Andrew Maxwell interview
Clever, cutting Irish stand-up Andrew Maxwell returned from a 12th year at Glastonbury and spoke to us about the brilliance of the Edinburgh Fringe, the importance of satire and the seemingly inexhaustible list of festivals he’s yet to play this year…
So, you’ve just done Glastonbury for the twelfth year in a row?
I think so!
Do you find that, given you’ve been doing it for so long now, it’s changed? Or whether you’ve changed, as a performer?
I don’t know about whether I’ve changed… I think the main thing that has changed is your fans. So before, the comedy tent was this relatively large and quiet space where people could just pass out; and then have some light entertainment on the side. But what’s changed about it is… people used to come to Glastonbury, or any music festival, come to the comedy tent to just pass out in there.
So you’re not necessarily gigging to people who have come to see comedy?
Maybe not… at lot of the time it’s people just waiting for the next thing to happen. And you know, people don’t know who you are, who’s on. Now it’s written down on a chalkboard. So, now that you’ve got a line-up and the app on your phone, you can know when everyone and everything is on. People just sort of stream into the tent and stream out; you see that when you’re MCing, and I’ve done that quite a lot.
You do quite a lot of festivals – you’re doing Latitude this month.
Yes, I’ve just done Glastonbury… I did a couple of Irish festivals. I did British Summertime, I did Hyde Park last week. Latitude will be coming up, then I’ll also be doing V Festival, Reading, Leeds; and I’ll be heading up to No. 6 in Portmerion, in North Wales. And then the last music festival I’ll be doing will be Bestival.
How do you tailor your comedy for a festival audience?
You have to project your voice! There’s a lot of people, there’s a lot of music crashing in the background; there’s no one on the door. And another thing about a lot of music festivals these days is that there are a lot of kids. Poxy, precocious, clever children. So you make it part of your situation: you’re an adult male comic, trapped in a world where you’re doing your adult material and there’s kids there. And the kids love it, because they know they have the power over you.
You’re also co-founder of Altitude festival – what was the push behind that?
It came about because… me and Marcus [Brigstocke] wanted an excuse to snowboard more. He grew up skiing, I did not grow up anywhere near the snow. But then about twenty years ago all my mates moved to Munich. So, I’d go over there and we’d do snowboarding; and that’s how my love affair with snowboarding started. About fifteen years ago I convinced Marcus to give it a go. When he gets into something, he gets into something. And that’s just how it begins really. We contacted the man who went on to be one of the other co-founders and, excuse the pun, but everything just sort of snowballed.
You’re often labelled as a political comedian: is that how you would describe your comedy?
‘Political comedian’ suggests that I have some… set political view point. I consider myself an extremely interested party. I’ve always been interested – politics, current affairs, history. There is so much absurdity and cruelty in the world, you know; there is a never-ending supply of idiotic positions being taken by the political class or business class or… But, it’s just satire, you know?
I think… if you label someone as a political comedian, I think that already comes with a set menu of left-wing positions; whereas on any given day, on any given topic, I have different opinions on different things. Some of my opinions are classic liberal, some of them are centre left, some of them are centre right – some of them are far right! That’s the thing that the political class are coming to terms with, with the era of mass information; and the era of desensitised mass information. People’s political identities are far more submerse than I think the political class… particularly the Labour Party, who are just generations behind the curve.
So perhaps more a politically interested comedian, than you are a political comedian?
What I would describe myself as is… it’s comedy of politics; it’s comedy of current affairs. You should be, as a comedian, the little boy who will always point out that the emperor is naked. That’s it. If the emperor is naked, and there’s absurdity to be had, you go after it. No matter political party it comes from, no matter what political force it comes from; you know, you want to be the Nelson Monks – ‘ha-ha!’ – that’s ridiculous.
I have a rogue position on this stuff, I agree with a lot of stuff. It’s like, well, what do you think of the budget cuts? Well, some of them are good and some of them are bad. Why would you buy into a political party that says we should only cut. It’s not how you treat life. You wouldn’t go to a steak restaurant that demanded that thirty years in advance, when you were a student, you’d decided whether you would only eat meals with a knife or a fork.
As a politically, or satirically-minded comedian, then, how aware are you of how topical you’re comedy need to be? And how to go about writing with that in mind?
I don’t. You don’t. It’s more what appeals. Or what blows up – like the London riots a couple of years ago. You just don’t know when something could… but, it’s always on my mind. Your just thinking and writing jokes and having ideas on the topic.
How different do you think your style of comedy is now, to when you first started out?
Oh well, I started stand-up when I was seventeen. I was doing jokes about Scooby Doo… I was doing sort of silly, whimsical stuff with a kind of aggressive, working class swagger. It was an odd combination. But now, I think empathy has become important. I always used to avoid talking about my family life on stage – I only started doing it two years ago.
Was there a reason that you’d held off doing it?
I just always saw that side of show business as being truly ghastly. You can see it: tabloid culture has been tamed, but it’s always been disgusting. You do a photoshoot with your wife and newborn baby for any publication, and from there on in the British media will have your life.
It’s a sort of ownership.
That’s why I always kept it private.
What comedians have inspired you? Or continue to inspire and inform your comedy?
Well, when I started out, I loved Billy Connolly. He did everything: a little bit of politics, a little bit of just scatological stuff, long shaggy dog stuff – the lot. But he just spoke like… normal. He spoke like somebody I could know. He was fucking funny. That was it: he was funny, he made me laugh. Like a generation of teenage boys, I memorised all the words to his shows… And Monty Python, the movies.
Is there a type of comedy that you really enjoy watching that you think you maybe couldn’t do yourself?
Improv. The [International Improv Allstars] come to Altitude every year. Marcus [Brigstocke] will get up with them, but I never ever do the improve show. I really admire what the boys do, it’s a very different skill set. I love the Pyjama Men – I love that they’re getting jokes out of mime and physicality. It’s something to be admired.
So, you’re taking a new show – Yo Contraire – up to Edinburgh. Can you tell us a little bit about what it’s about?
No, I couldn’t possibly. You’ll just have to come along and take a look at it.
Ah, okay! How do you feel, are you prepared?
I’m never prepared. I’m never prepared. I’m excited. I’m working in Brighton this weekend; Brighton crowds are very similar to Edinburgh crowds. So I’ll be working on material there. I was up early writing, and just tying some ideas together. I’m putting material together all the way through this intervening period. Then in the couple of weeks beforehand I’ll do preview, I’ve got five or six around a couple of different venues. And the first few nights at the fringe are always preview nights.
Some people love to have it all done, it’s just whatever your character is and whatever works for you. I like it a little bit fresh and a little bit raw.
And presumably during the month in Edinburgh your show will settle into itself.
Oh absolutely. Our expression is: that’s when it’s in your head. Once it’s in your head – a week in, five days – it’s just sits, it just settles. And then there’s only the five-minute-leeway after that. Then you’ve got a rough idea… unless something happens and you have to change it. It’s happened twice to me.
Oh, how so?
Well, the 7/7 bombings: the guts of my show that year was about how there’d never be a British suicide bomber.
Yeah. And that was the 7th July, so I had a couple of weeks to change all that. And then the London riots stuff came along, and I was just going to be doing a show about my suburban boringness, and how boring the world had become.
But at the end of the day, people do the Edinburgh festival for more than the sum of its parts. Obviously you do it for some commercial work attention; you do it to earn a living – or there’ll be people whose shows don’t make any money during the festival in Edinburgh, but they’ll be picked up to do arts festivals around the rest of the English-speaking world. It’s an opportunity to get seen; and incredible social life… but it’s still more than the sum of its parts. People do it for the thrill. You do it because in a month, you’ve got more stage time than you would in three months. You’re drawn to it. I think that’s, in some ways, why I do it. I woke up on the first and thought ‘wow, it’s a month’… but it’s exciting. It’s an exciting thing.
It’s very particular to Edinburgh, I think, that, for the whole year, a lot of comics are just gearing up for it.
Absolutely It has a seasonable vibe to it. It’s harvest time – what have you made in the last twelve months. It gives an excellent structure to your year. It’s something to be relished. It’s the biggest show on earth! Every other comedy festival in the world – including Altitude – is invitational: they’re curated, they’re booked by somebody. The Edinburgh Fringe is the open. Every fucking lunatic with a dream can go. Nobody can stop you trying. That’s intoxicating.
Andrew Maxwell will perform at Latitude Festival on Saturday 18 July. His show Yo Contraire will be on at Assembly George Square throughout the Fringe – go to the website for details and tickets. You can also see Andrew’s website here.