“Who lives somewhere shitter than Bedminster?”
This is how Mark Olver, our able MC for the final afternoon of Bristol Comedy Garden 2017, chose to warm up his audience: by telling them how apocalyptically awful their neighbourhoods are. It’s a brazen line to take, one that would certainly fail in the hands of someone merely visiting the city. Coming from Olver, a Brislington resident and stalwart of the Bristol comedy scene, it proved magnificent. The crowd lapped it up, desperate to outbid each other to take home the (figurative) wooden spoon. Immediately, they were onside, the sweltering heat of the Queen Square big top almost forgotten.
MCs often don’t get enough credit; too often, they are seen as the filler between acts. Too often, you’d be right. Olver is not this MC. Endlessly energising, one of his great strengths is that he invariably involves the whole audience, not just the few in the front row. That much was apparent with one of his post-interval routines – live-action Tinder, an event that poor Mannie* from Montpelier (apologies if I misheard your name) will never live down. It was masterful, really, and I’d wager worth the embarrassment for the ovation that Mannie received when she revealed she was a junior doctor.
Our first act of the afternoon was Shappi Khorsandi, veteran of Live at the Apollo, who was once told she was not ‘allowed’ to be English because she ‘wasn’t born here’, which leads to her most divisive joke – “Neither was tea. The only English thing about that is milk. To make it whiter”. Like everyone else these days she has a young Jeremy Corbyn story, though hers is more grimace-inducing than most.
Hers involves Corbyn mistaking her for being homeless, Khorsandi mistaking Corbyn’s concern as to where she would sleep that night as something altogether different, leading to her pretending to be homeless out of embarrassment. And then maintaining the lie when she met him again more recently on Question Time.
Heritage, family and relationships form the crux of Khorsandi’s material, delivered with aplomb and easy smiles. Her whole set is, like her Corbyn saga, framed in delightful awkwardness. She has an unnerving quality of being relatable – in the sense that, if you were to find yourself in similar situations to hers, you would probably do the same. The occasional punchline doesn’t quite land as it should; it doesn’t matter, as we’re quickly onto the next one. It’s a flowing, deadpan performance in which Khorsandi is in full command of the stage.
Next up was the comedian you are least likely to have heard of. Kiri Pritchard-McLean, an Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Best Newcomer nominee, greets us with what I have since discovered is her standard ice-breaker – “hello, you lovely buggers, are you well?” Kiri, it quickly becomes evident, likes her fruity language. An awful lot. A few minutes in, swear jar overflowing, she tells us that “if you found that joke offensive, you’d best strap in because it’s about to get a whole lot worse”.
Kiri is a fantastic gross-out merchant, who quickly has the audience laughing, and in several instances snorting. Some of the biggest laughs of the day come from her university tale of ‘the invincible girl from the countryside vs the Boots bikini wax’ and how her local takeaway – the one she visits after getting home from gigs like this – now thinks she’s a prostitute because of her late-night finishes.
Her one-liners are on point. Anyone can be crass, anyone can gross you out, but it takes charm to get away with it, and a mind adept at storytelling to keep a heat-addled audience rapt as you do so. After the interval, Olver quips that we might be seeing more of her on TV panel shows soon. He may well be right.
Adam Hills, in his first appearance at a Bristol Comedy Garden, delivered most of his performance with cola in one shoe. And it was entirely his own fault.
Hills is currently in the middle of hosting series 11 of the weekly topical talk show The Last Leg. After marching on stage to the cry of ‘Thomas the Wank Engine’ – a wonderful Last Leg-ism – he whips out his phone and begins quoting the #isitok tweets that define the show.
Which leads us to the finest moment of the afternoon, and one that marks out Hills’ prowess: Frank. Frank is a normal chap who had tweeted Hills prior to Comedy Garden to ask if the comedian would sign his prosthetic leg. Hills (who also has a leg prosthesis) is by his own admission game for anything, and duly seeks out Frank in the throng. The leg is duly crowdsurfed to the front and signed. Rather than send it back, Hills invites Frank to join him on stage – forgetting, for a moment, that he is holding the man’s foot.
Frank nonetheless gamely hops through the tent to join him, and they share a toast, drunk out of their detached limbs. It wasn’t strictly comedy, and it wasn’t played for laughs, but that didn’t stop the crowd from hollering their appreciation. It was, in a single stroke, both a masterclass on how to run with your audience (pun not intended) and an endearing, very human moment.
Human moments run through Hills’ observational, highly politicised comedy, as we discovered after he had replaced his sticky prosthetic, when he regaled the dawning horror after he blithely agreed to karaoke Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You with his seven-year-old daughter without registering the nature of the lyrics – and then chose to commit to the performance so he wouldn’t have to have an awkward conversation.
There were some obligatory Vegemite jokes (again by his own admission; he’s Australian), but also incisive glances at LGBTQI issues, the Paralympics and his travails as a ‘disabled’ man at airport security. Some of the jokes veer a little, met with sharp intakes of breath, but this is the entire premise of the #isitok hashtag that Hills champions: start talking about things that matter.
* And in case you’re wondering – yes, by the end of the show Mannie from Montpelier did get the number of her Tinder match.
Adam Hills, Kiri Pritchard-McLean, Shappi Khorsandi and Mark Olver played Bristol Comedy Garden on Sunday, June 18.