John Robertson talks about his real-life video game comedy show The Dark Room and how this year, after six years of sell out shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, he’s adapting the format to make a show for kids. He talks about why it’s important that comedy for kids doesn’t patronise or over-simply the format. Kids are a lot more culturally savvy than many people give them credit for…
I never used to like kids. I was a puppeteer at children’s parties when I was 20, which meant I was savagely beaten by small armies of eight year-olds hyped up on Coke and ice cream cake. I once knew a guy who finished his service in the army then came and did my job. He quit after 2 days. He could handle the invasion of Iraq, but yowling tots really gave him PTSD. (He’ll never be a mother.) To be fair, the children were right to beat me up. The place I worked was a science museum, and it’s a bit of a let-down for kids to go nuts at their friend’s party, only to be shunted into a room so an ex-drama student can teach them about the environment, accompanied only by good intentions and a scrap of fabric named “Colin the Recycling Squirrel”.
Flash-forward in time, and I’ve been a stand-up for 14 years – and for the last six of those, I’ve been doing a thing called The Dark Room, which is the show that turned me into the world’s only live-action videogame. (I wear body armour covered with spikes and control an interactive game where people try to escape a dark room.) They die, I mock and shout at them, and then I give out terrible prizes, which I’ve either bought in a charity shop or scraped off the road.
It’s a great, funny, immersive way to make a living. People love it, I love them, and I’ve made a strange career throwing fear and delight into the hearts of hundreds of thousands of adults all over the world.
And now, bafflingly, at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, I’m doing The Dark Room for children! I suspect there’ll be no beatings this time (thank you very much, armour and spikes.)
Everyone asks me – how do you change a show for adults into one for kids? Well, I don’t change much; I just cut out the foul language. The riotous fun and ferocity all stay, because, well, it’s not like when I was at the science museum - this time I don’t have to sing songs about water pollution or the dangers of pollen. I refuse to patronise the kids in my audience (or bore their parents.) Twee, winsome, all-grinning, over-scripted, morally simplistic fables are death to family entertainment. I’ve never once met a child who wasn’t in some way clever, or intuitive, or sensitive (or, at least cunning, if they’re predisposed towards evil) so why give them a show full of empty platitudes and ham-fisted morals? Give them a show that’s actually for them, not for the idea you have of them. In my show, everyone is trapped in a dark room! Your host is a madman! I yell! I jump around! I get in the kid’s faces! I get in the parent’s faces! (I run from grandparents - they have this nasty tendency to have spent their childhoods winning wars and digging ditches for the dead.) And everyone goes on an adventure.
The Dark Room is a loud, raucous, Roald Dahl-esque game of life and death, with videogame jokes for everyone from folks who love them to folks who hate ‘em. And it’s not tiresomely full of poo jokes, because kids are smarter than that – and any parent trying to mould their young’uns life deserves the occasional break from bums and wee-wee and whatever the shrill twits on YouTube are talking about now.
All I’m saying is, I’m performing a fun, funny show in a dark room. Now bring me your bright kids. And if you think your kid isn’t bright, get them to bring you. I’ll fix that hole in your attitude, make no mistake. You’ll know me, I’ll be the one in the armour.
The Dark Room For Kids is on at Just The Tonic at The Community Project from 4th-27th August (not 14th). Tickets available at www.edfringe.com