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Royal Institute Lectures

Here's a piece I wrote for the Portsmouth News before Christmas about the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures.


Started in 1825 by scientist and Cravat-enthusiast Michael Farraday, the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures have since run annually (Except for 2 years during WW2). This makes them the second oldest British institution after Bruce Forsythe.

When I’m in charge it will be the law that everyone in Britain must watch the RI Christmas Lectures every year in their entirety. Anyone who breaks this law will be considered a traitor and publicly executed.

UK television is increasingly becoming more American, but even if the Queen’s speech is interrupted by Kanye West to claim Beyonce did it better, the RI Christmas lectures will remain as the last bastion of truly Great British television.

On a surface level the RI lectures have the kind of brilliant naffness that only British TV has. One lecture, which had a particular impact on me as a child, showed a middle aged university lecturer crawling through a children’s play-tunnel to demonstrate black holes. They don’t have that on HBO!

But it’s much more than the aesthetics of the shows that make them great it’s the values behind it. With Higher education feeling increasingly elitist, the RI lectures are for anyone who owns a TV. The powers that be can raise tuition fees and take away grants but they can’t stop you learning about black holes from a middle-aged man with a children’s play-tunnel.

 

After Think Tank

If I have achieved just one thing in the past 5 years working as a stand up comedian it is getting the vegan, transvestite, anarchist, metalhead, comedian, Andrew O’Neill on the same stage as the Conservative parliamentary candidate (and quite possibly the next MP) for Portsmouth South, Flick Drummond. Two people who it is hard to imagine walking down the same street let alone sat on a panel debating education policy. It’s this clash of worlds that drives ‘Think Tank’; politicians whose job it is to represent people and who must be seen as respectable members of their communities are forced to interact with comedians, most of whom have no interest in being respectable or polite. 
How Think Tank works is that I get 3 of my favourite comedians to come up with ideas for laws or legislation that they would like to see put in place, they get 5 minutes to propose their ideas and then they join a cross party panel of politicians who debate the policy (with me as the chair). All of this is done in front of a live audience then recorded as a podcast and each show is on a political theme. The first show was themed around education and the next one will be themed around ‘health’.
I have always enjoyed comedy that feels dangerous; Mark Thomas driving a tank into McDonalds or Joan Rivers being so rude to the guests on her talk show that they walk off. Think Tank is the first thing that I have done where I have felt that there was danger, where there was a sense that anything could happen. 
Grainne Maguire our first comedian opened with an impassioned attack on private education, at one point describing people who went to boarding school as ‘psychopaths and drug addicts’ something that the don’t say on question time. I was aware that some politicians would not know how to react to something like this, luckily they all held their own. 
In fact all of the politicians held their own pretty well throughout the show and I left with real respect for them all (I never thought that I’d respect a Tory!). I’m proud of creating a format where bad politicians could really falter and make fools of themselves but at the same time politicians with conviction in what they believe can come across really well. That is what good political comedy should do; it should shine a light on the hypocrisies of bad politicians but leave alone those with consistency and conviction in what they believe. 
The next Think Tank will be in July, there’s no fixed date yet but the best way to find out more about it is to sign up to my mailing list at www.joewells.org.uk

Interview with The New Theatre Royal Portsmouth about Think Tank

Originally published here: http://www.newtheatreroyal.com/interview-new-theatre-royal-associate-artist-joe-wells/


We caught up with associate artist, Joe Wells, on his new comedy series ‘Think Tank’, which combines political debate with stand up comedy.

 We’d love some background on you, what made you decide to be a comedian? Where does your interest in politics come from? 

I grew up being taken to see Mark Thomas who I still see as one of my biggest inspirations even though what we do is quite different. I had a poster of Mark’s Coca Cola show with a quote from a newspaper; “Coca Cola execs should be worried, Mark Thomas is gunning for them”, I thought that was so cool, that some powerful executive would be frightened by a man telling jokes on his own. It wasn’t until I went to university and started going to see live comedy that I realised that this was something I could do. Comedy has a real DIY punk rock ethos where anyone can get up and have a go without learning an instrument or going through any kind of training, so I guess the answer to the question ‘what made me decide to become a comedian?’ is ‘because I could.’

To someone who hasn’t seen you, how would you describe your style of comedy?

It’s stand up that’s loosely political but not the kind of political where I have to read the paper every day, I’m more interested in broader political ideas than what legislation is being passed this week. My first hour long show, Night of The Living Tories, was described by the comedy website Chortle as ‘much more than an hour of swearing at David Cameron’ although there was plenty of that to make sure that people didn’t go home feeling short changed. I wrote the show around the material I was doing in comedy clubs anyway which was very angry about becoming an adult and realising just how unfair the world is. It was quite an angry show that stuck two fingers up at people who say that life isn’t fair and you just have to deal with it. I’m now working on a new hour which is a bit more introspective, the show is called ’10 things I hate about UKIP’ but it’s actually a defence of UKIP voters, the message of the show is that it’s more important how you behave as a person than what your politics are.

What has been your most memorable moment when doing stand-up?

I supported Alexei Sayle on some of his warm up dates for his most recent tour, he’s an incredibly inspiring man, if it weren’t for him and a few other people then comedy as we know it today wouldn’t exist. Even though he’s in his 60s now he still has that anger that he had in his early work, he hasn’t been taken in by the establishment, he’s still an outsider figure which I think all good comedians should be.

What inspired your new show ’Think Tank’?

I love comedy that has an opinion, too much political comedy stands at the side and sneers without offering any solutions. The American comic Doug Stanhope is one of my favourites because when you leave the show you end up debating the ideas that he’s talked about in his act, there’s lots of comics like this; Jamie Kilstein, Mark Steel, Bridget Christie. I wanted to do a show where that comedy- inspired-discussion I would have with friends on the train home would happen onstage with actual politicians who have the power to put these ideas into practice.

What can people expect from your show?

Three of my favourite comedians (Romesh Ranganathan, Grainne Maguire and Andrew O’Neill) will spend 5 minutes each proposing an education policy of their choosing, then I will chair a panel with 3 politicians and debate these policies. The politicians who have agreed to do the show are Flick Drummond (Conservative), John Ferrett (Labour) and Tim Dawes (Green) so there’s definitely going to be a wide range of opinions. There’ll be points from the audience too, its basically Question Time mixed with Live At The Apollo. The show is being recorded and will later be released as an audio podcast online, we then hope to do more in the future on different themes, the next one will probably be ‘health’.

What do you hope people take away from your show?

I hope that the debate continues after the show and that people get a better idea about who some of their local MPs might be after the next general election and what they stand for.

You worked with New Theatre Royal on Think Tank – what does the theatre mean to you as a local resident and a performer? 

Working with the New Theatre Royal has allowed me to pursue the kind of comedy that I can’t do at normal comedy clubs. Last year we did the world record attempt show and NTR also supported me with my debut fringe show. This year they are supporting Think Tank, if it weren’t for them it would be very difficult for me to put on this show.

Blog about 'Power'

I’m going to make a groundbreaking observation in this blog and say that all of the people we have in positions of political or economic power seem to look the same, they’re pretty much all white, straight, able-bodied and wealthy men.

“wow! He said what we’re all thinking! So brave!”

Ok, so I might be walking well-trodden ground with a blog about the unfairness of who gets to be in charge and who doesn’t but it’s such a big deal that I’m surprised any blogs are ever about anything else. I’m surprised any other news is ever covered whilst this is going on, surely the news at ten every day should go “equality of opportunity is a myth, people from wealthy backgrounds still hold the majority of executive positions in business and politics, more on this story as it develops”
How could this possibly have been allowed to happen? Our social, economic and political power is predetermined by things that we didn’t choose and have no control over. Its not as though if you work hard enough then the boss pulls you in and says “well Jane, you’ve been putting in lots of overtime and meeting all your targets so we’ve decided to promote you to ‘white cisgendered male’, clear your desk, you’ll be getting your own office”. It’s arbitrary things like class, gender, or race that you’re born with which decide how much power you are allocated, like a quiz in Cosmo magazine where at the end you add up your points and if you score less than 20 then you’re probably not going to be leader of a mainstream political party.

I sometimes feel like I’m the only person who is angry that this is how we’ve decided to distribute power in our society, I walk around thinking “this can’t be right? People would be more angry if we only let posh white guys be in charge?” People just seem to accept that power comes not from good leadership or hard work but through the lucky draw of class or gender. People talk about this unfairness as though it’s an unchangeable truth. “The sun will rise and fall, all things must die, and 37% of our elected officials are privately educated. This is how it is, how it has always been and how it shall always be”.

People say “life’s not fair” but not as a rallying call to arms, they say it as though it’s just one of the facts of life that you learn when you grow up, as though fairness and equality of opportunity are the political equivalent of Santa Claus and The Easter Bunny.

We wouldn’t be this complacent in other aspects of life, if you got mugged you wouldn’t walk away shrugging your shoulders saying “well, he had a knife, I didn’t, what can you do, eh?” We should be furious about this unfairness because it affects almost all of us.

I don’t know how to make the way we distribute power more fair but in the words of Howard Beale in the film Network there’s one thing I know; first of all, you’ve got to get mad!

A news article I've found from the LA times about their Vinnie Jones problem

Immigrants have made Los Angeles ‘unrecognisable’ say locals


Los Angeles locals have threatened to leave their home city because immigration has transformed their home into an ‘unrecognisable place’.

A recent survey found that 95% of LA residents feel that the city is overrun with Vinnie Joneses. one resident said “if you stepped off a plane at LA airport, you wouldn’t think you were in the hip, happening city we all know and love. you’d think it was the set of some terrible british gangster movie”


A local restaurant owner said “I wouldn’t mind if the Vinnie Joneses were willing to integrate with our culture but they don’t even eat the same food as us, they get all their foreign food imported, its terrible for the local economy”. Another resident said “I’m not prejudiced, one of my best friends is a Vinnie Jones, but when I walk down the street I don’t see a single born and bred local, the city is full of ex-footballers, 2-bit actors and the cast of Madagascar 3”


The survey will please supporters of the right-wing Los Angeles Nationalist Party LANP who have a policy of repatriation of all Vinnie Joneses. Meaning that all Vinnie Joneses would be forcibly deported back to the imagination of Guy Ritchie.


An article I wrote for Total Politics Magazine about politicians doing stand up

Should Politicians Tell Jokes?

In recent years there has been a growing trend for politicians turning their hand to stand-up comedy. Because I’m a political comedian I have been a first hand witness to Tom Levitt, Lembit Öpik and Stephen Pound’s failed attempts at mastering the art form.

Hearing about the time when a train passenger saw Lembit’s penis and enduring Tom Levitt’s Ken Dodd impression are both horrible experiences surpassed in painfulness only by the YouTube footage of Sarah Teather doing a short stand-up set at the 2011 LibDem conference, the kind of footage you would read about being used to torture prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

What is horrible about politicians doing stand-up is not the fact that they’re no good at it; that’s understandable, it takes time to learn how to be a comedian, its not like being Education Secretary or Health Minister where you can just pick it up as you go along.

What is horrible is that these politicians seem to think that if they act like zany, up-for-a-laugh, goofballs then I will respect them more than if they behave like the aggressively dull individuals that they actually are.

The truth is the opposite. I don’t want funny politicians. I want funny friends, funny colleagues and funny comedians. But when someone has control over our education, healthcare and nuclear weapons I want them to be as boring as is humanly possible.

Politicians, like accountants, geography teachers and Gwyneth Paltrow, have always and should always be boring and unfunny. I urge any politicians reading this - be proud of your dreariness! Let it shine dull and go unnoticed to all around you. Remember, you are not an interesting person, your favourite band is Coldplay, you like the novels of John Grisham and you were never cut out for stand-up comedy.

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