Andrew Dipper

Interview: Stewart Francis – Part #2

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In part one of our extensive Stewart Francis interview, the Canadian stand-up revealed his retirement plans (not yet, don’t worry), a new sitcom and his desire to return to his first love: drawing cartoons.

Today Francis discusses his contemporaries – namely Tim Vine, Milton Jones and Jimmy Carr – finding his comedy rhythm, the Lumberjacks re-union tour with pals Craig Campbell and Glenn Wool and a possible chat show in the works.

AD: You often get talked about in relation to other gag writers; where do you see yourself on the comedy ladder? Do you ever hear a gag from, say, Tim Vine or Milton Jones and think, I wish I’d written that?

SF: No, never envious. I’m as good if not better – but they probably feel the same way about themselves. There’s enough work to spread around. People like Emo Philips; he’s a nutcase, a proper character, and I’m kind of a little more human I think – even though you’re not getting an insight into my personality. I think that’s a little more attractive because a lot of the guys are characters. I get why they do it, but I like my more ‘normal’ style, which I would find more appealing quite honestly. Jimmy Carr is robotic and anyone critical of him would say that; it’s almost like a machine performing stand-up comedy. I think there needs to be more of a human element to it. I’m pleased the way [my material] has worked out. It’s not by design, it’s just the way it’s evolved. I am a character to a certain extent; I’m an actor performing a script.

AD: I see certain one-liner comics and I switch off after 20 minutes but you manage to hold my attention with set pieces – songs or even just different rhythms in the gags. That’s something you obviously work on quite extensively…

SF: I completely agree with you and I appreciate that you describe it in that way. I just put myself in the audience’s shoes. To do straight one-liners, set up and punch line…I get bored after five minutes. I lose interest in other one-liner guys because you quickly learn where they’re going with it. But with me you’re exactly right, I change it up so something new is just around the corner, even though at its core it’s all the same.

The last tour I approached scientifically because I know there’s a threshold where the audiences become physically uncomfortable. More people are getting up to go the loo so I deliberately put slower stuff in there – that’s why I did my time-wasting bit. So I come on gangbusters at the start, my one-liner kind of stuff, then I slowed down the pace, allowing people to catch their breath, then I finish on a high with a whole bunch of one-liners.

That’s the only time I’ve ever given thought to that, and I recognised that from my first tour. No matter how funny those gags are, at that threshold they’re not going to be as well-received as they maybe should. But with this tour, I…I was pleased with the results, put it that way.

AD: You’re going on a re-union tour with Craig Campbell and Glenn Wool this spring [they shared an Edinburgh show together in August 97 and 98]. How did you all meet?

 SF: I met Craig about five or six years before [1997]. I was doing the Western tour and I picked up a young, fresh-faced Craig Campbell from the airport to do a tour of Alberta or something like that – so that was the first time I met him. And I met Glenn in Edinburgh in ’97…he was a comedian back in Canada but he was travelling around Europe at the time. Craig and I, in our friendship, had been to Scotland off and on professionally and I’ve been going there all my life. Craig and I discussed sharing the bill [at the Edinburgh Fringe] and Glenn came along as a guest lumberjack and the following year he was a fully fledged lumberjack.

AD: So ’97 was very much like last year’s Fringe then, when you had a guest comic join you on the bill?

SF: Yes. We wanted it to be a special evening for the punters. You had the three of us – which is a strong bill as it is – and we wanted a surprise lumberjack, the bigger the better. The first one was Harry Hill and we had Jimmy Carr and Stewart Lee…we were very lucky to get such big names, and I think the audience loved it.

AD: Whose idea was it to re-unite this year? You’ve all been successful in your own right, so was there an anxiety about getting back together?

SF: Well, no, it’s always been fondly remembered so any time I’ve been in Glenn’s company or Craig’s company we’ve always discussed getting back together. We’ve been – not been putting it off, but we’ve been trying to get our schedules together. We then decided we’d do it last year, and if we remained friends after the summer we’d then discuss touring it. We got through that relatively unscathed so we’re doing the spring tour and I think we’re going to be announcing Autumn dates too.

We’ll see how that goes because there’s also discussions about trying to pitch this as a TV show. That’s exciting in itself but it’s way down the road. The way I see it in my mind is that it would be like Pee-wee’s Playhouse, so the three of us would ‘live’ together in a log cabin in the back and beyond of Alberta or something like that. Hopefully we’d have guests that drop in and…the central point would be a log cabin, very Canadiana. There’s a couple of ideas that we’ve bandied about that sound quite appealing.

AD: So it’d be a sitcom mixed with a chat show element?

SF: Exactly, yeah. A little bit of everything!

AD: You’ve been touring yourself the past few years, doing 90 minute to two hour shows, but you’re almost going back to basics with a tight club set. Does the Lumberjacks tour relieve some pressure on you?

SF: Considerably, but I still hope to have a new 20 minutes. It’s been advertised as new and previously loved material but the pro in me wants to do new stuff. It’s a huge pressure lifted off me but it doesn’t stop that creative challenge of coming up with new material. I’ve already got some wonderful jokes. I’ve done a couple of charity gigs recently and these jokes were well received, so I can’t wait to mould my 20 minute set together.

I love the idea that promoters have left the punters know that I don’t want to mislead people into thinking it’s going to be a brand new show, but…the chances are it’s going to be a brand new show.

AD: You said you’re doing 20 minutes…I presume when you go on tour you won’t have that guest spot?

SF: I’m hopeful that we can get guest lumberjacks. It’s all down to logistics; if we know someone is on tour or in town we can maybe get them on. I think for London we’ve already got one high-profile guest, which makes more sense as a lot of comedians live in London.

We’re doing about 20 minutes each, but we’re hoping that when we spend more time with each other we’ll be able to come up with a sketch or a video Q&A of sorts. For that we need to physically be in each other’s company for more than a cup of coffee – which we will be of course when the tour kicks off. We’ve got two dates in Manchester at the start so I’m hoping we can do that then.

AD: How do you think you’ve managed your mainstream appeal with Glenn Wool’s committed underground following then?

SF: Well, we’re two separate entities and I would’ve thought that’s what’s appealing as a punter; you’ve got me with my cheeky one-liners, Glenn’s changing the world and putting to rights, and Craig tells wonderful stories.

If someone’s not getting something out of that night they should maybe look for another form of entertainment because we’re definitely going to give them three different styles of comedy, I would think. That’s why we’re doing it; it’s a good excuse to hang out together but in these tough times I think it’s a great showcase for people who might want to see what’s out there. You’re getting three for the price of one.

Without sounding patronising, all three of us are grateful for what the UK has provided us professionally so it’s not a thank you note but it’s not far from that. We’re very grateful for the experience here.

Stewart Francis, Craig Campbell and Glenn Wool are touring Return of the Lumberjacks at theatres across the UK, including Durham Gala, Salford Lowry and Sheffield City Hall. For a full list of dates, click here.