I also asked him:
“You’re the comedians’ comedian aren’t you? Everyone says Oh, that Simon Munnery, he’s a genius.”
“Not everyone,” laughed Simon.
“But you’re said to be an intellectual comedian, aren’t you?”
“I dunno… I don’t really… Am I?… I’ve got a joke about Socrates.”
“You were a member of Mensa.”
“Only briefly. My English teacher at school was talking about Mensa and people with high IQs and said Of course, nobody in this room could join and I went home and there was an ad in a newspaper – Write off for the IQ test – and I joined Mensa on those grounds for about six months.”
“And you left because…?”
“I went to a couple of meetings. I went ice skating, though I didn’t actually ice skate. And a picnic at Kenwood House. Friendly people. I’d thought we might be doing puzzles or trying clever things out but, instead, people were just chatting about their lives. I was a bit young – 13 or 14.”
“Your comedy’s not going to play Butlins, is it?” I suggested.
“I’d give it a go,” said Simon. “I’ve had a set for the last three years. It plays clubs everywhere. It changes slowly like a sedimentary rock. I’m happy to play that anywhere to anyone.”
“When Malcolm Hardee and I compiled the book Sit-Down Comedy,” I said, “the first thing you submitted was basically the script for your Buckethead show plus footnotes and I thought it was absolutely wonderful but it was too unconventional for Ebury Press/Random House. You then wrote a more conventional and wonderful Sherlock Holmes story. But, when I read the Buckethead script (with footnotes), it was almost funnier than the stage show, because the comedy material was so dense there was a lot I had not picked up.”
“Well,” said Simon. “Maybe that’s what comes of speaking through a bucket… It doesn’t help your diction.”
“You should be writing books,” I suggested.
“I’m too busy doing this Fylm show,” said Simon.
His new show involves him sitting behind the audience, speaking into a camera, so they see him on screen in front of them while he performs behind them.
“I’m not inventing the wheel,” he told me, “but I think I’ve discovered a wheel… Well, the wheel’s there and there’s another one over there and I put them together and – Look! – I’ve got a bicycle!… I’m surprised no-one else does it. Talks to the camera. People do Powerpoint presentations and they’re well aware of the power of the visual. Powerpoint, slides, little videos. But talking to the camera? Why not?”
“I thought your stage act changed after you lost a bollock,” I told him.
“Before that, you were always a character – Alan Parker, Urban Warrior, Buckethead or whatever. Then you had testicular cancer and, after you had one removed, I think in Australia you started talking about it and talking about yourself, which you hadn’t done before.”
“Yes. That’s right,” said Simon. “As in classic stand-up. But, no, I did Buckethead after losing a testicle.”
“So that’s that theory buggered then,” I said. “But you did seem to become more yourself on stage.”
“Yeah,” said Simon. “Deliberately. I thought I’d give that a go. I’d just been doing a series of characters forever.”
“Had you wanted to be a comedian when you were at Cambridge University?” I asked.
“I suppose when I went there I wanted to be a physicist but,” he laughed, “within a week…”
“Did you actually have a career idea?”
“No. I was just looking forward to studying, finding out things. But I went a bit mad. I didn’t work very hard.”
“How did you stumble into comedy?”
“I was at Cambridge and I joined all the clubs.”
“You were doing Physics?”
“I ended up doing The History & Philosophy of Science. It was a long time ago. I didn’t really do it. That’s when I started doing gigs. And I loved it the first time. It’s a bit like a gambler walking into a casino and winning. You’ll be back. Fortunate or unfortunate. I still like it.”
“I’ve never,” I said, “understood the mentality of comedians. If you fail, then you think you’re as bad as you think you possibly are on your worst days. If you do the best gig in the world, then you think I can only go downhill from here. I can never be this good again; it will all be a comparative disaster. You just know that, at some point, on stage – not necessarily because of you or the material – but maybe because of the audience or whatever – you are going to die on stage.”
“Statistically. Yeah,” said Simon. “That’s very exciting.”
“The thought of dying?”
“The thought of clawing them back?”
“Or not,” said Simon.
“So, after your Fylm show,” I asked, “what are you going to do? You’ve done stand-up comedy and mastered the art…”
“I wouldn’t say that,” said Simon.
“What have you yet to master?”
“I dunno. Make a windmill.”
“A comedy windmill?”
“Or a tent.”
“I‘ve seen you put a tent up at Glastonbury.”
“Not put one up. Design a tent. A house. Design a house. A totally eco-house. Making things out of concrete. Get a plastic tube, fill it with concrete, leave it for a couple of days, come back and you’ve got a concrete pillar. Easy. I’ve just got to find a use for it… It’s invention… then necessity.”
“Is all this,” I asked, “because there’s a scientific/physics element to your brain?”
“I think about things like that a lot,” said Simon. “Windmills.”
“Why windmills?” I asked.
“I dunno. It’s very windy. Might be that. I’d like to build a collapsible windmill, like a camping one. I like being in things that are just on the verge of collapsing.”
“What is a camping windmill?” I asked.
“Say you’re camping somewhere and it’s windy and you’d like to tax the wind for a bit of electricity. Perhaps you’re a refugee. I dunno. A collapsible, easy-to-carry windmill, wind generator. That would be worth making. I think you could make one out of four poles. No, five poles.”
“You’ve thought this through,” I said.
“I’ve been obsessed by it. I nearly cut up an umbrella the other day. But I stopped myself.”
“Why damage an umbrella? I could think about it a little more. I could see it wouldn’t work exactly as I wanted. I thought if you slashed one of the panes of the umbrella and brought it back and stretched it to the next pole, then that would be a bit like the blade of a propeller. If the wind came along from here… Whoooshh!!… All of them. All just coming back rather than going straight round, each one comes back at an angle, it could spin round its axis.”
“Is there a practical reason why you want to build a windmill?” I asked. “Or do you just like the idea of something spinning round?”
“For a long time, I’ve had some sort of Survivalist approach to…” Simon started, then began laughing. “I like building things like that. I look at gaps in hedges and think I could live there. Dis-used railway sidings. I’m always on the lookout for that sort of thing. Give me a network of tunnels I’d be happy.”
“So,” I said, “the cliché question is Where will you be in five years time?”
“You don’t care?”
“Can’t answer it. Dunno. I’m happy doing what I do. Hopefully I will pursue the visual thing.”
“To the extent of doing a half-hour or 90 minute film?”
“I’m still playing with it. It’s a very rich seam. I’ve just discovered 3D. Apart from my face, there’s cardboard animations and graphics.”
“Do you like being interviewed?”
“Dunno. Not really. Don’t mind. Dunno. Call it a draw?”
“Is it OK if I take some pictures now?” I asked.
“Yeah. But that’d be illegal in King’s Cross.”
“King’s Cross?” I asked.
“King’s Cross station,” said Simon. “You’re not allowed to do flash photography. There was a big announcement on the tannoy: Flash photography is not permitted in King’s Cross. The people using flash photography on Platform 5, stop immediately or you will be escorted from the station and you will not be allowed to travel! It was really harsh. At 6 o’clock today.”
“Dunno. Life’s a mystery.”