INtensive interview about comedy for Rough Guide to British Cult Comedy

Rough Guide to British Cult Comedy: Questionnaire

What jobs, if any, did you have before you got into comedy?
I worked in Cheddar Caves when I was 18, making sure people didnÂ’t break things.
I did a couple of archaeological digs
I tracked down unpaid invoices for a light house manufacturing company in Brentford
I wrote the West London phone book 1990 in which I changed Stewart LeeÂ’s name to Stewart Wee.
I did advertising sales and made no sales
I wrote for an Encyclopedia about the Royal Family.

Who are your favourite British comedians [and why]?
Billy Connolly because he is a commanding stand up
Steve Coogan because of his brilliant characterisations
Stewart Lee who is the most daring and gifted stand up of his generation
Michael Palin because I would like to be him

Who are your favourite US comedians [and why]?
Larry David because Curb Your Enthusiasm is the greatest comedy TV show of all time
The team behind Spinal Tap who influenced my entire generation of comedians more than anyone could imagine
Woody Allen because I would like to be him (apart from the bit about marrying your own daughter)

What's the best heckle you have heard?

Very few that are any good. The other day someone said “Is your hair laminated?” It wasn’t and I don’t think anyone else thought it looked like it was. Thus for being surreal and odd this was an unusually eloquent though flawed remark.

What's the best put down you have used?
I came up with a good one for drunken loquacious women at one gig and have been amazed how often I have been able to use it. It is “You are the only woman in the world that someone will put Rohypnol in your drink and then leave you in the pub!”

What is/are your favourite amusing anecdote(s)/experience(s) about the
comedy circuit including any anecdotes from national tours?
Tours are quite boring and you usually end up just going back to your hotel and watching TV. On one Lee and Herring tour Richard Thomas played an amusing practical joke on me, by ticking every single item on the card I had left out for breakfast. The next morning two room service arrived with a tray each piled with food and a third guy trailing along just to see the amazing greedy man who wanted all the food on the menu.

What are your do's and don'ts before going on stage?
Generally donÂ’t drink, though I occasionally have one and very occasionally have more
ItÂ’s good to dress in clothes that make you feel confident
ItÂ’s good to get centred and have a little quiet time directly before going on (but I donÂ’t always).
Increasingly though I donÂ’t even really think about which bits I am going to do that night and decide when I am on stage, depending on the audience and how I feel. ItÂ’s getting more and more casual. And I would say better for it.

Do you have any habits, rituals or superstitions around performing?
For a while I wore the same pair of shoes to perform in. It was quite a good idea as itÂ’s good to be comfortable and they were expensive shoes and made me feel good. It was good to have a little magic charm to supposedly help me be good. But then I forgot them and still went OK, so now I donÂ’t bother.

How do you approach writing for you stand up?
I have found that writing a blog has been very helpful. I try to write about one funny thing that happened to me or that I noticed that day and I find that about one a month of these is good enough for a routine and that many of them have gags I can use. Otherwise itÂ’s just waiting for something to strike you. Reading the papers is good, in fact reading anything can inspire you, but itÂ’s basically about staying observant and spotting things that might be workable.
Most of the hard work is done on stage. I go on with a basic script which I will improvise with over a few performances. Even when I get something quite set, I still like to dick around with it a bit and usually discover some new avenue to explore even a hundred performances in

What makes good comedy, what's your process for deciding what works and
what doesn't?
You have to start with what you yourself think is funny. Then itÂ’s about whether the audience agrees. But youÂ’ve got to try an few audiences because you get a lot of different opinions from one night to the next and also sometimes you might not perform something well enough. Basically I will persevere with something if I think it is really good, even if most people disagree. I quite like making five people in an audience laugh a lot at something that the others donÂ’t get. I would prefer this to everyone just laughing a bit.
Stuff that doesnÂ’t work can often be turned around by changing a word or an inflexion. ItÂ’s amazing how much difference that can sometimes make.

do you organise your material in a particular way?
I try to work out links, especially in a 90 minute show and make sure one thing leads to another in some way. I like to have a theme, even if itÂ’s very hidden away.

do you have a specific mental process for crafting a joke (i.e. beyond
instinct)? what are the processes involved?
Not really. They come in different ways. Often when youÂ’re not thinking about it the solution to a tricky bit will pop into the back of your head and surprise you. Otherwise itÂ’s about trying stuff out live and seeing where you get.

how do you avoid cliches and hackneyed jokes?
By avoiding clichés and hackneyed jokes….. you’ve got to keep your ear to the ground (forgive the cliché) and work out what other people are doing, but basically it’s about avoiding the formulas that are familiar to anyone who has a passing interest in comedy. Either that or subvert them. But sometimes you think you’ve come up with something new and you’re wrong. And sometimes it’s good to put in something corny or kind of obvious. I think the main thing is to strive for originality and the more you base your act on yourself then the easier this becomes. There is no fun in writing a gag that anyone can do. Ideally you want only yourself to be able to do your own material justice.

how do you choose topics for jokes?
Just stuff that interests me or is about me.

what decided you on your stage persona?
I have decided to be more myself (though a slightly heightened version) I am more paranoid and mental on stage than in real life, but I am still a bit paranoid and mental and itÂ’s just a matter of pointing that up a bit. I experimented with characters when I first did stand up, but the more you are like yourself the better.

if you tailor your material to particular audi. ences how do you go about
doing that?
Yes. If it’s not a crowd that have specifically come to see me I make a decision based on what they are laughing at already and how drunk or clever they seem to be. Sometimes I buck this and do my smart set to the drunks, just to get a reaction. I have enough stuff that I can change course during a gig and am confident enough to tell the audience what I am doing and why, even if it’s because I don’t consider them clever enough or to have the concentration span to enjoy my “good” stuff.

how do you keep your material and your outlook fresh?
ItÂ’s quite hard, but I get bored of stuff quite fast, so I either change an existing routine and deliberately wrong foot myself so IÂ’ve got to dig my way out or dump it and try something new. The worst thing is trying a routine for the first time. Once youÂ’ve had a couple of runs at it you start to have fun

How do you approach writing television comedy/sitcom (if applicable)?
ItÂ’s a different discipline and itÂ’s very hard work. Personally I think the characters are 90% of it and everything else doesnÂ’t really matter. IÂ’ll spend as much time as I can fretting and prevaricating and then finally when the jigsaw starts to come together IÂ’ll have a crack at writing it. But I tend not to know whatÂ’s going to happen at the end of an episode when I start writing it. That way you avoid telegraphing the denouement and if you surprise yourself youÂ’ll hopefully surprise the audience. ItÂ’s also very helpful to hear stuff read out.

i.e. choosing settings/ fleshing out characters, plot development and so

how do you approach collaborating on any writing that you do?
I don’t do it anymore. With Stewart our roles in writing shifted quite often. Usually one of us would type and the other would pace around. A lot of the time we’d just chat about something until we struck on something funny. Though we had a very similar sense of humour we would argue about tiny things like whether “a” or “the” was funnier in a particular sentence. You have to compromise eventually, though I think it’s inevitable that you feel you are the one is losing out more often than not, which probably means it’s even. It can be helpful to have someone to sound ideas off and also to have some responsibility to to turn up somewhere, but I think I prefer doing stuff on my own because then you’re the boss and the work is everything you want it to be.