Interview: John Cooper
Here at Giggle Beats we provide you with interviews with some of the finest stand-up comedians in the world – Jim Jefferies, Reginald D Hunter and Brendon Burns, to name just a few – but, ultimately, our website is about promoting Northern talent. Last week we spoke to Ross Noble and Dave Johns, and today we bring you one of our favourite Northern comedians: Sunderland’s John Cooper. Earlier in the year Editor Andrew Dipper went to see Cooper’s character act Danny Pensive at Hilarity Bites Comedy Club in Newcastle and was blown away – Pensive’s character is so simple in many ways, but utterly fantastic. As 2010 draws to a close, Andrew Dipper caught up with Cooper to talk about the future of North East comedy, and how his own career has progressed over the years.
AD: Hi John. What, or perhaps who, inspired you to become a comedian?
JC: I fell into stand-up through some workshops at The Hyena in Newcastle, back when it was the ‘comedy cafe’. I think at first I did it to impress the ladies, but then I realised that was a futile goal, as I was just as odd on stage as I off. I was a big fan of Vic and Bob in the 90’s and then with stand up , Jack Dee and Simon Munnery were great inspirations. A few years before I got into stand up I went to see Jack Dee at Sunderland Empire, and he was pretty awesome.
AD: How does the current North East scene compare to the one you experienced in your early years as a comedian?
JC: It’s certainly come on a lot with Middlesbrough, Stockton and Darlington having gigs with national reputations now, as well as really well established venues like the Bridge Hotel in Newcastle and Durham Gala.
AD: So what do you think the region needs to stop good comedians like yourself, Jason Cook and Chris Ramsey moving away from the region?
JC: Oh, that’s a tough one. I think emerging comics have different reasons for leaving, I know mine was basically one of geography just to get nearer the bigger cities and the work. I know there are some pro comics who live in the North East, and always will. To answer the question, I really don’t know – chains? Or maybe those exploding collars you see in sci-fi movies.
AD: What does the North East need to do in order to rival the Manchester comedy scene?
JC: To rival, or imitate? Ok, I’m making this up as I go along, but a great comedy scene should have a few types of gig venue. An open mike night where anyone can have a go; a dedicated weekend club that the stags and hens can go to – this is unavoidable; a regular pro club that books all kinds of stand up, weekends, touring shows, sketch and improve; also a ‘bridge’ gig where experienced support acts can learn how to close with longer sets and open spots can move up to the tougher proposition of opening, and comperes get regular stage time.
Now I’ve written it, it does seem like a bit of a tall order but I think it’s important when running a gig to work with other promoters and offer up something different to what’s already going on. This isn’t always easy when you’ve got to put bums on seats every week, and it almost encourages risk taking on the part of the promoter.
AD: How highly do you rate the current crop of North East comedians?
JC: I really like Andy Fury, who I’ve seen a couple of times now, and also the two Tonys; Basnett and Jameson.
AD: Do you prefer your normal set or your Danny Pensive character act?
JC: Fifty fifty. It’s an interesting position I’m in as an act ‘with two acts’, but both inform each other. I couldn’t really compere as Danny Pensive I don’t think, and I love compering. On the flip side as Danny Pensive I’ve had a great year touring and closing some big gigs, so I’m really having my cake and eating it at the moment.
AD: Have you ever accidently drifted from one to another during a set?
JC: No. It’s a totally different mindset. There’s a little bit of ‘material overlap’, but it’s so different I often refer to Danny Pensive in the third person, like he’s someone else entirely.
AD: You’re a member of the ComedySportz impov group. Does it help sharpen your abilities as a compere? Has there ever been an occasion where you were lost for words?
JC: Yes it does. I started doing ComedySportz at the same time I was MCing a weekly gig in Manchester a few years back now. Improv is its own thing and once you’ve been doing it a while you can feel the effect it has – it’s like a really good mental exercise and keeps you fast. I often make up little rhyming ‘songs’ during the day that are full wrongness to get my creative juices flowing. I’m never lost for words but on the odd occasion say something inappropriate due to what I call ‘lack of social context’.
AD: Your Danny Pensive character seems to exemplify childish fun which is just inherently funny – was that your intention when developing your character act? What attracts you to character comedy?
JC: Character comedy is about people. I was prepping for a Danny show in Manchester, sitting at a table in a bar, making a chef’s hat prop from a Tesco carrier bag and two sheets of A4 paper when I was joined at the table by some chaps, one of whom looked at me and asked me what I was doing. ‘I’m making a Chef’s hat out of a Tesco carrier bag and a two sheets of A4 paper’, I said. Unsurprisingly he gave me an odd look. ‘Why don’t you buy a real one?’ he suggested. ‘It’s not as funny’, I replied. Another odd look – he didn’t understand and I didn’t care to explain – two people on completely opposite wavelengths. As he was with friends and I was alone, you don’t have to be a great reader of people to understand as he looked at his friends and drew their attention to me, I was the mad person and he was normal. I was prepared to move to another table, but decided to stay put being there first. Their attention stayed on me. I tried to put my actions into context by painfully coughing up, ‘It’s for a comedy gig, here later on’. This only made it worse with the reply, ‘What’s funny about a chef’s hat?’ I had no answer.
Danny Pensive is basically who I was as a kid in Sunderland, and who I still am in awkward moments. Not fitting in, making stuff up, looking at things really hard, and not caring what people thought of you because you are different. Or better still not even acknowledging there’s any social difference in status, opinion or attitude between you and anyone else at all, ever.
The chef’s hat got a laugh. Job done.
AD: You’ve been supporting Charles Ross with his One Man Lord Of The Rings show – how’s it going? Do you think the tour has helped you develop your set?
JC: Touring with Charlie was immense fun, and we’ve become great mates, as we’re both geeks. The shows were great, as were the theatres we played in. It’s quite exhausting being on tour, you done really get to relax as you’re constantly on the move, so you don’t really properly ‘visit’ the place you’re at. Out of the twenty six cities we visited I only really saw a couple, mostly I saw hotels, B&B’s, car parks and the stretch of pavement between the venue and the nearest sandwich shop.
AD: What do you personally find funny? What would you classify as good comedy?
JC: I’ve always prefer odd stuff and original voices, but it has to be genuine, not wacky. My own inspirations come from stand up, character and sketch comedy. Daniel Kitson, Richard Herring, John Sparkes, Simon Munnery, Tom Baker, Kenny Everett, David Cross and Spike Milligan – they’re all on my list of good stuff.
AD: Finally, when can we see you next in the North East?
JC: I’m at the Journal Tyne Theatre supporting One Man Star Wars on 3rd May , but hopefully I’ll be up before then. That’s up to the promoters (are you reading this, Peter? Neil? Steff? John?) – I’d love to come and do Danny in Sunderland. We’ll see.