Comedy terrorist hits the big screen

THIS article is going to make a lot of comedians very angry. Why? Because it’s about Aaron Barschak, the so-called comedy terrorist who gatecrashed Prince William’s 21st birthday party at Windsor Castle last summer in an attempt to gain publicity for his Edinburgh Fringe show, Osama Likes It Hot.

It’s not what I’m going to say about Barschak - it’s the fact that I’m writing about him at all that’s liable to cause offence. If I was a comedian performing in Edinburgh this year, I’d be angry too. I’d want to know why The Scotsman was devoting so much space to someone slated by almost every major newspaper in Britain, when there are hundreds more deserving comedians in town.

Well, this week Barschak has a new film out - a documentary about the last three years of his life called Rebel Without Applause - and it contains one or two big surprises. For starters, there’s the footage of live audiences chortling away at some of Barschak’s material. Last year, the consensus seemed to be that he was a desperate self-publicist who didn’t have a comedic bone in his body, but apparently he bounced back from the humiliating reviews of his opening performance and came up with ... well, on the evidence of this film, at least three good gags.

It’s also a bit of a shock to see The Scotsman’s chief comedy critic Kate Copstick singing the praises of one of his 2003 shows. "There were some things that made me laugh out loud," she confesses, "and almost nothing makes me laugh out loud - I’m a professional critic."

The film also contains a clip of PR guru Mark Borkowski waxing philosophical about the deeper implications of the Barschak oeuvre. "Did Aaron Barschak succeed in injecting punk back into comedy?" he wonders. "I think he had a damn good try. I think we need more people like him, pulling the rug out from under every person in the established comedy market."

So did the media get it all wrong about Barschak? Was he in fact a knight in a shining turban on a one-man crusade to shake up stand-up? That’s one of the questions this film sets out to answer. Given that it was produced and directed by Barschak’s sister, Tamara, Rebel Without Applause was never going to be an entirely objective account; then again, it’s not as one-sided as you might expect.

When Barschak first got dressed up in his now-famous comedy terrorist outfit (pink dress matched with Osama beard and turban), his intention was simply to sabotage other comedian’s shows. "Comedy had become really staid," he says in the film, by way of justification. His usual routine involved jumping on stage in the middle of someone else’s set and shouting things like "this sketch has been hijacked", then hogging the limelight for a few moments and then doing a runner.

Some comedians - Paul Provenza for example - didn’t have a problem with what Barschak was doing, but plenty did. One of the comics interviewed in the film describes him as nothing more than a "jumped-up heckler"; another claims that he wouldn’t think twice about taking a pop at Barschak if he tried to hijack his show.

At this stage, the suggestion that Barschak was putting punk back into comedy still seems to hold water. But before long, he seemed to forget about his original plan and started gatecrashing any event that would raise his media profile, including of course, Prince William’s 21st birthday party. The term "comedy terrorism" took on a whole new meaning. "Fame is a drug," Barschak tells the camera in Rebel Without Applause. If he hadn’t become so addicted to it, perhaps he would still be busy terrorising his fellow comedians, instead of struggling to compete with them on their own terms.

• ‘Rebel Without Applause’ is screening at the Cameo, 24 August, 8pm; The Smirnoff Underbelly, 26 August 12:30am; The Forest Caf Theatre, 27 August, 10pm; The Filmhouse, 30 August, 1pm. Aaron Barschak’s stand-up show ‘My Passion For Art’ is at the Phoenix Comedy Cellar until 30 August.

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