Smile please, this is a laughing matter

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GREYHOUNDS wearing spectacles, a yellow American-style school bus hanging about town... it can only add up to one thing.

Yes folks, Grin Up North – Sheffield’s annual smorgasbord of comedy grazing – is almost upon us.

Freddie Starr brings his touring show to Fleetwood.

Freddie Starr brings his touring show to Fleetwood.

And boy do we need it.

Tumbling stock markets, failing hospitals, homeless polar bears... never has the nation so needed something to smirk about.

And once again those proven humour honchos Toby Foster and Scott Barton have come through.

The well nourished pair have put together a rib-shattering month of chortling.

Your only problem now is choosing what on mirth you can get yourself along to in venues ranging from the intimacy of The Lescar to the vast acreage of the Motorpoint Arena.

From Lee Nelson and ventriloquist Paul Zerdin to the cerebral music-tinted talents of Bill Bailey or Andy Parsons with his Gruntled show, there is almost too much hilarity to go at.

You have until October 31 to pack as many laughs into your life as you can afford.

A quick flick through the free 56-page festival guide flags up plenty of potential highlights, beginning with early contenders Simon Donald – the brains behind Viz magazine – and veteran Mark Steel this Sunday, performing at The Greystones and Memorial Hall respectively.

GRIN: The cover of the official Grin programme

GRIN: The cover of the official Grin programme

Traditional Last Laugh Comedy Club hang-out The Lescar gets in on the act from Saturday, hosting Owen O’Neill’s Chasing My Tale routine while Kent Valentine talks Sex, Maths & Eric Clapton at The Greystones the same night.

That pub’s Backroom venue also looks to thrive with a Grin mirth menu that includes Jarred Christmas (Oct 15), Jason Cook’s Search For Happiness (29), failed music producer Steve Shanyaski (22), Peep Show’s Isy Suttie (16) and two shows from old hand Robin Ince (28).

Improv troupe Noise Next Door operate off audience suggestions when they visit The Lescar on Sunday, the venue also hosting the likes of Keith Carter (6), local boy Tom Wrigglesworth (7), rising star Chris Ramsey (8), Carey Marx (9) and news ‘coroners’ The Proper Gander (9) in coming weeks.

With the alternative talents of Andrew O’Neill (14), frequent flyers Paul Sinha (15) and Steve Gribbin (16), John Ryan’s Medicine Man (20), Seymour Mace (27) and the classic humour of John Moloney (23) with his Butterflies & Stretchmarks show, the Hunters Bar venue remains a lynchpin in Grin goings on.

GRIN guys Toby Foster & Scott Barton

GRIN guys Toby Foster & Scott Barton

City Hall’s Oval and Memorial Halls welcome a contrast of old and new stars, from the dry wit of Jeremy Hardy (12) to the beaming face of Have I Got News For You regular Reginald D Hunter (6).

The ‘Marmite’ antics of Lee Nelson (22) contrasts with the likes of Jason Byrne (26) and “madcap legend” Freddie Starr (24), while Geordie star Sarah Millican (29), Irish raconteur Tommy Tiernan (27), sketch act Lady Garden (20), Dave Gorman’s Powerpoint Presentation (14), the enduring Arthur Smith (16) and Dave Spikey (15), another of Toby’s old Phoenix Nights mates, keep Barkers Pool firmly on the comedy map.

The Boy With Tape On His Face (9) looks like one of the more unusual ones there – Sam Wills has been wowing critics with an act that involves mime with noise, stand-up without talking and drama without acting.

Among the Lyceum’s Grin offerings are unscripted legends The Comedy Store Players (14) and the more familiar Shappi Khorsandi (13).

Pete Roden and Tom Shenton take their New Art Club to University venue The Foundry (19) while Crookes Social Club (14) grapples with Cabaret Boom Boom’s mix of prop comics, performance painting and toe tapping tunes from Biscuithead And The Biscuit Badgers.

Lee Evans, Bill Bailey and Alan Carr are the Arena’s men of Grin.

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Toby is preparing to grim and share it...

ODDLY, you might think, the person who will see the least comedy during Grin month is the man who helped assemble the bill.

“I see none of the acts,” admits Last Laugh founder and Radio Sheffield presenter Toby Foster.

“I go and meet them all and see the start of every show, but apart from that I’m running round mopping up, bringing people cokes and making sure they’re in their hotels.

“It’s a nightmare, to be honest.

“I’ll be doing some compèring and I’m out every night, I’ll be standing on stages, but it’s the month of the year where I see the least comedy.”

Which is a shame, as the 2011 list is a truly varied one.

“Any idiot can sell out Sarah Millican at the moment and it’s important we have those people, but that’s not why a fan of comedy will put together a comedy festival.

“What I really love is the stuff we’ve got at the Lescar this year and The Greystones; the fact that Chris Ramsey, as big a noise as he’s making now, is still playing The Lescar.

“For me John Maloney at the Lescar has to be one of the gigs of the year, anywhere in the country.

“This a guy who has played everywhere in the world, on some big stages.

“He is thought of by his peers as one of the best stand-up comedians this country has got, and he’s playing what I think is the best comedy room in the country.

“It’s a very eclectic line-up this year, probably more than ever. That reflects the way we’re feeling about the festival. Who knows what will happen next year, so we need to make sure we can say to Sheffield ‘We’re doing this for everybody, come and join in’.”

“This is not 21-year-old, middle class white kids in skinny jeans talking about badgers. There’s all sorts of comedy.”

You can catch Toby performing one night, however, as he features in The Everly Pregnant Brothers, playing The Lyceum on October 15, the second show to sell out after Ms Millican.