Simon Evans Interview - Friendly Fire
British comedian Simon Evans is well established in the UK and has a number of television writing credits for shows such as Not Going Out, TV Heaven Telly Hell, The Big Breakfast, 8 out of 10 cats and many more. He has also made many television appearances, most notably as a team member on Mock the Week, performances on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, The Comedy Store (Ch5) and Dave’s One Night Stand.
Simon is also an Edinburgh Fringe Festival veteran having performed hour long one man shows since 1999 up until 2003, returning again in 2010. He performed at this year’s festival with a brand new hour long show, Friendly Fire, which he will also be taking to Birmingham Comedy Festival on the 9th of October.
I had the privilege of talking to Simon Evans via phone and it was without a doubt incredibly informative; having seen many of his performances on TV, as a comedian he really does have a presence about him, being a very witty intellectual and with an almost patronising manner to his audience on stage you would be quick to think that this is actually his real life persona. How wrong you would be. Of course, Simon is definitely an intellectual but in no way is he patronising, nor does his ‘educated’ accent that you hear on stage even make its presence known. Talking to him I could tell he was a very humble and pleasant man.
We talked about his experiences at the Fringe Festival and delved into other topics which included his on stage persona and how YouTube has served as an advantage or a stumbling block for comedians.
So Simon, How was Edinburgh?
“Edinburgh was great, I had a sold out run which was the first time I’ve had that which was very rewarding and it was quite unusual I’d have to say.’’
In what way was it unusual?
‘’I think because many acts were struggling to get as many people as they would have normally hoped for, so I was told. I mean, I was there 2 years ago and I was quite up and down with 20 or 30 on a Tuesday or Wednesday but managed to get a full run this time round which was brilliant. Of course, it does make a huge difference with how you feel about the show and the whole experience really. I mean, most people associate going to Edinburgh with how important it can be for your career and invoke your material but it can cost an awful lot of money and can be very dispiriting when you have put in a lot of hard work in trying to develop a show and you see a handful of people confused as to why they’re there in the first place. It makes it all that much different when you’ve got a packed house every night.’’
So would you say that you have had encountered a huge loss in money during your times at Edinburgh?
“Yeah. I wouldn’t say I have lost that much but a number of acts have literally had to catch up with their earnings after the Edinburgh Festival and there are certain agents and companies that spend a lot more of their money on promotion than mine do and I’m grateful to them for keeping things pretty tight. I’ve come away from Edinburgh usually maybe 2 or 3 grand down at the most which is not what you want from the months of hard work but it’s obviously not the end of the world. I do know acts that have come away 10 or 15 thousand pounds out of pocket and that’s very, very hard.’’
Yeah. I remember hearing a similar thing like that happening to Richard Herring.
“Yeah. He now makes money when he is up there, I’m sure, but he’s slaved away as a lot of acts do for many years at Edinburgh trying new material, new shows or occasionally old shows and gradually you do move into profit as it’s a long, hard business. Then there’s other acts of course whose lives move along very quickly and before you know it they are doing a week at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre at £30 a ticket for 10,000 people. I have total admiration for them but that’s not the story for most of us.’’
I do believe it varies for most people which can be unfortunate.
“Well, it’s the name of the game. When I got into it 15 years ago I honestly wasn’t thinking about it as being a career at all. I thought of it more like an extreme sport. I was truly in it for the adrenaline rush and I didn’t intend to do it professionally. I didn’t think anyone would pay me and was really shocked when I realised that I was starting to earn more doing Stand up Comedy than what I thought I would be doing for a living. I think then and now there has always been a pyramid structure. There’s always been an understanding that there are only a few people right at the top of the tree that earn masses of money and have a really amazing lifestyle and amazing opportunities that come out if it. You get to travel the world, get to appear on TV you know and that remains an incentive for the rest of us, Ha-ha!
But, there are many more you don’t see who aren’t experiencing that or maybe experience it for a week or a month or so. I think very few people who have been doing it for any length of time can really understand what it’s like. It could be more like envy or resent really. You probably think ‘Is he that good. Really?’ but, by and large, you realise it’s what we are all striving for and you’ve got to go ‘Good luck, Mate.’ I started in the late 90’s and I think, since then, it happens to all of us. Programmes like Mock the Week and Live at the Apollo certainly help more young comedians into being more mainstream acts when they may have been considered alternative.
It’s the same way like if an underground indie or alternative band breaks out and becomes huge and they start filling out stadiums so it has all changed drastically, which is fine.’’
In terms of how it has all changed with YouTube making it more accessible for people to view stand up Comics online, do you reckon it’s had an effect on the live circuit?
“Well I don’t think it’s just very much from my perspective, I’ve got a few clips on YouTube but if anyone was making illiterate recordings of my stand up in a live environment then putting them online without my permission I would be angry about that but that’s the thing that’s changed in the fact that you can’t do anything about it. However, I think all that’s happening mainly on YouTube is that once you put something on the telly people will then put it on YouTube. In all honesty, I think it’s done me good really , having appeared on the Comedy Gala and McIntyre’s Roadshow. They are very good promotional tools, largely because of YouTube, you know. There was a time for comedians when you could develop a good strong 20 minute set and it would just last you for years because it would never be on telly and it would never be on YouTube and it would stay fresh enough in the clubs and you would never have to write again. I guess I did fall into that trap for a while. I used to have a 20 minute set that didn’t change and as a result I think I went dead behind the eyes. As a result, I do regularly turn over more stuff and write more frequently and certainly aspire to do a new hour every year and get back up to Edinburgh with it. Well, I do an hour and a half now. That’s what the job should be really – responding to the world around you, regularly, rather than creating a little monologue that you can travel with and won’t need any tinkering with. It’s a lovely idea but it’s something of the past now.
In that respect I do believe YouTube has allowed comedians to get their stuff out there. Good quality does come through just as well as it does on the telly. There are some acts that you are better off seeing live and that’s the same thing with bands as well. They can put things on the internet and tell people not to judge them but you know, you’ve got to get used to that.’’
So would you say that due to so much accessibility to your material via YouTube it has made you a more consistent writer and a sharper comedian?
“Yes it does and I think it makes you a more unique comedian. I do value confidence and smooth delivery. There are comedians who definitely benefit from writing more frequently and don’t particularly cherish those qualities. For instance, Louis CK, who you probably know, is the number one comedian these days and everyone loves him and loves the honesty. I remember him saying that he had a revelation that he had a polished and well tested hour that really served him well in the clubs. I mean, it’s not like he was a completely different comedian or anything but then he saw George Carlin when I believe Carlin was in his 60’s at that time and he was coming up with a new hour every year. Once the hour was on HBO and he’d done his special with it that was it, it was in the can and he would start work on the next one. He said that’s what you’ve got to do and so Louis CK started doing that and he dates his rise to genuine uncompromised super-stardom to his adjustment in his attitude to the writing.
So it definitely works for some people but I do think it’s not just an excuse for thinking ‘I don’t need to craft good material, I just need to get up there and say whatever is on my mind. I just need to reaffirm that I’m a good comedian and I can take material that I have written on the bus and riff it up into 5 minutes of material’ Do you know what I mean? You still need to deliver good material and until that material is ready, you should stick to the stuff that’s good and polished and maybe a bit old because it does make it harder work otherwise.’’
Following up to that, considering you are now writing hour long sets, how do you prepare for that?
“I’m still learning to be honest. I wrote an hour for the Edinburgh Festival in 2010 but that was my first hour for 7 years and at that point I had a lot of material that I had never done in Edinburgh before and I hadn’t specifically written for it. It was written whilst doing my 20 minute sets around the country so 2012 was actually the first I had written anything completely from scratch. I started writing in February of this year, I think, and what I did was have a rough idea of a pre-occupation of what I was thinking about genuinely. I don’t want to artificially construct or contrive a sort of thing that I’m not genuinely interested in. Usually the idea is that you have a dozen routines now and I think how to connect them. Sometimes it’s not immediately apparent and you just have to push it a bit in order to make that connection.
My wife said something interesting. She said she went to see some of her favourite comedians as a regular paying customer rather than a critic and that frequently the theme often deviated quite significantly from what they claimed it was about at all. As long as you have moments in the show where you bring it back with a reference to tie it in then it doesn’t have to be a completely water tight case. You’re not making a speech in the Oxford Debating Union or something. It’s entertainment, but it helps people if you do take it back to the narrative. That’s fine, but you’ve got to make some sort of sense so that they can see that the thing is a whole run rather than just a collection of observations. It is hard though, keeping peoples interests for an hour. Any comedian will tell you that regardless of how cleverly constructed the show is, most of the time comedians will notice audience’s attention weaving from time to time. This usually occurs around the 40 minute mark but it’s not a coincidence when you are in the comedy clubs doing 20 minute sets and such. I remember one of the first hour sets I saw was Adam Blooms back in 1996. He was a very entertaining and energetic stand up but even then, after 40 minutes the audience can get distracted. What he did was just stop doing the stand up and started doing a card trick Ha-ha!’’
Ha-ha! In that instance then, would you have a space in your set for improv or audience interaction?
“I try to, yeah. I do really enjoy audience interaction when I get started with it. I do feel like it should be a bigger part of my set but I have a real resistance to speaking to people in the audience because I have a feeling that they really don’t want to be spoken to and I feel very strongly that I shouldn’t pick on a member of the audience then take the piss out of them because they work in I.T. or something. I just don’t think that’s on really. It all seems a bit mean and particularly because my persona is not a warm and trendy one anyway, or at least it hasn’t been, traditionally. I suppose I’m a bit more arrogant on stage so people can sense that and just think that I’m taking the piss but that’s something I’m still working on if I’m honest. I do think it’s a really important aspect to do in long shows. You look at people like Dara o’Briain and Al Murray who are the big kings of doing stuff like the Apollo and regularly on tour. I think Dara gets a tour out of those places at least every two years or more frequently than that, and the reason he can do that and develop material that quickly is largely because of his ability to get stuck into the audience and not alienate everyone and they really enjoy it. I don’t think it’s magic, but there’s a huge mystery to it and it’s one that I need to develop next because I don’t think it’s possible to be able to talk for an hour and a half without any audience interaction as the sound of just one person’s voice for that long can become monotonous, really.’’
Regarding your on stage persona. As it is clearly different to your actual personality, has it gained you any hostility from a crowd?
“Yes, it can do initially, but I used to have a line very early on that you may have seen me do saying ‘This is all very well but where are his eyes?’ It was very useful because I would talk about being posh and make disparaging remarks about Geordies but then I’d use the ‘where’s my eyes?’ bit and the great thing about that was that at that point it was self-deprecating and it made me the butt of the joke. You certainly got a glimpse into my childhood and such and it just brought all the attention to me that way. I’m kind of hoping that the people that come to the shows now have seen me do that bit therefore have already absorbed that aspect. It’s a tricky thing when you’re doing stand up. It’s knowing how much of your audience have seen you do certain bits before, and if they have, then you don’t want to keep going over it with going to other areas of my head like ‘my hair is thinning’ or something like that because that can get tiresome. If you have seen me before then we can just go right, you know who I am now, let’s just crack on.
Having said that, there are people like Al Murray’s the Pub Landlord character who has been wildly misunderstood. Some people take that at face value but he couldn’t be more different in real life than to that character. I mean, Al Murray is a very intelligent and educated man. He knows an awful lot about how the world really works.
Unfortunately, because of the character, people take it at face value without actually understanding the irony.’’
I think the thing I’ve noticed since doing stand up is that because on stage I am a different character and sometimes I think the audience are a bit weary whether to laugh or not because they believe I’m being serious.
“That’s true. I think what you have to do is just trust them and stick to your guns. Don’t break character and push it that little bit further where the audience can actually detect that it surely is a joke. Ideally, the best place to aim for is to be in a position where you can say something mildly appalling, with everyone thinking you are being serious, with laughter becoming slighty delayed, with the audience then realising you are just joking.’’
Simon Evans will be performing his show Friendly Fire on October 9th at Birmingham Comedy Festival.
The Glee Club, The Arcadian, Birmingham B5 4TD
T: 0871 472 0400
£13 / £10 NUS
Doors 7pm / Last entry 7.30pm
This is just part of his autumn tour where he’ll be gracing audiences with his presence at the following venues:
|20.09.12||Tunbridge Wells Trinity Theatre||Time: 8:00pm. Admission: £14 (£12 concs).|
|22.09.12||Didcot Cornerstone||Time: 8:00pm. Admission: £14 (£12.50 concs).|
|28.09.12||Lancaster Grand||Time: 7:30pm. Admission: £12 (£10 concs).|
|29.09.12||Sundial. Cirencester||Time: 8:00pm. Admission: £12.50.|
|09.10.12||Birmingham Glee||Time: 8:00pm. Admission: £13 (£10 concs).|
|12.10.12||The Dome. Brighton||Time: 8:00pm. Admission: £14 (£12 concs).|
|19.10.12-20.10.12||Hen and Chickens.Bristol||Time: 8:45pm. Admission: £13.|
|23.10.12||Durham Gala Theatre||Time: 8:00pm. Admission: £13.|
|25.10.12||Skipton Mart theatre||Time: 7:30pm. Admission: £12.|
|26.10.12||Exeter Barnfield Theatre||Time: 7:30pm. Admission: £12.|
|30.10.12 -31.10.12||G Live, Guildford||Time: 7:30pm. Admission: £13 (£11 concs).|
|02.11.12||Leeds City Varieties||Time: 8:00pm. Admission: £13.|
|08.11.12||Cardiff Glee||Time: 7:30pm. Admission: £13 (£10 concs).|
|24.11.12||Salford Lowry||Time: 7:30pm.|
|29.11.12||Nottingham Glee||Time: 7:30pm. Admission: £13 (£10 concs).|
|08.12.12||Swindon Arts Centre||Time: 7:30pm. Admission: £12.|
You can find out more about Simon Evans at http://www.simonevanscomedianetc.com/