Don't Ever Heckle... is a new column where Londonist interviews some of the most exciting and original comedians currently working on London's live comedy circuit. Don't ever heckle them, because we think they're great. As we're massive comedy geeks, we'll be digging deep, asking why they perform, how they write, what inspires them, and why on earth they do it in the first place.
To launch this new column, we talked to Gerry Howell, an act who is increasingly making himself known for his charmingly offbeat, stream-of-consciousness act. Gerry sucks you into his own world with its own vibrant, magical ecosystem and internal logic, and pulls it off with grace and flair, so much so that he got through to the finals at this year's prestigious Hackney Empire New Act competition. Fans of playful, silly comedy will be in heaven.
If you're not familiar with his work, here's a YouTube clip (some readers of our RSS feed might need to click here):
Seen it? Loved it? Of course you did. We met with him on Friday in Holborn's fashionable Wetherspoons to find out why some critics are already starting to describe him as "Gerry Howell".
Your comedy is quite distinct from many of the other acts on the circuit. Can you describe your style?
I'm probably the worst person to answer that question! I was reviewed recently, and reviewers always tend to compare me to other comedians. It helps them to identify the kind of comedy it is that I like to do. People say I'm surreal, but I don't really know what that is. I genuinely don't! I think people use it as quite a lazy adjective. They use it without understanding the implications of it. The reviewer said I was "channelling the spirit of Eddie Izzard", that I'm prone to rambling and tangents, and that there's an appearance of improvisation... People say it's different, as though "different" was a sufficient adjective. Different to what? And then you have to qualify it like "he's different to..." - people can only define things in terms of the opposite. It can be annoying, the way that people try to put people in boxes. But then again, I've only ever been compared to comedians that I like, so that's good.
Perhaps that's working in your favour. You're getting lots of gigs, and you got through to the Hackney Empire New Act finals. What was it like playing to all those people?
Terrifying! The stage was massive. I couldn't even see how many people there were! We were allowed to go on stage before the audience arrived, and it's enormous, but it's empty. And then the next time you go on it's for your spot, and the big shiny lights are in your face, and you can't see the audience... which is very weird for a comedy gig, because I like to be able to talk to the crowd. It'd be like if you made me do this interview with my eyes closed. I'd say no, that'd be weird, stop it, you're being surreal. But it was very fun. My style can be quite difficult to follow at times anyway, with the juxtaposition of ideas that I like to play with, and all the back-alleys that I like to go down. Sometimes there's nothing there, and I have to come back onto the main road. And that's fine as long as there's a through-line to the set. So it was hard to balance that and also play to the crowd. Sometimes I have to stop and check and acknowledge that it's confusing, and say "Do you wanna stop? Shall we have a little break?" But I couldn't do that, there were just too many people for that to happen. The spot is so short I didn't really have time to stop and think about how the gig was going! But it was definitely different. Playing in such a big room, you can't even hear the laughter because it takes a while to travel to the back of the room, and then it flows back...
Did that screw with your timing?
I just had to plough on. I charged at it like a funny bull. And then a light comes up and it's over!
Do audiences generally go along with you? Are they on your side?
Not straight away. I need to establish what my persona is, so they can relax. They need to be able to identify with it, and think "Aah, he's going to do this kind of comedy". If I don't do that, and I start too quickly, then there's a barrier, and they get left behind. So there's always a warm-up. I'll always say hi first. Though sometimes the crowd don't say hi back, and if they don't then you can acknowledge that, and try a different tactic. THEN you can do a joke. Because ultimately they're expecting jokes. Audiences are needy like that. But I think it's really important for me to make sure that there's interaction and a relationship, because I want to enjoy the show with the audience, and make sure they're having fun. If people aren't going to appreciate my particular kind of comedy, I hope they'll still enjoy the performance. I hope it will at least be entertaining.
Do you write a lot?
I usually write after the gig. Last night I did a gig, and there was a girl from Norway in the audience, so I said I've got a friend called Jake from Norway. I didn't have any jokes about him, but I said something which was eventually quite funny, and a friend reminded me afterwards, so I'll use that another day. There was another guy from Ealing, and I have a bit of material about that because the first ever Nando's in England was in Ealing. I'm doing a great job of promoting them. But I don't like the food, I just like the name. I don't tell people to go there. So ethically I'm fine. The joke is that I'm waiting for a really long time, so I start to think about... things. Like eggs. So I start listing things that I'm thinking about, and it just goes from there. A great gig is priceless in terms of generating new material. If it's going well, I can talk to people, and that generates fresh jokes.
I'm interested in your first gig then, because if you always write after a gig, what did you do during your first one?
I've never had a first gig. I skipped it, and went straight to the second one! My actual first gig was terrible. Well, not terrible, but it was very different to what I do now. I wrote a lot. Actually, my first gig was for the So You Think You're Funny competition. I didn't realise! I found out later on that it's not really a place to do your first gig, it's for people who have been gigging for a year or so. I'd written eight minutes, and I did it like a monologue, word for word, and decided that I didn't want to do that act again. Interestingly, last night something came up in the course of the set about a goat, and then I remembered that one of the first things I'd ever written was a joke about a goat. So I did it again last night, but because I wasn't thinking of the script, and I just had the essence of the joke, it went down well. People came up to me afterwards and said "I love that new joke about the goat!" So it's fun to go back on old things sometimes.
How many gigs have you done now?
About a hundred. I always want to do more. And I want to do longer sets. At the moment I'm doing about ten or fifteen minutes. I've done a few twenties. But I think that when you get to twenties, you really need to organise your set - and mine is a shambles! I need to tidy it up. When it's shorter, it can afford to be a bit messy. But for the audience to remain attentive, to follow the stream of consciousness, and to not get lost in my mind... which happens sometimes. I'll have to stop and say "Look, I don't know what I was talking about." But that's nice, it's another moment where you can connect with the audience. Someone will say "You were talking about your friend with small hands". And it's nice because it reassures you that they're following you. But the bigger the audience, the greater the spectrum of people. And I think - this is what I tell myself - the best comedians are going to divide audiences. Because those comedians are going to be more... what's the word... they're more particular. They're bolder, and more exciting and sophisticated, so they're reaching to the top of the triangle. It's not as broad. I wouldn't enjoy appealing to everyone. And I couldn't even if I tried.
What made you go into comedy?
I used to do a lot of acting. I used to go to auditions, and I hated being at the mercy of an agent or a casting director, so I made up my own plays. People always used to say that the most memorable feature of my plays was the humour. There was one play where a guy goes to his dad's funeral. They were estranged for years, so it's a very sad and moving affair. The scene is about to end, but then there's this faint tapping from the coffin. His dad isn't dead! So there's this moment between the son and the dad. But the son just walks away. He's effectively killing his dad. It's terribly sad. But people didn't remember that key scene! They came up and said "I really liked that play, that was really funny!" And I'd say "What did you think about the bit where he killed his dad?" And they'd say "...er, what?"
I used to inadvertently write characters which were version of my own self. And I'd act in them, too. And people would identify it, they'd say "This character is just like you." I even wrote it into the stage directions, so people would say "He's about your age, he's bald like you, he has a bit of an accent..." - And then I refined my writing, and I cut away all the other characters... and ironically, at the end of that organic process, now I write very little.
So I did my first gig. You have to fill out a form for So You Think You're Funny, and there's this big section where it says "List all your previous gigs, and your experience to date...", and I just left that blank. So then this lady calls me up, and says "I'm just organising the heats for the competition, and it seems that you haven't filled in the form properly." And I said 'What do you mean" And she said "Well, it's all blank". And I said "Yeah, that's right..." But she was really nice, and said "Well, normally we like people who have done a few gigs," but she let me do a heat, and it went really well.
Would you have done stand-up if she hadn't let you enter?
I'm not sure how I would have started. Some people do a comedy course, which sounds like a really bizarre idea. I've never done it, but it works for some people. It's difficult getting gigs in the first place... but there are open spots all over town, so I like to think I would have started anyway. It's not easy, but that's why I keep going. Because if suddenly it was really easy, and I wasn't terrified every time... there's something wrong if you don't feel that. I've been on before where I wasn't in the mood to perform, but I went on, and instead of persevering, I just did a few minutes, and then said to the audience "I can't do it." I'd got a sense of the gig from a couple of the acts who were on before me, who were horrible comedians. I found them really banal, offensive and aggressive, and... that's fine, there are comedians I don't like, and there are people who don't like me, but the problem was that he was going down really well, and I had to go on after him. The audience were loving his jokes about the Chinese, and disabled people, and I hated it. I thought "This isn't the kind of gig that I want to do well at. I don't want to entertain these people." Maybe they were just being sympathetic and supportive to the guy who was on stage at the time. But when you contemplate the idea that they're laughing at those sort of jokes, you naturally conclude that there's just no way they'll laugh at what I'm suggesting.
What do you think of comedians who pick on other people?
I think there are different types of laughter. You can appreciate a joke which is cleverly written, and appreciate the mechanics, so you can laugh, but I think it's quite superficial. And then there's a deeper laugh which just makes you happy, and you're enjoying what the joke is. It goes beyond the punch line. So I can admire other comedians, and I do like to watch comedians that are totally different to me.
What comedians do you enjoy today?
I enjoy Eddie Izzard. I remember seeing The Mighty Boosh years ago, long before I started and before they had a TV show. They came to my university, to play in a really small comedy club, and I thought they were incredible. Original, very inventive and imaginative, and so much fun too, clean and innocent. There's no jokes at anybody else's expense. I can identify with that, and I think I share that child-like fascination with the world.
In a perfect world, what do you think you'll be doing in ten years time?
I'll have been doing comedy for eleven and a half years, so I want to be doing it professionally. Not because I'm desperate to make lots of money, but I think there'll be a point where I'll have enough self-respect and belief in what I'm doing, that I'll deserve some money. Because I'm working hard, doing lots of gigs, and people book me again, and to begin with we all do it for free, but eventually I want to be paid. At the moment, I perform because I love performing. And then I have to go and do my day job. I'm an editor for law reports. It gives me so much material!! Though having a boring job really inspires you, because you don't want to be doing it. So if I was really enjoying my day job, I wouldn't be motivated to go out and gig at night.
Does that explain the lack of comedians who are also lion tamers?
Definitely, because that's a fun job. But if you're a comedian and you're talking about your job as a lion tamer... we sit in an office all day, and dream of the jokes we can tell on stage. But a lion tamer's material would be really dull. "I'm exhausted. I tamed a lion. It was really wild, and now it's not."
And there'd be no challenge for a lion tamer to perform. Ten drunks is nothing compared to an actual lion.
Yeah, you'd just take your whip on stage... "The audience was rubbish tonight, they didn't even try to bite me!"
Do you want to expand into any media, or will you stick to live comedy?
Not yet. I'm still a baby, I'm still discovering what it is that makes people laugh. I'm fascinated by that mysterious phenomena at work that makes people laugh so much, and why they don't. But it would be dangerous to know if there is a trick... I'm just enjoying it. I love to have people laugh in real time, so TV would be very strange. But maybe one day.
Before we finish, let's quickly talk about London. Tell us your favourite places to eat, drink and hang out.
I really like walking by the South Bank. I don't eat much, but I'll walk as far as I can around where the boats are, and the new Globe, and around London Bridge. I also like walking around Hampstead Heath. It's the only place I know of where you're genuinely in London, but you feel like you're in the countryside. And I like Regent's Park. I live in Kennington now, so really that's my favourite place. I love London, I'm here, but I like to pretend that I can escape the urban insanity.
Gerry is playing a charity gig at the Comedy Reserve, Pleasance Islington on Thursday 3rd April, 7.45pm. Tickets are not yet on sale. Check their website early next week for details, or call the box office on 020 7609 1800 for more info. For more of Gerry's gigs, check his MySpace.