Simon Munnery’s “Self-Employed” via the Fringe Festival
This year I chose to take a trip to Scotland over the usual booze-fueled expedition to a Metal Music Fest somewhere in Europe. I grieved for a while, but a choice had to be made and I’ve never seen Edinbourgh (pronounced Eh-din-bur-row or even Eh-dn-bra), the capital city of Scotland. By happy coincidence we arrive in the middle of the Fringe Festival, which takes place there every year during the last three weeks or so of August.
The Fringe Festival itself deserves a few words of description. It is a smorgasbord of the arts, with theater, musical performances of all sorts, street performers and comedy galore. The whole city center becomes a collection of venues, where you can walk into a store to buy some pants and a performance may be taking place in their downstairs space converted for the honor. Street performances range from mimes, to musicians congregating in large bands with huge selections of instruments, to acrobats from all over the world performing feats atop 6 meter poles. Many of the events are free, and many of these free events are absolutely excellent. Most others are anywhere from 5-20 BPS (British Pounds Sterling), which is pretty affordable when you’re used to Broadway prices. And the best part, for me anyway, was that practically everything on the festival menu has a taste of comedy to it.
My absolutely favorite performance took place at The Stand Comedy Club. It was a performance/stand-up by Simon Munnery, entitled “Self-Employment.” We squeezed ourselves into a dimly lit basement with chairs, stools and tables scattered anywhere a square foot could be had. The stage was a few inches away from the tables of those in the front and a pull-down screen on the side of the stage promised some sort of a short film.
Simon Munnery soon came out onstage and instantly began the show. The first part of the performance was set in a French restaurant called “La Concepta”, where Munnery was the snooty waiter, the insane head chef, as well as the trainee (training for… oh who knows). He spoke in an even tone, not often stopping to indicate that a joke has been made, endlessly playing with language as he delivered food-free entrees and desserts to the lucky folk in the front. Difficult to remember now the elaborate French names assigned to each dish, but one of them involved something like “Avocado en absentia” where Munnery brought over an avocado describing its wonderfulness and then quickly took it away leaving the “dinner guest” to enjoy its absence. Another dish was a piece of history; another contained facts and non-facts about swans. There was a bit of an aside on Greek mythology after which the chef made a frantic appearance and then the trainee completely eradicated the dignity of an aubergine, also known as eggplant, finishing with “oh, SALT, salt the eggplant.” All the costume changes took place on stage and involved cardboard; other props were procured from a small basket and appeared to be either hand-drawn or made of plasteline.
Later, when I was back in the states, I desperately searched for videos of Munnery’s stand up. I came on a piece where Munnery describes, using a diagram, how his comedy related to actual art. Overall, he appears to feel that his comedy is just beating its head against the wall beyond which lays art, and that the best he could hope for is to perhaps have his performances seen as mediocre art. Well, I think he has surpassed that modest wish with this portion of Self-Employed.
During the interlude we were shown a short film about what it means to be a man and how wrist-wear defines masculinity. It was again delivered in deadpan as Munnery, playing the main character in this faux-commercial, described just how manly his row-lex made him appear as he would be able to easily strap an oar to his wrist if a need for such a thing arose.
The second half of the show was a bit more in the order of regular stand-up, where Munnery simply talked about life, his family, and his battle with cancer. Although it wasn’t quite as unique, it was nevertheless equally cerebral and delivered with the same tempo that left the audience laughing a beat after the joke was told and then laughing even more as we understood the further nuances of the same joke. I really wish I had written down some of the lines, not even for their comedic value, but for their depth and thoughtfulness. A review by Fest, the one that convinced me I should go see this quoted, “love is not a finite resource, unlike time…moving on” which was part of his piece regarding his children.
Munnery’s comedy worked on the basic level of slapstick, in jokes about babies getting kicked in the face, and ridiculous situations concerning dogs. His comedy also worked by constantly throwing our expectations back at us, as when he asked “So, is anyone here from… anywhere? Has anyone every seen… anything?” Part of his comedy poked fun at traditional stand up, without being mean. In fact, possibly my favorite part of the entire set was that he never had to resort to ridicule. Well, OK, maybe a little ridicule. For example, he recommended donations to Scotland’s Cancer Center and explained that money went to research and plane tickets, because it was bad enough to have cancer.
Here is a video of Munnery’s earlier work, via intertubes, for your enjoyment:
And as an absolute aside, here is a taste of what could be expected of street entertainment in the form of the Traveling Spaceman, a 3-meter unicycle riding, sharp object juggling master from Australia.