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.