Writer/performers Dave Cohen and John Dowie are one gig away from the end of their current world tour.
“Yes,” Dave told me, “it’s a world tour of independent London bookshops.”
They are at Clapham Books this coming Thursday.
“Why,” I asked, “are two people with no new books out doing a book tour?”
“In my case,” John told me, “to try and get enough people to pledge to my book – The Freewheeling John Dowie – to get it out.”
Dave said: “I did do a book and basically published it myself – How to be Averagely Successful at Comedy.”
“How did that do?” John asked him.
“It does as well as I can be bothered to flog it. I am going to do another one.”
“So,” I asked, “on this world tour, you are doing a split bill in these bookshop shows and reading from your books both published and unpublished?”
“No,” said Dave, “I’m doing a show. I tried to write a novel and it didn’t work. So I thought: Maybe it’s a sitcom. But that didn’t work either. So I thought Well, maybe it’s a 40-minute stand-up poem.”
“Why didn’t it work as a novel?” I asked.
“I don’t know how to write novels. Well, maybe I do. But I didn’t have whatever it takes to do it.”
“I think,” said John, “you have to write quite a lot before you can get a good one out of yourself.”
“I think,” I suggested, “writing a novel is the most difficult thing to do.”
“Well no,” said John, “having your leg taken off without an anaesthetic is worse. Tell us your dirty secrets, English paratrooper, or we will make you write a novel! That never happens.”
“To write a good joke…” suggested Dave. “Maybe 10 words, 12 words? To write a really fantastic joke: that’s a really hard skill. The most brilliant comedy writers who can do that are not necessarily that good at being able to write characters. You get people who are successful gag writers who can’t do a sitcom as good. It’s a different skill.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “Horses for courses. Like comperes and comedians… It’s a different skill. Really good comedians are very often shit MCs…”
“Anyway,” said Dave, “my show… It’s called Music Was My First Love and it’s about me falling out with my dad. I did it at the Edinburgh Fringe and I think that’s in the contract. If you do a show in Edinburgh and you’re a male comic it has to be about not getting on with your dad. Did you ever do a ‘dad’ show, John?”
“It’s in me forthcoming book,” John replied. “The Freewheeling John Dowie. And I did a show about Joseph, father of Jesus – Jesus, My Boy – I guess that was partly to do with parenting.”
“That was great,” said Dave. “I saw it in a packed West End theatre.”
“Starring…?” I asked John.
“Did you ever perform it yourself?” Dave asked him.
“When I first wrote it I did. Nothing sharpens the writer’s pen more than having to go on stage shovelling filth over the footlights yourself – Then it’s: God! That scene’s going! That’s gone! THAT’s gone!”
“I’ve only done my show eight times,” Dave told me. “The first time I did it, it was about an hour and ten minutes long. The poor people who saw that first show really sat through my entire life story! So I got up the next morning and had a cup of tea and cut and cut and cut it down to about 55 minutes. Then John here told me thought 40 minutes was enough. So I cut it and cut it again and it’s now 40 minutes long.”
“How did you two meet?” I asked.
“I was,” explained Dave, “a fan of John before he even knew I existed. He was one of the pioneers in the punk days. I got into punk and, at the same time as I was setting up my record label in Bristol, John was appearing on Factory Records. There was a very small circle of people who were doing music and comedy in the late 1970s. There was Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias and John Dowie and that was kind of it. Billy Connolly sometimes – though he was Folk, really.”
“I became a big John Dowie fan and bought this record which had John on and also happened to have Joy Division and the Durutti Column. As a result, I suddenly became really hip among my Bristol contemporaries. Wow! You’re into Factory Records! But it was really just for this funny Brummie bloke who did comedy songs.”
“How,” I asked, “did a Brummie end up on Factory Records in Manchester?”
“I lived near Manchester,” John told me.
“What year is this?”
“You did gigs with Nico when she was living in Manchester,” I prompted.
“Briefly. She lived with John Cooper Clarke. She was being managed by a guy in Manchester.”
“And you, Dave,” I said used to share with Kit Hollerbach and Jeremy Hardy”
“It was very pleasant living with them,” he said. “But a single person living with a couple was very…”
“You were a gooseberry,” suggested John.
“Yes. In fact,” Dave added, “John O’Farrell always said he wanted to write a sitcom based on me: a single bloke living with a married couple. I said: Yeah. Thanks for taking the sad loneliness of my pathetic life and turning it into comedy.”
“He never tried it?” I asked.
“He came close. He was writing with Mark Burton at the time and that was one of their ideas.”
“I am,” said John, “going to sue God for my life. It was a disappointment from start to finish. It didn’t say that on the label.”
“Anyway,” I said to Dave, “basically you were a John Dowie groupie.”
“I was,” he agreed, “and then, years later, I was doing a gig at the Earth Exchange and I think John turned up with Arthur Smith and we went for a drink afterwards. So there I was with my absolute god hero and it was… eh… It was character-building.”
John laughed out loud.
Dave explained: “He basically told me what was wrong with my act and he was absolutely right. I went away and thought: He’s absolutely right! I don’t look at the audience! I do move around too much.”
Dave got better. In the 1980s and 1990s, with Pete Sinclair, he co-wrote several songs for ITV’s Spitting Image, including one when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher left office.
“When I first started,” John Dowie said, “I was up in Edinburgh and a theatre director came to see it, liked the material and hated the performance. I spent a week with him in London learning how not to walk away every time you get to the punchline. Why do you keep walking away on the punchlines? Stand still and say the punchline! Of course, the reason you walk away on the punchline is because you’re frightened of not getting a laugh and then, because you do it, you don’t get a laugh.
“They were quite nice,” John continued, “those 1980s days, because everyone was sort-of-doing the same gigs and hanging out in each others pockets and drinking in the same bars and going to the same nightclubs and slipping in the same sick. And it was not always mine. It was very camaraderie orientated, wouldn’t you say?”
“It’s a career now,” Dave agreed. “In the early 1980s, nobody who was doing it was thinking: Right, OK. This is my life now. I’m going to work as a stand-up, get some TV work and…”
“Well,” said John, “there was Mike Myers. He was the Paul Simon of the comedy generation. Came to London. Told everybody how he was going to be rich and famous in three years or else it was over. Went off and proved himself to be completely right.”
“But,” said Dave, “he was still also very much a part of the spirit of it. I worked a lot with him at that time. When we set up the Comedy Store Players, he was fantastic. He was very giving and very much into the whole ethos of that whole stand-up scene. But he had come from Canada and…”
John interrupted: “I assumed he was from the US.”
“No,” said Dave. “Kit Hollerbach was the American one. She brought that professionalism and Mike Myers brought the improv side thing as well. So it became sort-of professional at that point. They made it a professional thing. Which was not a bad thing. A couple of years before that, nobody would see somebody like Paul Merton and think: Oh, right, this guy’s gonna be the hugest comedy star in the country and successful for 30 years.”
“So,” I asked, “if, before this, the incentive was NOT to build a career, why was anyone doing it?”
“It was better than working,” John replied.
“And what,” I asked, “are you going to do after this world tour is finished?”
“God knows,” Dave replied.