Molly Stewart

Gary Delaney interview

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Comedian and writer Gary Delaney – constantly dishing out reliably brilliant one-liners – first took his show Purist to Edinburgh in 2010. He’s just started the final leg of its tour – a show now with the best gags harvested from two four and five-star reviewed shows. He answered questions on Twitter, touring and telling jokes before he set out with again with Purist.

Hi Gary. How are you feeling about this being the last leg of your Purist tour?

I’m really looking forward to it. I had a couple of months off from the tour for Christmas, and I just started back on Sunday. Touring is lovely, it’s so much more fun than doing other gigs because they’re just there for you. It’s your show, you’ve got extra time, an audience come because they all like that sort of thing already so it’s great fun. And this is the end now, once this finishes in May we’re knocking it on the head, that’s done. And then I’ve got to write a new show.

I’ve been touring this one for a while so it’s time for me to get a new one ready. And once I’ve finished touring this one that’ll be fun because then I can put it out on a CD; so that’ll be great, I’m looking forward to putting that up as a little permanent record of it. You can’t do that until you’ve finished it, I can’t put a record out while I’m still touring the show.

So yeah: I’m looking forward to the last leg, I’ve really missed it and I’ve really enjoyed doing the tour. It’s nice to have an hour, it’s nice to have a crowd that there for that sort of thing. I’m already simultaneously working on the next show, and that’ll be touring probably the start of next year, depending on when I finish writing it. So that I’m looking forward to as well.

Do you think the show has changed a lot since 2010, while you’ve been touring?

Yeah, loads. Loads. It’s the same title as the 2010 Edinburgh show but to be honest it’s changed dramatically. The show – the first few dates I did of the tour were basically that 2010 show. But then I did another Edinburgh show, and then I basically merged the two into one. I took all the best bits of both shows, plus the other bits I’d written and just stuck it all into one big best-of. So it’s changed… I don’t know the exact amount, but more than half, two-thirds from when the tour started. A lot of new stuff added. I wrote that second show, and in theory the plan was just to put that to one side and tour it later. But I couldn’t just sit there with a pile of great jokes that I wasn’t using, so they all went in.

You’ve performed in pretty big venues, for example on Dave’s One Night Stand; but you’re still very much a club comic – do you prefer gigging in more intimate, or smaller venues?

Yeah, I do prefer smaller venues I think. I mean, my tours are generally like 150-200 seaters, that sort of thing; and I really like that sort of number. Less than a hundred, I think it’s quite hard to get… if it’s a tiny audience there’s no energy in it; and bigger audiences, you’re too far away. It’s harder to read them, there are time delays, you have to really slow down.

So for me, I really like one-to two-hundred: that’s enough of an audience for it to be a really loud, raucous laugh; but it’s small enough that you can really react to that audience, and you can get a feel for what they like and what they don’t like. You know, you can play with them a little bit. It’s big enough to be fun, but not so big that it gets remote and you end up just doing your set on autopilot. There’s no intimacy there.

So that’s definitely informed the venues you’ve chosen to tour at?

Yes, those are the venues I love to tour in, and that people are offering me (I couldn’t fill a stadium anyway; but even if I could, I wouldn’t. That wouldn’t be any fun). I like a couple of hundred, that sort of thing. Really great fun.

When you started out doing stand-up, did you already have an idea that you wanted to do one-liners? Or was that something that came as you gigged more and more?

I’m a big believer that you don’t choose your style of comedy, I think it chooses you. I think you start off, and you will happen to have certain skills and attributes, so you’ll end up concentrating on that. I didn’t set out to be a one-liner comic, I tried other things but it was obvious where my skills lay. I don’t think you have to make a conscious decision about the type of comic you are.

There are certain things that you’re good at, and an audience will laugh more at those bits. So if you’re led by the audience – if you’re keeping things that they laugh at and dropping things that they don’t laugh at, you will tend to become a certain type of comic in line with your abilities. But I don’t think you set out to become… I think it’s misleading to want to be this type of guy. I don’t think that’s up to you, that’s up to the audience really.

Were there other comedians you were watching at that time that you were inspired by?

Yeah, yeah. I mean, obviously I’ve always loved the gag men. I think I probably did want to be quite wacky and I wasn’t wacky, but I was good at gags. And the reason I was good at gags is because I’ve always loved gag men; even from when I was a kid in the eighties, on the radio when they used to play clips of Emo Philips and Steven Wright and that sort of thing. I’d listen to that when I was a teenager and go ‘oh my God, that’s amazing’. I love a gag, and I’ve always admired that and wanted to be like those guys.

That it’s a properly written joke.

Yeah, properly written jokes. And not just the modern ones like Emo and Steven; going back further… Ken Dodd’s brilliant. I love some of those old guys. I was downloading some old episodes of The Comedians recently, and I think that some of those old guys had some real skill. And some of them were horrible and racist. But some of them were quite talented joke tellers. Yeah, Doddy was amazing, and I like even some really old Max Miller stuff from the thirties, really talented man. And then on the American side Henny Youngman. Brilliant. Really love that stuff.

You said that when you first started touring Purist, it was a sort of greatest hits show; and then that’s merged with your second show –

Yeah, I nicked all the good bits from my second show and added that to it basically! That’s why I’ve got to write a brand new one to tour next.

How difficult did you find writing your second show?

It was more difficult, but… You haven’t got as much back-catalogue to fall on, so you have to have a lot more brand new material; but you’re a better writer by then. So as you go on, year on year, you get better at writing and you do get better at writing better jokes. So it is a harder mountain to climb, but you’ve got more skills. So I think with the second show, it was a real mad panic – I only finished writing it the day before I went to Edinburgh.

But you know, it was really well received. I thought I had the pacing better in the second show. I often do little visual bits between the jokes to break them up, and I thought they were much better in the second show because I’d learnt more about how to structure shows and how to pace them. How to hold an audience for an hour.

So it wasn’t necessarily that it was more difficult, but it was a different challenge?

Yes, yes. It’s more difficult, but you’ve got better at it by then. Broadly speaking.

Do you have any plans to take a show to Edinburgh this year?

No. I’m doing previews of the next tour; but I’m just going to preview it, get it ready, and take it out on tour. Skipping the Edinburgh bit.

Do you think you’d do another Edinburgh in the future?

I don’t know to be honest. I think the Edinburgh model’s a bit broken, quite frankly. The finances of it are so awful, so I just look at it and think: I don’t really want to do that anymore. Also I’ve got an audience now. Edinburgh is where you when you’re trying to raise your profile and trying to get people to know who you are. But now: I’ve got people that like me and come and see me, I’ve done a bit of telly now, you know – enough people want to see me to go out on tour. So if I were going up to Edinburgh, I’d just be going up to work on the show and get it ready – that’s a very expensive way of doing it. I’d rather just do previews and little gigs and work on the show that way, and then take it straight out on tour. So Edinburgh’s kind of lost its lustre a little bit for me. That’s not to say I won’t go back.

Okay, but it’s not pressing for you?

I think there’ll be structural changes in Edinburgh. That model of the big venues and their very high costs: that’s broken. That’s going to change.

In terms of the gigs themselves, how different did you find doing Edinburgh compared to your club gigs and touring?

It is different. An Edinburgh audience is sort of literate and sort of self-aware and post-modern, and all that stuff; whereas tour crowds aren’t always… well, they are. Some audiences can be very people. But in Edinburgh they’ve seen so much comedy that they can be – not necessarily jaded; but if you make a job about comedy itself, that will get a really big response in Edinburgh, whereas if you do that on stage on tour – even to a nice well-read, intelligent crowd – they won’t get that because they haven’t just seen loads and loads of comedy. You know, you can’t do jokes about the form. In Edinburgh, actually, doing terribly clever, post-modern jokes will go really well. Yes, taking the piss out of comedy: they love.

It’s kind of because Edinburgh is a bit like that comedy technique, what they call ‘doing a bit of local’. So if you’re in Liverpool, you do some stuff for them. If you have a local act they do a lot of stuff about ‘that turn down the road’ or ‘that dodgy nightclub’. So that’s doing a bit of local, pandering to the crowd by doing stuff about them and their town. But in Edinburgh, doing a bit of local about Edinburgh is doing stuff about comedy and arts festivals; and thing being very meta and modern and… blah blah blah.

So in some ways it’s terribly clever, to go up there and do jokes about jokes, and I certainly do put jokes about jokes in my show. But also it’s the Edinburgh equivalent of the compere at The Frog and Bucket doing jokes about Bolton. You know, we think it’s terribly clever and pat ourselves on the back for it but really it’s just doing a bit of local.

So in Edinburgh I have jokes like ‘I used to really like jokes about paedophiles, but now I think they’re getting a bit old’ – so that was a sort of very meta commentary on it, and it used to go down very well. But you’re still just doing a joke about a joke. Those are the sort of jokes that you do in Edinburgh and then when you tour a show, they get taken out. But there aren’t very many of them.

How differently do you have to set out writing gags for television or radio, for other people, than you would if you were writing to yourself?

Well, you take your voice out of it because you’re not writing for you. You have to be really aware of the medium you’re writing for, if I’m writing for myself or not I need to know a lot about how it works: the formatting, whether they want short jokes or not. You need to know what works for that format, or that programme or whatever it is.

If you’re writing for another comic or another person, you need to know their voice really well. You need to keep listening to it in your head. The main difference with writing for yourself and writing for other people is quantity. When you’re writing for telly in general, really; when you’re writing for anything other than stand-up you turn off (to a degree) your inner sensors. You go: right, I’m just turn the handle and crank out as much as I can, and some of it is going to hit the spot.

Whereas when you’re writing for stand-up, most of the ideas that come into your head you probably never put down on paper, really. Instantly they come in and you go: no, that’s not good enough, I’m going to stand on a stage and say that. So in stand-up you edit early on; and with telly you edit later, or you let someone else edit. So for other things that aren’t stand-up you just turn up the volume and let things fall how they will. That’s sort of my strategy of it.

Do you enjoy writing with other comics?

Yeah. Now, stand-ups rarely write together, but what stand-ups will do together is sort of workshop their stuff. If you’re doing a new material night with your mates, you’ll sit and watch each other’s sets and then afterwards make notes on it and say ‘oh, you could do that bit… you could say that’. So we all swap little toppers and ideas and twists. So in my experience when you’re writing with other comics, it’s like that. It’s not sitting down together and coming up with ideas but afterwards, if you’re on with another comic, you can compare notes and ask questions, and work on and improve each other’s bits.

It’s not like working in a writing room for TV or something – that’s a different experience. If you’ve got three writers all riffing around a topic, you’re all just pitching ideas separately and emailing them in sometimes; or it might be like an open out-cry and someone will go ‘right, we need jokes about dogs’ and you go ‘okay, well here’s one’ and someone else goes ‘oh, well if you do that you could do this’. Sometimes that sort of brainstorming around a table can get really good results, because the jokes you end up with aren’t one person’s, they’re three people’s. One person has an idea, someone else hones and someone else puts a topper on it – you get better than one person’s results.

But it doesn’t always work as well as that, depends on the room and the mix and who’s in there and how well they get on. Being in a really functioning writing room can be really good fun; being in a writing room with people who are being competitive and arsey about it is no fun at all. You have to be free to be able to come up with ideas, some of which are going to rubbish. The whole thing about writing and testing is that you’ve got to be free to fail. To form good ideas, you’ve got to fall flat on your face; and if you’re not free to fall flat on your face, you’re never going to find good ideas. You’ll be too scared to try anything.

So that’s why I think it’s a cardinal sin in a writing room or on a television programme or whatever, or even at a gig, to take the piss out of somebody if something fails. On Mock The Week we all do – obviously, TV records are much longer and they get edited down – we all try stuff that doesn’t work. But generally, if we’re all good-natured, we all now the next guy that fails might be me. So it’s really bad manners (and it doesn’t happen very often), if someone fails to then start taking the micky out of them. That’s really, really destructive behaviour.

But to be fair that’s quite rare, there aren’t really many people who are like that. We’ve all had that shared experience so know how hard it is, because we’ve all been that guy. You try you’re big joke and you think ‘this is going to slay it… what? No? No? Oh, right…’ We’ve all experienced it, and anyone who says they haven’t is a liar. Every comic’s had bad gigs. Every comic’s had a joke that they thought was great that’s died on its hole. That’s the nature of it.

Do you think the circuit, or the way you write and perform has changed a lot since you started comedy? You’ve said in interviews before that Twitter can be very useful, especially for your style of joke-writing.

Well, yeah. The circuit has broadly changed. I think audiences probably have slightly shorter attention spans then when I first started; I think that’s probably fair to say. Now… Twitter. Twitter I used to use as a great place to test jokes for stand-up. But that was when I first joined Twitter, five, six years ago. In those days I had first a few hundred followers and then a few thousand followers. And there weren’t really that many people on Twitter, so it was kind of like a little private playground. So you could put jokes up there and see which ones worked, and you could try stuff out; and then if something looked funny, it’s got some nice positive responses you could go: right, well I might pop that in my gig tonight, or tomorrow.

In the dressing room before a gig you could try something out and then you can put that in ten minutes before a gig. I liked that. But it kind of got a bit ruined, because Twitter just got really big. And now I’ve got something like fifty-four thousand followers and a lot of them are the same people that will come to my tour. So I’m now really careful, I don’t generally really put anything up on Twitter that I think is ever going to make it into live stand-up.

Sometimes I do, sometimes I put something up and then later on I think oh, that’s a better idea than I gave it credit for; I can rewrite it and give it another go. But generally nowadays the things I put on Twitter are leftovers, quite frankly. So either things that work better written down than said out loud; or they’re something that was quite good but was never going to make it in a tour show, so you think well, I’ll put that out for free as a bit of marketing. So that’s a huge difference. Whereas I used to try out my A-grade stuff on Twitter because nobody would ever see it; then it just got too big. It was great when you could use it, but you can’t now.

I mean, I did a whole piece in my last Edinburgh show – it isn’t in the tour show – chasing the history of one particular joke that I initially put on Twitter about four years ago, something like that; and I took a slide of the original post, and then monitored how it spread around the internet.

It was a lovely little joke – the joke was: I’ve got a new job playing the triangle in a reggae band, and ting. Lovely little joke. And that joke just went so crazy on the internet: it just appeared loads of different times, in loads of different versions. I heard DJs do it on the radio. I’ve seen signs outside pubs with it on. That joke got so widespread that I had to drop it.

And that’s the effect putting it on the internet has now.

Yeah, and it’s not just Twitter. There are websites where people post jokes, and there’s Facebook, there’s all sorts of things. Unfortunately, short jokes are very easy to travel round the internet. Even if you don’t put stuff up, other people will put your stuff up because they’ve seen you at gigs, or on telly or YouTube or wherever it is. Even if you’re careful not to do anything yourself, other people will do it. Short jokes have a much shorter shelf life than they used to. People used to have to try and remember jokes to tell them to their mates. That’s a skill. They forget them, they get them wrong. Anyone can copy and paste. You don’t have to be clever to do that. So that’s the big difference really.

That said, it was great marketing for me. My first Edinburgh show, I’d say probably about 25% of tickets were people who followed me on Twitter. I don’t think I’d shift anywhere near that now. The number of people who come to my tour because they follow me on Twitter is probably lower; or they follow me on Twitter because they’ve seen me at a gig or on television. They don’t follow me on Twitter because I’m unknown. That dynamic has all changed, and that’s a shame in a way.

When I first started putting jokes on Twitter, nobody was doing it. In the early days on Twitter, I’m pretty sure when I first was on it there were only like two other comics putting gag ideas up on it – there was Rob Heeney and Justin Moorhouse. They were putting up proper gags, and no one else was. People were just sort of chatting. So if you were putting up material you really stood out, you got a lot of followers and people were like ‘hey, who’s this guy?’

Now everyone’s putting jokes up on there, it’s very hard to stand out. So it’s not as powerful as it used to be as a marketing tool, but it’s still good. If I’m selling tour dates, I’ll reach a hell of a lot more people on Twitter than I will on my mailing list, just because of the numbers game. But it’s not as potent as it used to be, but you know, there you go. The nature of it changes, who knows what the next one is going to be. Twitter’s been good to me overall, I can’t complain.

What comedy do you enjoy watching that’s nothing like yours? Something that you wouldn’t ever do, or maybe couldn’t ever do.

Well, I love a storyteller. I couldn’t tell a story to save my life. But you know, exquisitely done… like, Daniel Kitson’s storytelling is immensely skilled, he’s immensely skilled. Seeing someone like that, it’s something I could never do. It’s incredible. That’s really nice to see. I always find that the comics that come up to me and say ‘oh, I wish I could write a one-liner’ are the storytellers; and I’d love to be able to tell a story.

If I was doing an Edinburgh show, if I could put in the middle of it a nice proper, decent story that would great in terms of texture, to help make a show a bit more palatable. But I’m not that sort of guy. We all want what we don’t have.

I do enjoy a really good storyteller; not bad storyteller who’s just boring and waffley, but a really good storyteller in excellent. And I like daft things, as well. I’ve got some really embarrassing comedy in my personal DVD collection. I love The Thin Blue Line, for example. Hilarious. That’s probably the least cool sitcom ever made, but I really like it.

I tell you what I watched recently: I watched the first couple of episodes of ‘Allo ‘Allo – really well written, really enjoyed them. I suppose nowadays people would call them a guilty pleasure but I don’t like the idea of guilty pleasures, I can just say that I like them; I don’t need to be ironic about them. I just genuinely think they’re really funny.

Gary Delaney is currently touring his stand-up show, Purist, at venues across the UK. All dates can be found on his website – and it’s definitely worth following him on Twitter.