What is the process of writing a stand-up comedy show?
Well I can only speak about my process, and I’m sure that comments vary. When I write stand-up, I try not to write primarily from the position of what’s funny. I try and start from the position of what’s interesting, and with a subject matter, an opening statement or an idea whose nature is inherently interesting, so that the moment you start talking about it, it has peoples interest. Then after that it’s up to you to maintain the interest, to make it funny, compelling or to make it flip-flop on itself. But if you pick subject matter that is already interesting, no matter how contentious that is half the battle right there.
Comedy is by nature observational, and life is just a never-ending source of material.
We’re human beings, writing about other human beings, or writing about ourselves as human beings, and so what of our entertainment or even news is not observational? It’s all observational; even music [laughs].
It’s almost referring to Alfred Hitchcock’s point about voyeurism, that we are all voyeurs, and we are inherently interested in each other’s lives.
Yes we are, and many of us are interested in other people’s lives to gauge the success or failure of our own [Laughs]. A lot of people, especially people who want to conform or be a part of a group, what they are most concerned about are what other people are doing, because deep down they are always asking themselves, “Am I doing this right?” [Laughs]
It’s that sense of belonging that’s a driving force which taps into that need to belong to a group, and as you say, the only way to do that is to observe and try to fit in.
That’s the thing to. “In” is an illusion. The people who seem to be “In” always say “In what?” Nobody feels like they are “In”, but everybody feels that there’s some group that they should have been in, could have been in or ought to have been in.
With comedy you are putting yourself in a vulnerable position. If it fails you’re on a stage all on your own, and if it works, because comedy requires you to be courageous and aim close to the mark, you can potentially hit a raw nerve by trying to provoke a reaction. Either way you are walking a fine line between success and failure.
There’s a great truth to that, but I don’t try to be provocative. In fact I am annoyed that these things are provocative. I’m actually hoping to sap some of the edge out of them; words like nigger, and subjects like misogyny. I mean we can’t begin to discuss and solve these issues, which is the issue; solving them rather than just bitching about them. You have to be able to say the word, and then you have to be able to say the word seriously when you are talking about it. You also have to take the word lightly. I’m sad that so many things are made to be controversial, and used to distract us from the real issues. The people who have gotten angry with me over things that I have said, oh man, can you imagine what a force for good it would be if they actually cared about education, or wealth distribution; if they could turn that zeal and that anger other than some place about Miley Cyrus getting her tits out, or something Frankie Boyle said. Man what a force of good if that was re-aligned to somewhere helpful.
Whilst comedy can be provocative, there is a genuine politeness to your brand of comedy that is coupled with a degree of honesty.
Thank you sir; thank you very much. That is a value, but it is a value of mine given to me from where I come from. That politeness you remark of is typical where I come from, and we would find it upsetting if one didn’t behave that way. I was taught that if I am speaking the truth, and if I speak openly and considerately, and I am open to being retorted; if I observe those things then I should be able to say anything. If I’m respectful and I’m honest, and I want to hear the other points of view then why I can’t I say it? What else do I have to do to be able to speak about this subject?
Am I correct in saying that you have now been in the UK for fifteen years?
Nearly sixteen years have gone by.
And the first time you performed live was in Birmingham?
Yeah, Birmingham is my comedy spiritual home. It’s where comedy Reg was born.
In a previous interview you spoke about the influence of seeing your sister preach, in particular about the way she communicates with her congregation.
Oh man, when I saw her preach it was like oh my God. I have borrowed more from her than I realised. I sat down and I was embarrassed, and she came over when she was done and I was like, “Oh man, I am so sorry. I got you style but…”
Also from previous interviews I picked up a sense of deep reverence towards your parents.
Yes, and the next time that I speak on stage again, I think I am going to be ready to speak more fully about my mother. I have reached a new place in my estimation of her, and I don’t know that I have always given my mother her just due.
As well as honesty and politeness, you seem to place a significant value on family.
Well, I value togetherness, interconnectedness, and sharing. Whether that takes the form of family or a commune, or a baseball team, I prefer winning in groups rather than winning alone.
You originally came to the UK to study acting, and it seems that comedy was an accident that has turned into an adventure. Do you now look back on your acting experience and training as an actor as something that has helped you to pursue a career as a comedian, or are they two completely different worlds and techniques?
I am asked that question quite a bit, and the short answer is that everything in your life affects you. Whatever it is that a man is when he’s on stage, everything that has shaped him or he’s dealt with has shaped him. Though I’m sure acting has contributed in some ways to my stand up, I can’t really say that I know how; whether it’s ten per cent or seventy per cent. I have to admit that’s it a fair question because I am asked it so often. I truly don’t know how to answer it that well. I’m asked so many questions now about process, what goes on in my mind, and how I create. I think there is something about our culture during this internet age and in this age where people substitute experiences for the original experience, we’ve become very voyeuristic. We want to know how things work from the outside, or we want to know how something works without actually having to go through the experience. It doesn’t feel a good direction to be heading in to me. When I was a young comedian, and I was trying to glean all the experience out of the other comedians who were often quite generous in explaining as much as they could; I wasn’t going to get the fullness of the answer until I went on the ride myself. You can watch a trailer to a movie… I was about to say you can’t say you watched a movie just from watching the trailer, but then there’s the original Thor [Laughs] It’s like how do you know before you know.
Comedy on one level is universal, but then it has other levels. From your perspective how does comedy differ between nationalities?
I believe that we all laugh about the basic things. All around the world we laugh about religion, sex and politics. The only thing that changes from country to country is the phrasing. We all laugh about the same things; it’s just the delivery. That’s the universal experience. All humanity knows about sex, and all humanity has had to deal with religious question in some way, or societal issues or politics. So whether you are going to be absurdist or sarcastic about it, or you are going to use physical humour, then it’s all about the same thing. We are all commenting on, interpreting and re-interpreting the same things.
For any creative person there is always the worry of running out of ideas, and I’d be interested to hear your perspective with regards to comedy. Recently watching a documentary on Woody Allen, those interviewed were remarking his longevity and consistency. He’s never ran out of ideas nor as he lost that magic.
You know why he hasn’t run out of ideas; because he hasn’t stopped being interested in human nature. He’s still interested and that’s the basis of my advice to any young writer. It’s a bit of misadvise to tell people to write what they know. No write about what you are interested in. Your level of interest will fuel the thrust of your inquiry, which will make what you are doing interesting. He’s still interested, and interested people tend to be the most interesting.
How would you compare the challenges of panel shows which are built around a comedic comraderie and stand-up comedy?
I suppose for a stand-up the biggest challenge is with an ensemble it’s not just you on stage, so it tests whether you can be team funny. It’s not only can you score; it’s can you pass?
One of you best team passes was the Batman as a conservative wet dream joke on Have I Got News For You.
That’s what I was angry about at the time.
There is a mystique surrounding the comedian. As a spectator it can be difficult to work out whether there is any truth in the comedy.
Sometimes you are trying to do one and sometimes you are trying to do both. Most of the times you are not aware, or you don’t have as much of a pre-meditated plan. But there are always people who are trying to deconstruct it, and who deconstruct it incorrectly, and that’s where your controversy begins. [Laughs]
In the Midst of Crackers is your second DVD following Reginald D Hunter Live in 2011. Can we look forward to a third DVD?
Well I hope to make another. I’d probably say the show has evolved a lot more since the recording of the show for the DVD, which was recorded in July of this year. There have been many nights since then, and hopefully I’ve smartened some; a few per cent. So it’s finally developed into a show that I’m really proud of, and I’m pleased with the DVD, but there are always some things you wish you could have done differently, or wish you could have known or understood at the time.
It’s the curse of creating anything and that feeling afterwards of having missed some beats…
Even though there are opportunities to make a DVD I will make sure there is not as much flappery around. You spend all your nights doing shows and it’s just you and maybe a tour manager, and then all of a sudden you have got all these people around, running around – clipboards, make-up. Those people are just doing their job, but all that stuff, all that extra flappery can go counter to you reaching your naturale. I try to be my naturale self on stage. I think next time, if there is a next time, I think I know how to fashion those things differently – maybe a smaller venue, and maybe less fuss; just a man telling jokes.
In the Midst of Crackers is available now on DVD and Blu-ray. Check out our coverage on the ultimate week of comedy here.