“It was nice to be the guy in front of the camera for a change.” – an interview with Gary Delaney.
One-liner comedian Gary Delaney tends to write for the likes of 8 Out of 10 Cats, Jason Manford’s Comedy Rocks and Russell Howard’s Good News, but last Thursday he appeared on Dave’s One Night Stand alongside Ardal O’Hanlon and Josie Long. “It was nice to be the guy in front of the camera, rather than the guy behind it writing the jokes”, he tells Radio Teesdale’s Peter Dixon.
PD: Hi Gary. As well as your stand-up, you do a lot of writing for other comics. One of the things I noticed on your website, too, is you work with people like Martin Lewis who isn’t a comedian…
GD: He dabbled a bit! We went to university together, and he was a mate of mine. You probably saw him on telly doing the money saving stuff and on Jeremy Vine. It’s very obvious that he’s a confident man and there’s no self doubt in his nature. In the mid nineties I was first getting into comedy, working at a sound desk in a comedy club – that was my apprenticeship – a lot of guys came up from being on the sound desk or being on the door and putting out the chairs and that sort of stuff, then watching a lot of comedy and learning about it.
Eventually you start to think you can do better. Martin was also involved on the edge of that scene, and there was a club that he and I used to go to and Martin decided to give stand-up a go, so I helped him write his jokes. Then he would deliver them and I’d be at the back of the room thinking none of you know, but you’re laughing at my jokes. That I quite enjoyed.
And I wrote him this joke about nurses you see, which was how I started. I said, “Do this joke, it’s the best joke I’ve ever written, they’re going to love it.” He did it a couple of times and he told me that the nurses joke wasn’t very funny; they didn’t like it. Then, of course, I was like, “You’re doing it wrong!” I ended up doing it to sort of prove a point, and it was a bit of a drunken bet as well. He bet me twenty quid I wouldn’t have the nerve to do it, and I finally did it; I got up and people laughed and I enjoyed it and carried on, that was that.
TV has an incredible demand for gags, usually topical, so yesterday I was in the studio for 8 Out of 10 Cats writing jokes for the host. There’s tends to be a few of us in a room upstairs writing those. I’ve also got next to me on my sofa an envelope of stuff I was sent for some panel show based on advertising. That got sent to me today for me to write over the weekend. Loads of telly shows want gags, because usually it’s for when the host comes out and does some jokes at the top, or as an opening monologue.
PD: We hear the tales of how radio comedy started with things like The Goons, and there’s always a team of people writing away. Has it somehow modernised itself, or is it as it always was?
GD: It’s broadly the same process, apart from nowadays you can sometimes do it from home and e-mail it in – which is brilliant. Given the choice, frankly I would much rather do something from my sofa rather than have to travel to London to do it. If I have to go to London I usually have to go the night before, stay in a hotel, then get up and go to a studio, thinking I could just be on a sofa doing this!
But it’s still generally the same. You get a bunch of writers sitting in a room, and they’ve got their brief, and then it’s just a case of how competitive or cooperative that group of writers tends to be. Sometimes you all work together and sift stuff into the pot, sometimes you do it separately and send it in to the producer or the star or whoever is going to pick through it and decide what they like. Sometimes you say something and everyone’s really supportive and they say, “That was really funny, but if you say ‘cat’ instead of ‘dog’ you’ll get a bigger laugh.” Then sometimes it can be quite bad and you’ll say something to the room and people will deliberately not laugh and try and take you out. When writing works, it’s really good fun. It should be good fun because you’re writing funny things and you’re writing with funny people. It should be a pleasure rather than work.
PD: I guess you don’t get a choice of who you’re writing with, but are there certain people who you work with regularly?
GD: There’s only a certain amount of jobs and a certain amount of people, so you meet the same people over and over again. I’m relatively new to TV writing to be honest, but I’m quite enjoying it. The question you always get asked in a club is when the comics turn up and there’ll be three or four of them sitting at the back having a drink before the show starts, and people always say things like “Do you guys all work together?” But we don’t. We probably look like that because we’re sitting together and we turned up together in the same car and we all know each other, but that’s only because there’s a few hundred clubs and a few hundred comics. Generally the same bookers will look at a list and go “I’ll have you, you and you” but it’s a case of just turning up and seeing who’s there.
PD: We’ve spoken to Milton Jones and Stewart Francis in the past, and I was wondering if you were friends with those guys particularly, because I know you have friends on the comedy circuit. Do the one-liner ‘kings’ mix at all?
GD: Not really. Stewart and Milton don’t really do club level gigs anymore anyway because they tend to tour now, but even when they do promoters very rarely put two one-liner comics on the same bill. So I never get to work with people who are a similar flavour to myself, in the same way that they’d never put two guitar comics on the same bill. I know them and respect them, and occasionally you’ll contact each other because you’ll have written something, and they might have something similar.
It doesn’t happen very often, but when you’re dealing with the language of jokes a lot of one-liners begin with a figure of speech, so if someone’s written the same figure of speech you might call up and go “Which is my one? Which is your one? Whose are they? Who was there first?” and we all do know each other.
PD: How did you get into that style, then? Was it something that you naturally preferred, or is it that you found your niche there?
GD: By default, is probably the honest answer. I started stand-up and it was apparent that it was the bit I was good at. I’m not a great storyteller, I’m not the guy who can chat with the front row and wring some hilarity out of it, or play a guitar, or do those things. It turned out what I was good at was writing short jokes. So I focused on that, and specialised in that.
The decision was made for me, and I think it’s the same case with most comedians, they’ll have gone through a similar thing. When you first start, if you don’t know what comic you are, you get shook by the audience because some things work and some things don’t, and you carry on doing the things that work.
PD: It must be a lot more difficult to put an Edinburgh show together, then? Someone who tells a story can perhaps go a few lines without a gag, but you have to write the kind of punch lines they deliver every ten or twenty seconds.
GD: It takes a lot longer to put a show together. A lot of guys go to Edinburgh every year, and I didn’t go to my first Edinburgh show for ten years, just to make sure I had a lot of really good stuff. It went well, and they asked me to come back the next year, but I couldn’t write an hour in a year! I did my first show there in 2010 and I’m doing my next in 2013, so I have time to write the thing. If you’re a one-liner comic you live and die by the standard of your jokes. A storyteller has more leeway, because it has a lot to do with how the audience like the way they tell the story, and also a good story might last ten minutes, whereas a short joke may only last seven or eight seconds.
PD: Do you have key points during a show then?
GD: You have certain fixed points. You have to start strong and you have to finish strong. When I first started I believed you actually had to open with your absolute best joke and really try and grab them on the first one. After a few years I stopped doing that because it gives you nowhere to go. I think you have to open on something that will be good and will definitely work, but don’t fire your biggest gun right away. You have to save those and spread them around. You have a broad shape of what you want to do, but you have to adapt it to what the crowd are going with.
I’ve got a lot of jokes that are quite rude or quite dark, and I’ll go with that if the audience are going with that – and I’ve got other jokes that are a bit ‘la-de-da’ and a bit cleverer, so if the audience like that I’ll put more of those in. It’s quite calculating and mathematical. In my head it’s all laid out as shapes and journeys, I view it more as a science than an art. I don’t know how many of my colleagues would agree with me, but that’s how I look at it.
I don’t have a great memory, but I’ve got a few systems. I basically have things stuck together in chunks, so that if I remember the chunk I remember everything in it. Then I have chunks of chunks. That helps me get through with it. It’s a bit of a crude memory system. I’ll be honest, I nearly always forget some things, and then I’ll be driving home and go, “Oh! I could have done that bit! They would have really liked that.”
It took me years to learn, when you start off you might have joke one, joke two, joke three and joke four, and if you got to joke two but couldn’t remember joke three you’d panic, whereas once you’ve been going for a bit you realise that no one else in the room knows you were going to do joke three, as long as you move onto something else you’re the only one who knows. It’s such a basic thing but it took years to work out.
PD: The world of Twitter is one change from the good old days of radio comedy, and if anybody goes onto your Twitter, which I highly recommend, you’ve got a note in your biography that says “I shamelessly test new jokes on Twitter.”
GD: There’s some truth in that. Twitter, if you’re a one-liner comic, you don’t really have to change your format for. My jokes normally aren’t more than one hundred and forty characters anyway, so it doesn’t bother me, whereas for a story teller Twitter is no use at all.
I quite like it. I used to put up two or three jokes a day, but I’ve had to be a bit more careful about that as of late because a) I’ve got far more writing time for other people so I’ve got less time to muck about and b) because Twitter has got a lot bigger now. When I first started on Twitter and when I wrote that bio, Twitter wasn’t a very big thing and I only had a few hundred followers, most of who were comics or a few fans who were quite comedy savvy.
I could test stuff frankly and with impunity and I could test stuff that I was later going to use on stage and things like that, but as Twitter and as my number of followers went up to whatever it is now that unfortunately meant that if I’ve got a really good joke and think I’m going to use it on stage then I can’t really put it on Twitter, because too many people will see it.
If you have a joke that gets hundreds of retweets and then gets used in other places it might get read by millions of people, and jokes on there often get picked up by the press, so you can’t put your best stuff on there. I’ve had to pull back slightly, but I still do put stuff on there – I’m just more careful and there’s less of it.
It’s a great marketing device, though. If you’ve got good jokes but nobody has heard of you – which is a broad summary of my career! – it gives you direct access to people. When I was trying to sell my Edinburgh show in 2010 I didn’t have the profile of some of the telly comics who were in Edinburgh but I did have lots of Twitter followers, so I gave out all these free jokes and used them to plug the show, and I sold something like twenty five or thirty percent of my tickets everyday to people who followed me on Twitter. It’s a degree of direct access you get to people who can’t be reached through TV or radio.
PD: It’s a bit like having a fan club…
GD: Absolutely. Although sometimes people just want a reply so they’ll say something mean, so it’s a double edged sword. On the whole it’s good stuff, the technology…
PD: Have you thought of collecting all this stuff together and putting it into a book?
GD: Yes I have. I would certainly like to do that, because there’s a lot of stuff. I’ve been putting stuff on Twitter for three and a half years, so there are a lot of good jokes there. There’s a lot of chaff too! I’d have to go through and sort out the good ones. I do want to do something with them, but I need a publisher for that. My agent is putting out the feelers trying to get me some sort of book deal. I don’t know if that’s going to happen to be honest, because while I’ve got quite a few followers I don’t know if it’s enough to pique a publisher’s interest. They probably want me to have a quarter of a million, or half a million, to think they can definitely sell a book.
PD: You can always sell them after the gig each night, can’t you?
GD: That’s the other option. A lot of these things can be done on a small scale and be done yourself. Simon Munnery, who is a great comic but isn’t a huge name, brought out a little book, and lots of comics bring out CDs and DVDs after gigs now.
PD: I did hear that you wanted to produce a CD one day?
GD: Yeah, I am! It keeps getting put off because I’m too much of a perfectionist. If you have a CD of stuff you want it to be forty minutes of really good stuff. I thought that if I put that out it has to be forty minutes of stuff as good as stuff by Milton Jones, Stephen Wright or whatever, which is fine; at my best I can write stuff as good as them. But when I write new stuff I start looking at the older stuff and think it’s not as good. So when I add ten minutes to a set I end up dropping ten minutes, which leaves me with not quite enough to put on a CD.
The last year or two my profile has been growing quite well, so I’ve been starting to think I might not have to put it out myself. If I sit tight somebody might offer me a deal to come and do all this for me, and I actually might make some money out of it. That’s in the back of my mind as well. As of yet no one’s knocked on the door waving cheques, so we’ll see! Fingers crossed.
Gary Delaney is performing at The Grinning Idiot Comedy Club in Sunderland and Washington on New Year’s Eve. For tickets, visit www.thegrinningidiot.com. The Grinning Idiot are part of Dave’s Comedy Society, which offers 2 for 1 tickets to live comedy nights from now until the end of the year.
An audio file of Peter Dixon’s interview with Gary Delaney can be listened to here via Radio Teesdale’s Listen Again feature.