaide,” Alan explains. “My Gran lived with her. To hear anything about my mum or get to know that side of the family meant coming to Australia.”

After that initial visit, Davies returned repeatedly throughout the early 90s, gigging while here. Voted Best Young Comic by London’s Time Out magazine in 1991, he was playing the Adelaide Fringe in a split show with Judith Lucy and Jimeoin in 1992 – “I knew Jimeoin from the UK and the Australian promoter put us together with Judith”. He won the Critics Award for Comedy at Edinburgh Fringe in 1994, the same year he missed out on the Perrier (beaten by Aussies Lano & Woodley). He was at the Melbourne Comedy Festival in 1995, when it was still a comparatively “low-key affair”.

And even though the success of Jonathan Creek meant slowing down a little – “it did take over my life a little bit and the stand-up started to fade” Alan continued visiting Australia, what with cousins dotted around the country and a best friend from his school days having emigrated to Sydney. Although things got a little busier of late, making his returns less frequent. “My wife and I came over in 2006 and we had Christmas in Adelaide. This is our fist trip since then,” he says. 

But it’s only been five years since Alan Davies was last in Australia. It’s been ten since he was regularly performing as a stand-up comic, and, he says, “I have missed doing it. I never really anticipated being away from it for ten years. I can’t really see where those ten years have gone.”

Hmmm. I think I can. The last eight have involved seasons of QI, the game show with a difference, since rather than rewarding intelligence, as game shows used to, or cunning, as they did most recently, QI demands only that the panelists be interesting.

 

QI

Alan’s involvement in the show came, he says, as a result of his late-’90s “move away from stand-up” when he “sold his soul” for four years, making television commercials for a bank. They were directed by John Lloyd, who’d produced such great comedy shows as Spitting Image, Not The Nine O’Clock News, Black Adder and the television version of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy but hadn’t made a television show in a while, concentrating instead on advertisements.

“We got on very well while we were shooting things,” Alan says, “and he had an idea for a panel show and said ‘What do you think of a show where you get points for being interesting?’ I immediately bought into it. We talked about it a lot in the long breaks on set when we were doing those ads.”

A year later, Lloyd phoned Davies, announcing he’d “managed to get the money from the BBC” and was about to “make a pilot of the Quite Interesting Panel Show”; would Alan like to be involved? “I jumped at the chance,” Alan says.

They’ve made a season every year since 2003. The secret to its success is not merely because it lives up to its name, of being quite interesting (that’s what the ‘QI’ stands for) but, according to Alan, because of it’s ‘collaborative feel’:

“We don’t like feeling that people are elbowing each other aside for space and treading on each other trying to out-do one another. You can’t get the questions right. You’re very fortunate to even understand the questions, usually. It takes you into a topic where you don’t know what’s going to come next.” In order to pull it off, there’s “a huge amount of work” by a team of researchers, led by Jon Lloyd, “that goes on for months”.

Although Stephen Fry is so natural in his delivery, and such an intellectual Renaissance man that you’d easily believe that he would know all of the information presented on the show, there are ‘scripts’ provided with all of the material. But, Alan explains, “Stephen’s second to none at absorbing all this stuff and preparing the show. It looks like an effortless conversation, but there’s a huge amount of preparation.”

Meanwhile, the panelists are “totally in the dark”. They have the option of seeing the questions just before taping begins, “but they don’t make any sense to you”. So, according to Alan, “you go and have a conversation off-the-cuff; the whole thing’s spontaneous and really good fun to be part of.”

If you go and buy the boxed set of the first three seasons (through Roadshow, available at your ABC Shop) you’ll see some patterns emerge. Alan Davies loves doing his ‘Mexican impression’; Rich Hall subverts expectations by playing the game virtually against the rules – all non sequiturs and absurd utterances; Jo Brand likewise can stop just about anyone in their tracks with an unexpected – but hilarious – comment; Bill Bailey’s amoeba gag comes up a couple of times.

Alan agrees Rich Hall “has always been a minimalist contributor”, throwing in the occasional line that always gets a laugh. “Many others are much chattier,” he observes, noting that the show works best when you have “a good blend”. What he loves most is the fact he knows most of the guests from his time on the comedy circuit. “It’s like seeing old mates. It’s a very relaxed environment.”

Initially, they were “quite careful” about whom they invited on. After it became popular, people were “queuing up” for the opportunity. “There are still some people who you’d like to come on who won’t,” Alan admits. Who? Is he at liberty to say?

“Dawn French. I talked to Ricky Gervais a few years ago and he said, ‘there’s no way, I can’t do what you guys do’. I think he could, but if he’s not comfortable with these kinds of shows, don’t do them. There’s no need.”

Daniel Kitson, likewise, eschews such television shows. Alan’s been trying to get him on “for years, but he simply won’t”. Which is a pity – to my mind the show is practically designed for his intellect and humour, and Davies agrees. “He would flourish in that environment, and it would be lovely to have him there. But he has no interest in it.”

Although, as Alan notes, it took a long time to get Ross Noble on QI. “He’s started coming on in the last couple of years and he’s been terrific. Hopefully Daniel will, eventually.”

You can only imagine, when watching QI on television, that much more material is recorded than broadcast. Sometimes you can almost detect an abrupt edit. According to Alan, they record 90 minutes. Thus, “there’s usually about an hour or more of stuff that’s not broadcast. There are lots of opportunities in the show for us to do stuff that’s unbroadcastable for the benefit of the studio audience. But they give themselves scope to edit down a really, really tight, funny half hour.” 

In more recent years, in addition to the 30-minute television version, there’s been a 45-minute QI XL edit of each episode. Makes perfect sense to make the most of the material produced.

The pity of the Australian tour is that it was intended “just for the ticket-buying public”; not recorded for posterity, let alone for broadcast. No ‘special Australian season’ the way British comedy used to be manufactured, back in the day when it was still Pomedy rather than Britcom – Aussie episodes of Love Thy Neighbour, Father Dear Father and Are You Being Served. Even the first season of Blackadder was a co-production with the ATN Seven network in this country.

“We were hoping that we could salvage Whites that way,” Alan says. “We did have a couple of conversations with the ABC about doing a second season on that basis, but so far that hasn’t come to fruition.” Clearly, the thing to have done was to tape the Aussie QI live season and package it up, to raise some coin for future seasons of Whites. Never mind. That’s only one missed opportunity with this tour. The other – that I’m still bemoaning – is that it doesn’t take in Sydney.

“That is a shame,” Davies says. “There was the intention of doing a show in Sydney, but the issue is Stephen Fry’s availability and the promoter failing to get a venue organised. My own promoter for my stand-up shows is very on the ball and she’s now done everything that we needed to get done.”

Whatever anxiety Alan had – and he admits there was a degree, having had such a long time away from stand-up – he’s tried to “channel into positive energy”, first with small UK gigs before arriving in Australia, and then with small club gigs before embarking on his stand-up tour proper, working up new material so that he’d be “nice and ready” to tour.

 

Some cheeky questions

Before I can leave Alan Davies to his own devices on it, I want to ask some downright cheeky questions. “May I?” I politely enquire.

“If you like,” Alan says, graciously.

I begin with Lou and Andy on Little Britain. You know, the characters – who allegedly happen to be named after Lou Reed and Andy Warhol – consisting of a malingerer in a wheelchair and his carer. To my mind, if Daniel Kitson were to pretend to be disabled and Alan Davies was to wheel him around, they’d be Lou and Andy.

Bb73205little-britain-290x4“I think you’re stretching,” Alan says. “I don’t know who’d be more offended – me or Daniel,” he adds.

My next cheeky observation: that kid who plays the middle, naughty child on Outnumbered. With that hair, that face, and indeed, those speech patterns, he could be Alan Davies’ son.

Wxn3O4bf“Yeah, well you’re about the 95th… thousandth… person to say that…” Alan dismisses.

“Has anyone else brought the ‘Lou and Andy’ comparison up?” I wonder.

“That shows that you do have capacity as an original thinker; good for you on that one. But no, I’m afraid the curly-headed kid on Outnumbered – I get that on Twitter virtually every day and I can confirm to you that he is not my son. But he’s a very good actor. He’s better than me, anyway.”

Well, we know that that’s false modesty; there are things like Bob & Rose early on, and Whites quite recently that demonstrate how good Alan Davies is. And again, we’re reminded how much of a pity it is that Whites ended when it did. It was a great show.

“It’s very gratifying to hear that,” Alan says. “I’ve had a lot of feedback from Australian viewers who were catching it, and now from people in the States who are fans of the new style of English comedy. It’s very gratifying that people would like it. Part of the impetus for getting me back up on stage as a stand-up comedian is the frustration and disappointment of these decisions. At least as a stand-up I can go onstage and there’s no one between me and the audience. I can go and say what I like, and that’s a refreshing change.”


Boosh Allures:
Frank Zappa by Noel Fielding

In 2000, the year the Mighty Boosh brought Autoboosh to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I got to interview them in their hotel room. They were just ‘The Boosh’ then, I’m pretty sure.

I pointed out that I recognised their pre-show warm-up music, 'Help I'm A Rock' - by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, from their first album Freak Out.

“You're a fan,” Noel acknowledged. During the the interview, he sketched freehand on a piece of paper. When the interview was over, he handed it to me. It was a portrait of Frank Zappa.

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I’ve been searching for it for at least the last 8 years, thinking I’d filed it, but not knowing where. Then my girlfriend located it as girlfriends do, just casually rifling through some folders. Joy of joys.

Zappa – captured in the bowler hat in which he was frequently photographed during his 1968 English tour – is uttering ‘Help I’m A Rock’. Noel has inscribed it, ‘Cheers for interviewing us and viewing our wears. – Noel Boosh’.

You enjoy looking at it while I go purchase a frame to ensure I don’t lose it for another decade!

And enjoy listening to this interview snippet from several years later.

 

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Lou Reed's waiting for his flan

So Lou Reed went to a Starbucks and Tom Scharpling tweeted it. It was funny. Nice reference to Doug Yule as the potential recipient of the angry phone call, etc.

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No mention of Lulu, the album Lou recorded with Metallica, recently released. (The angry phonecall may have involved news of the 1-star reviews iTunes users have been giving it. Ho-hum. Metal Machine Music took forever to be re-appraised, now it’s one of those albums elitists love, and love to hate the haters over. Whatever. I will buy it and force myself to listen to it until I love it, out of spite to everyone. As I will eventually get around to doing with Metal Machine Music.)

Meanwhile, my favourite story of a ‘Lou Reed sighting’ involves an in-store appearance during an Australian tour. Before I relate it, however, I should also tell a John Cale story.

 

The John Cale Signing

A mate of mine went to see Cale live, and afterwards, took his son to meet John Cale, who was signing autographs. But to secure an autograph, you had to buy the new album. That's all he was signing.

My mate’s son – the kind of kid every music nerd would be grateful for – had his own stack of John Cale-related vinyl. None of it was his latest CD, which you were supposed to buy at the merch booth after the gig.

“My son's got some records – is it okay if he gets these signed?” my buddy asked.

“Of course,” John Cale replied, stony-faced, in a monotone communicating, in no uncertain terms, it absolutely wasn’t. He then proceeded to ‘sign’ each album cover with jagged lines; diagrammatic representations of Toblerones every one of them. As he jerked the sharpie up and down to execute his ‘signature’, he stared impassively at my mate, not caring exactly where and how the dragon fangs landed on each cover.

Bastard.

 

The Lou Reed Signing

Another mate got to meet Lou Reed, not after a gig, but at an in-store signing. He was touring, and it must have been a condition laid down by his label: “sure, we’ll underwrite the tour; go to shops and flog copies of the new album.” This other mate is the brother-in-law of the guy whose son got John Cale’s mountain ranges on all his albums. He’s a big ‘first pressing, mono’ collector of vinyl. So of course, when Lou appeared in Fish Records signing copies of the new album on CD, he rocked up with a stack of vintage Velvet Underground vinyl.

They set the shop up very well: Lou Reed’s not as tall as you’d think. So the table he's sitting at is on a platform. You have to look up at him.

My mate looked up at him. Rather sheepishly. “I hope you don't mind,” he said, “I've brought some of your older albums."

Lou Reed stared impassively down upon him.

“Here's the deal,” he said.

Languidly.

Laconically.

Dare I say, Lou Reedily.

The pause between declaring there was a deal, and actually stating what that deal would be, seemed to last almost as long as the gap between the original life of the band known as Velvet Underground that Lou Reed fronted, and their reunion as U2’s support band decades later. But here, finally, was the deal:

“You bring ’em.”

Another pause.

“I sign ’em.”

My mate brought ’em.

Lou signed ’em.

Nice.


Hands up who likes David Strassman

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David Strassman's currently touring Australia (and he returns regularly – check his itinerary) so I got a chance to chat to him. Here's our conversation.

 

Acting wooden

“I would say 95% of my show is traditional ‘hand-up-the-bum’ ventriloquism, because that’s what people really want to see,” offers David Strassman, the ventriloquist who pioneered – and excels at – the use of animatronics in his stage shows – although he labels it ‘puppetronics’. “You can watch robots in Myer’s Christmas Window, and then it’s boring. Most people have seen Walking with Dinosaurs and The Making of Jurassic Park. They know it’s robotics.”

We’re talking as Strassman undertakes another Australian tour, which will again utilise animatronics to take his work yet another step forward. It was amazing, that very first time the antagonism between the puppeteer and his oldest puppet, Chuck Wood, led to David’s departure from the stage… leaving the inanimate Chuck, stranded, voiceless, alone… the audience not knowing what to do or think… until… Chuck Wood… CAME TO LIFE! That was nothing short of brilliant (and, as with all good live entertainment, no amount of retelling does it justice!)

But – and this is an important point – if the puppet is moving automatically, then there’s no reason to assume the voice isn’t also pre-programmed. And if the puppet moves and talks without a puppeteer, then, let’s face it, it’s no longer a puppet. So, groundbreaking the work may be, perhaps animatronics – whisper it – is not actual ventriloquism.

Does that even matter when, as with Strassman’s work, it’s still so entertaining? “I use animatronics theatrically,” he says. “Minimally. And again, 95% of my show is the traditional ‘hand-up-the-bum’ live ventriloquism where I’m doing the voices and operating the puppets.”

 

Educating Strassman

David Strassman’s been sticking his hands up puppets’ bums since his school days. Surprisingly, though, his first love was magic, which he “dabbled” in, along with theater, from very early on. When the opportunity came, in Year 8, to take an elective class in ventriloquism, David signed up for it, for “the easy grade” more than anything else. A good move: as part of the course, the teacher showed them “how to advertise for kids’ parties in the local papers”, so Strassman became a kids’ entertainer with the magic he already had and the stuff he was learning at school. “When the money started coming in, my interest in ventriloquism really picked up!”

And it developed further later on, when he was studying acting at New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. “Being poor, I started busking on the streets with Chuck. I started making a lot of really, really good money, so again, finances piqued my interest.”

Both art forms have a lot in common. “They’re both the art of illusion,” David concedes, but magic is the “less dynamic” of the two. “A magician pretty much stands there and says, ‘here’s a coin, now it’s gone’. With ventriloquism, I’m able to delve into personality, conflict, neuroses, politics, sociology, at the same time creating the illusion that I’m having a conversation with something that is obviously not alive. Yet I make it look like it is a living, sentient being.”

In those terms – creating the illusion of life in an inanimate object – animatronics is the natural successor to the stuff Strassman’s been doing so well for so long. But even that traditional version, being able to convey that illusion of life in what – let’s face it – is a glorified hunk of wood, is a special talent. It comes from those “many years of puppeteering” rather than the years of training as a professional actor.

“My interest in acting and the schools and courses that I took gave me amazing insight into the world of theatre,” Strassman explains. “Not only did I learn stagecraft but I learnt about musicals, dance, Shakespeare, theatre of the absurd...” Thus, David’s “not just a guy who stands in front of a microphone and a curtain”, rather he makes full use of his set with lights, music and special effects. “I’m able to give not just a comedy show but a big production performance.”

 

Wide vistas

To this end, Strassman is aided by friend, collaborator and comic Steve Altman, whom David describes as "a stand-up, musician, composer, singer, artist… an amazing Renaissance man!" Altman wrote “the majority” of Strassman’s last show, Ted’s Fairwell, as well as one currently making its way around Australia, Careful What You Wish For. It is a true collaboration:

“When someone writes for me, I go back and put in my comedy and change it to my vernacular; but Stave has done amazing work for me, giving me fanstastic new vistas for my characters’ personalities to blossom and grow.”

Hardcore Aussie fans of stand-up may be familiar with Steve Altman, who toured here in the late 90s. His material involved keyboard samples that he’d incorporate in his stand-up routines. It's no surprise they know each other and work together –their respective job descriptions cover such a broad remit.

“Any true artist never feels his work is complete,” Strassman insists. “It’s the inability to feel satisfied that keeps us true artists always writing new material, seeking new vistas and forging new ground.” It’s good, as an artist, to have a show that fulfills those needs. Even better when, as an artist, you can guarantee s a new show like Careful What You Wish For that has “a new look, new material and a laugh every ten seconds.” And again, it’s the “seeking” of “new vistas” that led to Strassman’s animatronics paradigm shift.

According to Strassman, it's brought him full circle. Back in the day, when he’d first experimented with robotics, he’d use them in Chuck. “I would ‘have an argument’ with Chuck, he’d sack me and I’d leave the stage. Out of view, I would operate him with a radio-controlled transmitter and a microphone. And I found that I had to play a little tape of music so that I could go back on stage while he’s not being operated.”

When computerisation meant a multitude of movements could be programmed, Strassman was able to create impressive finales “where all the puppets or one puppet or ten puppets were moving by themselves”, but he’d program their talking and singing as well as their movements.

For Careful What You Wish For, Strassman is now able to operate Chuck live – “do his voice, create his movements” – with a hand-held, wireless ‘waldo’ device. “I have a scene in the middle of this show where Chuck sits five feet away on a couch, but I’m operating him live: my voice, his robotics, with my right hand. But there are no wires, and it’s live!” If you think that'll be a bit disturbing to watch, David guarantees it’s downright unsettling!

 

Propular culture

Given only a handful of ventriloquists rise to international prominence, it's easy to bundle them together as a subset of those ‘prop comics’ who entertain with puppets – as if this is, in and of itself, a bad thing. Nobody seems to mind as much about the multitude of stand-ups who do the same thing as each other and coexist more-or-less happily. But given this skewed attitude – when it should really just be about whether or not you’re being entertained – is there a need for entertainers who share this common ground to deliberately locate and exploit points of difference?

Not for Strassman; most of his peers – or, rather, most other ventriloquists, since not many are his peers – “don't do much for the art form” as far as he's concerned. “They’re the ones with silly gags, singing doggy songs; they keep ventriloquism where it’s always been, right down there with the mimes and jugglers!” (Apologies to cutting-edge mimes and jugglers who aren’t ‘down there’ with lesser ventriloquists.)

The peer David insists is different, whom he finds inspiring, is Nina Conti. “She’s innovative and she uses theatre in her show, and I’m very excited and enlightened by her arrival on the scene,” he says. Like Strassman, her “acting and theatre” background sets her apart from the pack of “age-old ‘end of the pier’ act”. As far as he’s concerned, Conti is the heir apparent: “When I retire – whenever that will be – she will hopefully carry the torch.”

 

Animated from go to whoa

Chuck Wood coming to life after Strassman left the stage was unexpected. The move to animatronics was amazing. Where to next? The most obvious change to his mode of performance is the one that greets you from the very start of the show: instead of cloth backdrops and sets, the stage is dressed with “the most amazing animations and projections”.

But the finale is especially impressive. In the past, assembled voices for the big finish were recorded and pre-programmed. After the last show, Strassman’s tour manager made an observation: “It’s just not the same as when you’re talking live with the puppets. I wish there was a way that you could do their voices live.” Strassman’s response: “That’s impossible!” And then, over the last three months, he went and figured out a way to do it. Now it’s part of the show.

Strassman’s system has the puppets’ mouths all on the same frequency, on a robotic relay that ‘turns’ each one ‘on’ when its their turn to talk, and off again, when it’s their turn not to talk. In other words, it’s a way in which he gets to do all their voices live in the big finale. “I have to have an amazing, impeccable sense of timing. I have to basically know when each is on while I’m doing other voices.”

As you can imagine, it takes a lot of concentration. “Lucky for me, I’ve been doing this for forty-something years and a lot of what I do that appears miracullous, is pretty much autonomous. It does take concentration, but like anybody who’s done their job for 10,000 hours or more can pretty much do the hard parts in their sleep.” Interesting. As someone who’s done 10,000 hours, you wonder if he has indeed started doing the parts in his sleep. Have they invaded his subconscious? Does he ever find himself dreaming ‘in character’?

“I never have. Ever since the beginning I made sure I separated my showbiz life from my personal life. I think I did it consciously in the beginning because of those movies like Magic and Twilight Zone. I didn’t want to start becoming a person with multiple personalities.”

I think it’d be pretty cool – at least from the outside looking in – but Strassman disagrees, citing US act Otto & George. Otto is “the most profane, foul-mouthed, worst ventriloquist on the planet” and David’s certain “some strange sort of sickness” has led to there being “some strange gossamer partition between him and the puppet”.

 

Saying the unsayable

At least in Strassman’s case, it’s the puppets that are foul-mouthed and sick. But they get away with it. Especially Grandpa Fred. “It’s because he’s elderly and we have to respect him regardless of what he says,” according to David. “Chuck gets to say it because he’s a naughty boy; he fulfills the fantasy of all of us wanting to challenge authority. But Chuck has limits because you know it’s me saying it. With Grandpa I can almost completely vanish out of the picture and people think it’s Grandpa staying this inappropriate material.”

Even though David has trouble picking a ‘favourite’ among his puppets, he does have a least favourite. Almost. It’s Kevin the Alien (the one who looks a bit like ‘The Crazy Frog’), because he’s hardest to operate. “I’m holding up an entire puppet with my right arm as I’m also operating him live,” Strassman explains. The amount of strength required means David sometimes gets cramps before Kevin’s segment’s ended. The next technological leap will have to be a way to make Kevin the Alien lighter.

Meanwhile, Chuck Wood and Teddy E. Bear are forging ahead with their own technological progress: they both have apps on the Android market. Both allow you to ask the characters questions, which they answer with video responses. Both characters also have Twitter and Facebook pages.

For a bunch of inanimate objects, these characters enjoy very full lives. It’s a good thing David Strassman is able to keep them separate from his own. Strassman concurs. “That’s what keeps me sane.”

 


Having a Ball at Work. Or:
It's a Business doing Pleasure with you

 

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More astute return visitors to this blog will be aware that I must be gainful employed.

By 'more astute return visitors', I really mean 'return visitors'; the astute visitors are the ones who keep coming back to read stuff. As opposed to ignorant American school kids, for example, who land here trying to research the Lou Diamond Phillips film Stand and Deliver by googling 'themes in stand and deliver' and, since neither my blog nor I can help them with their homework, end up commenting that we both "blow".

By 'gainfully employed' I mean someone's paying me to be a literate nerd, for a change. So I tend to spend my writing-and-ruminating time for them. At the moment it's a company called JigoCity - basically, one of the multitude of daily deal coupon companies you haven't heard of.

I've made a point of not turning my personal blog into a way of directing traffic to the website of my day job. For lots of reasons. Not because I'm not some corporate shill - I'll always sell out to the... well, to whomever's buying. But the point is, my blog is for venting spleen, for being passionate, for writing because I enjoy it. Or, for writing I'm no necessarily enjoying, but feel compelled to write because, for whatever reason, I have no choice but write.

And then JigoCity went and did a deal for discounted Burlesque Ball tickets. I'm torn. I want to write about this. But am I just flogging my day job after hours? Because as a blogger (a proper old school blogger, not some microblogging daytripper who thinks a status update on Facebook or Twitter actually constitutes a 'blog') I'm compelled to link to relevant sites when I mention them.

So I'll compromise: I'll write what I have to say about burlesque. I'll link to the JigoCity deals. But I'll write this blog at work, when there are more pressing duties I am neglecting. Understand that I am currently goofing off while I type. I am not selling out, I am stickin' it to The Man. (If I were Rik Mayall, I'd follow with 'Wev-o-lyooooo-shun!')

To prove I'm not selling out, I've got a title that's not SEO'd. And I've got a long pre-amble that'll discourage people who don't like to read. It's not just about quick sales on my blog. (God knows - I've taken my time getting around to not-quite-selling-out!)

But here's the thing:

I don't get burlesque.

I want to. I try to. I like women. I like their girly bits.

I like their girly bits in sexy clothes.

I like their girly bits out of sexy clothes.

I like the sexy transition from within sexy clothes to without sexy clothes.

But when I see burlesque I usually end up exasperated: "Get 'em out, keep 'em put away, whatever; just make up your mind and do it!"

I don't know why I feel that way. I grew up in an age when full frontal nudity was a novelty you'd stumble upon unexpectedly in a foreign film. On SBS. When it was still called 'Channel Oh'. (Or 0/28.)

A time when all pornography from the newsagent was softcore erotica - except for the racey 'black label'... which was also softcore erotica, but sometimes with two people posing instead of one.

A time when - to [probably mis]quote The IT Crowd - even online, "pre-broadband speeds" meant "you'd be up all night and see, like, eight women..."

Surely my response should be the 'seen it, heard it, or refuse to see it because I've heard too many parodies of it' Gen Y kids with no time for burlesque.

But then friends who [claim to] have seen it 'done properly' tell me the problem is, I've only ever seen it done badly. I, too, need to see it 'done properly'.

They recommend I see the Burlesque Ball, put together by the Bijou Group. They, apparently, 'do it properly'.

And here I am, currently working for JigoCity, [one of] the [multitude of] daily deal website[s that you've never heard of], and they're doing half-price tickets to the Burlesque Ball performances around Australia.

So of course, I was busy they were playing my local, the Enmore, in Newtown. And I can't get to their show at The Tivoli Theatre, Brisbane on November 4. Or the one at The Palace, Melbourne, November 11. Or the final one, at Fremantle Town Hall on November 13.

If ever I was gonna see it 'done properly', this'd be the way: each show featuring "International sensual sensation" Catherine D'Lish headlining, with a cast that includes Vancouver's Melody Mangler, Imogen Kelly from Sydney (pictured top of this post) and Lola the Vamp from Melbourne.

Oh well. Maybe next time. For me, the jury's still out regarding burlesque. I did enjoy checking out the pretty, strippy chicks for work, though. And for pleasure, of course.

The The