Simon Munnery began a reluctant comedy career while studying at Cambridge University. He was chasing girls with The Cambridge Footlights – Munnery was vice-president in 1987 – when he become addicted to hearing people laugh; “that kind of buzz”, as he describes it, held him on stage for six years, before he realised he was “stuck” with comedy. “It wasn’t a plan”, admits Munnery. “it was just that I loved doing it. I still quite enjoy it – less so.”
Munnery got his first paid gig at 19 – £25, courtesy of Ian Cognito – spreading his wings into the alternative comedy circuit where, over 25 years, he earned a reputation as “the closest comedy is to being modern art.” Even now the wildly unpredictable Munnery continues to experiment with silly sketches, handcrafted animation, music and stand-up – all held in a trademark briefcase.
Here, Munnery talks candidly to Edy Hurst about his career – from the early days in the Footlights to TV comedy, the ‘new’ alternative scene, the Edinburgh Fringe, stealing Daniel Kitson’s hat, his role on the Alternative Comedy Experience, his dislike of comedy clubs and more…
EH: Have you bought any hats recently and were they good ones?
SM: Not recently. This is probably the last hat I bought [points at hat] and that’s about 2 or 3 years old. Bedford Market, four pounds. I like a hat, I either have them for ages or lose them very quickly. I’ve gone through a lot of hats. But also I accumulate them. One year, in Edinburgh, I was staying in a flat opposite The Stand and the last night I had a Stand party at my flat and someone stole my hat.
Sort of happens, there was mess everywhere – it was chaos! I was barricaded in the bedroom with my children, just trying to sleep – we couldn’t sleep. It went on all night, it was nuts.
Anyway got to the morning and my hat was gone, suddenly pouring with rain as it always does in Edinburgh in August, but there was a hat there, so I got it. Even though I’d lost mine it seemed fair enough… it was Daniel Kitson’s! Still got it. Every now and then I put it on, compose a sonnet, take it off again.
EH: What sort of hat was it?
SM: Mucky. A really mucky baseball cap. Then Kevin Eldon left his hat and I thought, “I might start a hat museum.”
EH: Tony Law, in a Q and A for the new Monty Python film at the BFI (seen here) mentions how a lot of comedians that go to Oxbridge develop skills that prepare them better for their future career, the discipline of writing, the confidence to submit work. As some who started out with the Cambridge Footlights do you think that’s true?
SM: Erm, well there’s certainly something about Oxbridge – Cambridge and Oxford together – in that people that come out of it are pretty confident. Then again, people that go into it are pretty confident, because a lot of them have been to Eton or Harrow and that makes them confident. There’s also quite a large number of people who’ve come from state schools – I went to a state school – so I didn’t go in that confident and I didn’t leave that confident, so not a lot changed. You could say that, I could see why you would say that. The good thing about the Footlights thing is that it’s an opportunity to perform a lot, every couple of times a term there’s a show and there’s an interest in it. That’s good, doing it is a good way of learning how to do it.
EH: Did you do a lot of gigs outside of the university?
SM: Quite a lot. I started doing a lot of open mics in London – I started when I was 19 – first paid gig was 19. Paid gig, £25, Royal Oak, Ian Cognito booked it. The pub’s not there anymore, the audience didn’t pay, but the landlord really liked comedy so he’d pay the acts 25 quid each. It was a lot of money then…it wasn’t a lot of money then, but it was all right. So I did gigs [at the Footlights], but I was never really part of the Footlights until the end. They used to have this sort of thing called a smoker where you’d go along, audition a piece in front of two members of the committee, and if they liked it then the next day you were on the running order. So I did that every time, for two years, and then I got an envelope in the third saying “You’re vice president” and I went “Ah, great.”
I was on this committee – I didn’t know anyone – and my only suggestion was that we change the name, and that got batted down. I thought one of the problems with the Footlights was that it did this tour of big theatres, but the audience were attracted along by the Footlights name and so they were expected sort of boaters and canes, and a witty song on the piano. Maybe a bit of Monty Python, a little bit of satire, but you know that sort of (sings) “And the tutor said to me, the tutor said to me…in Latin!” which was stuff that I hated, but that I’ve perhaps become more tolerant to as I’ve gotten older. If we change the name then that audience won’t come so we wouldn’t be obliged to do that stuff anymore, but, erm, I was voted down and that was my only contribution.
EH: Did you know that you wanted to be involved in comedy or become a comedian?
SM: No. In my first year I joined every club and auditioned to be in every play as a means of meeting girls, so that was my real aim, but I really enjoyed gigs. The only thing I got into was the Footlights smoker thingy – I got rejected from every audition but at the smoker I wrote a little bit, I tried it, and it went well. It’s a bit like being a gambler, if you go into a casino and win a thousand quid, you’ll be back. That kind of buzz, and then after a while, five or six years…the wind changes and you’re stuck with it, it happens to everyone. Well, not everyone, I mean it wasn’t a plan; it was just that I loved doing it. I still quite enjoy it – less so.
EH: For Fylm Makker (available on www.gofasterstripe.com) you play with the idea of comedy performance where the focus of the act is a lot more on your facial nuances than physical, big actions on stage…if that’s fair to say?
SM: Well yes, that’s sort of the point. The thing that I sort of stumbled across and am pursuing is that the camera amplifies the face in the same way the microphone amplifies the voice. It is an instrument that could be used, and should be used – not necessarily just by comedians, like rappers, anyone, poets – you can speak through a camera. Think about it, people take photos of themselves all the time. Like looking into a camera, which is even odder to speak into a camera, to be recorded and put on Facebook or something for posterity for people you don’t even know to look at. In a way it makes more sense to look into a camera so that the people in that room can see you.
I’ve been recording what I make and then playing it to people later – and it works. I was quite interested to know. About 3 weeks into Edinburgh last August, I thought that I’d been recording every show but only because if I didn’t press record on the camera it would go into an advert for itself, so I had to record it so I just sort of downloaded it onto a DVD, just the raw data files as a document. And I never looked back at them, which perhaps would be a good thing to do, but – I dunno why. Towards the end I thought, what is this like, to watch it not being there when it happened? So I found two people who hadn’t seen the show; one who knew me, one who didn’t. I put the film on, left the room to go outside and it worked. It took about 5 minutes before they started laughing, but after that they just laughed all the way through. What I have been playing around with is using different cameras – especially ones towards the audience, for the crowd shots.
(A man comes up and asks for a cigarette. Upon succeeding to get a cigarette off Simon the man asks for another. SM shrugs as the man walks away)
Alright – so yeah, the other camera I’ve used – I could use up to five but I quite like the purity of just one. The audience one does something which is quite nice. The other one is just a sideshot – called a ‘making of’ shot. If you watch Top of the Pops… Well, it’s not on anymore, but something like that when the person is singing at you, right at you, and then occasionally it’ll cut to the sort of sideways shot, to see how they do it – or something. I don’t know why they do it. The only reason I had that camera was to mock it, speaking straight forward to you then [turns to camera] “But why?”
So I’ve done that like twice but it’s not worth the setting up of it at the moment until I can figure out something better to do with it. But I could take one and maybe swoop it over the audience, or I did think of using pre-recorded film of a toilet, something to keep going through. Like you’ve got cameras everywhere, there’s an infinite number of things you can do with it.
EH: With it being the single camera on your face, did you find that material you’ve done to audience before was reacted to differently?
SM: Took me a while to get used to the fact that you have to relax and look straight down the camera and just take your time. I’m used to it now but then, I just did Melbourne and I hadn’t done it for ages after that, and sort of, it took me a while to get used to it again. I can’t really tell you what it was. You’ve got to keep still, I suppose, but maybe don’t, I don’t know, there’s no rules.
EH: It’s a bit like mic technique…
SM: Yeah, it’s pretty hard to say what it is. Mic technique is you want to say something loud you move it away – it’s quite counter intuitive but, that’s what I envisage you can do with the camera, like a move of the eye. After I started doing it I was watching other comics thinking, “Oh, you could use a camera.” Because a lot of comics, they pace around and they do big stuff because they have to, because that whole space on the stage is what you’re communicating visually, But if you make a big screen you can do much smaller things and have a bigger effect. Possibly; that’s the theory…
EH: On the Fylm Makker extras you mention how Fylm and La Concepta both fit into suitcases. Expand. (Brilliant joke…)
SM: It’s just a practical thing, moving them around on planes, trains; it fits into a suitcase – that’s a sort of practical criterion. Aesthetically I like it as well; you might think of all sorts of props but then large props turn out to be unnecessary. Used to have a bit on Richard Dawkins, where I had an inflatable Kangaroo with Richard Dawkins’ face taped to it, and everyday Andy Zaltzman would come into the dressing room of The Stand and I’d be pumping this thing up. Or because it had leaks I’d be trying to stuff bits of it into a sink to try and patch it up with gaffa. I don’t why it was a Kangaroo, but anyway, that was my Richard Dawkins.
Then I met somebody on the street, a very nice lady, who gave me a finger puppet and I thought, “Well that can be Dawkins,” but then I lost the finger puppet and I just do it with my finger now. And that’s fine, it turns out that was all unnecessary, as you do a show the unnecessary drops out, but as a criterion, what you can fit in a suitcase is aesthetically and practically good.
EH: Do you think the way stand-up comedy and live comedy has been shown on TV, with the exception of the Alternative Comedy Experience, affects the way audiences expect comedy to be on stage?
SM: That’s very hard to answer. I’ve heard people talking about that, like people going to these stadium gigs. One promoter said to me, people won’t take a risk on going out to a club, the name of it doesn’t matter so much unless it’s someone they seen on TV. They want to get that thrill of seeing someone live they know. Audiences, they vary – it depends. It probably depends on the club or the gig you’re at. Like if it’s my show and people come to see me, that’s kind of – well I’m not on the Apollo. I don’t mind, I’ll do it if the money’s right, it all helps I suppose. I mean, I haven’t even watched it, not on principle.
EH: Would you agree that TV creates a sort of passivity within an audience, whereas live comedy is active and anything could happen in those moments?
SM: Well yes, stand-up comedy as an artform is, and should be, live. It’s amazing that it ever came into existence when you think about it – all that money, those millions of pounds that went into Hollywood and films, why would anyone get themselves into a small sweaty room and pay money to see a live performer at a show with almost no budget? It’s kind of a miracle…it’s a form of spoken word, it’s cathartic. People always review the acts, but really it’s all about the audience, people wanting to get together as a group and laughing together, all about sharing.
EH: In the past few years there’s been a lot more exposure of alternative comedy – It’s Kevin, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, the Alternative Comedy Experience, all of which you’ve appeared in – do you think alternative comedy’s making a comeback of sorts?
SM: I’m not sure, I don’t even know what alternative comedy is. I mean, it goes way back to before the music hall, there were rooms called free and easies in that back of a pub, probably like this [gestures to Brudenell Social Club], except this is a bit modern. Rooms round the back with a piano, and those days everyone could sing, knew a song, or could play one and people used to just entertain each other in a communal way, no money involved, just rooms behind clubs. And more people got involved and then people used to get paid and they’d do several gigs in a night, like we did on the alternative comedy circuit, and then it got bigger and bigger until you got the musical theatres and variety and all these different acts.
And then it died off in the 50s, cinema killed it, and television. And then there was a renaissance on the back of punk rock, a sort of “do it yourself” in the back of a pub. So it’s kind of history repeating, except without the piano. By then all you needed was the hold the microphone – that was technologically what makes stand up comedy different from other forms of art in that you can do what’s called ‘ride a laugh’. Like before, the musical performer could tell a joke, but he or she would have to wait until the audience stopped laughing to tell the next joke, but with a microphone you could tell a joke then while they’re still laughing; tell the next one and you can get a momentum, a hysteria going that wasn’t possible before.
It’s always on the Fringe [alternative comedy], like a night in London called “Bang Said The Drum. It’s all poetry and spoken word, but the audience are all armed with drums and percussion instruments – so they laugh, but also if they like something they’ll play. It’s this amazing atmosphere and thriving experiment. There’s always something going on, but I don’t necessarily know about it.
EH: Did you start off at the very beginning doing characters?
SM: Yes, it started with the Security Guard, then God and Jesus – a deadpan double act, the most offensive name we could think of at the time – and then Alan Parker, and then The League Against Tedium, then I spent about six years trying to be myself. That didn’t work, so yes. Characters. I started off doing characters.
EH: Is there a difference between being yourself on stage and being a character?
SM: Well for one thing I don’t think you can ever truly be yourself on stage; you’re an exaggerated version of yourself. One of the things you have to do is be in the right mood at the right time and how you engineer that is like landing a plane – you’ve got to do it at the right angle. At least I think that’s right – I’ve never landed a plane so don’t quote me, but I think it’s about angles.
For me it’s quite similar, I think of a thing, sometimes I put a voice on it, that sort of works; sometimes I’ll come back to it. I think, that’ll become a character, or I leave it and come back to it. I did this whole Sherlock Holmes thing that started off as one line: “The True Confessions of Sherlock Holmes: the first two cases were a fluke, and after that I coasted on my laurels” and after that I left it alone for about 4 years and then it became a voice. I do a monologue about lice. It’s in a Winston Churchill voice. There’s no need for it to be in a Winston Churchill voice, I just quite enjoy doing a Winston Churchill voice. So basically, I think it’s important for the performer that you’ve got to enjoy doing it, and then I think that will go round and round in a hall of mirrors hopefully.
EH: You always do material that interests you first – you don’t try to second-guess an audience – so do you feel you cater your material in any way to audiences?
SM: No. Sometimes if it’s not going very well I’ll do it quite fast, but that’s a mistake. If it’s not going very well, slow down. In Australia I quickly realised stuff about Sainsbury’s didn’t go for so much because they didn’t have it, so I had to find replacement things, so I did things about Coles and Woolies and Australian supermarkets, so there’s that…but it’s very practical. If it doesn’t work you’re not going to keep doing it.
You try something, and if it works you do it again, you hone it a bit as much as you can and then after a certain point it gets stuck, you can’t even remember how it works and you throw it away.
EH: There’s been a recent increase in independent nights starting up north – Pigeonhole and Mutant Comedy in Leeds, Alt. Com. Cab in Sheffield and Dead Cat Comedy in Manchester – is it reminiscent of the alternative comedy movement you were part of?
SM: When I was doing it there were gigs in vegetarian restaurants, in tiny places. Just lots of little gigs, and the punk rock ethos of do it yourself. There are a lot of comedy courses about how to become a stand-up comedian but there should be more promoter courses, you should learn the whole thing. The most important part of it is knowing why those people in the audience are there and creating an atmosphere. A really nicely run club is a beautiful thing, it’s something to do with the compere, or the promoter who books the compere, but there’s some sort of love in that room, and people gather around the little flame of love. It can be great, particularly independent small things they tend to be –but not always, they can be awful as well – but even comedy clubs can be all right.
EH: Are you not a fan of comedy clubs?
SM: There’s a same-ness to it. It’s always three acts and a compere, and it’s quite a lot down to the compere and it’s quite a lot down to how it’s marketed and what it is. Gags per minute, jokes all about the same subject and no variety. One of the people I admire the most is John Hegley because I’ve seen him at a comedy club just do a serious song – and it works, and you go “Hm.”
EH: You’ve been to Edinburgh for over 25 years. Have you seen a change in the time that you’ve performed?
SM: It’s gotten much bigger. The comedy has dwarfed. It used to be quite a lot of theatre and now it’s much more comedy, it’s a bit more commercial. Someone pointed out to me last year that it used to be lots of people from lots of different backgrounds doing comedy. Now it’s quite a lot of young, middle-class acts with some backing from their parents to make posters and whatever, and it’s become quite a different thing. What I loved about it is that it was people from all different creative backgrounds coming together in a sinking boat.
EH: Do you think it’s necessary for younger acts – or any age career-wise – to go up to Edinburgh?
SM: The great thing about Edinburgh is that it’s two things really – it’s a trade fair and a test bed, and I’m more on the test bed side of things. What I love is that if you want to do a show, you can do it night after night without the travelling and just work on it, improve it, cut bits out and play around. It’s one of the places you can do that and people have come to see it, so that’s what’s great about festivals. But there’s others; Melbourne Comedy Festival, various fringe festivals, there’s lots of comedy festivals which are like a weekend or a week that’s just acts doing one night. Basically, to get good at something you’ve got to clock up the hours, so why wouldn’t you go to Edinburgh?
EH: Is there anybody you’ve seen who you feel deserves more recognition or exposure than they have received?
SM: No, they’ve all had too much. See, I don’t keep track of what exposure people have got. Tom Adams, he’s good – like a young Earl Okin, but I haven’t seen him for a while. George Chopping is a good poet.
EH: Any advice to young comedians?
SM: Give up! And carry on…
EH: A lot of your recent performances do not follow a traditional format of stand-up. With the amount of songs and sketches you have in your work, do you still consider your act stand-up comedy?
SM: I don’t really think about what it is. I don’t really think about what is stand up comedy and what isn’t. In a way, stand up comedy is part of a bigger thing that is theatre, a live performance. It might make you laugh, it might make you cry, might be interesting – that’s the sort of area I’m interested in. I think from live things you can learn something – you can make a film, you play it to people, they may react, you might. Woody Allen’s technique for making a film is that you make it, show it to an audience, then he re-edits, then films another scene, shows it, re-edits it. It’s quite a long, slow process involving quite a lot of money and a lot of committees to get that money. Whereas stand-up comedy or live theatre you just do it – if people laugh they like it. A musician could do their performance and be brilliant. If no one in the room likes them they can still be brilliant. Comedy – they’ve got to laugh. That’s the magical thing we seek.
EH: What’s your favourite type of hat?
SM: I like one with a brim; keep the sun out, keep the rain out. I like a woolly hat, in the winter, one that fits. Unusual hats, I’ve had a few made for me – my mum made me one, but it was too big and it blew off in the wind. Yeah, I like a hat.