Interview: Simon Munnery
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.
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