Fellow Comedians; Scottie Dundee
Something tells me I’ve lost some of you already.
Something tells me that a lot of you saw the title “Fellow Comedians; Scottie Dundee” and thought nope, you’ve lost me. He’s not a comedian! He doesn’t write his own stuff, he tells old pub gags, sings novelty songs… NOT. A COMEDIAN.
Well, if he’s not a comedian then I don’t know what he is; his style and attitude is a throwback to the days of old, but if you stopped him in the street and said hey pal, tell me a joke, he’d be able to come out with a lot more than “well, I don’t really DO jokes, more eh, observations and stuff…”. Now granted, his particular style (and the style of similar acts like Dave Young or Paul Malone) is not to my own taste, and his attitude towards the material he uses is not one that I would subscribe to (especially when you hear rumours of guys like Dave Young using hard-earned material from amateur guys on the Irish circuit), but who of us ever asked for their side of the story, before damning them to the birthday party and wedding circuit? After all, what are they doing except trying to make people laugh…Right?
Well, having heard that Scottie Dundee (or Eric Gudmensen to his mam) had written an essay detailing how he got into comedy and how it has treated him, I said to myself “Yo we GOTS to put that on the blog” (because my inner monologue takes place in ebonics) in the interest of a fair hearing rather than the Kangaroo Courts of comedy staircases. So big thanks to Eric for allowing me to post this; It’s not going to change your opinion (it didn’t change mine), but hear the man out, eh?
A Funny Thing Happened to Comedy…
I’m sorry. I can’t divulge that information as the comedy police might be listening.
Let me explain.
I was born in 1961 which means that my teenage years were spent in the Seventies, the decade that taste forgot, supposedly. Music changed overnight in 1976 thanks to The Sex Pistols and punk rock. Comedy took a bit longer to undergo its own radical metamorphosis. About eight years to be precise.
As I hit my teens the most popular comedians on TV were Morecambe and Wise, Benny Hill, Dick Emery etc. The alternatives at this stage were Monty Python and The Goodies. I can still recall my father, God bless him, allowing, nay encouraging me to stay up late to watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I loved it, but deep down I knew that some of the sketches were funnier than others and those were the ones that had punch-lines. Jokes were what I liked. Whimsy was all very well but you couldn’t beat a well-crafted story that took your mind in one direction, then, with the very last line, or maybe even word, turned the whole thing on its head. Around the age of seven or eight I became a joker, a teller of funny stories. I seemed to have a brain like a sponge where jokes were concerned. Once heard never forgotten. Even today I can remember jokes that I told at primary school. Even scarier, I still think that some of them are funny. My friend, Mike, used me as a novelty party piece, telling people to name any subject and I’d give them three jokes on that self-same subject. That was no problem to me.
In 1971 a new TV show was launched in the UK, The Comedians. The show had a spectacularly simple premise. Up to ten comedians who were used to working in the thousands of working-men’s clubs were filmed telling jokes. Just one man, one microphone and one microphone stand on the stage at any one time. I loved the show. My favourite comedians were Ken Goodwin, Denis Compton, Bernard Manning and many others. The format of the show was half an hour of one-liners, daft jokes and short shaggy dog stories. This was in the dark old days; video recorders were still ten long years off in the future. I would write down one word reminders that would help me to remember the jokes which I would happily repeat in the playground the next day, giving them my own inimitable twist of course. It never occurred to me that someone had written these jokes; I just accepted that jokes were there to be told and if they were told well people would laugh, and that was the ultimate reward, that magical sound of people laughing out loudly at something I’d just told them. Strange then that I had no dream of becoming a professional comedian.
Then, in the early to mid-eighties everything changed. The punk ethos filtered through to the world of stand-up comedy. It started with a few clubs being established in London which encouraged new talent to try out radically different styles of comedy. Cue Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall, Ben Elton and the rest. Anyone who had the gall to get up on the stage and tell jokes was pilloried and booed off within minutes. Then television poked its nose in and “alternative” comedy was born, kicking and screaming. Saturday Night Live brought these larger than life maniacal geniuses into our living rooms. I was lucky enough to see Ben Elton live a few times and I thought that he was great, although my propensity to consume a lot of alcohol before gigs probably helped. I also saw Alexei Sayle early on and enjoyed him too. The comedy style was totally fresh but I missed the punch-lines. After a short honeymoon period, the new boys quickly became part of the mainstream. They all settled into TV friendly compartments. Ben Elton wrote sit-coms, Rik Mayall became a Young One and went down the acting route and Alexei Sayle currently enjoys the status of a reclusive, cranky, socialist media-darling. Nice work if you can get it. From then on the old school club comic was as good as dead. All the new boys made sure that it was considered terminally unhip to admit to enjoy listening to jokes any more. Some comedians were taking the more recent observational style of comedy to new levels. Phil Cool with his rubber face, Dave Allen, Jasper Carrot and Billy Connolly were allowed to develop and thrive because although not strictly “alternative”, they weren’t telling “corny” jokes. I also saw Les Dawson and Russ Abbot live in the eighties playing to full houses in huge theatres. But as the Saturday night variety shows gave way to National Lottery shows, opportunities to hear good joke based comedy grew fewer and fewer.
The curse of a joke retentive memory stayed with me all my life, just waiting and begging for a chance to be put to good use. The chance eventually came in 1996. After many twists and turns, my life had mutated into that of a bar singer and I found myself singing in a club in Tenerife. Between songs I would good-humouredly insult the audience and throw in a few classic one-liners. The club was a cabaret venue and my job included introducing the guest acts. Two acts in particular stood out. Buddy Graham was a comic firmly stuck in the halcyon days of the Blackpool Pier shows and I loved his act. He did a Freddie Starr type of show complete with bright red baggy Teddy Boy suit. The other was a larger than life lady called Katy Kennedy, who again was old-style, and because she was a woman, could be as filthy as she liked without anyone taking offence. When Katy finished her spot she would bring me onto the stage and make a joke at my expense. I would happily play along and one night she took me to one side and told me that I should really think about branching into comedy as I had great facial expressions. That kind casual comment stayed in my head and it wasn’t long before I took her advice.
From then on every gig I played I would add as much comedy as I could get away with. One-liners became two-liners, then jokes, then a couple of jokes, eventually developing into full-blown routines lasting twenty minutes or more. At that time, most of my shows were three hours long so this turn of events gave both my audiences and I a much needed shot of variety and made my act fairly unique. Three hours a night, seven nights a week, that’s a whole lot of practice.
In 1999 I relocated to Ireland and spent a year gigging in bars in East Cork before moving to Killarney. Within weeks of living in The Kingdom I was working steadily in bars and hotels. Then came a call from a Mr J O’Donohue asking if I would play in his late bar at the Gleneagle Hotel. It was the call I’d been hoping for and I tried not to sound too eager. I remember the night well, Kerry had just won the Sam Maguire Trophy and the hotel was jumping. I gave it my best shot but as it was so late at night and everyone was full of the gargle, I didn’t get to do much comedy at all. I felt a bit despondent as I wasn’t sure how the crowd had enjoyed what I did. But I needn’t have worried. I was asked back to play again and within a couple of weeks, most of my work came from that fine establishment. And what’s more, the comedy side of my show was going down a storm. That period in my career was extremely important to me. I was rubbing shoulders with some of my heroes, The Wolfe Tones, The Fureys, Brendan Grace, Joe Dolan and Shane MacGowan. A motley collection indeed. Joe Dolan was one of the nicest, funniest men that I ever met. A true gentleman with a wicked sense of humour and a voracity for old-fashioned jokes that equalled my own. I also met my future wife in The Gleneagles due to a series of strange coincidences. But I was changing, as change one must. My show was developing nicely but I had taken to employing rude language for some jokes and the material was getting edgier, a little less family orientated and more politically incorrect. I didn’t have to go down this road but the more I did, the more both I, and a certain percentage of the audience enjoyed it. I began to look on my style as being the bastard love-child of Chubby Brown and Bernard Manning.
I decided to try to break into the cabaret circuit in Ireland. I rang various promoters and managers but to no avail. I also tried to contact Lisa Richards Agency in Dublin but no one was interested in helping me. The gist seemed to be, “I have a talent and I need help to become successful.” And the reply was, “Come back and talk to us when you’re successful.” Not very encouraging. I have since ascertained to my own satisfaction that there is actually no entertainment industry in Ireland. No matter what talent a person may have in whatever field, it’s up to them to make it happen. No one is scouting for talent. When an exceptional Irish comedian or musician gets to a certain level, they are immediately signed up by the only agency in their field and exported to the UK, where the real money is.
I had a bit of a “road to Domestos” experience in October 2002. I was booked to do a comedy spot during the Irish Festival weekend in the Isle of Man. I went to the Isle of Man but my guitar was diverted to London Gatwick. I was panicking as I’d never got on stage before without a guitar. It was my safety net, my security blanket, and being left-handed I couldn’t just borrow someone else’s. However, I’m nothing if not a trooper. I bounded onto the stage in front of about 1000 expectant Dubs feeling naked, armed only with a radio microphone and shouted, “Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen, please go easy on me, I’m having a hoor of a day. Every single morning there’s a German Shepherd comes and shits in my garden…and this morning he brought his bleedin’ dog with him!” There followed a howl of laughter and I had made it. I was a bona fide stand-up. Look mum…..no guitar! My guitar was actually delivered to me courtesy of British Airways after about 40 minutes and the crowd thought that it was part of the show and more laughs ensued.
Next stop Lanzarote. My wife and I went to Lanzarote in 2003. 9/11 had swiftly been followed by the Foot and Mouth outbreak and the Irish tourist industry was in the doldrums. Within three months in Lanzarote we had bought a bar and a house. We opened Scottie’s Comedy Club and had three great years followed by one middling year followed, in turn, by three terrible years as the world’s finances went into free-fall, taking mine with them. But again, nothing happens without a reason. I’d had seven years on my own stage playing three hours a night, seven nights a week, to crowds of anywhere from 6 to 100 people. Most comedians are lucky to get three hours in a month in comedy clubs. Fast forward to 2011. Here I am, back in Ireland, trying to get a toe-hold on the Dublin comedy circuit. Scrabbling and begging for 6 minutes of stage time in a pokey little room above a bar where I’ll play for free till I’ve proved my credentials. And guess what? I am finding it extremely difficult to even get a chance to prove myself.
Why? Well to be perfectly honest, I don’t know, but I can surmise, and I will. The comedy scene in Dublin appears to be controlled by a few well-meaning comedians of varying quality who are responsible for booking all the acts that grace the hallowed stages of the International Bar or The Ha’penny Bridge. I would imagine that any comedian who has seen me perform would describe my style as “old-school” or “hackneyed”, and I believe that this will have a bearing on whether or not I am invited to perform. I have no problem with this per se but it does rather smack of snobbishness and hypocrisy, as I would imagine that if Peter Kay or Lee Mack asked if they could have an open spot, they would be welcomed with open arms, and they are about as “old-school” as you get. “Sour grapes!” I hear you cry. And yes, you’d be correct. Certainly, there is an element of jealousy at play here. But there is also a serious question I’d like to pose. How are people supposed to hear jokes as they were intended to be heard nowadays?Frank Carson said it best when he said, “It’s the way I tell them!”
Never a truer word spoken. I was driven to write this piece after seeing a comedian post a great old joke on his Facebook page. I made a comment about the joke being “cabaret” style and the comedian in question replied stating that he would not use this joke on stage as he only used “good jokes” in his act. What I think he actually meant was that he will only use material that he wrote himself. And I got to thinking, “Why is that?” The joke in question was funny but it was so old that no one knows, or indeed cares, who wrote it. So it seems to me that old jokes with punch-lines are destined to die out. Sure they do the rounds on e-mails and phone texts but it’s not the same as hearing them delivered by a pro. Young comedians often ask me if all my material is my own and my answer has to be, “If you have to ask, what difference does it make?” The truth is that my show is a genuine melange of my own observations blended with the cream of old-school jokes which have been tailored to suit my delivery style. It also includes a smattering of comedy songs, both original and parody, and a show can be anything from 20 minutes to two hours long.
Jokes are written to be told more than once. In the world of music things are so different. I find musicians tend to be musical and generous while comedians are humourless and selfish. Go figure. Radiohead, REM, U2, Coldplay and the like, all play cover versions in their live shows and no one complains. Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, neither of whom wrote a song in their lives, both proved that delivery is just as important as writing. They’re paying respect and why shouldn’t anyone pay respect to the old comedians who are dead and gone. It’s all about interpretation.
The problem seems to me to be that the comedy clubs are run by comedians for comedians. I don’t see too much variety in the styles of the regulars on the circuit nowadays. Just 20–30 minutes of observational comedy that now appears as jaded as the old-style that it was supposed to replace. Plenty of giggles but not a lot of good hearty belly-laughs. The few spots that I have played in Ireland have resulted in big laughs but no repeat gigs. It would appear that the organisers don’t worry about the size of the laughs, only their own personal taste. What they don’t seem to care about is the audience. I would suggest to the guys in the comedy clubs that their function is to offer paying audiences the most entertaining acts available and not just their own close personal friends. The scene does appear to be a bit incestuous with around 20% of comedians getting about 80% of the available work. Maybe it’s time for a long overdue shift back to basics with the comedy club organisers realising that comedy audiences are not as precious, politically correct or sophisticated as seems to be assumed, and certainly nowhere nearly as snobbish as the comedians themselves.
A renaissance is due and I’ll be ready and waiting!