Interview: Simon Munnery
How many musicals have you seen about British rigid airships? It sounds like a silly question – and it is – but Simon Munnery’s latest show Hats Off To The 101ers, And Other Material offers just that, and a bit more.
“It’s a mixed bag of things, really,” Munnery admits. “It includes a six minute, one-man punk rock musical about the old R101 airship disaster in 1930. I’ll also do three monologues, a sketch about the two thieves left on crosses after Jesus was taken down, some stand-up, a few poems and a song.”
A mixed bag is right. Munnery has been dabbling in different forms of comedy his entire career. Over the years, he has experimented with various levels of audience interaction and intimacy, from post-alternative comedy cabaret Cluub Zarathustra to La Concepta, the conceptual pop-up restaurant that doesn’t sell food. For La Concepta, only four punters were allowed to attend at any one time.
Munnery also performed the Edinburgh show Annual General Meeting, where he would submit notions to his audience and they would discuss them at length. “It was good fun, but it would sometimes go on for over three hours depending on the number of notions. It was interesting and forced you to make stuff up as you went along.
“When I started stand-up this wasn’t called ‘Comedy’ so much as it was ‘New Variety’. I think there was much more variety back then; there were poets, singers and things that were just hard to describe! I saw a brilliant act called ‘The Ice Man’. All he would do was melt ice – but as he pointed out, ‘It would melt, anyway…’ I miss that sort of thing.
“There are a variety of acts at the Fringe but I feel it’s a bit more commercial and mainstream now. It can sometimes get a bit wearing when you’ve got three acts and it just turns into a few blokes talking about the same thing in different accents.”
I ask Munnery whether that tradition drives him to continue experimenting: “I’m not sure really. It’s more boredom, I suppose! Last year my show was just straight stand-up and it went really well; I enjoyed it. But I’ve done that now – I want to have a break and try some other things. This show is filled with nice pieces I just wanted to do. The musical is only around six minutes as that’s the limit of my guitar playing! Joe Strummer, of course, called himself that because he couldn’t play chords – I’m with him there.”
Yet with all these different ideas at play, Munnery couldn’t sound more comfortable in his preparation. I wasn’t totally sold by his punk rock musical about an airship, but Munnery was happy to provide a little context. “I live near Bedford, and just outside of the area are these two massive sheds where they actually stored the R100 and the R101. They were the biggest buildings constructed in Britain at the time – but I suppose nowadays they are only about a tenth of the size of a small ASDA distribution centre. I went to an exhibition in Bedford museum about the R101 and I became fascinated by it.
“There was this one photograph of an amazing, massive silver ship in the sky above a horse drawn plough. Imagine that back then; ploughing by horse and looking up to see that!”
Munnery’s surreal presence, often characterised by his quirky on-stage appearance, led me to wonder how he shares and crafts his thoughts before they make it into the public domain. Are his eccentric ideas tested on family and friends first? “I save my jokes for the stage,” Munnery concedes. “Jokes run by my wife will often receive blank expressions, so I always think, ‘Fine I’ll try it in front of an audience then.’ It’s the best way to do it – the school of hard knocks. If it pays off adapt it, if it doesn’t, drop it.”
I catch Munnery just before he embarks on his first show of the tour at London’s Soho Club. “I’m looking forward to it,” he says after a deep breath. “I don’t feel anything at the moment, really, as I’ve got a lot of packing to do. Once everything is in a case and ready to go I’ll be all right. I’m a little bit nervous, but also excited, I suppose. It’s like packing to go on holiday. You’re more wrapped up in not forgetting anything, but once I’m ready and on the train I’ll be happy.”
Keen to find out more about the weight of Munnery’s cult status within the industry, I ask whether the expectations of a loyal fan-base affect his comedic outlook. “I can’t do anything about it, really – so as long as people turn up I’m happy. They say three is a crowd, but not for comedy – you need about thirty.
Experimental comedy will always be at the heart of Munnery’s stand-up, but with a second successive national tour on the horizon, bigger and better seems to be his new mantra. “Generally the bigger the audience the easier it is,” says Munnery. “I took some time last year supporting Stewart Lee on his tour when he was playing thousand seater theatres. That sort of number is a lot easier than the smaller groups. It felt like having a warm bath. It was lovely.
“Certain clubs would cancel a gig if the numbers were under thirty and I can understand why. There is something about that number. It’s when a room of people get a sense of themselves as a group cease to be individuals. They become an audience – a beautiful, single creature. When an audience laughs together it’s an amazing thing – like a flock of birds arching as if from a central command – there is something delightful about that.”