Cast your minds back to the week following the EU Referendum result. It was a turbulent one, to say the least. Crashes and resignations, speeches and revelations: everything that could have happened seemed to happen.
So it’s fair to say that my trip to Bristol Comedy Garden on Tuesday 28 June came as a blessed relief; finally, I could leave behind the dramatic rolling news and the incessant live-feeds, in exchange for a night of laid-back entertainment.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that Bristol is just an hour-long train journey away. Bristol, it’s important to remember, is basically Exeter’s cool older brother: the epitome of a chilled guy, permanently clad in wavey garms, and smoking in a way that makes you completely forget the health risks. In other words: both Exeter and Bristol voted Remain, but only Bristol’s decision made the national news.
Bristol Comedy Garden is a great example of a large comedy event that Exeter can only dream of: the lively mini-festival takes over Bristol’s gorgeous Queen Square, and runs for six days. Although I’d love to see some of these big names like Milton Jones, Katherine Ryan and Sara Pascoe, or an up-and-coming star like Joe Lycett, I decide instead to embrace Bristol’s edginess and look for a suitable alternative to these mainstream comedians.
My first impressions are of an Arcadian safe haven from the mad politics of the outside world
It’s for this reason that I’m here on the Tuesday night, ready to see the refreshingly quirky bill of Josie Long, James Acaster, Tony Law and Stewart Lee.
My first impressions are of an Arcadian safe haven from the mad politics of the outside world: the main tent is a huge colourful contraption, and the stage is tastefully decorated with a few artistically-lit tree cutouts. Unfortunately, this utopia is quickly put in check by Josie Long’s opening lines, as she cheerfully introduces Bristol as “a part of Greater Remainia”. Naturally, these comedians can’t resist such tasty material as the Brexit vote.
The 34-year-old offers a friendly start to the proceedings, with jokes about her disappearing youth and the infuriating number of relatives asking her when she’ll be getting married. To my taste, her jokes are often a bit too angry and overtly political, although she does sometimes walk the tightrope between politics and humour perfectly: a great example being her belief that when women take on their husband’s names it “feels like the man has eaten them”.
Soon, James Acaster is welcomed onto the stage, and the young master of deadpan comedy — now a frequent face on Mock the Week — launches straight into his beautifully random humour. After just a few minutes, his voice has reached its squeaky peaks at the outrageous realisation that so many young Brits are going to Kenya to build wells for the local people that they have far more wells than we do, and I’m already crying with laughter. This inversion of logic is as polished as Josh Widdicombe’s, but it also offers a dash of the unexpected: a characteristic which is shown later in his segment on sulking: “you’ve got to maintain your A-game if you’re having a sulk while meringue-making”. Acaster says he’s worried he’s too wacky, but that’s definitely part of his charm.
The highlight of his set is a piece on British imperialism, and our history of thievery. He describes the Elgin Marbles in simple, humorous terms: we stole someone’s stuff, put it in a museum, refused to give it back, and then we had the nerve to invite the original owners to come and look at their own belongings, stuck in display cabinets, nicely lit up. He then segues into one of his trademark grand statements: “I don’t care who hears it: museum gift shop rubbers are the worst rubbers on the market”.
Compère Josie Long returns to the stage with new energy, talking about her new exercise regime at the boxing gym (“I’ve never had upper body strength before — it’s so easy to push yourself out of the bath”). But her Nigel Farage jokes, presumably ad-lib, seem quite stale, as there isn’t much comedy gold left to squeeze out of UKIP. This political mood continues later on when — now confident in her liberal Stewart Lee crowd — she starts shouting “fuck Boris Johnson”, to massive applause. Personally, I’m here for comedy, so it does nothing for me.
I’ve never heard of Tony Law, but a quick Google in the interval describes his style as “surrealist comedy”.And it really is surreal. Onto the stage walks a man in a pilot suit, with a rabbit toy taped to his leg, and a comb in his top pocket. He flits around pieces on orcas, the Pompidou Centre and trampolines, but there seems to be no structure to the randomness, and I’m left holding on for dear life. Everyone around me seems to be pissing themselves with laughter, but I feel like I’m reading The Waste Land upside-down in Japanese. “I ate ice cream alone in my car with a comb the other day”, Law says, and I think that sums him up. He sometimes trades in his natural Canadian intonation for what I can only assume is meant to be a Yorkshire accent, and I can’t figure out why; and when his delivery goes particularly wobbly, I start to wonder if he’s drunk. There’s no particular highlight for me, but I suppose his aeroplane impressions are quite impressive.
I feel like I’m reading The Waste Land upside-down in Japanese
When Stewart Lee finally arrives on stage, the audience can hardly contain their excitement. Ironically, Lee’s sardonic wit means he probably loathes the idea of having ‘fans’, but they’ve turned up in their droves nonetheless. He hits the ground running with a diatribe against mobile phones, colourfully threatening to destroy any he sees in the audience. He later returns to the subject in a segment on the youth of today, deploying his trademark sneering accent to mock disgruntled voters who can at least comfort themselves by saying “never mind, I’ve got this phone….” before unleashing his creative microphone skills — reminiscent of his artful gravestone chiselling on the 41st Best Stand Up Ever tour — to mimic the robotic button-pushing of a young person texting. When he patronisingly adds a ‘sucky yoghurt’ to the picture, I’m in stitches; even though he’s technically criticising my age group, it only makes me enjoy it all-the-more. Like the others, Lee covers political topics too, but he seems at his best when subtly concealing these themes in other segments, such as one on the market price of his stand-up DVDs.
Admittedly, it would probably take a newcomer some time to get used to Lee’s unique approach. He frequently insults mainstream comedians, and although it sometimes seems pretentious, that’s primarily just a stage persona. By rejecting simplistic and relatable observational humour, Lee instead manages to make comedy a true art form at times: full of teasing build-ups, and scintillating meta-humour. It might not wash pleasantly over the audience like your average Michael McIntyre show, but some would say it’s far more meaty.
Soon, it’s all over, and my late-night train to Exeter awaits. In the words of Lee himself, at times Bristol Comedy Garden became so political it felt “like a rally”, but amongst the pro-Remain hysteria lay some absolutely sublime alternative comedy. Headliner Stewart Lee was, as expected, a huge hit with his crowd of adoring fans, but for me James Acaster was the runaway success.
So next time you’re looking for some entertainment, remember to check out Bristol’s offerings, and make sure to keep an eye out for next year’s Comedy Garden!
And every so often, Exeter’s treated to comedy talent too – it turns out James Acaster is visiting in November: