(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)
Harry Deansway published and edited The Fix comedy magazine for several years. He has also written comedy criticism, promoted and produced comedy shows and managed and directed acts.
In August, he is performing as a stand-up in his first full-length comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe.
“Was The Fix magazine your first thing?” I asked him when we met in London’s Soho last week.
“Pretty much, yeah.” he replied. “It went on for four years: I lost about £30,000 on it and, obviously, I fell out with a lot of people through it, as I imagine you have through your blog. Have you upset anyone?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“We would upset people on a monthly basis,” said Harry.
“Why on earth are you becoming a performer?” I asked.
“I’ve worked with a few acts,” replied Harry Deansway, “and they can be unreliable. I was doing a lot of work with other people and you get to a certain point when they go off with someone else and you’re left with nothing. So I thought I’d have a go at the performing side and, that way, I’m in complete control of my career.”
“Is your Edinburgh show going to be straight stand-up?” I asked.
“Without getting too pretentious about it…” started Harry.
“Feel free,” I told him.
“Well,” he continued, “straight stand-up, but working at a slightly different rhythm. Stand-up in its traditional form, but maybe subjects that aren’t as commercially dealt with, you know what I mean?”
“What sort of subjects?” I asked. “Chicken sexing? There’s a lot of money in chicken sexing.”
“I guess it’s more playing with the form of stand-up,” said Harry. “Obviously, I’ve observed a lot and understand the form a lot. Things like when acts get angry in a set and they’re not really angry. So I’ll do that in my act, but I’ll actually say I need to get angry for this bit.”
“Deconstructing?” I suggested.
“Deconstructing,” agreed Harry. “There’s a lot of similarities between jazz and comedy in the rhythm and the improvisations. John Coltrane really inspired me for my Edinburgh show. The way he would take a song and break it down into its parts. It still sounds like a song, but it’s completely out of control and improvised. So sometimes it feels like he’s lost control of the song. That’s what I want to try and do with my Edinburgh show. Is it in control or isn’t it? Oh my god, he’s totally lost the audience! It’s fucked! And then you bring it back.
“A deconstructed show, playing with the form, rhythms. A lot of comedy is like Build laughter until there’s a big laugh. I prefer to make it really awkward, get it worse and worse so people think it’s completely out of control and then you pierce that tension with a big laugh. It’s kind of the opposite of how other comedians do it. They like to build-and-build-and-build. I like to knock down and lower expectations.”
“That’s original,” I said. “trying to not get a laugh.”
“It’s been working pretty well recently,” said Harry.
“Isn’t there a chance people might think you’re a crap comic?” I asked.
“Yes, definitely,” said Harry.
“Would they be right?” I asked.
“I struggle to know the answer to that myself,” replied Harry. “Sometimes they would be; sometimes they wouldn’t be. Maybe inconsistent. Not crap.”
“How will you know,” I asked, “if you’re not getting a laugh successfully or not getting a laugh unsuccessfully?”
“It’s like Andy Kaufman,” said Harry. “People like that.”
“Or George Osborne,” I suggested.
“They make a career out of it,” said Harry. “It’s a long and hard road. I did a gig last night. The first three minutes, complete silence. Then some bloke in the front row leaned over to his mate and said Is it always this bad? and I said Do you think you could do better? and he said Yes, so he got up on stage and proceeded to tell two racist jokes. And the audience didn’t like me, but they hated him even more. It created this awful atmosphere that not even I could…”
“Well, you succeeded in being Andy Kaufman,” I said. “You know all comedians are mad. Do you aspire to be mad?”
“They are,” agreed Harry, “but to certain degrees. Some of it manifests itself in unreliability. In others it’s complete madness. Badly organised, unreliability, arguing all the time with people.”
“It’s OK to quote that?” I checked.
“Yes, you can quote anything,” Harry told me.
“There must have been something in you that was always a frustrated performer,” I suggested.
“Yes,” said Harry. “I’m definitely a happier person since performing comedy. Obviously there was a hole there.”
“So you are stopping being an entrepreneurial person?” I asked.
“No. What that did for me was give me a really good grounding, so that gives me a head’s start over any other act. I don’t mind doing my own admin and press, whereas that terrifies a lot of other acts. I’ve spent ten years as a highly unsuccessful businessman in the comedy industry.”
“Your show isn’t listed in the main Edinburgh Fringe Programme,” I said.
“As a marketing tool, I think it’s ineffective,” explained Harry.
“How long are you going to give yourself to become successful?”
“This Edinburgh. If I don’t win any awards, I’m giving up.”
“In September?” I asked.
“It needs to go well, I’ll tell you that much.”
“What happens if it doesn’t?” I asked.
“Over these last ten years,” said Harry. “I’ve had a feeling that I’m right. If it doesn’t work in August, then maybe I’m wrong.”
“Remind me what’s your Edinburgh Fringe show is called?” I asked.
“Because?” I asked.
“It just sounds good,” said Harry. “It’s a good hashtag for Twitter. My poster is me the wrong way round.”
“So this is going to be an anti-comedy comedy,” I said. “But is it going to work up to a climax?”
“Yes. But by messing around with the format of the Edinburgh show. It’s kind of taking the piss out of all those ‘journey’ shows where they get to the end and it’s poignant and all that bullshit. It’s really subverting that. I’ve seen so many Edinburgh shows and I hate any one that’s Joe Bloggs woke up one day and found his wife was cheating on him! Here’s the journey he took!”
“Doesn’t Andy Kaufman type anti-comedy only appeal to a minority audience, though?” I asked.
“But you can make a living out of it,” argued Harry, “though I haven’t even got to that stage yet.”
“You’d be happy making a living as opposed to being a superstar?” I asked.
“Oh, definitely,” said Harry. “Just the freedom… to… to keep innovating.” He laughed a rather embarrassed laugh. “That’s what I said, but I don’t mean it.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“It’s so bullshit. No, the freedom to build an audience who like what you’re doing and you can make a living out of it. The Stewart Lee / Simon Munnery model. It’s a longer process but, in the long term, you’re gonna have a more secure audience that are gonna want to see everything you do and it’s not going to be such a flash-in-the-pan thing. That’s what I’m doing, but I’m just in a hurry to get some sort of recognition. I’ve been doing this for ten years and I just don’t feel I’ve got the recognition I deserve, so I really need that.”
“What if reviewers don’t like your show?” I asked.
“They can say what they like,” replied Harry. “I watched this documentary about jazz and all the critics on it understood the form and theory of jazz and the way they spoke about it was amazing. But the majority of comedy critics are not up to scratch. In rock journalism, there’s a culture of Hunter S.Thompsons and Lester Bangs but it doesn’t feel like there’s been the same volume of good journalists. They’re all silver foxes.”
“I’m more of a slaphead fox,” I said.
“I set up a magazine – The Fix,” said Harry, “but really struggled to get interesting journalists for it. People who could really take the art of comedy seriously. I just don’t think there’s anyone who does that. We’re crying out for a great comedy journalist.”
“You’ve just started a podcast,” I said.
“Yes. Three or four weeks ago.”
“Profile,” replied Harry. “I interview big names and hope that they bring an audience to hear about me.”
“In our American cousins’ terms, how do you monetize that?” I asked.
“I’m not doing it to monetize it at the moment. It’s purely promotional for me and the act. Though, if someone set up a podcast advertising agency, there is money to be made there.”
“Perhaps you should do that,” I suggested.
“No thanks. I’m going to use all that knowledge for my own career. I’m not going to be helping acts any more. It’s all about me now. That’s what Edinburgh 2013 is all about. It’s my turn.”