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The Free Beer Show - 2007 Season

Quality stand up comedy for the binge drinking generation.

December 4, 2007
Josie Long, Mon 3rd December 2007

The Free Beer Show is an Edinburgh Fringe institution which has settled in Oxford, showcasing a very impressive selection of comedians on Monday nights at the Cellar. Tonight, nursing our free San Miguel, we were welcomed by compere Rob Alderson, who breaks the first rule of being a compere: to be terrible in order to make the main acts look good. At many comedy gigs you cringe through the compere's spots and laugh out of pity if you laugh at all. But Alderson was genuinely funny, fast-paced and able to think on his feet, working the crowd relentlessly with a manic gleam in his eye.

Support act Dan Hoy brought a stuffed seal on stage, holding a sign saying "Dan Hoy is Quite Good". This had me expecting something self-referential, self-deprecating and a bit postmodern, with creative use of props. Then he explained, "I come with a seal of approval," tossed the seal aside and launched into a string of one-liners, mostly serving to set up puns. This type of act reminds me of television variety shows seen in early childhood. You expect a mother-in-law joke at any moment. His gag about the Krankies bewildered the mostly student-age audience, making him seem all the more like a man out of time.

Josie Long, on the other hand, is right here in the present moment. She is erudite and achingly real, vulnerable and bolshy all at the same time. Tonight she had "Marvellous" written on her stomach in marker above an ocean scene. "I love drawing on myself," she said. She also loves astronomy and philosophy and language and… olives. Hers is a subtle, non-obvious sort of comedy, especially coming after the more traditional approaches of Dan Hoy's rapid-fire gags and Rob Alderson's audience humiliation. On superficial inspection she might seem awkward, but actually she's completely in control of the room and her every hesitation, stumble and sudden change of subject is funny. There are no obvious gags or punchlines at first, but the humour creeps up on you slowly until, at some point, you realise you're breathless with laughter and have been for a while. She seemed genuinely surprised when the crowd demanded an encore and claimed it hadn't happened very often. I can't imagine why not.

Comedy often seems to have a very low profile in Oxford. The Free Beer Show deserves more notice and is well worth checking out.

November 12, 2007

Sully O’Sullivan, Mon 12th November 2007

This was our first visit to The Free Beer Show and we weren’t sure what to expect – having read last week’s review of it being sparsely attended, we were worried we wouldn’t be able to escape being picked on by the comedians: every shy comedy-gig goer’s worst nightmare.

We needn’t have worried, as we were met by the lovely staff who guided us to a ‘safe’ table; near the front but way over to the side and out of harm’s way. The attendance was back up again after last week - the venue was absolutely packed and the front rows were quickly filled with the typical smattering of brave beer-fuelled students eager to join in with the show.

MC Rob Alderson was full of energy, and seemed genuinely happy to be there – no tried and tested complacency from his routines. His audience engagement was funny albeit slightly off-track at times – and his sketch using audience members went askew to our amusement when instead of our ‘heroine’ waiting to be rescued, she pushed the ‘assailant’ (complete with screamer costume) over herself. Hurrah for feminism! Rob was a good warm up act, although he seemed very nervous but his confidence will grow in time and he will be a competent and engaging MC.

Our first comedian of the night was Tiernan Donieb (no I couldn’t pronounce it by the end of the night – blame it on the free beer!). He had a dry humour and like all good comics remained almost pc unless he could take the mickey out of himself. He slipped once when he was ridiculing a red-haired guy in the audience – not appreciated as we generally don’t accept people being targeted because of their skin/hair colour. Well, not unless they’re blonde jokes anyway. Tiernan’s set included jokes on diabetics (ok because he apparently is one), the French (ok as his grandfather was apparently French), Prêt a Manger (a breadless sandwich? How stupid is that? It’s a salad!). The most controversial part of the show came when a guy in the audience, said his home-town (Ealing) had gone seriously downhill because of the Polish. Nice. Still, thanks to Tiernan - now we know what Finsbury Park spells backwards!

After a break and another energetic visit from MC Rob, the main act came on – Sully O’Sullivan. This self-deprecating kiwi delivered an experienced set, with jokes covering how New Zealanders are treated around the world (and how confusing a root beer is for them – in NZ all beers are bought hoping for a root!) and (a bit too much) mention of sheep-shagging. Sully’s routine was laidback but well practised – his audience awareness wasn’t quite spot-on as when some audience participation jokes weren’t working he carried on regardless. However, his set was funny, his humour was dry, and he was clearly the star act of the evening.

Regarding the venue – the Cellar bar is dingy but atmospheric, a perfect venue for the show. However, the ladies toilets were not well-kept – two out of three cubicles had locks missing, one of them was blocked, and the graffiti looked like it hadn’t been updated since the days it was the Dolly (now there’s a blast from the past that most of you won’t remember!).

Overall, a very enjoyable show, the staff were really friendly and welcoming, and thankfully we avoided being picked on – as my guest remarked, brilliant value for money and you wouldn’t get many better comedians at a larger comedy night.

June 11, 2007
Jim Jeffries, Mon 11th June

It’s always a worry when comedians are marketed purely on their offensiveness. It shouldn’t impress me that they’ve got some religious publication in uproar (it shouldn’t, but it does). I don’t care if they’re (yawn) ‘politically incorrect’. What I want to know is: are they going to engage the audience in a cathartic smashing of the barriers of modern discourse? Or are they just going to swear me into submission for an hour? Are they going to make a genuine stand against the hypocritical cant of the age? Or are they just going to apply a thin, ugly smear of self-righteousness to some of Bernard Manning’s old routines? Are they going to be, you know, funny?

Jim Jeffries is very funny indeed. The weakest his act ever got was a desultory trashing of religion that felt almost like a duty – obeisance to his own hype. The trouble with blasphemy is that you have to be religious to get it, and thankfully for the rest of the time his filth was considerably more inclusive. His secret is that underneath a studiedly shabby persona he has the skills of a solid raconteur of the old school – the sort of unassuming intimacy and note perfect timing that keeps an audience listening regardless of the subject matter.

Many of his tales were harrowing and personal – a cancer diagnosis and an armed home invasion were two of the more prickly. His skill was to spin these out, jokelessly but compellingly, until we were gasping for something to break the tension. Please, you wanted to cry out, please make us laugh soon, otherwise we’re going to have to cry. And then, at exactly the right time, he did. You laughed, remembered the situation you were laughing about, hated yourself for laughing and then laughed some more.

This is what differentiates Jim Jeffries from the genuinely offensive comedians, the Davidsons of this world. Not that he was rude in the service of an agenda, or that the joke was often on him. It was that he brought laughter out of dark places not by inviting us to join him there, but by reminding us why we need to laugh at them. Towards the end of the set he told us (during, of course, a bit about being molested by a scoutmaster as a child) that comedy was about taking risks. This was a risk worth taking.

May 14, 2007

May 14th 2007
Richard Herring

Former comedy partner of Stewart Lee, author of Talking Cock and now, writer and star of ITV1's You Can Choose Your Friends, Richard Herring is a big act, and is currently touring his Menage à Un routine nationally after premiering it at Edinburgh last year. Compared to many of the other Oxford comedy nights which have come and gone over the years, Free Beer book some great acts - acts that deserve a better venue. Even Herring himself was moved to criticism, making explicit reference to the crowd of audience behind the pillars.

Venue aside, Herring did a pretty good job. This isn't his strongest routine, being a bit less focused than his Christ on a Bike. Much of it, though, was brilliant stuff. For the best of it, he had four plates spinning: a damning indictment of Steve Martin, some uncomfortable comments about Maxine Carr, a weird fantasy about Christ's stigmata and a load of rude business about stab wounds (use your imagination). By quickly moving between these subjects, creating odd juxtapositions of material about sex, child murder, religion and disrespecting Peter Sellers, and deftly reordering their apparent shock value and shifting the apparent moral values in what he was saying, Herring managed to trip the audience up on a good handful of occasions.

There were some serious seams of hypocrisy visible, however. Despite chasing racism around, being very critical of any prejudicial impulse, he fell foul of it himself, for a minute or so milking the audience's reactionary intolerance of Americans. He wasn't literally suggesting all Americans should be shot, but he was creating an argument in which all Americans were identical – the very foundation of racism. Unlike every other last weave in the tapestry, no new meaning was forged. His message simply ended up being that all Americans were awful, stupid people. This would have been the only element of the act to not have any irony whatsoever had I not been there to review the gig and were I not American. How could I not take him to task on this? He spent over 90 minutes of my Monday night trying to take me to task for my gut reactions to seemingly taboo material.

Overall, this was so-so Richard Herring in a no-no venue. I would have scored him 7 out of 10 and knocked 1 off for every obstruction in my line of sight but awarding negative marks for what was, a couple of major problems aside, a smart, inventive act seems a little harsh so I'll compromise: 4 out of 10 it is.

April 23, 2007
Russell Kane
Monday 23rd April 2007

Even with a Perrier Award nomination behind him and a forgiving crowd of drunken, post-exam undergraduates in front of him, Russell Kane faced an uphill struggle. His task was to re-energise an evening clobbered by a first half that veered between the catastrophically embarrassing and the just plain catastrophic. He did it effortlessly.
I don’t want to dwell too much on the night’s early fiasco. The compère ekeing out his material with two poorly thought-out acts of audience participation, one of which was only visible to the front row and ended with him endearingly designating half of the audience ‘c**ts’. The nervous support comic stuttering his way through fifteen minutes of excruciating material, a large chunk of which drew on marginally amusing incidents involving his mother. During the overlong interval, I seriously began to wonder whether Kane had bolted. It wouldn’t have been an unreasonable response.
He hadn’t. He was an immediate hit, amiably savaging the audience, veering continuously between voices, registers and subjects, bounding and flailing around the stage, generally injecting the lost vigour back into proceedings. ‘Versatile’ is an overused word in comedy reviews, but it’s hard to know how better to describe someone who can make gags about poo in perfect iambic pentameter, convincingly mime a rapist kicking someone into the back of a van and use the phrase ‘phallogocentric authority’ properly in the same routine.
The show was an opportunity to try out new material, some of which came in the form of four short sketches. The first three involved single (admittedly funny) ideas that hadn’t been worked through to much depth or given a convincing punchline. The final one – a satisfyingly dark tale of irrepressibly cheerful Australian sex-line workers – was far superior, but it too was hobbled by the lack of a firm conclusion.
While Kane did his best to carry us through the transition between stand-up and sketch, the fact that he had to be joined by an acting partner and occasionally fiddle with props generated energy-sapping gaps in the performance that made it clear why comics traditionally choose one form or the other. It seemed an odd choice for someone whose greatest strength was a terrific pace and variety. That said, I didn’t really stop laughing very much during the whole set and almost completely forgot about the traumatic first half, so on balance I’d say he probably got away with it.

March 26, 2007
Norman Lovett
Monday 26th March 2007

You can’t go wrong with a name like The Free Beer Show. Upon arrival, my free beer materialised as promised, as did a very entertaining evening.

The catacomb-like interior of the Cellar nightclub was packed in anticipation, as the headlining act was Norman Lovett of Red Dwarf fame. He took the stage first, and worked his way through a number of bizarre and unexpected props, including a straw (for hiding underwater when being chased), reading glasses, various plastic baggies, dried pasta, a wooden chip fork etc. He’s a bit like Grandad who’s lost his marbles, except you’re allowed to laugh. His skill truly lies in his deadpan humour, and his eccentric performance was like no other I’ve seen. He was followed by Oxford comedian Tom Greeves, who packed a lot of energy in to his short set. Less quirky and more dirty, he meandered his way through a number of topics, including big butts, bears (in the gay sense) and finished by serenading the crowd with his own version of ‘Lady in Red’ – the necrophilia version – ‘Lady who is dead’. He lampooned a few political ideas for good measure, for a well rounded performance.

The resident compère, Rob Alderson, really struck a chord with the crowd with his high energy interludes. Geared at the student crowd (mostly Oxford Brookes), he poked fun at drinking, rowing, facebook, toilets and mostly himself (as well as a few nutters in the crowd).

The Free Beer Show is on every Monday at the Cellar (9.15 start), and offers a great mix of local, up and coming and star talent. At £6 (including a free beer) it is definitely worth it.
Ray Peacock, Mon 19th November

It was another action packed Monday at the Cellar’s Free Beer Show – this time with not two, but three acts. First on was James Kettle, a rather morose fellow who seemed intent on convincing the audience how morose and/or angry he was. He was a bit hit and miss – his jokes about typical Oxford students were not particularly inspired – though his enactment of a late night scuffle on a King’s Cross bus involving a dog, the driver and a man in a Chelsea jersey got some good laughs.

The second opening act, Ed Gamble as Selsdon Krupp, read from his laboriously written romantic novel Homeless is where the heart is – ‘The man was as tall as a six foot tree…’. Gamble, a Durham Revue member, competed with this routine in last year’s Chortle student comedy contest, winning the first heat. The routine was a bit bizarre, but it was short and sweet and delivered a deadpan punch.

Having last seen Ray Peacock (a.k.a. Ian Boldsworth.) at a rather ill-fated gig at the Bully earlier in the year, my scepticism abounded. Audience beware: this is a man who does not like to be distracted by his audience. Thankfully, this evening went much better than last time I saw him. He delivered a range of anecdotes and musings with ease – he is clearly comfortable on stage – and picked on audience members and bar staff alike, with glee. He does seem to find the penis particularly entertaining, and told a rather drawn out story about glory holes in public toilets, as well as making a ‘driver’s license’ (e.g. drawing a picture of a penis) for some poor bloke who looked like he wasn’t old enough to be in the bar. His favourite (only) accessory is a bona fide light sabre which, though it plays a minimal role in his act, was definitely a hit, particularly when he turned it on at the end. Boldsworth’s comedy is weird, dirty and generally funny, but with a slightly terrifying edge (particularly when it comes to audience interaction).

Of course, not to be forgotten is the compere for the evening, Rob Alderson. He was, as always, highly energetic and slightly insane (in a good way). He was on audience participation overdrive, which resulted in my guest and me being roped in to singing on stage. It was all a bit chaotic and off the cuff, but very entertaining nonetheless.

The Free Beer Show is on every Monday at the Cellar. It’s good value comedy - and you really do get a free beer.
Review: Nick Revell - Mon 5th Nov 2007.

The Free Beer Show is a good bet for quality comedy in Oxford, and this Monday’s set was solid if sparsely attended. The ebullient MC Rob adapted well to the low turn out with his usual audience interaction working well on a small crowd.

He warmed the evening up for the support act John Gethin, a philosophy graduate with a penchant for low key ramblings. His act had moments which worked very well, such as a round the world trip in accents, but often it didn’t quite engage the audience. This was a shame, because there were good jokes and ideas in his routine. The mumbling laid-back persona didn’t quite ring true and it there were some moments which were quite unfocussed and made you lose the flow of his routine.

The headline act was Nick Revell, a comedy veteran with experience screen writing for Drop the Dead Donkey. His talent for writing was apparent from the well worked out gags, and his experience was evident in the delivery and judgement which carried him through the set. Occasionally jokes fell flat, since the material - including a hefty chunk of politics - didn’t always work for this audience. The set also felt a little long and dragged towards the end. However this was tried and tested material from something of a pro, and he seemed to genuinely enjoy the gig, as did the crowd.

Overall this wasn’t the Free Beer Show quite at its best, some of the material felt mismatched to the audience, but there was much to enjoy as always from one of the better comedy choices in town.
Monday 30th April 2007

The comedy show at The Cellar on the evening before May Day was first rate entertainment and excellent value for money. I liked the way reserved seats could be booked ahead. It was great to have a choice of a glass of beer, lager or wine in with the ticket.
The format of this regular Monday night comedy session is well devised and the comedians certainly had the audience laughing throughout. The resident host Rob Alderson is witty and seemed to relate well to the very largely student audience. I think he was particularly pleased to have a largish crowd of St Hilda’s first years at the front that he involved in friendly banter. He clearly reads his reviews in the Daily Info as he mentioned them.
In the shorter first half, the comedian was Alex Hodgson, a newcomer to the show, who described himself as a former philosophy student looking for work. His slightly hesitant manner, reminiscent of a somewhat diffident best man making a wedding speech, is part of his stock in trade. He covered subjects such as reality TV and the jokes that went down well at Daily Express Christmas parties.
The main act had been changed at short notice, but the replacement act Barry Castagnola put in a lively performance. His story about his experience camping on Fraser Island where he had an urgent call of nature in the middle of the night, with a dingo in very close proximity, had the audience in fits. He is a good story teller with a range of convincing accents and the ability to make a smooth transition from one subject to the next.
Barry talked about his experiences of dealing with local youths in his home area of Shepherds Bush and the ways kids play up supply teachers. His description of a drunken standoff between two rival groups of stag parties- one lot dressed as cowboys and the others in 70s gear, went down well.
After the comedy show, the first rate band which had played in the interval, was intending to go on playing until 6 in the morning.
Although this venue is much smaller than most of the Jongleurs Clubs or the London Comedy Store, it has a more friendly atmosphere and the advantage that the main comedian has a longer time on stage. A visit to The Free Beer Show is certainly worth planning.

Simon Munnery
Monday 2nd April 2007

Through a 20-year career which has veered periodically between the inspired (The League Against Tedium) and wilfully obtuse (Buckethead), comedian Simon Munnery has experienced the full gamut of critical acclaim. On this occasion, though, he was playing it safe by his standards; still ploughing the same delightfully idiosyncratic furrow, but making rare concessions to the stand-up comedy of lesser mortals.

First up, The Free Beer Show - thriving on the ingenious premise that people laugh more when drunk (you get one free drink with every ticket) - presented Holly Walsh, in the worst possible taste and hot-foot from Hackney (apparently the place to be if you want drugs, fried chicken and haircuts 24 hours-a-day). Claiming she only got the gig after telling the Make-A-Wish Foundation she was terminally ill, and discussing PoundShop pregnancy test kits, date-raped tortoises and a bi-polar Grand Old Duke Of York (when he was down, man, was he down), her dead-pan delivery hints at a burgeoning talent and deserved a longer slot.

Yet it was Munnery - a self-heckling bundle of nervous energy - who inevitably stole the plaudits with what ended up as something approaching a Greatest Hits set. Parenthood has failed to dull his scabrous polemic, with reminiscences over the joys of youthful swearing and brilliant debunkings of those twin pillars of Western society, Bruce Springsteen and the Daily Mail. Poetry and music are relatively new additions to his repertoire (as was the short presentation on stand-up, modern art and venn diagrams), but the revival of three superb characters make a predictable highlight. We have the dour Security Guard, revelling in the sheer pointlessness of his job; the lascivious, almost Ronnie Barker-esque Professor Morris Chutney, delivering a demented, misogynistic rant on his life-long study of women (conclusion: an increase in average breast size is due merely to the laws of supply and demand); and Alan Parker: Urban Warrior, the original manic street preacher still trying to 'be free, be vague' and using ignorance as a weapon to bring down capitalism.

It is a brilliant reminder of what Munnery is capable of, and, in such fine, audience-friendly form, he can once again be hailed a master of his surreal art.

P.S. Daily Info Staff, who were also present, would like to agree with all the above and add that the delay before the first act came on was unreasonably long and that the compere was dreadful.

In a world increasingly obsessed with catch-phrase comedy and Russell Brand’s latest sexual conquest it’s a rare treat when a little hype gets dished out to a truly original comedian.

Russell Howard, one of the hottest tips in the comedy world, is reinforcing his fast rising career with a national tour of his hit Edinburgh Fringe show, Wandering. The show, which was greeted with critical acclaim was nominated for the prestigious if.comeddie award. The if.comeddie award, formerly known as the Perrier, has heralded the arrival of many of the world’s greatest comedic talents. Amongst previous nominees are the likes of Frank Skinner, Peter Kay, Stephen Fry, Lee Evans, Steve Coogan and hopes are high for Howard.

At the relatively young age of 26 he has already become a regular on BBC shows Mock the Week & Never Mind the Buzzcocks, a TV presence that saw him given his own BBC 6 Music radio show. Chuck in a regular gig on Radio 2’s Out to Lunch, international festival appearances & a sell-out London run and you have all the signs of a  performer teetering on the verge of a major break through.

Whilst this is all very impressive it’s live onstage that you will see the true genius of Russell’s imagination. Infinitely excitable with a charming, boyish enthusiasm his spirit is perhaps summed up best by the mile wide grin he sports as recalls Ron Weasley (or at least the actor who plays him in Harry Potter) coming to see the show. In another routine he attempts to illustrate the creative chaos in his mind as hundreds of squealing imp-like jokes vie for Russell’s attention; “Pick me, Pick me”. This is pretty accurate for a comic who often seems almost overwhelmed by sheer passion for his material. Although Wandering is perhaps a more personal show than he’s done before, with some pretty touching moments on his love life, you are unlikely to see another comic who looks so happy to be onstage. And you’ll be happy he’s there too.
Comedy nights in Oxford have until recently, apart from the occasionally excellent Thursdays at the Bully, been something to strike fear into the heart. Largely the preserve of student “comedians” whose reinterpretations of Bill Hicks and Eddie Izzard material are only slightly funnier than realising that you have sat in a puddle of wee on the Oxford Tube.

Thankfully this is no longer the case as The Free Beer Show has taken up residence at The Cellar on Monday nights. Although run by a bunch of Oxford boys and girls this is TFBS’s first residency outside Edinburgh where it has been one of the fringe success stories of the past few years. It is this that allows TFBS to punch far above its weight in terms of booking power. In a venue which only seats in the region of 50, you can see some of the finest up and coming and established talent currently on the circuit. The crowd is varied, from students through to people who look like their parents, and a far cry from the white shirts and Stella brigade usually found at Jongleurs. All this for an outlay of only £5 (£4 for members) with a free beer thrown into the bargain. The past month has seen Reginald D Hunter, (a triple Perrier nominee and described by The Guardian as “the most important comedian of our generation”), Craig Campbell, Alex Horne, Andy Zaltzman (Radio 4), along with last night’s performers Robin Ince (The Office) and Howard Read.

Opener Robin Ince assured those of us in the front row that we were safe – stating he was “not a combative comic” before launching into a tirade at the state of the nation. First came the working classes and the “pie-headed” youths having it off against his dustbins - “it’s the laziness I can’t take – when there is a skip with a mattress in on the other side of the road.” The chattering classes felt the heat of his ire but it was columnists in the Daily Mail that were the root of all evil, as he railed against their obsession with “political correctness gone mad” and legal loopholes that allow “one-legged, blind, black Muslims to be completely out of the reach of English law”. His bile was slightly diluted by the somewhat muted response of the Oxford crowd to some of his more risqué material. “You never get that big a laugh out of a punch line about cancer” he lamented.

My companion (an Edinburgh regular) reckoned that the material was a little harder hitting than the Oxford crowd was prepared for and that a “real” comedy crowd - appreciating that avant garde comedy lives on the edge - would have lapped it up. I disagreed, as the crowd looked to be in no way squeamish, and also clever enough to understand that the best comedy is to be found on the boundaries of taste and decency. The problem was merely the way in which his material was deployed. The previous week’s sets had contained some brilliantly brutal blasphemy which had had the whole room crying on the floor. Shocking? Yes – repetition in the pub would probably ensure you a beating – but, as is true with really great comedy, it ridiculed the established order, gave voice to your frustrations and did it with a twist that was so simply brilliant that you curse yourself for never having thought of it like that. The Oxford crowd can certainly handle the nasty stuff, as long as it’s done intelligently.

The second act, Mr Howard Reid, was much more conversational in style – sparking off the audience and lampooning his own middle-class background for rendering him incapable of talking about sex, before talking about sex in various guises for the next 15 minutes. A master of crowd interaction, he seemed to be able to generate laughs whilst burning through very little material - though this eventually caught up with him as this lack of depth led to a loss of momentum towards the end (though he rallied well with a T-Rex impression and a song and dance). He would probably have faired better as the opening act this evening but he still left my tummy muscles tired even if my mind had wandered back to the bar well before the end of his set.

After the acts the club is open for a good couple of hours so one can digest the comedy whilst listening to a fine selection of funk and hip hop and get in a beer or five. In short: go to the Free Beer Show, a night worthy of a Saturday but on a Monday. You can’t argue with that.

The Free Beer Show is on Monday nights at The Cellar.
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