Being Sensible has never been so much fun

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It all started in 1994. Tearing back the birthday wrapping I unveiled a copy of Sensible Soccer for my Acorn. I’d been dropping hints (well, I say ‘hints’; in truth I don’t think they were that subtle) for months, after seeing it ranked at #4 in a magazine supplement listing the Top 100 Acorn games of all time. Never thought that would be a sentence I’d type. It was a game I’d heard lots about on other platforms but I didn’t own a console (besides my trusty Sega Master System) now it was finally available on my computer!

By the time I got it, it was more or less out of date already; both in the data (it was a special edition based on the 1992 European Championships, and with team data for the European club competitions in the 1992/93 season) and also the technology – Sensible World of Soccer was going to take the world by storm with teams from…well, all around the world, and management options too.

I’ve never been a gamer, as you can probably tell by my choice of console. But something about the game grabbed me instantly. Years later, and I bought one of these which is a fantastically retro device with Sensible Soccer, Cannon Fodder (which I also had for the Acorn; it got fiendishly difficult very quickly, not helped by all of the green backdrops which played havoc with my colourblindness – it’s no fun if you can’t see your troops either because they’re too well camouflaged) and Megalomania (which I’ve never played).

I’ve been having a bit of a nostalgic phase recently, partly because I’ve been thinking about an idea for a monologue which is all about memories (the good and the bad kind, not just rose-tinted backward glances). A combination of that and the impending Champions League final have compelled me to dig this back out. I think what I find most enjoyable about it is it’s simplicity and immediacy.

I never really liked the FIFA games and even though my friends’ copies of the Pro Evo series are good competitive fun and about as realistic as you’re going to get on a computer screen, as far as I’m concerned it’s never matched the heart of Sensible Soccer. I couldn’t tell you anything that I’ve achieved in either of those games, yet I can vividly remember my first ever goal on Sensi, a curling effort from Roberto Donadoni for plucky Italy in a 2-1 defeat to the mighty Bulgaria. I remember subjecting Quickshot Python joysticks to all kinds of violent abuse in the pursuit of glory (and even more so when defeat beckoned). And most of all I remember saying, “Oh, just one more game,” and then before you know it you’ve played an entire 38-game European Super League season in one sitting.

I’ve been thinking about games recently, especially with all of the press for L.A. Noire – and specifically thinking about storytelling and humour in games. I’ve (sporadically) played games which are funny and tell tales, and that got me thinking about the concept of writing scripts for games. While I try to work out several ideas currently only in my head, that’s one of the ones which I’d love to pursue but wouldn’t know where to start. But that’s a thought for another day. For now, I’m content with making Des Walker dive across the penalty box for a headed clearance, or making Marco Van Basten pummel the ball into the back of the net on the turn. That’s pretty much as good as it gets.

But for the gamers among you…what narrative-driven games would you recommend trying out? Preferably games available for PC (including any classic games which might be available at sites like Home of the Underdogs), but you never know, I could be tempted to invest in a proper console. Really.


Fantasy Sitcom: Who’s in yours?

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Last night I was listening to The Comedy Fix, a comedy-based (fortnightly) show on Rhubarb Radio. It’s presented by Gary Dring and Jonny Greatrex, both fellow graduates from the stand-up comedy course I did at the MAC, and who opened and closed the live showcase respectively. I haven’t had any involvement with the show yet but will hopefully be contributing new material to it in future weeks.

Before listening to yesterday’s show I had an idea for a feature to include on the show. I can’t even remember what inspired the idea now, but here it is: Fantasy Sitcoms. I remember listening to The Evening Session with Steve Lamacq back in the days when Radio 1 wasn’t terrible (Mark & Lard, Lamacq and of course John Peel were required listening as far as my teenage ears were concerned – sadly I don’t have first-hand memories of the station’s comedy high-point, when the likes of Danny Baker, Chris Morris, Armando Iannucci, Lee & Herring and Simon Munnery graced the airwaves in R1 colours, although thanks to the internet and the foresight of people who not only listened to but also recorded those shows at the time, I’ve heard them since). A feature Lamacq regularly used to do was Fantasy Festival, with listeners’ dream festival bills, or even Fantasy Supergroup, where people at home would devise their ideal band line-ups.

Fantasy Sitcom follows the same basic principle. If you’ve ever wondered what Fawlty Towers would be like if Basil had been married to Thelma from Whatever Happened To the Likely Lads?, or if Del Boy and Racquel had ended up raising one of the kids from Malcolm In the Middle, that’s the kind of thing we’re looking for. Or perhaps Bill Cosby took a part-time job at Dunder Mifflin after his pension was wiped out by the credit crunch. Also, maybe there’s an iconic sitcom location where you’d like to see another show set. For example, what if Rob Corddry’s Adultswim show Children’s Hospital was set in the wards where they filmed, say, Only When I Laugh? You get the picture.

There are also writers to think about too. What if Hancock’s Half-Hour had been written by Barry Took and Marty Feldman, or if Porridge had been penned by Simon Nye? How about if Galton & Simpson scribed inner monologues for Mark and Jez in Peep Show, or Red Dwarf writer Rob Grant introduced aliens to Keeping Up Appearances?

It’s meant as a playful thing, and a topic for discussion to get people interacting with the show. Obviously different writers, characters and situations are products of their own time and place, so might not be directly comparable or interchangeable. Anarchy might ensue, and some combinations might simply be too off-the-wall. But that doesn’t stop people comparing Messi with Maradona, Matt Smith with the actors who have played previous incarnations of the Doctor, or Alex Kidd In Miracle World with L.A. Noire. Well, maybe not the last one. Anyway, hopefully this is a fun idea which will get people talking.

It doesn’t necessarily just have to be sitcoms; you can broaden the field to sketches, films or other formats too if you like (maybe you’ve always thought a Reeves & Mortimer character deserved their own sitcom, or a film character should’ve had their own spin-off). What we want are your Fantasy Sitcom suggestions for the following: the title of the show/film/sketch etc, the situation it’s set in, the names of the characters or actors who would appear in it, the names of the writers involved, and the location where it’s set.

Anyway, if you’ve got some suggestions for Fantasy Sitcom line-ups, leave a comment here or on the show’s Facebook page. You can also send suggestions via Twitter, directly to me or to the show, using the hashtag #fantasysitcom. Let’s see what you’ve got!

A bite of the Big Apple

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A couple of weeks ago I got back from a very eventful week-long holiday in New York. I’m sure more seasoned bloggers would have written more quickly and more often about a trip like that, but I’ve never intended this blog to be like a personal diary. However, I haven’t posted here since my stand-up debut so it seemed a good idea to put together some thoughts about it here.

This was actually my first solo holiday and, at the ripe old age of 28, the first time I’d ever been outside of Europe. Anybody who knows me well – or is friends with me on Facebook – will know that this holiday marked the start of an exciting new adventure personally, but it was also a great cultural trip.

Even the flights were pretty stimulating: on my journey to New York I spent most of the flight reading the latest issue of The Word magazine from cover to cover as well as reading the first Dirk Gently book by Douglas Adams (still undecided whether it’s easier to picture Harry Enfield or Stephen Mangan as the titular ‘holistic detective’), while the flight home was peppered with episodes of American TV comedies including 30 Rock, The Office (from what I’ve seen it’s warmer and funnier than the Gervais/Merchant version), Parks & Recreation (which I’d heard lots about but never seen before; on this basis I will be catching up with it as a priority) and The Big Bang Theory, which I’ve never been a huge fan of but the relentless stream of sharp gags made sure I didn’t get too bored. I find it impossible to sleep on planes, even on the overnight flight home, so at least I was entertained.

I stayed at a B&B in Brooklyn (the wonderful Bibi’s Garden – I had a great stay, and Bibi and Harry were lovely hosts) and headed straight there after landing at Newark, so I didn’t get much chance to explore before my first comedy gig of the week, which was ‘Hot Tub’ at a gallery/live events space and bar called Littlefield, hosted by Kristen Schaal (Mel from Flight of the Conchords) and Kurt Braunholer (the pair are a brilliantly matched comic duo, and made the amusingly lo-fi Penelope Princess of Pets for Channel 4’s Comedy Lab a couple of years ago). I hate those bores who say that women aren’t funny – they couldn’t be more wrong – but was massively disappointed by both Carolyn Castiglia and Hallie Haglund. Sketch troupe Serious Lunch have a lot of potential though, and Chris Gethard’s stand-up slot was great, especially the routine where he puts his love for the New York Knicks above every other human relationship he’s had. The highlights were, unsurprisingly, Schaal and Braunholer – on stage as a duo they’re firmly on the same wavelength and perfect foils for each other. Individually, they tried out new material which is what made the night experimental but very rewarding – Braunholer’s monologue finding humour in pathos, and Schaal’s routine while ‘asleep’ wringing laughter and applause from an unlikely scenario. It’s a weekly show, so if you ever find yourself in Brooklyn on a Monday be sure not to miss out on it.

Tuesday was spent mostly at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I suppose that the wet weather and the fact that it was the holidays meant that it was always going to be busy. The Met is VAST; fairly contemptuous in its size. I spent all day there and saw a fraction of it, but the European art and 19th Century European sections stood out – especially paintings by Monet, Manet and Pissarro. You feel like you’ve walked miles, which is probably because you have. One painting, I forget which, featured the word ‘Kafkaesque’ in the description next to it; this reminded me of Guardian sports writer Rob Smyth‘s attempts to crowbar the word into as many OBO and minute-by-minute commentaries as possible, and made me giggle.

After the inspiring but tiring jaunt around the Met, I went to rest my feet at Alice’s Tea Cup, where the tea and carrot cake was delicious, before an evening at legendary stand-up club the Comic Strip. I ended up missing a couple of venues I wanted to visit, including Dangerfield’s, but the Comic Strip didn’t disappoint – eight acts and a compere, with over half of them being really enjoyable. It was a long night, though, as immediately after the show there were auditions for comics who dreamed of playing full sets at the club in future. I stayed for these and a couple of acts were really good, though some seemed to be trying far too hard; I did feel sorry for them because most people left before the audition part of the show.

The day after, I ventured to MoMA – luckily I had a CityPass which covered my entry and allowed me straight in, because the queue (presumably due to the fact that it was the holidays) was along the street and around the corner. MoMA felt a lot more compact than the Met, and maybe that’s why it seemed even busier – the ‘show’ paintings such as The Starry Night by Van Gogh and a selection of works by Picasso, in particular, had significant crowds of camera-laden tourists in front of them, meaning I had to wait to even get close. I really enjoyed the Music 3.0 exhibit which was primarily about New York hip hop culture from the late 1970s through to the early 1990s, featuring the likes of Run DMC, Eric B & Rakim, Public Enemy, the Beastie Boys and A Tribe Called Quest, plus key influences and pioneers who informed the sounds of early hip hop, including Kraftwerk and the collaboration between David Byrne and Brian Eno. I also liked the kitchenware design exhibit, which was very kitsch.

After some delicious macaroni and cheese for dinner (courtesy of S’MAC), that evening I went to a show at the Peoples’ Improv Theatre – a lovely venue made all the more enjoyable by the fact that shows on Wednesdays (and Sundays) are free. The 10pm show, like the other shows that evenings, were part of ‘The Great Mix-Em-Up’, where all of the house teams were…er…mixed up to create new teams for that performance. I always find improv fascinating, though does help if it’s funny too, because the art of performing while thinking on your feet AND being funny is surely something that’s very hard to pull off; it’s an incredible skill.

I ended up seeing more improv comedy on Thursday, although that wasn’t how things were supposed to pan out. When I booked the trip in the first place it was timed specifically to see Mogwai, my favourite band, while I was in New York. Sadly they announced on the day before I flew out to the US that they were postponing the first few dates of their North American tour due to passport issues. At the start of the day I visited a few bookshops and bought some records at the wonderful Other Music store. After meeting my friend Ashley we went to check out the Colbert Report studio as we hoped to attend the taping later that day, only to find a note outside saying the show was on hiatus for Easter! We had a nice lunch in Central Park, and later a walk along the High Line, and despite not being able to see The Colbert Report we ended up watching several of the show’s writers at the brilliant UCB Theatre that night, for a monthly improv show called ‘Colbert Writers Seize the Mustard’. The perfect thing to do after this was pay a visit to Heartland Brewery to sample a few of their lovely beers, before leaving nicely refreshed.

After a very late start on Friday, we went to the Guggenheim – an iconic building which is probably better known than even the collections inside. This came immediatle after my first ever experience of tasting frozen yoghurt, which was great. I really enjoyed the Guggenheim but there was a lot to take in. It was also notable for some nice comments about my Doctor Who bag I’d been carrying around with me all week, not for the first time (also in the Met and in the street a couple of times). The International Centre of Photography, which we went to for free, was fascinating (we saw the exhibition of photos during the Spanish Civil War era) but by that point I was far too sleepy and we eventually headed back to the hotel for the comfort of pizza and watching 30 Rock on my laptop.

One of the first things on my list when planning my New York trip was a tour of Brooklyn Brewery but – partly because of another horrendously late start, and partly due to the really bad weather which also meant we didn’t get to the Brooklyn Flea – I had to sacrifice this in favour of going shopping for a present for my nephew. Important uncle duties and all that. We managed to pick out an awesome gift at Lulu’s Cuts in Brooklyn, a place which is actually a hairdressers but also sells lovely wooden toys. They have a baby store further down the street where I bought a glow-in-the-dark Einstein t-shirt for my friend Geoff’s baby son. It was soon time to say goodbye to Ashley after our three days together, after we got a takeaway lunch from Heartland Brewery and had a quick beer before I went to Port Authority to see her leave. It was weird to find myself back on my own again, but that night I went to a really enjoyable gig at Music Hall of Williamsburg where I saw The Fresh & Onlys (great), Young Prisms (very good) and Crocodiles (who were headlining but were overshadowed by the two previous bands, in my opinion at least). I’d wanted to explore some of the nearby bars in Brooklyn that I’d read about, but I was too tired and the irregular subways meant I decided to call it a night.

I knew I hadn’t done many tourist things during the past week, so I took a trip on the Staten Island Ferry to see the New York skyline and the Statue of Liberty. For the first time in the week it was really sunny which meant that the queue for Central Park Zoo was far too long, so instead I went to Neue Galerie – a beautiful gallery despite the the overzealous and frankly annoying (jobsworth) staff. From here I went to another show at UCB Theatre, the very popular ‘Asssscat 3000’ show where the special guest was Joe Randazzo, editor of The Onion, who told stories from his childhood which the UCB cast (I saw Chris Gethard for the second time in a week) turned into fantastic improvised sketches. I had a reservation for the late show at Comedy Cellar, another big NY comedy club which I really wanted to visit, but (and this is becoming a theme) was too knackered to wait around until 11pm for a show to start so headed back to my hotel. I didn’t miss any big names – unfortunately I’d already missed Todd Barry and Aziz Ansari at the early show while I was at UCB.

My final day in NYC was a fairly leisurely one, heading to Grand Central Terminal to get some photos of the ornate concourse, and I went for lunch at the station’s famed Oyster Bar (the monkfish and the cheesecake were delicious, washed down with a bottle of Magic Hat #9) before getting the train back to New Jersey and flying home. I didn’t get chance to do all of the tourist-y things like walking across the Brooklyn Bridge or going up the Empire State Building, and I didn’t get to see as much live music as I would’ve liked (there are lots of jazz clubs which sound great, for instance) or even as much comedy as I’d hoped (!), but I really enjoyed my stay.

I’m planning a trip to Philadelphia in October to see Ashley once she’s moved out there. Any tips for Philly? I hope to go to a hockey game (despite hating the Flyers), but any other recommendations for Philly would be appreciated!