When I chatted to Comedy Cafe owner Noel Faulkner recently, he mentioned that Canadian comic Graham Clark was coming over to the UK to play one show only for one night only at the Comedy Cafe and it is this Friday.
I had tea with Graham yesterday afternoon, admirably and surprisingly not just awake but lively after flying over from Vancouver.
“You have the worst possible date for a gig,” I told him. “Clashing with the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympic Games on TV.”
“Yeah,” he laughed. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I had a gig the night the Vancouver Winter Olympics started in 2010.”
“So you’ve already experienced what London’s next few weeks are going to be like?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I know what a nightmare it becomes. The rich people are really excited about it, because they’re the ones who’re gonna see lots of things and then everybody else gets screwed because the traffic’s messed up. They sell it as the brotherhood of man and a great coming-together of the world, but it’s really just a good time for rich people and everybody else has to put up with it. Getting everywhere in Vancouver was a nightmare and all the comedy clubs were kaput.”
“There’s no comedy ‘circuit’ in Canada, is there?” I asked.
“Not like there is here in Britain,” Graham explained. “Because it’s such a gigantic country. There’s mini-circuits within the Provinces, but it’s not like here or the US because you would spend so much money going from city to city on a plane – or driving – that you’d never make any real money. There’s a small fringe festival circuit, but not like here.”
“Have you thought about playing the Edinburgh Fringe over here?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” Graham said, “But you just hear stories that it costs a fortune.”
“A couple of hours ago,” I said, “someone told me one of the major agencies this year was unusually honest to a new act they manage. They told her that, if she sells out every seat at every performance of her show at the Fringe this year, she will end up only owing them £9,000.”
“So what’s it like being a comedian in Canada?” I asked. “You’re a second rate American.”
“It’s tough,” Graham said. “Really tough.”
“And do the audiences react to material the same in the States and Canada?” I asked.
“In the States, the crowds are more lively,” Graham said. “They go nuts. They clap and shout and hoot and holler. And, as a comedian, that’s great. Even the best Canadian audiences are very sedate. The worst American audiences are still more lively than the best Canadian audiences.”
“American comics,” I said, “sometimes complain that British audiences sit there thinking That’s very funny but don’t laugh.”
“It’s the same in Canada,” said Graham.
“Did you start your weekly podcast to break into a wider market?” I asked. “You saw it as a pilot for a radio show?”
“No,” said Graham. “There isn’t really a place for that in Canada. We pitched it loosely to CBC; but maybe it’s too much in its infancy.”
“And you continue the podcast because…?”
“Because, in Canada, everyone does everything,” Graham explained. “There are people in Britain who just do stand-up. It blows my mind that you could just be one thing. In Canada, you have to be doing stand-up, writing on a TV show or, if something comes up, you act in something or you produce your own shows or do podcasts – and that’s just to make the rent. That’s not piling up riches.
“In Canada, there’s not even that much money in TV. In the last couple of years, I’ve worked on a couple of sitcoms and a panel show and a daily news humour show: but none of them paid very well. There’s only one Canadian comic I know who can fill auditoriums – Russell Peters.”
“So you are exploring all avenues,” I said.
“Yeah,” Graham agreed. “I put a DVD directly online, because that’s the new…
“What Louis C.K. does,” I said.
“Yeah. But it works surprisingly well, even in a smaller microcosm like Canada; it’s easier for people to access.”
“So do you reckon comics have to leave Canada to make it big at all?”
“Yeah. And the whole time you’re working in Canada, that’s hanging over your head. Everybody moves to the States or to Britain.”
“So you, too, have to move?” I suggested.
“Yeah. It’s possible.”
“You thinking about it?”
“Every time I pay the rent,” Graham laughed.
“To the States or Britain?” I asked.
“It costs a lot more to move to the States,” he said, “and I have an Irish passport – my family’s from Antrim – so that makes it very easy to work over here.”
“Would you describe your act as more gag-based or story-based?” I asked.
“More story-based, I guess,” Graham replied, then paused. “I’ve written gags for other people but, for myself, doing lots of one-liners never works: it always comes out sounding too ‘finished’. I don’t have that Jimmy Carr type of delivery where you do accept from him that he is performing written one-liners. People want my delivery to be like it just fell out of my head. If it seems too polished, people don’t accept it from me, which is weird.
“You identify them as a specific character, so they can talk in one-liners; it doesn’t bother you. But some people – like Louis C.K. – talk naturally in paragraphs or in stories. I don’t know if I would accept Louis C.K delivering one-liners, even though that’s what he used to do: shorter jokes.”
“So,” I said, “in your own audience’s view, you just come onstage and chat to them.”
“Yeah,” Graham mused, “I’ve tried a bunch of ways but that’s the way that flows the best for me: to have an idea and push it out on stage.”
“People have to believe it’s…” I started.
“…organic,” Graham said. “Yeah. With me, if it’s too ‘written’, it’s gonna sound that way. I’ve tried different styles of jokes – linked and stories and short and one-liners and dirty and clean – and the one thing that seems to work the best with me is when it just seems to be running off the top of my head.”
“Traditional comics with strings of short gags,” I suggested, “seem to be a dying breed. It’s mostly stories at the Edinburgh Fringe now.”
“Though, oddly, I feel my jokes are getting shorter,” Graham told me. “When I started out, they tended to be longer and have more detail, but now maybe I’m better at editing and want to get to the point faster. The British comics we see who come over to Canada have big, long stories.”
“Does that go down well?”
“It does,” said Graham, “but you could never develop that in Canada because, in the clubs, you need to turn over the laughs faster because nobody’s paying attention.
“In Britain, a whole 5-minute routine can be one story. You’d really have to be very confident to do that in Canada, because people don’t have the attention. They want jokes every 30 seconds. If you’re not delivering that on a Friday night, then they’re gonna drift. We have to be more gag-based than the British.”
As Graham and I parted – he was off to do a radio interview to publicise his show – he said to me: “That was a good interview you did with Noel Faulkner.”
“Well,” I said. “Noel’s like me: he’s got to that age where he doesn’t care – He’ll just say what he thinks.”
“I wish I could get to that stage,” Graham said. “I still worry.”
Twenty minutes later, I got a text message from Neale at the Comedy Cafe, telling me that Graham’s show on Friday – up against the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games on TV – had sold out.
Maybe Graham Clark does not need to worry.