Andrew Dipper

Interview: Stewart Francis – Part #1

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Daring yet modest, visceral but compassionate, and keen to guard his privacy despite that oh-so-obvious talent as a performer, Stewart Francis is a ball of contradictions. But in a revealing, two-part interview with Giggle Beats, Francis admits stand-up wasn’t “the plan.”

Back in his native Canada, before all this, Francis wanted to make his living as a published cartoonist – then comedy came along and swept him away. Across the pond he was a series regular in sitcom An American In Canada, a prolific game show host and a stand-up on the rise. His Edinburgh Fringe debut come in ’97 – with Canadian stand-ups Craig Campbell and Glenn Wool – and their 1998 follow-up planted him firmly on the comedy radar. But Francis didn’t move to the UK for another ten years.

In 2009 he got his big break with a spot on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow. 11 appearances on Mock The Week followed, before Francis supported Ricky Gervais on his Science tour in early 2010. Later that year, at the age of 51, he went on his first stand-up tour, “an accumulation of 21 years of material.” Francis also has two stand-up DVDs to his name, Tour De Francis (2010) and Outstanding In His Field (2012).

Now moving into his twilight years as a performer, Francis is about to embark on a re-union tour with old pals Campbell and Wool, a kind of thank you to the UK for “giving me a really great career.” But after that is Francis calling it quits, or is there more to come from the UK’s most prolific import? Andrew Dipper finds out.

AD: Hey Stewart. You moved to the UK in 2007, I believe, and before that you lived in Spain for a while as well as Canada and Scotland. Do you think it’s fair to say then that your career really took off when you arrived here in the UK?

SF: Oh yeah. Six years ago – I can almost pin-point the first Mock The Week appearance and it’s been a wonderful ride ever since. I’d done everything I could do in Canada. I was back in Canada for the Just for Laughs festival in July, and I was in a hotel lift. I’m on the lift and there’s a gentlemen there and he says, ‘You’re the comedian, aren’t you? I’m a huge fan of yours!’ I said thanks and he said, ‘What’s your name again?’

That just sums up Canada. I wasn’t offended, I just thought it was adorable that I had to tell him the name of a man he was a huge fan of. I would’ve thought in theory that if you were a fan of mine you would actually know my name, but not in Canada.

The work was as good if not better over there but in the UK it’s part of your culture. I knew it was going to be good over here but I just didn’t realise how wonderful. That sounds like I’m about to retire, but no…it’s been an absolute joy.

AD: Well, you did say that your last tour might’ve been your last…

SF: Never say never. The first tour was essentially 21 years of accumulated material so at the end of that I thought, Crikey, it’s going to be another 21 years before I get another show together. But 18 months after that I wrote one that was as good, if not better, than the first one. However a lot of my creative juices are being directed towards a sitcom idea that I’ve got somebody who once worked with me interested in. If that were to take off then all my focus would be on that, which would rule out any more live shows for the foreseeable future, if not ever. I’m glad I do stand-up and it’s given me everything in my life, but it’s not who I am; I don’t need to go on stage every night and sing for my supper. My personality doesn’t require that. I’m just a funny fella who doesn’t want to work for a living.

It seemed like a great plan B because plan A was to be a published cartoonist – which is something I’m also coming back to. In the next week I’m hoping to find out if I’ve got a publisher for a book of my jokes and cartoons so these creative things are taking over any energy that might be directed towards a new show.

AD: Can you elaborate on those – the book and the sitcom?

SF: The book is…I’m a cartoonist, so I’ve got a catalogue of cartoons and the jokes are jokes I’ve all previously done. A literary agent approached me [about converting the old jokes into illustrations] and I said, ‘No, it’s money for old rope.’ I try to have some ethics when it comes to what I put out there and I think it’s cheeky to publish material I’ve already done. But as he told me, and I think rightfully so, there’s people who are book readers who don’t buy the DVDs, so there’s a whole different segment of society that would benefit – benefit in the sense that they would enjoy my jokes – from that. So I thought, okay. Also the fact that I get to include all these unpublished cartoons…that would be lovely.

Ah, the sitcom is just a…I think it’s like a live version of Family Guy, very surreal, very…like when Peter Griffin says, ‘I haven’t been so happy since-’ and then it cuts to an aside of Peter doing all sorts. There’d be a lot of that, a lot of play on words. It’s really a day in the life of me, but it’s by no means that boring; it’s an entertaining day in the life of me.

It’s a great idea if I do say so myself, and in my mind it’s a hilarious sitcom. It’s just a matter of translating that to TV, getting a pilot commissioned and we’ll see what happens after that. I went and saw three producers as it were – production companies – and all three wanted to do something with me. That in itself is almost more difficult than getting a show commissioned. Most production companies know what they’re talking about; they’re savvy, they’ll say, ‘No, that’s been done, that’s not funny…’

You can only work with one so we’ve narrowed that down and we’re having a creative meeting this week and our guys are very, very excited. When you get TV people excited – industry people don’t get excited because they’ve seen everything – it’s great. It looks good.

AD: Have you got any ideas ironed out about storylines, or who would play certain roles?

SF: Well it’s me – it’s all about me, with peripheral characters coming in and out.  I’m only really thinking about one thing and that’s the pilot. I might even be getting carried away myself, but I had another idea for another show and they [the three production companies] liked it, but because of my profile they reckon I should be the star of it because it’s my vehicle. But there was another [company] who saw me more as the cog; I wouldn’t be the star in that, which is kind of a weird one. I’m quite modest. I haven’t really cottoned on to how big my profile is over here, but they have and they think I should cash in on it.

It made sense so I went back to the drawing board and came up with a show that I was the focal point of. It was probably a better idea than the first one; it’s funny how things work out that way…

AD: That’s quite interesting because whenever I’ve seen you do stand-up I’ve always thought it was quite impersonal – there’s nothing there about you. Is that by design?

SF: I think it’s just evolved that way but it’s probably more of a reflection on my personality than I’ve ever given it credit. I definitely don’t want you to know anything about me – no offence – but at the same time how dare I assume that you would. Jokes are just jokes. I’ve got some mean-spirited jokes that in black and white are a bit harsh, but you become desensitised because these things that are quite hurtful…it’s wordplay. I’m a very compassionate fella, so it’s a little disconcerting that I can say some horrible things, but I don’t dwell on it.

I’ll come in and drop a real, ‘Ooh, where’d that come from?’ but then I’ll follow it up with some fluffy ones.  I definitely don’t want anyone to know anything about me. I’m not protecting that, I’m just a private person. Obviously not private enough not to go on stage every night, but how dare I assume the audience want to know something about me?

These story-teller guys, bless their cotton socks, they’ll go up there and just pour their hearts out. It might not be a cry for help but it’s not far from that as far as I’m concerned. I would’ve thought some things are best kept quiet but they feel the need to express their views on this, that and the other thing – but I don’t really care about their views. I came here for a couple of gags quite honestly, so I comfort myself by putting myself in the audience’s shoes.

Having said that, there are many storytellers who are just fantastic and take you on this wonderful journey – but I daren’t take that chance.

Click to read part two, when Stewart talks about his one-liner colleagues Tim Vine, Milton Jones and Jimmy Carr, his re-union tour with Craig Campbell and Glenn Wool, and a possible chat show in the works.