Posted: Fri Jun 29, 2007 10:19 pm Post subject: Johnny Vegas
Vegas takes a gamble with first foray into theatre By Ian Herbert
Published: 29 June 2007
From TV ads alongside a woollen monkey to BBC Shakespeare adaptations, Johnny Vegas has shown no lack of versatility in his meteoric rise to fame over the past six years. But when the Manchester International Festival asked him to write for theatre - a place you would never have found him during his formative years in St Helens - the comedian was, by his own admission, "terrified". Vegas was talked round and has now come up with one sure-fire way of winning over his audience for his first stage work: handing them a role in the drama.
The show, Interiors - co-written with Stewart Lee, the comedian behind Jerry Springer: The Opera and featuring Vegas playing a man selling his house - must also be one of the first pieces of theatre for which the audiences are bused 20 at a time to a venue (rumoured to be a real house) which remains a secret until the first night. Vegas, who was putting the finishing touches to the work yesterday ahead of its premiere tonight, said it was a product of his desire to remove the aura surrounding theatre - a place he never visited with his family.
"I wanted to take theatre away from theatre and break free from the idea of what it ought to be," he said. The outlook reflects the festival's attempt to make high art approachable: Damon Albarn delivered his operatic premiere, Monkey, last night despite having attended just one opera. Vegas's character is Jeffrey Parkin, a proud home owner who is selling his house to pursue new property development opportunities in Montenegro, but who labours under the misapprehension that the way he has decorated the place reflects his sense of taste. "He's just watched the same shows as everyone else," said Vegas. The audience are his prospective buyers.
Vegas said he had stuck to a theme with which he - and his audiences - were familiar. "I've never written a theatre piece before," he said. "But whatever medium you're working in, you should always write about what you know. And everyone knows about property, don't they? We're all obsessed by it. I hate to use the word accessible, but I'm hoping that this is a theatre piece for those who maybe haven't been to the theatre before.''
He came up with the idea last year and took it to Lee, who directed the 2003 film Who's Ready for Ice Cream?, in which Vegas played himself. "[The new show] has come together really brilliantly," said Lee. "It's a very interesting idea because it's about what we want from design and what does that tell us about what our needs are." Lee also believes the theme of the script is relevant to the "gentrification" of Manchester as it has been regenerated over the past 10 years. People have mixed views about whether they like "the cosmetic improvements of the modern city or miss the heart and soul of the old city", he said.
Vegas owes much to the festival scene. He was the compere at many comedy nights at the Citadel Arts Centre in St Helens before winning the Festival Critics' Award at the 1997 Edinburgh Festival and becoming the first newcomer to be nominated for the Perrier Award. The current suspense in Manchester about his venue seems to illustrate Vegas's natural theatrical touch. "It's just wonderful to be sat down and asked if there is something you can bring [to the festival] which you could not do on TV," he said.
My hols: Johnny Vegas Ibiza? Rabies. Butlins? Muggers. For Johnny Vegas, holiday nirvana is by the North Sea
‘THERE WASN’T much money around when I was little and holidays weren’t a priority. But sometime after my dad got laid off, I was sent on a holiday for deprived children at a youth hostel in Wales. The Catholic Men’s Society did it and, bless them, they were well intentioned, but ... it were terrifying. The other kids were the hardest ne’er-do-wells you’ve ever come across. I thought I’d met hard lads before, but these were serious. They set up a boxing match between this main skinhead, who was bullying everyone, and this little chubby Italian lad. And the Italian lad battered him. The skinhead tried to give up, but the adults chucked him back in the ring for more, telling him, “You’re learning a life lesson here.” It wouldn’t be allowed now, would it?
My aunties used to go to Butlins religiously every year, and I remember going with them one year. My cousins used to cause chaos: there was a game where the kids would chase Captain Hook around, all good fun, but my cousins would hide in the bushes, jump out and properly mug him. It was a fantastic holiday, though – there were girls, fights, freedom, and you could get into the 9-13 disco. I loved it.
My first holiday abroad was to Ibiza, when I was 19. I went with mates, but we were quite naive and ended up in a family hotel, so pickings were slim. I was a mass of hypochondria back then. My mate got bitten by a dog on the first night, and later he shook my hand, and I got it into my head that I had rabies. So, everywhere I went, I carried a glass of water, to see if I was becoming afraid of it. It weren’t quite the dream holiday.
Then I went to San Francisco, and loved the place. Went for two weeks, stayed for five. It’s amazing for people-watching, there’s such a variety of folk. I loved the bars, the coffee houses ... even the shops. It was the start of my metrosexuality, going there. They had clothes in my size – they go up to XXXXXL, and I’m thinking, “Great, I’m one of the slim ones, only a triple!”
I don’t know Europe that well. I was in Benidorm to film the new series, but it’s not the sort of place I’d choose for a holiday. I liked Germany when I went for the World Cup – the Germans were very welcoming, different from what I’d expected – and Rome and Dubrovnik are beautiful. I had a disastrous holiday to Portugal, though. I booked a package for new year: I had visions of being in a little community where nobody spoke English, where I’d win people over by helping them to mend nets, but I was in a retirement village next to a building site, with about 300 pensioners shouting “Monkey!”. I ended up singing American Pie to them on New Year’s Eve, drinking rum with tears rolling down me cheeks. I can’t remember exactly where it was. I’ve tried to blank it from my memory.
I do like holidays in Britain. I love Robin Hood’s Bay, between Scarborough and Whitby. It’s a little fishing village on a hill, and it’s got three pubs and a beautiful beach for walking on. They’re really friendly, and it’s just ... cleansing. I know that sounds soft, but you can have all the troubles of the world, and you walk up and down the beach and they’re nothing. I stay in a lovely little cottage there, with a real fire, and I wake up to the sea. It’s fantastic.
I think I’ll end up by the sea. Don’t get me wrong – I love St Helens, my home town, but I can see myself living in a cottage miles from anywhere. Then maybe I could go to St Helens for my holiday. I’d love to be able to say that. They do have a tourist information centre there, you know. Nobody’s seen it, but there’s a budget for it. They put up a sign, “Welcome to St Helens – Over 2,000 Parking Spaces”. That was the best they could come up with. Nowt to do, but lots of parking while you’re not doing it.
I’m intrinsically a northerner, and I do like it rugged. I don’t mind the wind battering me. I don’t mind walking on the beach with a huge coat on. Maybe I’ll end up at Robin Hood’s Bay. I’ll walk along and think, all I need now is a well-trained springer spaniel and to take up smoking rollies, and I’ll be complete.’
Since when is sexual assault funny? Nothing could have prepared me for the way Johnny Vegas treated a young woman at a gig last week
May 1, 2008 8:30 AM
I go to comedy gigs almost every week, but I've never seen anything quite like what I witnessed at the Bloomsbury theatre in London last Friday night. Like many people I've often left gigs offended. That's stand-up. If you go regularly you need a thick hide - a good comedian will often say or do something that offends you and, if you're in the front row, you may well be targeted for public ridicule. Until Friday, however, I had never left a gig feeling disgusted.
Along with hundreds of others I watched a set during which Johnny Vegas, without any discernible artistic or comedic merit, gratuitously groped a young woman on stage. Judging from some of the furious postings on the internet that followed the gig, I was not the only person asking if he had crossed a line.
Vegas stepped on stage to cheers and immediately announced that he had no material, and that he was there mostly to get laid. There followed a short meandering ramble (mainly about lap dancers) before he turned his attention to the audience - and to one young woman in particular in the front row who, he announced, he wanted to be "inside". Anyone who has seen Vegas live knows to expect the unexpected, and you take a front row seat at your peril. He can appear deliriously and uncontrollably drunk and casually offensive, and he isn't afraid of injecting a dose of tension by involving members of the audience in his erratic act. But something backfired this time.
The woman he focused on was about 18 or 19 and was very obviously unnerved by his attention. I saw her expression clearly - I was in the front row too, just three seats along. Vegas insisted that she allow herself to be carried on to the stage by six members of the audience - he called them "pall bearers". She must pretend to be dead, he said, and he would bring her back to life with an onstage kiss. He warned her that there probably would be tongues. As James Williams, writing on the NOTBBC forum after the gig, put it, "Honestly, you couldn't have found a nervier or more passive girl if you'd scoured all of London - she was like a rabbit in the headlights, but she was giggling and clearly somewhat enjoying the attention, so it just sort of went ahead without so much as a yes or no from her." As she was carried on stage, Vegas repeatedly goaded one of the pallbearers to "finger" the girl.
Once she was on stage, Vegas told her to lie very still. She couldn't stop her nervous giggling; he threatened to kick her in the ribs. It didn't come across to me as a joke - and near to where I was sitting, no one was laughing. Eventually Vegas crouched down beside the nervous girl and started stroking her breasts while repeatedly saying, "don't fucking move". Then he ran his hand up her leg and began pulling her skirt up. Every time he looked up to address the audience, she would reach down and pull her skirt back down, but he kept pulling it back up. According to Williams, who had a different view of the stage from me, Vegas ended up "fingering her through her clothes for a second or two". What I heard was an audible sharp intake of breath from the audience as they realised that the woman was getting much more than the kiss Vegas had told her to expect.
There was an air of menace from the outset, made worse by the fact that Vegas clearly had no idea where he was going with his act. The more the young woman was groped, the more anxious one of the "pallbearers" looked. Then Vegas straddled the young woman, pinning her to the floor, and kissing her for quite a while. Most disturbing, perhaps was that around half the audience seemed to find this really funny. Vegas asked if the curtain could be brought down; when it wasn't, Simon Munnery, the comedian who had been on stage before him, came on stage and used his coat to screen the pair from the audience.
Back before Vegas was famous, his act often involved him - the shambolic, hapless, self-loathing buffoonish bloke - persuading a woman in the audience to feel sorry for him by letting him give her a quick kiss. It was funny because he had no power. He wasn't famous then. Being famous and the power that it brings changes the dynamic in such a scenario. This time, I could see nothing creative or subversive; just a powerful, famous man on a stage seedily touching up a young woman.
Soon after the gig, a furious exchange began on the internet. James Williams kicked off the debate on NOTBBC.co.uk: "I don't like to think that any area is out of bounds for comedy, even if the comedy is lazy nonsense (which on this occasion, I think it mostly was) - but that really only applies when you're talking about words and ideas. Once you've got someone pinned down on the stage, it becomes a rather different matter. I honestly don't know what to think. Really, did no one else see it?"
Some leapt to Vegas's defence. Others wondered if the issue was whether it was Vegas or his stage "persona" doing the groping, and, if so, what was the underlying point of it. The debate has since evolved to a broader exploration of the boundaries of acceptable behaviour in comedy. One poster (who wasn't at the gig) encapsulates many of the views in a response to Williams: "It's always hard to know with Vegas where the pathos starts and ends - aggression to the audience has always been part of his act."
Others have no such qualms. "I have no problem with the view that comedy should be allowed to address any idea or subject it likes," says Fiona Knight, who is Williams's girlfriend, and was with him at the gig. "Ideas cannot hurt anyone until they are turned into actions. But any performer has a responsibility for what they (or their character/persona) does, just as the audience has a responsibility for its reaction to their actions. For me, at this gig, Johnny Vegas crossed the line from fantasy to reality when he translated his ideas into actions that I thought were unacceptable, and I only wish I had had the guts to say so at the time."
Good comedy is frequently uncomfortable for those watching. Brendon Burns, last year's If.comedy winner at the Edinburgh Fringe, is brilliant at making his audience feel so awkward they wish they were somew here else, and the previous year's winner, Phil Nichol, spends a lot of his gigs naked for all but his guitar as some of the audience look on in horror. Sometimes, people vote with their feet. I've seen people walk out when the gay comedian, Scott Capurro, got a bit too graphic. Often, as happened at the end of Friday's Vegas gig, some members of the audience withhold their applause.
But like Knight, I wonder if members of the audience - or Stewart Lee, the comedian who hosted the event - should have intervened. The young woman had seemed to go on stage of her on volition, but had no reason to suspect she would be pinned to the floor and groped. I did shout "get him fucking off you", but obviously not loud enough.
Reviewers, who could have made an impact by registering concern, seemed largely unmoved by the groping. Steve Bennett, founder of the UK's most popular comedy website, Chortle, alluded to what happened, and referred vaguely to Vegas's "rather pervy" come-ons, but says he "wouldn't go as far as condemning him". Bruce Dessau, who, like Bennett, wrote a rather benign review of the gig for the London Evening Standard on Monday, had by Wednesday decided to blog about it, acknowledging that other people were bothered by what had transpired. In the blog he says: "I've often said that one's response to a performance depends on where one is sitting ... But from where I was sitting, my concern was more about his substantial bulk bearing down on her than where his wandering hands were ... Our very own Richard Godwin was at the gig and he was closer to the action than me. He clearly felt Vegas went far too far. Others have also made similar allegations, that Vegas took advantage of an innocent woman."
The Guardian asked Vegas for a response to the reaction to his performance, but he was unavailable for comment. Lee's agent did not return our calls. That is a pity. Friday's gig needs to be openly debated. One comment posted on Chortle, which appears to celebrate the sexual molestation of a woman in public, illustrates why. It reads: "This was the most enjoyable night of comedy I have ever experienced. The discomfort in the predominately middle-class section of the audience I was sitting in was palpable during Vegas's set! During the bit where Vegas was sexually molesting a librarian whilst singing Shakespeare Sister's Stay With Me Baby I overheard a lady behind mutter under her breath 'this is hideous!' The scene was horrifying yet hilarious and Vegas was relentless until Simon Munnery covered the spectacle with his jacket! I will be laughing about this evening for a very long time!".
click HERE to see the google-cached page, now that The Guardian have removed it...
Joined: 24 May 2006 Location: Staffordshire, England
Posted: Fri May 02, 2008 9:11 am Post subject:
What a cunt, i would have got on the stage and kicked the prick in the face. I can't believe nobody from the audience did. I've never liked Vegas and have always found him too loud and annoying. Although i like him in Benidorm.
but hold up - if the girl wasn't bothered (and she did kiss back from what people are saying) then nothing about it is wrong... he's well known for offending people after all. If she presses charges or even sells her story to a paper we'll see...
This does seem really off colour. I wasn't there so I can't make a definite comment, but it seems pretty grim.
I've heard a lot of Johnny Vegas's stand-up, and he does "act" like a total perv and desperate bastard, but it's funny. I would draw the line at him pulling someone on stange and shoving his hand up their skirt though. That's sort of fucked up.
And where is the comedy?? Chris Morris made jokes about pedophilia, but the difference was they were FUNNY.
There were a number of comments on that page questionning why the journalist didn't do something if she felt so outraged. If she's used to live comedy, as she claims, then she must be aware of how you can affect things if you want.
I think it's more down to her not being able to accept something so base as a valid performance. And if she thinks that, before actually finding out the young woman's response, then she's been living in or around Islington's hallowed ground for too long.
To give an example of how stories like this can be misreported - I offered a well-known American comic who's known for offending people to play at my gig, but he refused because it 'sounds like a bearpit'. He was wrong of course, but it goes to show what a puffed-up online story can do...
Sorry, but that really isn't funny, Johnny... Jackie Clune
Sunday May 4, 2008
Stand-up comedy, like rape, is mostly about power. No wonder men dominate it. A good comic, even a really gentle, seemingly chummy one, comes on stage with all the inner swagger of a confident sexual conquerer. Make no mistake, they have come to win us over, make us submit to their comedic world. That's the joy of it. The lexicon of comedy is by its very nature combative, and the language comics use to describe their performances is often adversarial - at a good gig they 'stormed it', they 'killed', and at a bad gig they 'died'. It's us or them. Always. There can only be one winner. The audience is there to be 'taken' - a metaphor that became all too real for a young woman at a recent Johnny Vegas gig.
Vegas, well known and loved for his shambolic and spontaneous stage persona, came on stage (at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London) in his normal bitter and emasculated, pissed-up state and proceeded to select a giggling woman from the audience to molest. He press-ganged six other members of the audience into carrying her aloft on to the stage, and told her she was to act dead so that he could kiss her back to life again. He then stroked her breasts, warning her that if she moved he would kick her in the ribs. He lifted up her skirt, pinned her down and kissed her, and some reports even suggest he touched her in a very intimate way. She, by all accounts, looked nervous, unsure and shocked, although she never said 'Stop' or expressed any overt extreme discomfort. Many of the audience roared with laughter. But since the gig a number of the people who saw the show have sought to retract their tacit approval of Vegas's actions, claiming that they found it vile, disgusting and inappropriate. An abuse of power by a household name.
There has been a small flurry of media interest and a storm of blogs and comedy message-board postings fiercely debating the nature of the incident - was it a transgression too far? Did Vegas cross the invisible line? Should there be a line in comedy? At what point does audience participation become abuse? Was it misogynist? Clumsy? A searing comment on the desperate loneliness and disempowerment of 21st-century masculinity?
My response to the whole affair is tempered by the fact that I wasn't there, but that needn't preclude me from being fascinated by what the reportage has thrown up. As a sometime comedian, a feminist and an ex-academic the discussion has intrigued me.
As a performer and a lover of taboo-breaking comedy I found myself laughing at the description of the night. I've seen Johnny Vegas many times and remember with great fondness the Bacchanalian carnival atmosphere of his often wholly improvised gigs. One particularly memorable show involved Johnny deciding to sing 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' to the audience. For about 20 minutes. Half the audience joined in and the other half bottled him. The dogged way in which he dodged the missiles and continued through to his screaming finale - 'Let them know it's Christmas time!' - had me in stitches. I'm a big fan of his shuffling, disingenuous buffoonery.
As a feminist - and I flinch at the inevitable silent tut that word procures these days (offer a feminist critique of a lovable, working-class comedian? Get a life. Get a sense of humour, bitch) - I am appalled. How could I not be? It's no good invoking the popular argument that the young woman involved went to the gig freely, sat in the front row and didn't say no - that's just 'She was asking for it, M'Lud' in a theatre setting. Is it consent if you feel you would be ruining everyone's evening, and be labelled a humourless, ball-breaking cow if you got up and walked off?
As an ex-academic I am very interested in all the frustrating and often wrong-headed discussions about taste in comedy. Many comedians buy into what Freud so unamusingly posited, viz, that a good joke should act as a kind of psychological pressure valve. By saying the unsayable, doing the taboo thing, discussing the forbidden issues, a comedian releases the audience's repressed, socialised and most base responses, and is thus only giving public vent to what we all feel and think but are too ashamed to express. We laugh when someone in the front row gets picked on (it's not us), we cheer when the fat man knocks the young bird down a peg or two (wish it was that easy in real life), we secretly delight in the lynch mob baying for comedic blood (we are a pack and it feels good).
Maybe the real reason for the outcry after the gig was the fact that many of the audience members felt ashamed that they had not intervened to stop this misjudged routine. Of course there are boundaries - would an actual rape be funny? - but sometimes as an audience it is thrilling not to really know where the comic will draw the line. At the time it is easy to get swept away in the moment - that's how soldiers end up carrying out the most barbaric orders - but in retrospect it can become clear that something rather ugly has taken place, and the shame kicks in.
Vegas's gig sounds like any night at an ordinary brothel - a fat, sweaty bloke getting his jollies with a captive young woman way out of his league. Except it was he, and not she, going home with a fistful of cash.
Jackie Clune is appearing in Billy Elliot at the Victoria Palace Theatre, London SW1
Standup comedy is just like rape? Fuck off! If a punter doesn't like what you're doing then they can leave. What an idiotic statement.
The fact that the author is a comedian herself just makes it worse. She might admit that she wasn't there, but why doesn't she therefore admit that her opinion is completely irrelevant? Simply saying that some people have now renounced their laughter on the evening says nothing other than that some people are sheep.
Has there been any official statements from either Johnny or Stew Lee about this yet? That's what I need to see before I come to any real conclusions.
Richard Herring talked about this incident for about 5 minutes on his podcast yesterday, but he was fairly non-commital and just really made jokes about Stewart Lee, the event organiser and his ex comedy partner, obviously, being a sexual-harassment pimp for Vegas and setting it all up.
I'd like to say that I was also at last night's second gig in the series, and spotted Vegas' alleged 'victim' sitting in the front row again...
Last week I was there with my best friend - we're both women. Vegas picked on my friend to be a 'pallbearer'. When she shook her head 'no' he left her alone. In terms of what I saw from the third row, Vegas did not 'finger' the girl, indeed his hand stopped at her thigh. She kissed him back at the end of the set, and through Simon Munnery's makeshift curtain it was clear that Vegas was checking to see if said girl was alright. If the interactivity and risk of a live show is what disgusts then I respectfully suggest that one should only view recorded entertainment - a medium one can easily switch off if it offends. I think the biggest mistake was for Vegas to be a mystery guest with very little material as, admittedly, Vegas is something of an acquired taste.
Mountains and molehills, mainly debated by people who weren't there and dislike the comedian in question anyway.
I think it sounds pretty genuine, but yeah it would be good to get some official comment.
Johnny Vegas has launched legal action against The Guardian for a story which claimed he sexually assaulted an audience member on stage. Chortle understands that the comic has instructed leading libel lawyers Schillings to act on his behalf over an article printed on May 1 entitled: ‘Since when is sexual assault funny?’
The paper’s allegations were widely repeated over the internet. The original article has now been removed from the Guardian’s website, along with a follow-up opinion piece by comic Jackie Clune, also condemning Vegas, which appeared in this Sunday’s Observer.
Clune, who was not at the gig, began her article: ‘Stand-up comedy, like rape, is mostly about power’ and claimed the show ‘sounds like any night at an ordinary brothel - a fat, sweaty bloke getting his jollies with a captive young woman way out of his league. Except it was he, and not she, going home with a fistful of cash.’
A spokesman for Guardian News and Media said: ‘I can confirm that we have received a complaint from solicitors acting for Johnny Vegas about the two articles and we are currently investigating it.’ Schillings – whose recent clients include David Walliams, Nicolas Cage, Lisa Marie Presley and Marco Pierre White – did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
I hope he's not suing Richard Herring for his comments, lol! I think Rich Herring is about the only person in the world who can get away with saying "Yea, it was all real, Stewart Lee is his sexual-assault pimp".
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