Interview: Stephen Carlin
Performers don’t just stumble across cult comedian status. It takes a certain curious kind of steely determination, a masochistic urge to throw yourself at reticent audiences in dingy clubs again and again, to make it as a stand up. The need for such perseverance is doubled if you’re offering something a bit different, material and a persona that has a tendency to divide people. Stephen Carlin is just such a comedian. He may be far from a household name, but Carlin’s trademark halting delivery, deadpan demeanour and peculiarly charming “passionate obsessive” character, have gradually now earned him a place in the affections of clued up comedy fans. The discerning patronage of the inimitable Stewart Lee, who once named him one of the “Ten Best Comedians in the World Ever” – and support slots with both Lee and Stephen Merchant – suggest that Carlin’s dour Scot shtick, shot through with quirky observations, has the potential to secure a wider following.
When I speak to Carlin after his Edinburgh show, “Pandas Vs Penguins”, he remains excited and relaxed about his run, apparently resistant to the festival neurosis. “As a local, being Scottish, [the festival’s] the best time to be in Edinburgh, there’s a bit of a carnival feel” Carlin explains. “It’s the only time I get to see a lot of my comedy friends. We’re all on the circuit all year and we sort of miss each other, ships in the night.” It’s this sense of camaraderie that Carlin seems to relish, likening the festival to a comedy equivalent of an office bonding exercise, a tipsy Outward Bound course. “You go through this extreme experience of having to put on a show for month at the same time as all this attention and press… I’ve found I make a lot of new comedy friends, people that you’ve known I suppose as colleagues for many years, you’ve met them at gigs, but you’ve never really hung out with them… It’s a time to bond.” So the Edinburgh comedy scene is a big happy family then, although admittedly one with a healthy competitive streak. “I’m sure in some cases a bit of unhealthy competition!” Carlin laughs, “I have a lot of friends on the circuit and I want them to do well, but I also want to do better than them…”
Considering this dour reputation, Carlin is a chirpy interviewee and “Pandas Vs. Penguins” reflects this offbeat charm. The show purports to be the tale of Carlin’s search to find “a new paradigm to divide society”, an exploration of the numerous categories human impose on themselves – “Men vs. Women, Scottish Vs. English, Upper class Vs. Working Class” – but it starts with a surprisingly cute premise: are you a panda person or a penguin person? The inspiration for this idiosyncratic classification came from a recent news story about how penguins at Edinburgh Zoo had been “protesting” because of the recent introduction of some new panda cubs.
“Refusing to go on the daily march of the penguins and throwing their shit at each other – they were almost like sort of upstaged performers” Carlin elaborates. “The penguins were sort of the star attraction at Edinburgh Zoo for the past few hundred years, so they’ve just got that sense of entitlement about them, they’ve been at the top for too long… It was like the penguins were the old guard, they were sort of the established comedians that had been going to the Fringe and the pandas were the new upstarts and I just liked that idea of that jealously and pettiness even in animals, that sense of ego.” From this idiosyncratic anecdote Carlin crafts a wider exploration of human nature, our desire to endlessly compete and categorise in order to make sense of the world. “Also they’re cute and cuddly…just like me!” Carlin interjects wryly, before allowing himself an audible groan at his own cheesiness.
The hallmarks of Carlin’s comedy seem to have developed pretty organically. That trademark halting delivery, peppered with pauses and slightly odd emphasis is clearly not an affectation, apparent in Carlin’s natural conversation, although he admits he has become more conscious of it as a selling point since reviewers have started commenting on it. The “passionate obsessive” character that Carlin plays with onstage, an exaggeration of the archetypal pub pedant, endlessly knowledgeable about international snooker, also stems simply from natural tendencies, although Carlin is quick to emphasise that it’s a conscious exaggeration. “I hope it’s exaggerated!” he laughs. “I hope I’m not that guy down the pub going, ‘Well actually I think you’ll find that in 1970 there were only three number one hits by…’It’s a male thing anyway, that sort of obsession… But it’s taking that natural competiveness to a sort of stupid level.”
Carlin has paid his dues with the requisite years of obscurity. As a kid Carlin remembers watching old school comedians such as Les Dawson, but it was the emergence of Eddie Izzard in the 90s that first made him think that comedy could be a viable career option. He moved to London with no firm ambitions but soon became hooked on comedy after seeing an act “die on his arse” and thinking “I’d like to try that!” After fluking his first gig Carlin was hooked, and like so many stand-ups Carlin describe the desire to perform as an addiction. “It’s a bit of a drug for me; I don’t think I could ever not do it, I think I’d die a little everyday if I didn’t do it,” he explains. “It’s not so much a choice to do it, it really feels like compulsion.”
After appearing in the same line up at a couple of gigs but never really speaking, it was something of a surprise for this low key Scot to receive a call, “completely out of the blue” from Stewart Lee asking him to support him on tour. Lee subsequently went on to make transcend genre pushing TV series Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, a journey from revered cult legend to widely acclaimed pioneer that no one would blame Carlin for seeking to emulate. “I can’t help thinking that me supporting him gave him that extra push. He plays it down but…” Carlin jokes. “I can’t claim that with Stephen Merchant unfortunately, he had had quite a run of success!”
Although both Lee and Carlin play with parameters, experimenting with form and delivery to create a surprisingly cerebral sort of dead pan stand up, too many comparisons between the two isn’t especially constructive. For a start whilst Lee can be seen as an extension of the late 1980s early 1990s wave of alternative comedy, Carlin’s sees his relationship to that movement as like “post punk to punk”, influenced by it but by no means indebted. Carlin’s work is much less politicised, lacking an enraged manifesto and more about experimenting with observational analysis, making statements that don’t necessarily have to be political “but can be social or artistic”. Nonetheless Carlin does insist on the importance of having a strong point of view, “even if it’s just ‘shoes are great aren’t they?’”
After Edinburgh, Carlin hopes to take the show around both Denmark and the UK, and he has various writing projects in the pipeline, including a mockumentary he’s planning about the referendum on Scottish independence (he promises me this is fertile material). His major ambition would be to write and star in his own sitcom and he admits he already has an unmade script drifting about based around an exaggerated version of himself. Yet although he enjoys writing, Carlin is adamant that it is stand-up that has his heart.
“I can’t imagine just writing on my own all day in front of a laptop. I’d go mad,” Carlin explains. “Being able to go on stage in front of a live audience and try out what you’ve written that day, so you’ve got a very quick feedback and turnaround…is a really great experience. Without that element, if I was just doing the writing, I think I’d become the freak in the village.” Carlin laughs again, before adding with trademark cheerful self deprecation: “Bearing in mind I live in London, that’s quite a big village.”
Stephen Carlin’s Pandas vs Penguins runs until Monday 27th August. For tickets, see: edfringe.com.