It’s easy to forget how successful a comedian Rich Hall actually is. After a notable career (to say the least) on the other side of the Atlantic that included writing for and appearing on Saturday Night Live alongside Eddie Murphy, writing for The Late Show With David Letterman and appearing on Late Night With Conan O’Brien; he decided to turn his gaze to the UK comedy scene and, well, conquered it. A regular on Live At The Apollo and numerous TV panel shows, including Have I Got News For You, 8 Out Of 10 Cats, QI and Never Mind The Buzzcocks, he also can lay personal claim to four separate BBC series and five documentaries. In this writer’s opinion, however, such a CV is relatively arbitrary to his status as the inspiration for The Simpsons’ oft-prank-called bartender Moe Syzslak.
Woody Allen once said that comedy ‘has only to do with if you’re funny or not – it has nothing to do with any other quality.’ As a comedian, does your persona perpetuate your material, or does your material perpetuate your persona?
Your persona does perpetuate your material. The things that you think of come out of, you know, what YOU think is funny. If it strikes you as funny then you’ll have that confidence – and that doesn’t mean it’s always going to work – but you’re thinking ‘yeah, that sounds like something I would do. I think when you start out doing comedy, your material is stronger than your personality, and then you reach a point where it’s sort of equal, then you reach the point where your personality is driving the material, and it takes years. It’s impossible to just go up onstage… I mean, people go up onstage for an open mic or something and they do really well, and they probably discover at that point that there is something about their personality right away that people respond to.
So there’s a lot of freedom there- once you get more well known as a personality? You could almost go up and, for better or for worse, say whatever you like, as long as you say it in a certain way.
Exactly. I kind of am of that argument that anything is fair grounds if you approach it the right way, but if you just bring up a topic for pure shock value, then you’ve… it ‘s got to be underpinned by some sort of conviction.
and consistency? Yeah – otherwise you’re just saying something to get a rise out of people, and you’re a comedian who’s driven by your ability to shock, but I don’t personally think that’s enough, it’s like a bad horror film, [where you’re asking] ‘how many screams did you get’- but there was nothing to the film. And, you know, that can happen with comedians. But then someone else will take the same subject and approach it with some kind of relevance – either to them or to the audience. I think that there probably has to be a target. I think in every joke something [ideally] is undermined or taken down a notch, even if it’s self deprecating – like Woody Allen: quite a lot of his jokes are at his own expense, but still- there’s always got to be a clear target. And if you victimise somebody in a joke who doesn’t deserve it, and the crowd knows it… that’s not a good joke.
I feel that at worst, a lot of comedy can become two-dimensional, where either people laugh or they don’t, and therefore this audible, immediately obvious success gauge develops, but music adds an artistic element to it. I feel I could sit through [Rich Hall’s Hoedown] and not laugh out loud once but still have a great night. Is that something you’re going for? A more layered approach?
Well music is a whole different thing, because I think that people understand that if you’re going to do a song, that all the comedy is set within a really tight structure. A lot of the humour sometimes comes just in the rise, and anything else… well, it’s probably not laugh-out-loud funny, but that’s not what we’re really trying to achieve with musical comedy. I mean, you don’t get the same kind of laughs that you get with stand-up. You’re not as big, you’re not as vociferous.
I think it demands a lot more of the audience.
Yeah – they have to pay attention, my theory is that you have to ask ‘if you took the comedy out of it, would you still have a properly crafted song?’ It’s two different things that you have to do: you want to be funny, and have a funny idea that drives it-
But it remains a craft.
Yeah. It still has to be a song on its own – where, if you were driving along and not even listening to the words… you have to ask, ‘is it hum-able?’ You’ve got to do that. But I have a problem with comedians who just pick up a guitar and cram a song with way too many words, so now you’re just setting jokes to music. It’s very hard to write funny songs – it seems to me that most songwriters write something that’s heartfelt or wistful or nostalgic or whatever, and have so many emotions to draw on, but with comedy it’s still got to be funny and it’s really, really hard to write… I mean, I wish I could crank out stuff every day, but there’s a pretty big disparity between the amount of songs I write and the amount of songs that actually make it to stage.
But in a sense you do crank stuff out everyday: obviously there are existing song structures, but much of the charm of the show comes from the fact that a lot of it is spontaneous –
Yeah. The improv part is the most fun part to do, and the audience knows right away that ‘oh he’s kind of winging this’, but obviously the band needs to know what we’re doing musically, and then you can just fit stuff into it. And that keeps you on your toes. It’s a big rush when it works, and that happens to varying degrees – either it works or it really works or sometimes it’s a little ‘oh…’, but people still kind of give you the benefit of the doubt.
I feel like the audience is there with you, supporting you. I’ve noticed that even when something in Rich Hall’s Hoedown doesn’t come off so successfully, it simply becomes a totally different sort of joke where people are laughing with you at the fact that a song didn’t quite go to plan.
I agree. You know, they probably wouldn’t do that so much with stand up comedy. They’d probably just say something like ‘well that’s something that needs work…’ or whatever, but with music it’s kind of like ‘oh f*ck, what’s going to happen here!?’. I only have one rule about it, which is that when you’re already kind of embarrassing people and making them feel slightly uncomfortable and creating tension, that’s great, but try not to really belittle people. Don’t get laughs at their expense. You don’t want to be cruel. That’s why I take a lot of mundane things and kind of elevate them, where you have, for example, some financial planner and you’re trying to make him into a hero. The underlying joke there is that we’re trying to elevate someone-
And romanticise something that’s basically unromantic.
Earlier you mentioned the shock factor and making cheap shots. In terms of subject matter, is there any territory you simply do not touch? [Canadian stand-up comic] Glenn Wool said onstage recently that as a comedian you should be able to say absolutely anything you like, and if someone doesn’t like that then ‘f*ck them’, basically. To an extent I can see the reasoning behind that, but I think that there’s also a danger: where one day nothing will be seen as too sacrosanct to make a joke out of.
That’s a matter of a comedian giving himself a personal challenge, where he says ‘you know what, I’m going to talk about Jimmy Savile’ or whatever, but if you do that, you have to make a valid point. As soon as you bring something like that up you’ve got to pay it off at some point. Comedy is about creating a certain amount of tension, I suppose, and I don’t quite know why people laugh… perhaps they kind of laugh because their brain is going ‘ah, ah… ooh!’
Like a sneeze.
Yeah, there’s a release valve, a pressure valve that has to be relieved. So there are plenty of challenges you can set yourself as far as jokes go, but there’s got to be something underneath it- you’ve got to have some kind of passion, some kind of interest in the subject. People watch [comedians like] Bill Hicks or Sam Tennyson or Doug Stanhope, and they’re really moved by that because they’re pushing the boundaries. But they’re doing it in a way where… if you’re watching Doug Stanhope, you’re watching a guy who really has his convictions and you can tell just from his persona that he lives a fairly degraded life. And that comes through right away. And you think ‘oh, ok, we can understand that this is real. This is a real guy.’ It’s like Charles Bukowski or somebody- where the guy has lived this, and therefore he has a right to talk about it.
So you’re saying that whatever you talk about, there has to be substance behind the material?
Yeah, and substance – like you said, comes out of your persona. You’re going to ask ‘why is this guy talking about this subject?’ the audience just knows when you’re going for shock value and a cheap easy laugh and when there’s something actually substantial beneath what you say. And, you know, you can make any argument in the world that goes against the grain – as long as there’s logic to it. Where people say ‘oh, ok…’ and they’re not going to be upset about that. People do know when they’re being hoodwinked. People like Bill Hicks or Doug Stanhope – their comedy just came out of their lifestyle. Which is as much a part of their persona as anything else.
That’s similar to Woody Allen, of course.
Yeah. You just know. You watch someone and you go ‘ok, we know Woody Allen is a very New York-ish self-centred, self-deprecating, neurotic guy. And that comes across after two jokes. And it’s not even about the jokes: he could do almost anything, and within five this guy has projected to you his personality, and that takes years – to find out who you are as a comedian.
I think it’s interesting, not to mention an achievement, that you’re an American Comedian who is now mostly performing for British audiences. Another American Comedian, Reginald D. Hunter, a lot of his routine, I’ve noticed, is to do with confusion- with a lot of British habits and ‘ism’s, and that’s an interesting twist of our perspective on our own culture, but one thing that you seem to have managed is to get inside the idiom of the British, and our rhetoric is something you seem very at home with. Is there something about the UK comedy scene or the audiences here that you’ve found more attractive than in American?
The main thing is that I just think they’re smarter. More aware. And most importantly, just really appreciative of being entertained. I do still work in America a lot, and it’s just as good- I do like it, but one of the reasons I came over here is that I was really just kind of burned out on the club scene in America, which is what I was doing: playing tons of clubs. You know, every town would have a marquee club, and you’d go in on, like, a Wednesday night [and play until] Sunday, and an opening act would do ten minutes, a middle act would do twenty and then you’d do forty five. And there are waitresses, and two drink forced minimum where you have to buy at least two drinks, and I just kind of… as soon as I got to Edinburgh, one thing I noticed was that it’s just a different format here.
A better format?
Yeah, I think. And also, because there isn’t that… they’re not brow beating people when the show begins. All these clubs that I played in America– and this still exists today– I still do like three or four a year in the states- some of them are great clubs, but they’re still saying you have to order at least two drinks as soon as you walk in the door- pay the cover charge up front. And because that was the norm, it was only when I got here that I realised how much people were being intimidated and f*cked over before the show had even begun. They were already thinking ‘I’ve got to spend fifty dollars’, I have to order two drinks; maybe you don’t even drink alcohol- it doesn’t matter, you still have to order two drinks, even if it’s Coca-cola. And then you have to go out and entertain these people. Here, you pay ten or fifteen pounds to get in. You want a beer? Go buy a beer. There’s no one telling you that you have to do this or that. It’s so much more relaxed.
Could I go as far as to say that that’s almost a capitalist approach to comedy? These people are expecting this product, because they’ve already paid for it in that way. They become complete consumers.
Yeah it is a capitalist approach- and the clubs still make money on the bar and the ticket sales and group bookings and things. There are clubs with brand names like ‘The Improv’ or ‘The Punchline’, and people who invested would pay two or three hundred thousand dollars just to use that name, and call it a ‘Punchline’, and get to put up the sign– the logo. Whereas here, it’s just like ‘yeah we have a pub with a room upstairs. Let’s put on a show.’
So, a more democratic approach.
Yeah. If you wanna open a club, find a room and book consistently good shows, and people will show up.
That links in with the last thing I wanted to ask you: over the last decade, in this country anyway, comedy has just exploded into vast venues and stadiums. What is the biggest difference for you between playing a small gig and a big one?
A small gig is always personally more rewarding. If you set aside the money and what you get paid to do a big gig, and the glamour, a small gig is always going to be better. Imagine someone you really like, and then walking into a small room to see them playing there. You’d be thinking ‘holy f*ck!’. Right in your face, just… right there. So small gigs are always more fun, and the secret to doing a big gig is to make it feel like a small gig. If you can make a big room somehow intimate – that’s why I always talk to the front row. That’s the first thing I think of. I’m always going to talk to people.
I’ve noticed that on Live At The Apollo you interact with people in much the same way as you do in a smaller venue.
Personally I don’t see why you shouldn’t. You have to do everything you can to perforate that wall between you and the audience. In America, a lot of comedians are adept at fashioning, like, seven-minute slots because they want to go on Leno or Letterman or something, and they’re not going to let you talk to the crowd because it’s TV. So you have to go out and do this really tight seven-minute spot, and play to the cameras. You still have to play to the audience, but you always have to find a way to acknowledge where you are. I remember going to the Shepherds Bush Empire to see some American band just after I first got to Britain, and after a couple of songs, someone from the audience just yelled ‘talk to us!’, and the singer was just like ‘huh?’
‘Just talk to us!’, And he said ‘oh, ok, uh- it’s nice to be in Britain’. And somebody else shouted ‘why?’. And that completely threw him. You just have to acknowledge where you are. And not just in comedy– that goes for anything. Except theatre.
Where do you see the world of comedy in five to ten years?
I think that it’s reached a saturation point now, where there are too many comedians and not enough venues. Even my own management is partly at fault for this, because they’re known to take acts and try to make stars out of them, and they push them beyond their ability to develop. There are a lot of comedians but an underwhelming amount of talent. People will go into a small comedy club and expect a really, really good show because of the things they’ve seen on TV.
The clubs that survive will be the ones really working to bring the best possible show. Comedians have to be smart enough to realise that they might have ten minutes for Live At The Apollo or something, but they might not have enough material for their own show. What will happen is that all that chaff will be… people will just give up, and the very alternative scene will revive itself. It’s cyclical. Comedy is so mainstream now, but the idea of just going into a room and hearing someone talking- that will come back. A lot of the bad clubs will disappear, and a lot of the bad comics will disappear. And they need to disappear.