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Forget the big names – some of the best comedians on the circuit are guys you’ve never heard of.

ONE of the best aspects of the Glasgow Comedy Festival is the opportunity to discover great stand-ups beyond the famous names and familiar faces, the comics other comics admire, the cult acts by design or karmic misfortune. Here are a few worth seeking out:

RICK SHAPIRO

A FORMER heroin addict, street hustler and prostitute, Rick Shapiro quit AA for stand-up when his sponsor pointed out he was imitating everyone else at meetings.

“I was always scared and embarrassed by what came out of my mouth,” this New York-based comic recalls. “After my first gig, famous guys were saying, ‘There’s Rick Shapiro, he’s going to be huge.’ But I was ashamed of how I’d grown up, I didn’t feel like I was meant to talk and it took me 20 years to embrace the comedy community.”

A youthful 48-year-old, Shapiro on stage is a visceral yet vulnerable force of nature, thrilling critics at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe with spontaneous streams of consciousness that referenced everything from the desirability of Aids to petting cats, interwoven with freakish characters and literary allusions.

“I never understood why stand-ups talk in that planned-out patter,” he says. “But just off drugs, it was almost two years before I got comfortable with my real voice. People still seem surprised at the nuances I throw in.”

On the phone, he’s an easier, more reflective listen, stuttering his words, yet every bit as charismatic. Reluctantly branded as “underground”, he can perceive his influence in many mainstream US comedians, several of whom have confessed to ripping him off. But he’s also an in-demand actor, working with David Mamet and once cast, though it never came to fruition, to reproduce Lenny Bruce’s legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall performance.

“I was banned from clubs ten years ago because I was talking about incest,” he complains. “Now even the most white-bread guys are doing it. But I feel there’s something I’m still trying to find, like the atmosphere of America, even though the general climate is so trivial. Talking to comics such as Paul Provenza and Doug Stanhope inspires me, comics who are really alive, making you want to grab the mic.”

&#149 Try Shapiro if you like Rich Hall, Janey Godley or Doug Stanhope. He plays Blackfriars in Glasgow on Friday.

STEWART FRANCIS

STEWART Francis writes like a dream, in that you strive to recall as many of his jokes as possible to tell friends the following morning. A one-liner merchant in the vein of Jimmy Carr, Steven Wright and Emo Phillips, he’s more accessible than any of them, eschewing their respective cruel, deadpan or neurotic schtick for a playful, transatlantic warmth befitting the ex-host of Canadian gameshow You Bet Your Ass!

Sporadic American chat-show bookings and sitcom commitments in his homeland were restricting Francis to an itinerant lifestyle, until he and his Thurso-born wife settled in London last year. Raised in Toronto by a Mancunian father and a mother from Edinburgh, this 48-year-old played his first gigs outside North America in Scotland and relished the chance to perform a rare, hour-long show in Glasgow. “I absolutely love your audiences,” he says. “I’m proudly Canadian but my home-from-home is Scotland.”

Despite appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe twice in the mid 1990s, it was only recently that he first performed his banshee caricature of his wife north of the Border.

“Scots get it, as I absolutely knew they would,” he explains. “The only place it doesn’t get a big laugh is Ireland. I think they’re protective of their Celtic cousins.”

With his surreal touches, especially his self-deprecating reminisces of his father’s tough love, Francis’s admiration for Monty Python and Steve Martin is obvious. Try to see him live while you can though, because, if the right acting parts came along, like Martin, he would quit stand-up “and not miss it. I love making people laugh but I don’t need it”. He’s already appeared in Lee Mack’s BBC sitcom Not Going Out and is currently writing a film, “with a part for myself in it, very thoughtfully”.

&#149 Try Francis if you like Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle or Michael McIntyre. See him on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson at www.stewartfrancis.com after supposedly headlining the Thurso Comedy Festival. Which doesn’t exist.

IAN COGNITO

“I ONCE got my cock out in front of the Japanese ambassador in China, that was as risky as it’s got. You can get shot for that. He laughed though. Maybe he had a bigger cock than me, but that wasn’t the premise we were working on.”

Since arriving at his stage name, in a moment he likens to Dr Jekyll creating Mr Hyde, Ian Cognito seems to have signed a Faustian pact whereby the more destructive his behaviour, the funnier he is. In A Comedian’s Tale, his sex, drugs and self-flagellating account of stand-up in the 80s and 90s, this irascible Irish-Italian cockney recalls how he quickly fell out of favour at Jongleurs and London’s Comedy Store after telling management what he thought of them. Several clubs such as The Stand have been less than delighted with his antics, such as drilling and fixing a hook in the stage backdrop to hang his coat on, and last Friday his appearance with street performers Skate Naked saw staff making running repairs to the venue in the interval. He remains the UK’s “most banned” comic.

Regardless, “Cogs” is still one of the funniest, most unpredictable and darkly compelling acts around. With so much stand-up carefully managed these days, he sticks out like a sore, guitar-wielding nutter in a dress – “I’m nearly 50, mate, and still treating it like rock’n’roll” – and retains a dedicated following, his influence acknowledged by the likes of if.comedy award winner Brendon Burns.

Every effort to film him for television has ended in farce and recrimination. The last, he says: “Was just after 9/11, featuring me, Rich Hall, Omid Djalili and Ian Stone.

“You could see what they wanted: a Catholic, a Jew, a yank… Sadly, Omid bottled it because he didn’t want to try passing himself off as Muslim.”

Cognito premiered a new kind of show in Glasgow last week, performing songs as well as stand-up. And 13 years after a disastrous run that saw hulking comic Ricky Grover (justifiably) knock him out in the Gilded Balloon, he’s contemplating returning to the Edinburgh Fringe this August with Skate Naked as his band and back-up.

Despite his potential explosiveness, Cognito is articulate, philosophical and willing to justify any of his gags, bar one, at the bar afterwards. “There’s more chance of getting laid up there too,” he points out. “I’ve f***ed all the comedians willing to be f***ed.”

“Try not to make me look too big a c*** willya? You’d like to have a drink with me, you’d find me a nice bloke.”

&#149 Try Cognito if you like Jerry Sadowitz, Brendon Burns or Jim Jeffries. He plays the Stand in Edinburgh from 27 to 29 March. A Comedian’s Tale can be downloaded from www.iancognito.com