It is that time of year when comedians are preparing their shows for the Edinburgh Fringe in August and are looking for free venues in which to perform previews. One such is the performance area at the back of comedy critic Kate Copstick’s charity shop Mama Biashara in Shepherd’s Bush, London.
Next Friday and Saturday evening, Italian comics Romina Puma and Giacinto Palmieri are previewing early versions of their Edinburgh shows. And the following weekend – on the afternoon of Sunday 8th May, American comic Will Franken is hosting his third 4-hour comedy workshop at Mama Biashara. This one is titled:
RAISING THE DEAD: USING SKETCH COMEDY TO BREATHE LIFE INTO STAND-UP
“Who is this aimed at?” I asked Will.
“Anybody who wants to do something different,” he told me. “And anybody who wants to get to the essence of a sketch quicker. I think people are prone to take a course from me because they’re tired of doing the same things. I think the problem is there is so much regularity in comedy.
“I think a lot of sketches go on far too long. They don’t know a clever way out. They don’t know the Monty Python approach of Don’t beat them over the head with a sledgehammer punchline, just find a nice segue into something else. Brevity!”
“You’re very keen on characters,” I said.
“Love characters,” he replied.
“Hiding behind them?” I asked.
“Yeah, I think so. A couple of years ago, Fest magazine wrote about me: He’s a rare breed of character comedian. He has no love for his characters.
“The trouble is it’s hard for me to love a character long enough to let them live past five minutes. Usually I kill them off after 2 or 3 minutes and I’m onto the next character. It’s a very Monty Python type approach.”
“You’re not interested in sitcoms?” I asked.
“I’m more geared to sketch than sitcom. I think with sitcom you have to have a great love for your characters. I’ve always envied people like David Renwick who created One Foot in The Grave. The love he must have had for Victor Meldrew to be able to carry that through so many series! And Father Ted. They’re great examples of sitcoms. I never liked Monty Python when they had recurring characters.”
Comedy performer and writer Ariane Sherine was sitting with us. She has written for the sitcoms My Family and Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps as well as various children’s shows including The Story of Tracy Beaker. I asked her what she thought.
“I quite like to inhabit a character in a sitcom,” she said, “and see how they develop and change. You can’t really do that with sketch. Though in, say, The Fast Show, they re-visit the same characters. It’s effectively the same sketch each week. It depends what you like – whether you like to feel that you are growing and developing this character and seeing them change or more likely seeing them not learn from their mistakes. Or you like the diversity of being able to have any type of situation in any location and it doesn’t matter about continuity.”
I said: “I never really liked Vic Reeves Big Night Out because they just seemed to be doing the same sketch over and over again.”
“I much prefer,” said Will, “their actual sketch shows like The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer.”
“So you wouldn’t have a recurring or developing character?” I asked.
“I do have a character now,” admitted Will, “that I can see possibly going on for a long time. He’s in my Edinburgh Fringe show this year. He’s a Yorkshireman and I’ve been slowly perfecting the accent, listening to Alan Bennett nightly. I’ve just got into Alan Bennett’s stuff. He’s amazing.”
“And your character?” I asked.
“He’s working on a children’s story called Little Jo about a half-pig, half-rabbit who lives in water and, in order to stay alive, he’s gotta spin round and round, spitting out water from both mouths for all eternity.
“That’s the beginning of this year’s show. And then there’s this whole story about how his relatives don’t die and so he murders all of his descendants so they don’t have to live the life that his Nan’s Nan had, who grew up to be 500 years old… Cos that’s no life for a child: to be 500 years old. So I slaughtered all of them and that’s why no-one brings me cake on me birthday… and somewhere sandwiched in the middle of all that is going to be my regular sketch weirdness.”
“Have you done sketch group comedy?” I asked.
“I did once and they said too many of my bits were racist! It was in North Carolina and I had a bit where Whitney Houston has a mental breakdown during a recording of The Greatest Love of All. She’s singing nonsense lyrics: I believe Jeremiah Crenshaw destroyed the world in 1962…
“…and the studio engineer interrupts her to say the lyrics don’t make sense and she says: What the fuck you know, muthafucka? In North Carolina, they said it was too racist, so I could never get my ideas past the group.
“Before that, when I was 16, I had two friends in Missouri and we wrote a little sketch revue for about 20 friends at the coffee shop. But they didn’t want to do it for a living and I did. Sometimes I regret that I don’t have a group. I think it would be nice, but I think I’ve passed that stage now where I could fit into any group.
“It’s like if you’ve been single for a long time, it’s hard to have a wife because you gotta adjust and compromise and I don’t think I’m able to do that.”
“You could,” I suggested, “try a sex commune?”
“Possibly. But then I’d get jealous. I have such low self-esteem it’d be like: Whaat? I think free love is very selfish. I’m only into monogamy, unless I don’t like the girl, when I’m into one-night stands. I vacillate between misogyny and monogamy.”
I asked: “You think free love is very selfish?”
“Yeah. I dated a Hare Krishna girl one time and she was seeing somebody else. The guy was away in a hospital, selling his body for medication and medical experiments. I didn’t know this for a whole month… and then he came back. So I associate free love with hippie girls in long broomstick skirts and deceit.”
“You do a podcast, don’t you?” I asked.
“Yeah, I had a very highly successful… I hate to use the word Podcast… I call them Albums. At one point, I had 50,000 listeners. I used to do them pretty regularly and then I started drinking and doing drugs and now I’ve been sober for two years and it’s scarier to put the headphones on and start recording again without the drugs.”
“When did you start doing them?”
“2006. They’re like my live shows: there can be five of me going at once.”
“What’s the podcast called?”
“So,” I said, “you have been doing this for the last ten years and I have not noticed? How many episodes have I missed?”
“About 25. They’re very insane. I don’t smoke pot any more, but you can put your headphones on, smoke a joint and go off into cuckoo land with it.”
“Is it weekly?”
“God no. When I first started, they were almost every two weeks.”
“And now they’re what? Monthly? Regularly?”
“I approach them like a symphony,” said Will. “The thing is I’m such a perfectionist.”
“Indecision or perfection?” I asked.
“I think it’s perfectionism.”
“So they are released randomly?” I asked.
“Very randomly, yeah.”
“And you’ve just done one?”
“Yeah. This one’s not been published yet but this is my first one in about a year and a half. Maybe within the week it will be published. Before that, I hadn’t done one in more than four years. They’re mostly about 30 minutes long. There’s one called Side Two of Abbey Road where I use all the songs on Side 2 of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album to tell my life story.
“It’s like a one-man sketch thing. You sit with the headphones on all day and you hear playbacks of yourself doing a Yorkshire accent, a Scottish accent, talking to yourself on a train and you really lose your mind by the end of the day. I just woke up this morning chain-smoking and resenting having to go get food. I don’t want a shower, I don’t want to leave the house. The phone rings, I don’t want to answer it. I am unable to create in moderation.”
WILL’S SKETCH COMEDY WORKSHOP IS ORGANISED BY ARLENE GREENHOUSE PROMOTIONS – greenhouse firstname.lastname@example.org