Billed by ITV as “Survival of The Funniest”, the format promised taking 10 comedians out of their comfort zone and forcing them to write 5 minutes of brand new material to suit specific audiences, but the first episode of “Show Me The Funny” proved frustrating and at times confusing, until the excellent final 20 minutes.

After the usual babble about the fear factor and the potential massive rewards, we’re thrown straight into this week’s situation, which is performing a gig in my home city of Liverpool (a tough gig for many as Brendan Burns wonderfully attests). But, affable host Jason Manford points out, there’s a catch. This gig will be to an audience of (gasp!) all Scouse women! And they’re not all lezzas or something. I honestly can’t engage with the tension Manford tries to heap on this scenario, having had a lovely time at gigs with women audiences.

The first half hour splits the acts into pairs and sets them various tasks so they can get to know the city and it’s womenfolk and perhaps generate some material. Sadly this means we don’t properly meet each act, as they’re interacting with their task partner. The tasks aren’t particularly engaging or illuminating. The blokes are forced to either work in Herbert’s hair salon (a Liverpool institution apparently) or find women called Michelle (a contrived exercise in honour of The Beatles’ most contrived song) and the girls, nicely paired together (presumably the producers think that their period jokes will synchronise) to set up a blind date (the participants of which we neither get to meet or care about). The winners of the task will get to decide the running order, which Manford reminds us regularly is often the “make or break” factor to how well a set can go.

“The world has been laughing at Scousers for generations” states Manford. Not laughing “with” of course. That could never happen. We meet the judges; flopsy haired ex tramp botherer Alan Davies, the formidable comedy reviewer Kate Copstick (“Most people think I’m a bitch.. I’d like to think I’m being honest”). Tarby’s roped in for extra chummy Scouse ho-ho-ing as this week’s guest judge.

We first meet the show’s “oldest acts”, Rudi Lickwood and Alfie Moore. Rudi started out as an Eddy Murphy impersonator, but wants to break away from all that, although Alfie cajoles him into doing a trademark “Hurrrr hurrrr” Murphy laugh. Alfie is a part-time comedian, his day job being a sergeant with Humberside police force (“If you say it in a deep enough voice it sounds like Homicide”). They work a shift at the hair salon, under the guidance of Herbert, who comes across like Bucks Fizz’s scouse granddad, but has a quick banter with his customers. Rudi’s keen to know if there’s any local rivalries (er, Manchester) and asks if people from the Wirral are “posh”. Herbert gives him a run down of the subtle differences between the posh parts of the Wirral and Birkenhead. “People from the Wirral pick their noses using a knife and fork”. “And do people from Birkenhead just use a spoon?” asks Rudi. “No, they just pick their noses” laughs Herbert, rinsing his hapless customers locks. (They actually use rusty machetes).

Tiffany Stephenson, an up and coming circuit regular, is paired with relative newcomer to comedy and ex-model Ellie Taylor, and the voice-over points out that “Men outnumber women by ten to one in the comedy industry” (this show isn’t taking leaps and bounds to challenge that then). Ellie asks Billy the Taxi driver whether he has any tips on what to joke about in Liverpool. Billy’s annoyed by “young lads walkin round with their ‘ands down their trackie bottoms, playing with their brains”. Ellie’s hoping that her experience as an Essex woman and butt of similar jokes to Scouse women can help her write material (“I’m sure I can er link something about it”).

Next part-time comic Dan Mitchell and professional Stuart Goldsmith (an ex street performer) have to find “Michelles”. We don’t see much, but Dan comes across as self deprecating and likeable and Stuart is a natural at communicating with crowds (of course). Circuit headliner and regular MC and warm-up (plus all round lovely chap) Pat Monahan is teamed up with Cole Parker on the same task elsewhere. Pat, as I suspected, rushes around delightedly greeting people and doling out hugs (he just does this all the time, it’s not an affectation). It seems to wind Cole up (according to the edit) and he tries to present himself as a more intellectual (and parental) counterpoint to Monahan’s “excited toddler”. “He hasn’t got on my tits yet, surprisingly” Cole observes after 5 minutes. A couple of minutes later Cole storms off in a faux disgusted sulk at Monahan’s upbeat friendliness.

Finally we meet Prince Abdi (who’s quit his job as a primary school teacher to do this show) and Ignacio Lopez, a half Welsh half Spanish waiter who thinks he’s Don Juan deMarco. “I get the laughs and afterwards I get the women too” boasts Ignacio. Even if it’s a joke it makes him come across as an enormous bell end. Prince Abdi likes to tell everybody he’s from London and how brilliant that is. That’s going to go down well in Liverpool. He even manages to ruffle Herbert the hairdresser by insisting that “London has the best customer service in the world”. A mortified Herbert predicts a rude awakening for Prince Abdi, who will be playing his first ever gig in Liverpool.

The comedians get a writing day (“24hrs to come up with 5min of material for tomorrow’s gig”), which really shouldn’t be too hard as long as they put the hours in. Stuart, bless him, just tests out his gags on the street, which should give him an edge. Ignacio sits around smugly, declaring that in a room full of women “I will play to my strengths, which is looking good” (they might take pity on him I guess).

At the venue, a converted chapel, Ellie and Tiffany work out the running order on the blackboard putting Ellie third in the first section and Tiffany fourth (on right after the interval – personally I’d have wimped out and gone 5th after the crowd had hopefully gotten warmed up again, but what do I know?).

Cole gets the shift of death and opens, starting by playing his single dad card (and getting some sympathetic “ahhs”), and hitting them with a good, but potentially harsh gag about sticking around to care for his child as his dad pointed out “You never know when you might need a kidney”. He seems strangely uncomfortable for a confident pro act, but I guess the pressure of getting things right for the show has affected him. Dan Mitchell’s next, and sadly we don’t get to see much of his set, but I enjoy the shambling and slightly bemused schtick (“Have we got any women in tonight?”) and the crowd seem to as well. Ellie’s now crapping herself in the dressing room, and to be honest I’m not proud of myself for predicting that the room will go cold on her for her looks. To her credit she doesn’t screw it by mentioning her modelling and does a well thought out set that gets the Scouse ladies on side. The other comics watch on the green room monitor. “She’s putting experienced comics to shame here! This is brilliant!” enthuses Pat. Cole doesn’t look quite so happy. Ellie even gets a belly laugh from Tarby with her adaptation of Billy the Taxi Driver’s comment “All the fellers here have one cold hand… that’s why you see them walking around with one cold hand down their trousers.” It’s not comedy genius but it gets a terrific response. Well done that girl, it’s true that sometimes fear is the spur. “They like women” Tiffany breathes a sigh of relief, before performing a solid and well received set. Funny that.

Ignacio’s clearly soiling his shorts, but he tries to ooze confidence to camera before he goes on (“This room is purpose built for me”). Oh dear. Meanwhile Stuart’s ripping it up with his well delivered sharp gags (I like the bit about waking up after a night out in Liverpool with 5 new best mates, a godchild and a promise to “have anyone killed up to the value of £60”) and Tarby’s wringing out his seat.

Ignacio blows it from the start by losing the courage of his convictions in the lothario character and fluffing lines (“Some of you I haven’t slept with er”). Worse he apologises to the audience and mildly acknowledges things are going badly. If things are going badly you either change what you’re doing and get on with it or you very clearly acknowledge that you’re fucking up – you don’t mumble “Ahh – I’ll go on”. Next he disastrously attempts a Scouse accent and enacts an exchange where the punchline is him asking a Scouse man if he has “a face like Wayne Rooney as some ironic comment on inbreeding”. Oh dear, there’s open confusion from the younger audience members and silent closed eyes prayers of delivery from the older Scouse matriarchs. I really feel for poor pale, perspiring, stuttering Ignacio, there’s nothing like a gig going poorly to get you panicking and wittering lots of random and crucially unfunny non sequitors. He’s got a decent idea of a character there (and it being a character act didn’t help on this occasion), but he utterly lost it, and should have prepared better.

So next is Prince Abdi. Following a comedy death shouldn’t be too hard, given he’s been watching on the monitor and knows that bad scouse accents don’t go down very well here. Right?…. Abdi man, what the fuck are you doing?! He starts by actually announcing in a poor Scouse accent that he will do this gig in a poor Scouse accent. If Ignacio had a car crash, Prince Abdi’s more of a Kamikaze pilot as he goes down in hideous silent flames. It’s so hard to watch, especially as a comedy promoter. Two deaths in a row nearly reduces me to tears. Poor old Prince returns to a silent dressing room. “Normally people say well done” he says glumly (rather than doing the decent thing and hiding in a corner). Tiffany and Ellie do the nice thing and say well done. Everyone else looks at something interesting on the ceiling.

Rudi’s up next and his experience shows. He gets big laughs by shamelessly nicking Herbert’s nose picking line (but come on stereotypers, stealing from a Scouser is funny right?). Alfie’s also reliably confident and gets a big laugh from Tarby for his “I come from Scunthorpe… that’s my best joke” gag.

Finally, Tiffany and Ellie have cruelly put Pat Monahan last, surely in an attempt to tempt him to over-run, but whilst he nobly sticks to his 5 minutes, it’s going to be tough for such a naturally bouncy and interactive performer to stick to material rather than lapsing into ad-libbing (which he’s capable of doing brilliantly). He duly nicks a woman’s sunglasses and after some fooling around goes to return them too energetically and drops them. It’s hilarious, like he’s turning into an Irish Iranian Geordie Tommy Cooper.

Next we go to the judges analysis, which could become the meat and bones of this show, especially if Kate Copstick continues to punch at this weight. She declares Ignacio and Prince Abdi “disastrous” (Tarby tries to be nice and suggests that Ignacio merely picked the wrong set). Everyone agrees that Cole seemed nervous and they’re impressed with Stuart and Ellie. They choose four acts to bring in to face the judges praise or wrath. I like this bit, it’s mean, as even the acts picked for praise worry that they may get the boot and any acts not picked are foolishly relieved, thinking they’ve gotten away with it. They choose Ellie, Prince Abdi, Stuart and Ignacio, and the other acts are told they’re safe and get to swan off to their hotel.

The judges room is at the top of a steep spiral staircase and Ellie and Stuart are called in first whilst the others sweat outside. Kate honestly tells Ellie “I hated you when you came on” because she was tall and good looking and did the girly “hair tucky thing”. In Copstick world there is no excuse for hair fiddling in women (I do it on the stage all the time – ooops) and all feminine hair must be back combed into Dame Edna Everage submission. “And then” continues Kate, “you were fantastic”. Get that on all your publicity now Ellie! Tarby commends Ellie’s “tremendous personality” but he’s clearly most taken with Stuart’s “smashing” delivery.

Next Prince Abdi and Ignacio get called in. Kate’s scathing in her disapproval of both (“You knew what the gig was…you clearly thought you could do it… maybe you need to practice some more”. Alan’s gently befuddled by both of them doing the dodgy accent (“Some people in comedy just need to work harder”). Kate declares Ignacio’s set “a low speed car crash” (another poster quote surely?) and they unanimously agree to send the unfortunate Welsh Spaniard packing (Alan: “You have to sort out who you are”. Prince Abdi gets a reprieve as Kate thinks that even though he had the more painful comedy death, he’s more capable of growing and Tarby wants to see him again.

Ignacio leaves, a broken man, but proves that he has a definite funny bone when Prince Abdi hugs him and asks if he’s OK at the top of the stairs. “I’ll feel better when I’ve kicked you down the stairs” grimaces Ignacio. I hope he continues to perform, as there’s potential there, and hopefully the experience will ultimately inspire him to develop the character and the set.

Prince Abdi however gets to greet the others at the hotel. “You were lucky son” chirrups Alfie. That’s what I love about the comedy world. The support.

I’ll be tuning in next week, and praying that the faffing around with the tasks is at least edited so it feels like part of the same programme. People watching “Show Me The Funny” shouldn’t misinterpret the title – you can get easy and regular laughs by watching a polished stand-up telly show or DVD. The second half of this “fish out of water” show (despite the obvious reality show “narrative”editing) goes some way to demonstrating the blood, sweat, tears, many failures and small victories that go into the honed and polished acts you can tune to on TV or at live gigs all over the country (including those of many of the participants).

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