Oliver Cross: A funny business

LAST week, as part of my 'It's Christmas so get out there and stop being a wimp' campaign, I braved a visit to a comedy club.

This was the very popular Highlight Comedy Club, attached to Bar Risa in Albion Street, Leeds, and, particularly at this time of year, it reminded me most of eating meals at Butlin's holiday camp, Pwllheli, in the 1970s.

Guests (I'm talking about both Albion Street and North Wales here) were gently bossed about by staff in corporate uniforms and persuaded to sit down, without dawdling or making a fuss, in their correct places along rows and rows of long tables.

You wondered, given that throughput was evidently the comedy club's guiding principle over Christmas, why they didn't use cattle prods to hurry the guests along.

All the visitors, divided into corporate groups, were given identical Santa hats with which to demonstrate their zany Christmas spirit, and beer was handed round in big jugs to speed the service along.

The jokes themselves were served up in rather the same manner; very slick, very fast and leaving little to chance, with no heckling and very limited improvisation. It worked very well, but, like Butlin's food in the seventies, it was hard to love.

There were three performers, all males of about the same age (27, at a guess), so that I can't, in my memory, separate them, and all from the Michael McIntyre school of comedy, which, although this is probably me, I cannot warm to.

I suppose fast, witty and clever are good qualities in a comic but I tend to prefer clownish and, well, funny...I mean everybody knows what a joke is and will laugh at well-delivered one as a compliment to the skill of the comedian.

But laughter arising simply because the audience can't help themselves is much rarer. It's the difference between Bob Monkhouse and Tommy Cooper, both equally brilliant but only one of them naturally funny.

Not that theorising about comedy does anybody any good; I'm convinced the world got a lot less amusing after some clever clog (Ben Elton possibly) started using the word 'comedic' as a way of dignifying the very primitive business of making people chuckle.

I'm fairly sure neither Laurel nor Hardy nor any of the Marx Brothers would have appre-ciated being called comedic icons. Can't we just be funny? they would have asked, while giving you a funny look.

Panto power

MY Christmas comedy club visit, as explained elsewhere on this page, proved a bit too slick for my liking, but I soon found the antidote.

This was the annual fund-raising pantomime in aid of Hyde Park Unity Day. Clever, inventive, funny, community-centred and inclusive? Yes. Slick? Well, even given the brilliant music and graphics and plenty of outstanding performances, er... not really.

Which is as it should be with pantomime. It's a British invention, like the East Coast main railway line, and therefore prone to embarrassing failures, but it's also (the panto, not the rail line) cleverly designed to look informal and improvised, even though that's an effect only achieved through hard work and discipline.

The Unity Day pantomime, at Wrangthorn Church Hall, was called Dr Doolittle and the Stepford Zoo and involved a parody of The X Factor, the fight to save City of Leeds School, hula-hooping, bingo and mince pies and I didn't fully understand it but I think that's its charm.

My top tips for a more tolerable Christmas

OOPS, I didn't realise before I sat down to write this column that it would be appearing on Christmas Eve and should therefore have some Christmas content, so here my top five tips for a perfect Christmas Day.

Tip 1. Don't bother with cross-cutting the bottoms of the Brussels sprouts. This practice was introduced to me by my grandmother, and probably everybody else's grandmother, as a way of giving me something to do on a busy morning and keeping me quiet for five minutes. In fact, sprouts taste slightly less soggy if left uncut, although this should not be taken as a recommendation.

Tip 2. If there are small children in the house, buy some brown play dough, shape it into lumps and throw it around the garden. Then on Christmas morning start ranting like a lunatic and accusing Santa's reindeers of pooing all over the lawn.

This tip, passed on from a Radio 4 item this week, works particularly well with small boys who, even if they don't believe in Santa any more, have difficulty imagining that there could possibly, in the whole of creation, be anything more hilarious than reindeers pooing in the garden.

Tip 3. Hire a Christmas Day family therapist. Obviously, at such very short notice, the therapist will charge premium rates but since things don't usually kick off until after EastEnders, you could, even at this stage, find a half-day deal offering very good value.

Put it this way; if you set the cost of the therapist against the costs of insurance claims, legal fees, court fines, dry-cleaning bills, facial restructurings and trauma treatments, there's really no contest.

Tip 4. Don't make everybody play Monopoly or similar board games. I know it's traditional but most families consist of one or two, or at the most three, people who really, really want to win surrounded by others who just want the game to finish so they can get on with their lives.

Don't forget that many board games, such as Scrabble, can be played on-line so that socially inadequate family members can link up with other dorks while the rest of us get on with draining the last of the booze or even, although this creates its own dangers, talking to each other.

Tip 5. Don't drink Dutch advocaat. I can't be bothered to explain why, just don't.


Members of the reformed writing club Savage, pictured at Temple Works (Temple Mill), on Marshall Street, Holbeck, Leeds. Pictured (left to right) Robert St-John Smith, Peter Etherington, Heather Lloyd, Phil Kirby, Maria Protopapadaki-Smith (correct), Ivor Tymchak and Jamie Newman.

Campaigners urge new owners of cherished Leeds mill to reach out - and ‘help us tell and re-tell the Temple Works story’