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Matt Kirshen - Shorter Than Napoleon
Published on Sunday, 23 August 2009

If you get handed a flyer for Matt Kirshen's show, Shorter Than Napoleon, don't discard it straight away. The front side is quite amusing, with a Napoleonesque fairground ride height chart towering above Kirshen, but the back side is a sketched-out plan of his show - which you, as a discerning showgoer, can use to judge if you'll like what he has to say. Or, if you are a reviewer, you can use it instead of notes and your own failing memory.

Kirshen wants us to believe that every story he tells over the course of this hour is true, but also deplores the stock phrase 'truth is stranger than fiction'. Some of his tales are far-fetched but not impossible - proving, I guess, his assertion that truth is very rarely stranger than fiction (but also demonstrating that it would surely be funnier to make something up). The best of his recollections on the other hand, filed under 'France - Language - Fear' on the plan, is a superb bit of storytelling; it alternates humour with a real sense of tension, defuses the tension with a joke and then ratchets it back up again with more appalling detail.

Surprisingly, another hit for Kirshen is his political comedy. 'Young comedian holds liberal views' is not something that will shock anyone, but his exploration of issues is even-handed and considered, as well as being screamingly funny. Even when taking a pop at the American religious right on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, he adds something new to make us laugh. His discussion of the G20 protests in London challenges both left and right wing orthodoxy, and he tests the mainstream consensus with a brilliantly witty attack on sex offenders registers.

There is something to be said for a comedian who doesn't interact much with the audience, and Kirshen only ever asked the Americans in the crowd to confirm the veracity of his statements. The problem, however, is that he comes across as a bit distant, dwarfed by the cavernous venue and hamstrung by his delivery. The whole act seems like a recital or feat of memory, with little sense of spontaneity. On the few occasions when he does go off-message it's to congratulate himself on jokes that have gone down well, which I find especially grating. Even then, though, you sense that even the ad-libbing is scripted.

So what if he's a bit awkward, though? This is still a well-planned set (I've retained the evidence), and it's the sort of intelligent humour that will satisfy an Edinburgh audience. There is also just enough Napoleon commentary to justify the title: you'll come away laughed out, informed, and sorted into categories based on your height.

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