Firstly, what did you think about watching "Monty Python"s final show?
Was glad I made the last minute decision to attend. Great to see them off on the last performance and the classic sketches were performed very well.
Obviously, you are still a young man but would you fancy a farewell run of sold out shows at the O2 in 30 + years time?
I don't really like the O2 as a comedy venue, but nor can I imagine that there will ever be a point in my career where that many people want to see me. I hope to keep performing until I die, so my farewell appearance will hopefully be unannounced and only realised in hindsight.
So, "Lord Of The Dance Settee". We know this is a mis-hearing of a popular song but what else can we expect?
It's a basically unthemed collection of routines about me and the stupid things I have noticed. Movement and dancing are an undercurrent, as are solitude versus sociability. I wanted to aim to do something that was about me being uncool and that was daft, funny for its own sake and which could appear on both Stewart Lee's and Michael Mcintryre's showcase shows (not that I have ever been considered for either). But there's some poignancy in there too and it's turning out to be quite gentle and polite compared to recent shows.
What have you learnt from your previews so far?
I've had some crackers and some quieter ones, but people seem to like it and even at the ones where I don't think it's worked as well I've had some nice comments. I need to put in a few more gags and I don't think I have yet found the showstopping "classic" routine that I need. Last year it was "Railways and the Holocaust", in Talking Cock it was "Where have you put your penis for fun?' In what is love it was Ferrero Rocher, in Christ on a Bike the begat stuff and in Hitler the liberal racists. Don't know if I have a routine as good as that yet (though I like the Dave Manager one and it seems to be growing on audiences!)
Will the show always be evolving?
A project is never perfected, merely abandoned. I will keep changing stuff right up to the end and the nice thing about a less themed show is that I can add in new bits all the time. Obviously once I am on tour it will have to be 90 rather than 60 mins so there's more to add.
Do you enjoy the challenge of trying to better last year's show?
I feel it's important to try and keep the standard high. I am not successful enough to coast on previous success. I still need good reviews to get an audience so I can't get complacent. The thing I strive for is to become a better performer at every performance and to find the subtleties in the material and the delivery that will make the show as perfect as possible. My shows are always quite different from each other, so it's hard to say if one is better than another. I think this might not deliver the most laughs, but might be the most mature (as far as I can be) work yet. There is always room for improvement and one must fight the danger of decline. I seem to be having more ideas than ever for material, so do not yet fear that the well is dry.
In last year's interview you hinted you might give Edinburgh a miss this year. What happened?
I knew that I was going to at least stop doing the podcasts, because it was too much work and meant I didn't get any time off to see shows or just relax. I thought maybe 10 shows in 10 years was a good enough run. But financially speaking I need to tour to keep myself afloat and so I need a new show and Edinburgh is the perfect deadline to create one. Also I felt like I had enough to say. I had wanted to do a low key stand up show, maybe at the Stand in a smallish room, but I've ended up in the biggest venue yet and have also put together a play. So it looks like all my plans for a quieter year have gone out of the window.
So, no Podcast this year, instead a new play. What are the reasons for this?
The podcast was fun but it drained all my time and energy - I had to book guests, get up early to prepare the show and then stay in all afternoon loading it up and then go straight out to do my stand up. I haven't written a play for years, but wanted to give myself that challenge. And because I am not in it or directing it, it means that the hard work (and it was very hard work) has been done for me. I have got fed up with writing scripts for TV that don't get made, so thought I would spend my time and money writing one that will definitely be produced. I think it's worth the massive financial and artistic risk. It will prove either that I can or can't do it. I am pleased with what we have achieved, though it's probably not something that I can afford to do again on the same scale unless this is a massive smash. It's exciting and terrifying in equal measure.
What inspired "I Killed Rasputin"?
I've always been obsessed with Rasputin and have written overtly comic stuff about him before. But I wanted to do a more serious play (it's still a comedy, but it's less knockabout and more historically accurate) about Yusupov, one of his assassins. I've been aware of this being a great in for the story for a long time and wanted to write this as a film or play, but again by forcing myself to do it by saying it's going to be on in Edinburgh I have finally made it happen. I saw a great play at the Bush Theatre called "Jumpers for Goalposts" which made me feel like I should try writing plays again. Even though this play is very different in tone and subject, it made me miss the medium (I wrote four plays for the Fringe in the late 90s).
Were you tempted to cast yourself?
I was there as a back up if we couldn't get anyone better, and though there were a few parts I could have had a crack at that would have been very much a last resort. I want to have my day free in Edinburgh and also don't want the stand up show to suffer by me working too much on the play. Also I have found that when I am in my own plays or TV shows that that tends to be the focus for the critics and I want the play to be judged on its own merits not on whether I can act or not (or whether I've written myself kissing girls to give myself a cheap thrill - as some supposedly professional critics suggested when I did my last TV project)
Do you have the same regime for writing a play as for a stand-up show?
No. I tend to do a lot of the work for the stand up shows on stage, by adlibbing round ideas and finding new areas to explore. Writing a play meant a lot of research and then a lot of hard graft writing, rewriting, working with the actors, staying up into the night for more rewrites, fretting, wanting to run away. It's massively complex, you have to think of story arcs, character arcs, how to get the info and exposition across seamlessly. Stand up is fun and relatively easy. Playwriting is pain.
Was it easier/harder than expected?
I expected it to be extremely hard. It was harder than that.
On stage you can change the material every night. A play will eventually be set in stone. Are you a great re-writer? How do you know when it is finished?
It's still never finished. You have to settle on a script eventually for the actors' sakes and so they can learn it (though we've done a few rewrites for pace and timing with just 10 days to go). But once this run is through, if we do it again, I will probably rewrite some of it. You get a sense of when the lines are more or less right though and for me it is a lot easier when you have the actors in place. I am happy to listen to other people's views on stuff and to adapt and incorporate. But until it's read aloud you can't really tell for sure, even if you've rewritten it a dozen times. The clangers and clankers become very apparent and any half written bits are so embarrassing to listen to that it spurs you on to do better. I like the collaboration though.
You have recently finished touring "We're All Going To Die", you have just written two new shows and you produce a highly enjoyable weekly column for the Metro. Are you a workaholic?
I love my job and would do it for nothing (I do a lot of it for nothing and this year have paid quite a lot of money to do some things). I think I have taken on a bit too much this year (I also wrote an episode of Man Down, another TV pilot and did a weekly show for Fubar for 3 months and produced six episodes of Meaning of Life) and want to make more time for myself and my wife in future. But even after 25 years I have no security in my work and can't get complacent. I still have a lot to prove before I can rest on my laurels (I have no laurels at all). I am grateful for this as it turns out as it means I still have to strive to produce good work, rather than cashing in with lazy stuff or just thinking I will pay some writers to do the graft for me. Producing good work is more important than money or critical acclaim (though you need a bit of the last two to keep going). But I also realise that having some fun and enjoying your life while you can is also important. Liking my job sometimes makes me forget this, but I do not intend to work this hard again
Do ideas flow naturally or are you a constant scribbler of notes?
The blog is a massive help in getting together ideas. But deadlines push me further. I don't make many notes. I have forgotten more great ideas than I have performed.
What are you most looking forward to at this year's festival?
Honestly, having the day to myself and not having to work until 10.45 (although I do have another TV script to write). I might go to see shows or I might just read and go to the gym. It's weird to think that Edinburgh will be a holiday, but relative to the rest of this year it is going to be.
Finally, who you would most like to see in the audience one night?
'I Killed Rasputin' plays daily at Assembly George Square Theatre at 15.35 until August 24th.
'Lord of the Dance Settee' is at the same venue at 22.45 daily.