September 2, 2012
Interview with London Comedy Maven Peter Grahame
The new hit comedy reality TV show, The Republican Convention, has been nothing less than the comedy event of the season. No wonder MTV cancelled Snooki.
The only good thing about this extremely dirty campaign is that you know how good Jon Stewart on The Daily Show is gonna be. It’s total madness and when one side fights too dirty, it’s not a fair fight. Sure, the Republicans are the Religious & Economic We’re Right and You’re Wrong, but Obama has a secret weapon. Something so powerful, it’ll blow the Romney Supporters outta the water. The Obama campaign has Joe Biden. A comedian. And so, while Romney and Ryan lay out their heckles from a safe dark distance with innocuous patriotic platitudes, Obama is up on stage, sweating it out, holding the mic steady and sticking to his well-thought out and brilliant material, warming up for headliner Joe “The Closer” Biden, who will roll up his tux sleeves and will do his Don Rickles to Obama’s Bobby Darin. And, the rest of us? We’re in the audience licking it all up.
Most of my life I’ve suffered from manic depression and creative madness. A deep desire to get to the real truth of myself and explore what motivates my mind and emotions. Therapy is my favourite hour of my week. It’s truly The Steven Alan Green Show, but with a sort of a nicer version of Judge Judy; a sensible non-partisan professional, making sure I don’t just drown in my own bullshit. I don’t know why I have this quest in me. It’s not like I am confused or lost. I’m not. I’m just curious. I can’t help it. And, frankly, I shouldn’t have to. I want to know who I am and why I am. In early 1995, my dad, the late Harold Green, implored me to leave America and go back to London, England, where I had once played to great acclaim. Talk about being heckled! He wanted me to leave the country. I was getting nowhere in either LA or New York and like many of my comedian friends, had somehow become an invisible part of the comedy furniture. The two or three comedy powers out here, had either never liked me or had learned not to. In 1986, after 5 years as a Comedy Store Regular and house emcee (bringing up everyone from Robin Williams, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Sam Kinison) through a connection through my father, I met Chris Albrecht. Chris was the new hot agent in town, Head of Comedy at ICM, whose two big clients were Eddie Murphy and a young Jim Carrey. Chris, who was innocently sent a cassette tape of my 1981 Comedy Store audition (where I got 27 laughs in 4.5 minutes) was immediately impressed and came to see me at The Store. But, by 1986, after five years of being thrown into a world of great up and coming comedians (The Garry Shandling Generation) I was dried out then spit out. I had spent all that time, trying to figure out what kind of comedian I was. What my style was.
There were the orthodox stand-ups, who felt that unless it was just you and a mic, doing pre-written material (no props, no guitars, no costumes, no tapes, no characters) you weren’t a real comedian. The Comedy Store had (and still has) plenty of those guys. And, I am a huge fan of that style. If I had developed that style myself (which I tried and tried) I would’a probably have been okay, getting on The Tonight Show, Letterman, etc. Instead, I was like the other comedy sect. The Convention Breakers. Now, wait a minute. I’m not artistically patting myself on the back. I’m talking about who I admired. Whether it was “I’m a movie” Harry Basil, a Comedy Store favourite who flew around on stage, magically changing costumes to the instruction of famous current hit movie soundtracks, or the masonry screams of the downright demonic destructive Sam Kinison; How I defined a good comedian, was like any artist: Those more than proficient in the art form, and able to transmute the art by breaking convention. One of everybody’s favourites at the time was Jimmy Brogan, considered by many to be the nicest inquirer this side of Joseph McCarthy. Jimmy’s entire act was “Where ya from?”; and then he’d brilliantly riff from there. Managed by Rollins and Joffe (who at the time had Robin Williams, Woody Allen and David Letterman in their very exclusive stable), Brogan, relying completely on prompted from the crowd quips, made all those other scripted stand-up club comedians look somewhat lame. And since my dad was always knocked out by my extemporania and I couldn’t remember material very well anyway (even taking notes on stage, then immediately losing interest), talking with the crowd worked for me. It became my staple. My comedy therapy, if you will. Even though I was able to write and sell jokes to the likes of Leno and Arsenio, I was never able to write material for myself. You see, basically I knew who they were, what their acts were like. What “character” they were playing. Leno, the Everyman. Arsenio, the Assimilator. Jimmy Walker, the Knave. I was like a tailor. Vatever they needed? I got. For myself? How could I possibly write for Steven Alan Green? I not only didn’t know what my act was, at the route of it all, I had no idea who I was.
When Albrecht came to see me, I was done, dusted and dull. I was nervous. I bombed. And yet, to his credit, Chris saw something and allowed me the privilege of being able to call him up or even drop by on occasion. Admiral Albrecht set sail the SS Original Improv back east, in the day when Richard Lewis was discovering how sexy neurosis can be and Larry David was insulting the audience for being a buncha stupid lugs, then walking off stage in a huff. In a new world where I felt nobody understood me, Chris seemed to. He understood comedians. He had been one himself. In 1986, when Mitzi at The Comedy Store decided to re-audition a bunch of us “Regular” comedians and clean house of the comedy deadwood, she demoted me from “Paid Regular” to “Non-Paid Regular”. It was like, “You can keep your job, we’re just not gonna pay ya’ anymore!” I was depressed and needed a change. Chris arranged an audition with Mitzi’s arch rival Budd Friedman at the Improv. I was scheduled very early: 7:45pm at what they called a “Pre-Show”. The small handful people in the early evening “crowd” (more like an uptight police line-up) who were still finding their seats, looking at menus ordering drinks and nachos and barely listening to the emcee on stage, who was doing his best to say, “Hello? We got a show over here!” I was understandably nervous, considering I was sneaking behind Mitzi’s back: she couldn’t find out or I was a dead duck at The Store, which I kinda already wuz. The Comedy Store and Improv had a long-standing feud, which was the result of the famous Comedy Store Strike in 1977 and the rule was, if you were a Comedy Store Regular and even played The Improv just once, rumour was that Mitzi would ban you from her club for life. Budd wasn’t so fussy. He didn’t care where else you worked; he just wanted you to show up on time and if you were late, it better not be because you were playing The Store.
As I stood off stage in the dark, watching the audience (what little there were of them), they seemed foreign to me. They were somehow much more uptight and business-like than the big party atmosphere Comedy Store audiences I was used to. Besides, and I realized it too late, both Chris and Budd are gonna wanna see pre-written material, not my crowd work, which the emcee had tried and failed with. My first three bits pre-written regular material fell flatter than Twiggy under a steamroller, and by the time I got to my audience as material as backup, it was way too late. I got the light. Even though I said as I exited, “Thank you, and enjoy the rest of the show,” in their minds, the show hadn’t started yet. I laid a big comedy fart on Melrose, which still stinks to this day. And, yet Chris remained supportive; he saw something in me and remembered the laughs I got on the tape. After that disastrous night, I called Chris, every day, sometimes twice a day at his prompting, checking in on any progress with that second chance with Budd’s audience, perhaps a bigger, more settled-in crowd, which I could then bounce off of. Scared to death, I would have to leave LA for greener pastures, leaving Hollywood and my unresolved relationship with my father behind, I begged Chris to get Budd to give me a second chance. Chris repeatedly told me he hadn’t been able to reach Budd, but he would continue to try; and to keep calling him to check. To me, that was proof Chris still believed in me. Meanwhile, I was having massive differences with my father; loud shouting matches, arguments culminating in dramatic shortness of breath, near chest-grabbing moments; where he’d grab a pill, regain composure, then tell me to leave him alone. After one of these scary but pointless battles with him down at the Commerce Casino one night, (and once I saw he was okay) I tearfully drove to the Improv to have a drink with strangers and forget my troubles. But, this time, they wouldn’t let me in. Told me they were full up. I looked and saw they weren’t; the place was virtually empty. Then I saw Chris, sitting with Budd and someone else, laughing it up. I thunk to myself, “Oh, well. The game’s fixed. At least I am a Non-Paid Regular at The Comedy Store.” I drove home. But, when I returned to my Hollywood apartment, I stopped the car, and thought for a minute. A light bulb went on. Cut to: me standing on the sidewalk in front of the Improv, playing and singing my guitar as loudly as I could. “Kum Bah Yah, my Lord, Kum Bah Yah” They would get the joke! They would see that I’m satirizing my own impetuousness! That I’m a performance artist! I’m Andy Kaufman!!! Chris finally came outside and introduced me to his friend, Bob Zmuda, Kaufman’s writing partner, founder of Comic Relief and rumoured to be Tony Clifton today. We all laughed it up, Chris giving me an arm-noogie for being such a wild and crazy guy. “You nut job! Call me in the morning,” Chris said and left. I did. The next morning, Chris informed me Budd Friedman had banned me from The Improv for life.
When I started flying across the pond in the early 90’s from New York to London, I was looking for one thing: A fresh start. After all, I had conveniently pissed off one half of the two Comedy Generals in the Los Angeles Comedy Army; and I was circling the drain. I was unhappy. Eight years in New York City proved no better for my type of humor. I did great when the Original Improv was still up and running, but when that hallowed Off Broadway institution closed, I was out of work. A few gigs there, a few there, but nothing to whet my whistle. My dad, knowing he was on his last legs, implored me to leave the country. To try London; after all, I had played The Comedy Store there in 1982 and brought the house down. So, I kissed my girlfriend Kathrine goodbye and grabbed a taxi to Kennedy just outside our residence: Apartment 507 of The Chelsea Hotel, the legendary haven for artists, whackos, star-fuckers, drug-addicts and the former home of Mark Twain, Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan, Andy Warhol, Mick and Keith, Jimi Hendrix, Dee Dee Ramone and George Kleinsinger, who with Paul Tripp, created Tubby the Tuba. I didn’t know much from London, but I wanted to prove my father wrong. Well, within a biblical week, I was headlining almost every club, doing comedy reports for the BBC, small roles in film and television (always playing “The American”), television appearances with my stand-up (something I never did in America), “Comedian of the Week” in Time Out Magazine, being represented by one of the two main comedy management companies, and well on the way to a flourishing voice-over career. Needless to say, I was a little less glum. Then, I see Eddie Brill’s name in Time Out Magazine, the “weekly entertainment bible,” as they call it. Eddie (now the warm up guy for Letterman) was a New York comedian playing The Comedy Store (in London, no affiliation) and I’d been to Eddie’s house on the Lower East Side for a poker game once and knew him casually round the comedy clubs. All I wanted to do was to welcome Eddie to London. American to American. So, I walk into the Comedy Store, now in its third Soho location (I played the first two), but this time it was eerily empty, the show was over and now a very big and tall doorman comes up to me and tells me, “You’re not welcome here. You’ll have to leave now please.” Completely astonished, I politely asked him what on earth he was talking about, but he told me to keep movin’ and we’d talk outside, where he then accused me of stalking. “You’re the guy who has been bothering Paul Merton with a script.” I told him that I didn’t know what on earth he was talking about, that I had a literary agent thank you, and had no idea who Paul Merton was. (I do now. He’s great. Really.) Just then, the other doorman (the one with the freckles) hears what’s going on and shouts out to his co-worker, “You’ve got the wrong guy!” The first doorman looked at me like the RCA Dog.
For years, I was always dressed in costume. Big black baggy trousers with suspenders (“braces” for the Brits), white shirt, funny tie, slicked back hair, big comical mustache and red high top sneakers. But, when my father passed away, he left us a little money. You see, the “look” worked for me on stage. I was seen as a character to the audience. Off stage? I was stared at left and right throughout London’s real world. It was pretty brutal. And trying to pick up a beautiful British female type? Forget it. British society dictates everyone’s physical appearance trumps their manners. So, I joined a gym, took off 30 lbs., bought a new Paul Smith suit, cut my hair New Laddish style, chopping off the mustache and traded in my big black round glasses in for a pair of barely visible Air Titaniums.
So, the Freckle doorman suggest we go back down in the underground dungeon known as The Comedy Store and settle this obvious mix-up out with the manager. Wendy comes out. A very short, very old and very mean woman, who, when I called her from New York months earlier, was so nice and helpful. “What are YOU doing here! Don’t you know you’re not welcome here?! You’re always bothering comedians backstage!” As confused as I was, I tried to defend myself as politely as I could, trying to clarify who or what she was talking about, but you have to imagine, as I’m looking down on the dwarf, two giant footballers are looming over each shoulder. No matter what I said, she just got meaner and meaner. I finally left, shouting down to them, “This isn’t even the real Comedy Store!” I ran to a pay phone dialed a friend. He wasn’t home, but his lovely wife was. “Is there something wrong, Steven? I can hear it in your voice.” There was something wrong, terribly wrong indeed. I left America in search of a new life, to start over fresh, and yet my past bad luck seemed to travel with me, hiding in the overhead and sneaking past customs like a bad virus. Something in Sarah’s voice made me break down like a baby. Crying my eyes out, right there, just off Piccadilly Circus, thousands of young clubbers, theatre goers and petrified tourists, passing by my Dr. Phil phone-box. But, it’s Sarah’s husband (the person I called that night) I’d like to introduce you to. The man who gave me my comedy mojo back.
If there ever was an artist in the field of comedy promotion, Peter Grahame would win hands down, for production acuity (running a tight but friendly ship) combined with curated talent vetting with keen, subtle and effective promotion. The loyalty of the Downstairs at the Kings Head audiences are as fervent as the comedians who work there. Peter himself is the ultimate comedy auteur amateur, in the original Latin meaning of the word: a lover of comedy. And, he’s funny as fuck. He loves a good gag and he treats everybody with respect, even the occasional drunken front row heckler. Peter keeps a keen eye on everybody’s behavior and once quiet negotiation won’t even work, I’ve personally witnessed gentle Peter Grahame bodily remove troublemakers without creating a whiff of disturbance, as if he were trained by MI5. Downstairs at the Kings Head is the place where comedians like to hang out, maybe get a midnight curry after the show with a few of the boys down the street in Crouch End, “N8” (postal code & nickname). Just a knickers throw from Muswell Hill, birthplace of The Kinks and around the corner from the deconsecrated church bitched up as Eurythmic’s Dave Stewart’s recording studio (now owned by David Gray), Crouch End is the hipper and smarter version of any other media village in London, including Soho and Chelsea. Located literally downstairs at The Kings Head Pub (not to be confused with The Kings Head Theatre in Islington -- home of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’s, the late Douglas Adams – The Kings Head Theatre boasts very young and good-looking Clive Owen and Hugh Grant as alumni), “Downstairs at the Kings Head” is the oldest continuous comedy club in London (perhaps England) and boasts a steeped history born of Eddie Izzard, Russell Brand and Bob Dylan. Peter also runs a great jazz night there and often has an 18-piece jazz jam called Gillespiana, which when heard in the intimate atmosphere of Downstairs, has all the energetic realism of travelling back in time, to the spilled beer smell of the Swinging Sixties. And on the last Friday of every month, Club Senseless. Run by Ronnie Golden (aka Tony De Meur, the former front man for 1980’s hitmaker The Fabulous Poodles), himself a wonderful solo comedian and singer/songwriter musician, Club Senseless is one third music concert, comedy show and dance party. In fact, Rolling Stone magazine called Ronnie and the Rex, "The best party band in England," a title well-deserved if only for their ability to turn every night into New Years Eve.
The secret to Peter’s success are two things. The showroom’s very low ceiling (makes for extreme natural audio visual focus – both from the stage and back again from the audience’s laughter) and a mad Welshman named Huw (pronounced like “Hugh”) Thomas, the longtime original guitar bearing Medieval partner, patron saint and spirit of the club.
The alchemic mixture of creative comedians, fully vetted musicians and a bunker-like atmosphere make Downstairs at the Kings Head, as British comedian Sean Lock said, “In my view the best comedy club ever”. With stand-up comedy as his main course, and story-telling, jazz and even magician nights as side-dishes, you always know what you’re gonna find at Peter’s club. Variety and quality. Along with being a busy father, master chef (and rumoured secret lover of Lionel Blair) Peter Grahame, who lives in the pastoral village of Braughing (sounds like “Laughing”- postal code “HA”), writes and produces the local “Panto” every other year, and yet still finds time to run the best comedy scene I’ve ever seen, experienced, and having been invited to play and hang out on a regular basis. Peter Grahame is the Brian Epstein of London Comedy and if he likes you; you’ve got a pretty good chance of being accepted by the London Comedy Industry as a real and viable player, not to mention the pure joy of playing the smartest, most finely tuned comedy-literate audiences in the entire solar system. Peter is co-founder of the Cat’s Laugh Comedy Festival in Kilkenny, Ireland and was my show runner for High On Laughter III, the one at the London Palladium, in which I had Jerry Lewis making it all about himself. He’s a very busy, yet relaxed man. I don’t know how he does it; It’s astonishing. I was able to grab Peter between road trips to stock up on cheap wine in France, and his daily ballet lesson, where he was able to take a casual break, as we met over pints at his village “local” (The Axe and Compass pub) and talk with Enjoy the Veal.
SAG: Hi Peter. How are you?
PG: I’m fine. Where are the girls?
SAG: How did Downstairs at the Kings Head start?
PG: October 1981. A friend of mine, Huw Thomas, who had been performing on the folk circuit in the 60s and 70s, had appeared a few times at the Gong nights in the early days of the Comedy Store in London. Compered by Alexei Sayle, they were notoriously raucous – with the audience deciding the length of your set. He wanted to create a space for the nascent “Alternative Comedy” scene that was a little more welcoming and supportive. Both of us lived in Crouch End at that point and the then landlord of the King’s Head Pub offered us the downstairs room (then a shabby restaurant space). We did a few one-off shows before Huw realized that he was not a born administrator – so I took on that role and he became resident MC. Over the first year we transmuted into regular shows every Sunday. 5 years later we were running seven nights a week with a variety of shows from comedy to music to magic to spoken word, etc. I still don’t know what went right.
SAG: Tell our readers a little about your family showbiz history.
PG: My father is a jazz musician, my mother a dancer. They met doing the (live) Benny Hill show in the late 50s at the Bristol Hippodrome. If my mother’s age is what she tells people now, that would have made her about 8 years old at the time. My father’s parents ran a Pierrot show around the South west of England during summer months and my mother’s father was a comic between the wars. I have two sisters, one of whom is a fine saxophonist, currently with Jools Holland. I was for many years a professional musician and composer, and have also worked as an actor and circus tumbler. I hope to break even one day.
SAG: "Downstairs" is the oldest comedy club in London and certainly one of the most respected and the favourite of many. Why do you think so many comedians love the room and the audiences keep coming back?
PG: The audience, over the years, has become comedy literate. They are very tolerant of the new. The room takes 120 people and works in spite of its odd layout. The low ceiling always benefits comedy. I always seek to put on a varied bill and keep the prices low. I stay in my sound room and don’t frighten the public.
SAG: Tell Enjoy the Veal how the potluck (or new act) night works and what do you look for in a new comedian?
PG: We see up to 16 new acts every Thursday night – each doing 5 minutes. I keep notes on every performance on these nights, just for myself. I tend not to listen to material as much as I watch how people work the room. Many performers do not understand the medium of stand-up as opposed to theatrical presentation. I also look for substantial bribes. And cock.
SAG: Who are some of the "greats" who have passed through the club? (I understand its right near a famous recording studio?)
PG: Nearly everyone who is now an established comic in the UK has passed through our doors on the way up. We see them again on the way down. We also have music nights and have had a lot of famous musos in the same way. The recording studio you mention used to be owned by Dave Stewart (now David Gray). Many of the guys recording there would pop in and have a play on Wednesday nights. You want some random names? Eddie Izzard, Omid Djalili, Rich Hall, Lee Evans, Russell Brand, Bill Wyman, Jon Stewart, Harry Dean Stanton, Steven Alan Green, Dave Chappelle, Barry Cryer, Spunky the Clown and Fisty the glove puppet.
SAG: What's the one mistake American comedians make when they play the UK?
PG: Lie about how popular they are in the States. Attempt an UK accent. They’re awkward when I suggest sexual favours, and ask for a receipt when bribing me. That’s four.
SAG: How has London comedy evolved over the last 20 years?
PG: It’s come full circle. It started as the antithesis of lame misogyny and racism. When the old guard comics felt challenged by the newer generation and started being edged out of primetime TV slots, many complained that the new guard swore too much and didn’t play golf. I knew we were back to square one when I overheard two well-known current comics discussing their swing in the dressing room. Rape gags are back, as is borderline racism. I don’t tolerate either in my club – so we’re back to being left-field.
SAG: What makes a good performer?
SAG: What's the strangest, oddest or most memorable night and why?
PG: The night the dinosaurs ruined the bar. Boy, can they drink. Those tiny coloured sweets in foil wrappers were nice too.
SAG: How does running music nights affect the comedy?
PG: Not at all. They’re separate animals. One you pay attention to, don’t talk and hope for a few laughs. The other is Comedy.
SAG: Where's the loo?
PG: We can’t pump shit against gravity. It’s upstairs.
SAG: What about my act?
PG: Good point.
SAG: Any advice for visiting American comedians?
PG: Seriously? We book a long way ahead in the UK. Plan early. Don’t feel you have to change your act. We are inured to US culture and will understand the references. Enjoy. The UK Comedy scene is still vibrant. And don’t try the veal.
“DING, DING, DING! DING! DING!” We hear the closing bell. Time to drink up. I strolled with Peter back along “The Street” and stood with him outside his house. Peter pointed up to the full moon, which illuminated the village church and graveyard in an eerie neon yellow.
“You know, Steven. That church has been here over 800 years. And, when you think about it, America is a very young country, still trying to find its feet.”
“Yeah, Peter, that is pretty amazing,” I replied as best as I could through my four or five pints of Guinness.
Peter finished his thought.
“Try and not to be so American.”
Inexplicably, he turned about face, entered and locked his front door, leaving me outside freezing my ass off.
“PETER! I THOUGHT I WAS STAYING OVER AGAIN! WHAT AM I GONNA DO!”
After a beat, the second story bedroom light shut. “For fuck sake!...Oh well…” I picked up my overnight bag, strapped my guitar on my back and started to make the long way back to the Bishop Stafford train station by foot, hoping by time I got there, it was not too late to get the last trains back home to my flat in Notting Hill.
Suddenly, the door to Peter’s house opens. It’s Sarah.
“Steven, what are you doing here? It’s freezing! Do you want to come in and have a nice cuppa tea? Maybe stay in the guest bedroom for the night?”
I barely noticed Peter spying down on me from that second story window, grinning the hidden laugh of the devilish prankster he was born to be.
I was home.
Enjoy the veal!
FACEBOOK TWEETS OF THE WEEK:
Okay, here's my grand bargain. We Democrats will acknowledge that Gitmo, Homeland Security and Bush/Cheney saved us from dozens of Terrorist attacks, that we never heard of, simply because they didn't happen --- IF the loud-mouths in the GOP will acknowledge that President Obama saved this country from falling off a financial cliff 3 years ago. And for killing Osama Bin Laden. I'm just sayin'....
TODAY'S MANTRA: "I will not let social networking get the better of me....I will not let social networking get the better of me....I will not let social networking get the better of me...." Okay, now to Tweet that.
Uh, I'll have the Meat Romney, over a side of Condoleezza Rice.
e.e. cummings was not much of a Capitalist.
Eastwood shoulda been the headliner.
The Republicans keep saying they "want their country back". Oh, I see.... They think it's THEIR country!
Do you think after Polonius said, "Neither a borrower or a lender be", Hamlet said, "Hey, mate, you gonna use that?"
THIS WEEK’S COMEDY RECOMMENDATIONS:
Next Sunday Andy dick will be hosting Crazee Cindy's Comedy Show in The Comedy Store Main Room Sept 9th 8pm
Beth Lapides's Uncabaret - Great show line-up this week: Brian Finkelstein, Jackie Kashian, Lianna Carrera, & The Fuxedos. Uncabaret
Starting September 9th: The Improv is proud to present Rick Overton & Friends to perform EVERY Sunday in the main room! First show is SEPTEMBER 9th with Rick Overton, Frank Conniff, David Feldman and Jimmy Dore! Hosted by Chris Pina. The following week (9/16) they have Dana Gould! 8pm.
And, this Saturday, September 8 @ 7:30pm, I'll be doing my first music gig in 30 years. (of course I'll be doing some comedy and story-telling too!). Gig is @ The Unurban Cafe, @ Pico Blvd. & 32nd. Unurban Cafe I think its free to get in (and probably free to get out). Come down, order a cappuccino, hang out and listen to 4 other singer/songwriters and me. Mr. Comedian. Should be fun!
THIS WEEK'S PODCAST RECOMMENDATIONS:
ODDZ ‘N ENZ:
To hire your humble comedy writer (Steven Alan Green Writing Services: Writing Wrongs for Over 50 Years!) or to complain about anything: email@example.com To submit a piece on comedy or show listings, same email. Thanks, Sag
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