London based writer. Freelancer for hire (Published in Grazia, Vice, Elle, and others)
It’s not often you get comedy in a museum. Next Friday, however, sees the critically acclaimed cultural duo The Gentlemen of Leisure let loose on the Rosetta Stone while conducting three guided tours of the British Museum – a world first. “This show isn’t that different to how we normally approach things, it’s just the artefacts are actually going to be in the room with us.” Nish explains, as they sit in the courtyard, surrounded by blissfully unaware punters, “It’s very much like making fun of someone while they’re facing you.”
The progression makes sense; instead of playing two patronising idiots trying to make literature “like, not old and dead and boring yeah?” on a stage, they’ll be two idiots standing in front of the world’s most magnificent cultural artefacts. “You know how people always think they know more than the tour guides?” Tom Neenan says, “well in this case it’s going to be fairly legitimate. And we have no idea who’s going to come.”
The tour became fully booked within 20 minutes of going up on the museum’s site – by the time they went to advertise in the comedy press the tickets had gone and Nish now has to sneak his own parents in. Also, this means there’s a chance many people believe this is an actual tour. The pair are, however, taking this firmly in their stride.
“At first glance this looked fairly normal,” Nish says, “also, we didn’t realise before, but people tend to latch onto tours. Even if all the ticket holders understand it’s comedy we’ll hopefully get people joining in thinking ‘well these two young men are going to teach me something’ before subsequently becoming confused.”
But will they laugh?
“We don’t know how people are going to react with comedy in a museum,” he says, “They could either suppress laughter or, you know, not laugh at all because of the reverential atmosphere. On the other hand, the idea you’re not supposed to be laughing could make it a lot of fun.” The fourth possibility is, of course, twenty non English speaking tourists blinking at them throughout all three forty five minute “shows”. This could actually make things funnier, especially for the few audience members who get the joke.
Confusion and misunderstanding is, after all, part and parcel of site specific sketch comedy, and parody as a whole. For every five comedy-goers, excited by the prospect of laughing at something a little different, there’s one person who has grossly misunderstood the premise. “If Edinburgh taught us anything,” says Tom, “it’s that people don’t read descriptions of things. They go to things.” After the excellent reviews Too Much Culture (their Edinburgh debute) received in 2010, it also attracted elderly people thinking they’d learn something about high art. In 2011, many misinterpreted The Death of the Novel as a lecture charting the path of the popular literary form. In lampooning those who patronise the British public with painful attempts to make culture “cool” and “accessible, that very same public have frequently shown just how stupid they really are which, as they’ve learned, is certainly not a bad thing.
“Some hated (Too Much Culture) but those who got it, really got behind it which was lovely. The same should happen next week- there may be people who don’t understand or like it, but some will really get on board,” Tom pauses, “Tweeting would be great. Get a bit of the old social media going. While confusion is hilarious, you do need a certain amount of people who get what you’re doing.”
Nish nods sagely. “People may do a tumblr,” he suggests, before admitting, “I don’t understand tumblr.”
For those who weren’t sitting on the website in the 20 minute window when the show was advertised, more collaborations with the British Museum are on the cards. “We’re amazed and grateful to them for letting us do this,” Nish says, “it’s been an idea we’ve had for years, and there’s so many more possibilities. We’ve got our solo projects, but there’s still loads of avenues to explore as a duo.” Tom adds he’d also quite like to do GCSE Bitesize books. In the meantime, he’s the BBC’s in-house comedy writer for radio, a one year position writing for The Now Show and The News Quiz. Nish will take his debut solo hour to Edinburgh Who Is Nish Kumar? and, after that, there’s a never-ending supply of those desperately in need of a faux cultural education. Oh, and if you’re at the Museum next Friday, be sure to latch on.
The Gentlemen of Leisure’s cultural comedy gallery tour is at the British Museum on Friday 20th April at 6pm, 6:45pm and 7:30pm
Photos by Alex Brenner