No string of words in the English language heralds disappointment for us quite like “I’m going to play a little song for you now!” Given the choice, we’d rather sit in a room with a weary-faced Doctor armed with some especially bad news than a comedian strumming a guitar, but, inexplicably, Simon Munnery’s Self Employed, peppered with such tuneless schtick, packed out the Soho Theatre on the first of his five nights there.
Munnery occupies a category somewhere between ‘cerebral’ and ‘alternative’ – a catch-all term applied to anything with a sniff of the surreal about it – which is something of a comic no man’s land. His opening bit is a sort of pre-show sketch, try-hard surrealism introducing La Concepta, a concept restaurant, with all the nuance of a sixth-former reciting a Monty Python sketch. After an over-long 15 minutes of this, Munnery swiftly changes into a suit and gets on with the meat of the show – a cutting-edge analysis of the lyrics to John Lennon’s Imagine.
It’s not that Munnery is unfunny but the whole Self Employed set needs refinement. The cerebral stuff is pitched too low – a good gag about Icarus and Sisyphus is negated by a smoothly-rehearsed explanation of the joke – while the surreal bits lack conviction; a little too much of the show is watching a 43-year-old man wearing a cardboard moustache or talking in a silly voice to his hand. All of this is topped, of course, by the constant threat of Munnery picking up his tiny guitar, a constant lure on the corner of the stage, a favourite toy he returns to throughout the hour like an onanistic zoo-chimp.
Self Employed seems like an opportunity missed – and, rarely for an hour-long 40-date tour, the set has no central thread. Munnery is a great writer, preceded by almost twenty years’ of TV and radio credits, but this is only really highlighted with a great bit on how to kill a dog (“pull the front legs apart”); his ‘circuit veteran’ reputation only cemented with a cool take-down of a heckler, rather than with his own material. The scattergun approach – songs, stand-up, skits, and sketches – works in places, but is generally too broad. Self Employed doesn’t exactly lack laughs, but it really does lack polish.