Warm-up acts

Marissa Burgess rounds up what’s happening on the northern circuit and chats to comedy giant Stewart Lee 

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He’s currently calling himself a Regional Trinket but there is little doubt that Alan Carr is a national treasure. Many on the Manchester comedy circuit can still recall his early years there. Even when the number of his gigs was still in single figures he was making audiences howl with laughter with his breezy, fast-paced style and lyrical turn of phrase. It’s easy to say with hindsight, but he truly was a natural comedian and it was clear to see even then that he had something special. He plays York on 18-19 Dec and 14-15 Jan, Halifax on 16 Jan and Buxton 23-24 Feb.

Flo and Joan may look familiar as they were one of the acts used for the recent Nationwide ads and have popped up here and there on TV but this pair of musical sisters originally caught the comedy world’s attention when they were packing out a free show at the Edinburgh Fringe a few years ago. Taking their stage name from their beloved grandmothers, siblings Nicola and Rosie Dempsey have a host of witty and tuneful takes on topics from the state of the world to the state of them after a night out. Catch them on tour with Sweet Release in Liverpool on 9 Feb, Burnley 17 Feb, Halifax 18 Feb, Leeds 20 Feb, Bradford  24 Feb and Buxton 25 Feb.

Scottish comedian Fern Brady has been one of the most exciting acts around for over a decade now. She started out training to be a journalist and after one of those classic “critic tries stand-up” articles she took to it like the proverbial wildfowl to a stretch of open water. She honed her skills with first gigs at the legendary Scottish comedy club the Stand and acclaim and telly spots soon followed. Now she’s on tour with Autistic Bikini Queen – Salford 25 Jan, Kendal 27 Jan, Lancaster 29 Jan and Leeds 2 Feb.

Arenas aren’t the most conducive spaces to good laughs – they’re cavernous for one person clutching a microphone. But one act who is always guaranteed to fill the stage is Bill Bailey. Literally too, as he brings a fair amount of musical kit with him. In En Route to Normal Bailey ponders the last, strange couple of years and attempts to make sense of it all, no doubt with a whole load of silliness along the way and inevitably some kind of homage to prog rock. He plays Leeds 18 Dec, Hull 19 Dec and Manchester 20 Dec.

There’s something quite crazed about Canadian Bobby Mair even before he opens his mouth. Maybe it’s in the eyes, maybe the hair, but Mair also observes the world from a different angle. In his work he’s catalogued his many struggles with alcohol, drugs, a troubled family history and his personality disorder but more happily his loving but hilariously quirky relationship/comedy partnership with equally kooky comedian Harriet Kelmsley. He’s back out on tour playing Leeds 9 March, Hull 10 March, Northallerton 11 March and Manchester 13 March.

Stewart Lee is bound to go down in comedy history as one of the best stand-ups of all time. By turns satirical, political, teasing and surreal, his sets are a heady mix. His latest tour Snowflake/Tornado, put on Covid hold for two years, resumes and is in Salford 25-29 January, Wakefield 9 March and Buxton 10 March (stewartlee.co.uk).

What got you through lockdown and being unable to perform?
I did the home-schooling for the first nine months. I did things like listened to every Bob Dylan album in order, watched every episode of Columbo. Mainly I became anxious and depressed and realised the need for constant audience approval obviously points to some deficiency in my character. I will need to earn money again at some point.

In the Snowflake section of the show you examine how the last two years has affected the culture wars. Can you give a hint of your thoughts on that?
Well, before lockdown I had a 20 minute bit on what the new “woke” Bond film would be like, but that has gone, and the bit about Tony Parsons calling me a misogynist in GQ – actually quite a good way of looking at the “culture war” – has grown to about half an hour, which actually gives that part of the show a through line and backbone it was lacking, and focuses the debate about “wokeness” through the lens of Parsons’ bad faith criticism. The Snowflake half is a refutation of the idea that algorithmically outrageous comics like Gervais or Chapelle are being “cancelled” when in fact they continue to be rewarded with Grammies, lots of exposure and $60 million pay checks. If that’s cancellation where do I sign?

I’m getting pretty tired of the word “woke” being thrown around as if it’s an insult. What are your thoughts on that?
Me too. It’s absolutely pathetic, but it is stoked deliberately by Boris Johnson’s culture war advisor, Dougie Smith, and his colleagues and connections in the alt-right media. Calling things “woke” and dismissing them is a way of shutting down legitimate concerns about inequality. This is not conspiracy or contention. If anyone I know starts moaning on about wokeness I just delete them from my address book. We either have to ignore “woke” as a word or deliberately overuse it until it is meaningless. Lots of young kids don’t care about all that rubbish though. If you told them they were woke they’d like it.

How did you get an hour out of Netflix’s listing mistake in the Tornado section of the show?
Brendan Burns sent me a screen grab of how Netflix had listed Comedy Vehicle but used the show description of the shark horror film Sharknado. It proved very hard to change and Netflix were very unresponsive. In the end it became a good story to hang a show on.

Any ideas on where we go from here in the UK? First the Brexit farce, now Boris Johnson’s increasing ineptitude.
I don’t know, and it’s hard to do comedy about people who have no shame, because they can’t be shamed. It’s hard to do factually accurate comedy about people who use falsehoods as a political weapon – 88 per cent of online electoral communications by the Tories in the last election were lies. That said I have hung the whole of the end of the Snowflake half on a load of quotes from Johnson so I hope he doesn’t get dumped by the Tories as a liability before August when the tour ends.

Any future plans yet beyond the tour? Or anything that you would like to do, however outlandish?
There’s a DVD of King Rocker, the anti-rockumentary about [post-punk band] The Nightingales I made with [director] Michael Cumming out in 2022, and Snowflake/Tornado tours until August. I have no plans for the rest of my life other than to work as a live touring comic until I die, hopefully on stage. This used to seem totally do-able, but in a post-Covid world, who knows?

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