September 04, 2005
Comedy: It's not just for the littl'uns
Why are stand-up comics so obsessed with childrenÂ’s telly, asks Stephen Armstrong
You probably know them as the men who pop up in the ad breaks in between the exciting bits of the Ashes. But Stephen Marsh and Dan Wright are also the shock troops of a weird new tendency in comedy, which has seen a merger between the nightclub world of stand-up and the squeaky-clean world of childrenÂ’s entertainment.
Marsh and Wright, when not in daft cricketing hats, perform as a duo, Electric Forecast. They are also the stars of a cookery and clowning show on the BBCÂ’s preschool channel, CBeebies, Big Cook Little Cook. It has Big Cook Ben and digitally shrunken Little Cook Small running a cafe and dealing with problems like BenÂ’s inability to swim. A guest diner requires feeding, and the dish prepared normally leads to a solution for said problem. ItÂ’s simple and repetitive, offering basic recipes for preschoolers to try.
For some reason, though, this show has exploded, almost certainly aided by Marsh and WrightÂ’s appearance on BetfairÂ’s cricket sponsorship idents on Channel 4 and their hosting of some racy clip shows. Stand-ups, including Bill Bailey Â— who has a child of his own and is toying with the idea of doing a childrenÂ’s show Â— but also man about town Richard Herring, have been tuning in.
Â“I discovered it last year, while I was drinking heavily and waking up early, still a bit drunk,Â” says Herring. Â“IÂ’d switch on to find bright colours and songs perfect for my mental state. Then I started to wonder about it. Big Cook Ben seems to be performing with barely concealed contempt and calling Little Cook Â‘smallÂ’, which seems insulting. ItÂ’s pretty much ideal for a bit of postmodern ironic deconstruction.Â”
Herring discussed the show at length on his blog and found it was the most linked copy heÂ’d written. Tracing the links back, he found a huge community of adults chattering excitedly about the show on-line. This comes as no surprise to Marsh, who plays Big Cook Ben. He reveals that the two receive as much mail from adults as from kids Â— with some very dirty propositions from single mums. One woman appeared keen to invite both into her bedroom, although whether she realised Little Cook wasnÂ’t really eight inches tall is open to question.
Â“When we were offered it, 18 months ago, we were wary,Â” admits Marsh. Â“WeÂ’d once done a Sky show with Trevor and Simon, who are still performing, and they were bitter that theyÂ’d never been accepted back into the adult comedy world after doing kidsÂ’ TV. But last night I was in a nightclub and the DJ spotted me and announced I was there. I was mobbed. If anything, itÂ’s helped our careers. We do a very physical, slightly satirical double act, and we get more bookings on the back of the show than we did before. You do get shouts of Â‘Big Cock, Little CockÂ’ when youÂ’re on stage, but itÂ’s all good-natured.Â”
The comic Miles Jupp, who plays Archie in CBeebiesÂ’ Balamory, is less positive. He had to increase the size of the Â“Not Suitable for ChildrenÂ” sign on his recent Edinburgh publicity to avoid front rows filled with eager children Â— a regular hazard that forces him to cut out almost a third of his material. Â“IÂ’m obviously grateful for the money,Â” he admits. Â“And IÂ’m about to start a Balamory tour, which means playing to 3,000-seat stadiums rather than a cellar in Edinburgh. It hasnÂ’t made my stand-up life any easier, though. To be honest, IÂ’m thinking of chucking the stand-up in.Â”
Justin Edwards has also had to deal with parents thinking his Fringe show, WhatÂ’s the Time, Mr Lion?, is a real kidsÂ’ show. This is problematic only if you donÂ’t want your child watching Edwards, as Â“childrenÂ’s entertainer Jeremy LionÂ”, spending an hour getting increasingly sozzled and proving Lion is a very damaged individual. Throughout the show, he finds constant excuses to swig Special Brew and bottles of scotch, even using spirits miniatures as puppets in a retelling of Goldilocks. Inevitably, the drinking affects his performance, and he ends the show lurching about the stage, often collapsing, before a curtain comes down on the whole sorry spectacle.
One evening at this yearÂ’s Fringe (where Edwards was shortlisted for the Perrier award), he had five six-year-old girls in the audience. They seemed to love the show, but the adults around them were paralysed with fear. Â“I used to be a kidsÂ’ entertainer, and I take my nephews to things like the Tweenies. Kids basically like giant puppets that jump around,Â” he says. Â“So we have a jolly cow called Beef Richards that we eviscerate on stage, and a teddy bearsÂ’ picnic where the bears are horribly mutilated. This Â— the teddy bears especially Â— seems to horrify people more than the theme of the show, which is basically a man drinking himself to death.Â”
For those who find this collision a bit too uncomfortable, itÂ’s worth pointing out that stand-up comedy and childrenÂ’s entertainment are probably the only performance genres with a recognisable place for audience interaction, whether caused by a heckler or the arrival of a wicked witch. All together now: Â“Behind youuuuu!Â”
The second Big Cook Little Cook DVD is out on Sept 19; the Balamory Live tour begins on Sept 16; Jeremy Lion will appear in the London Perrier showcase in October, then tour the UK