James Mullinger is a stand-up comedian and writer for the men’s magazine GQ. His last tour The Bad Boy of Feminism was a huge success. He talked to Josh Giltrap about his journey into comedy.
Platform: How did you first get into comedy?
James: I always wanted to do stand up. It’d been my dream since I was a kid really. I’d spend most of my time watching comedy videos and listening to stand-up tapes. In 2005 I had a ‘quarter-life crisis’ and thought that I didn’t want to die having never tried it. So I did. I got hurt, and I was shit at it, because I’d had no practice, but over the space of three years of getting back up on stage you basically get better at it. I went down the usual path; three years of going all over the country, and losing a lot of money doing unpaid gigs. It’s a difficult thing; a guitarist doesn’t get on stage and perform to an audience until they’ve mastered their craft – by that point they know how to play a guitar. With stand-up the only way to practice is in front of an audience; you can’t do it in front of a mirror. You’re having to die over and over, which is a soul destroying thing, but it’s the only way to get good, and after those three years I started to get paid work, which has sort of evolved after eight years of doing it. I love touring round the country – being able to work purpose built clubs like the Glee club in Nottingham rather than some room above a pub is a real honour. You turn up to a packed house, you get looked after well and hopefully the gigs go well. They certainly go well more often than they did back then!
Platform: What comedians had a big influence on you?
James: Frank Skinner was definitely the main one. First of all I couldn’t believe how filthy he was. No one swore on TV around the time he was on, and they certainly didn’t make anal sex jokes. There was something I liked about his routines that WERE undeniable filthy, but the genius of Skinner was that He managed to do that and still come off as utterly charming. He’s talking about masturbation and anal sex, but it was hilarious, insightful and utterly charming, as though he was just chatting to you down the pub. I used to watch his videos over and over again, and he’s probably the comedian I aspire to be like most. I toured a show last year called The Man With No Shame, and basically I will talk about anything on stage. Things that most people are afraid to admit to their nearest and dearest, I’ll happily talk about to an audience. One of the things I do is I read out a diary entry from the day I lost my virginity – this hopelessly embarrassing thing that most people… well if they still had that diary they would want to burn it, but I keep it and read it out so that people at laugh… at me… and how pathetic I was.
Platform: Having had your whole life to write your first set, how have you found the writing process change, if at all, in your subsequent tours?
James: It’s different. When I do clubs I generally do the same 20-minute sets. What I do Nottingham for example, I’m one of three comics on the bill, and I’ll be doing a 20-minute set which is more honed and tighter jokes. In that sort of setting you need a big laugh every 30 seconds at most. With a show where you’ve got 70 minutes you can afford to be more experimental and it’s more storytelling based. To be honest I’ve mined my past; I do go through old diaries and that kind of thing, and tell long anecdotal stories about my past. There’s a tale I’ve been telling recently about a time when (and I’m not proud of this), I went over to my brother while he was asleep and farted on his head. I had pretty bad farts. That’s become a five-minute story that might have just been a good story at the pub. I thought this would be funny onstage, and until you do it you don’t know – so I’d go out and tell the story like I normally would, and gags would just come out at points where I didn’t necessarily know there were laughs to be had. After that you just build on the joke from there.
Platform: Weighing up how the audience takes it as you go along…
James: That’s exactly it, because you really can’t predict it. There’s a reason that even the greatest comedians in the world like Jerry Seinfeld still does try out gigs, because no one, no matter how many times you do it, can predict what an audience is going to find funny. Last night when I was doing new material in north London, all the comedians were coming up with bits of paper and reading out their new stuff. Some nights are fine, and sometimes you just have to keep working on a joke until it evolves into something that works. Of course there are also the times when a joke will ultimately fail, five nights in a row and you just go ‘oh this is shit’, and it’s fairly safe to bin it. The act changes a lot over time.
Platform: On top of GQ and being a touring comic, you also do an online film show with comedy central, how do you find the time to balance all this?
James: It’s definitely not easy, and I’m glad that the film stuff is online now. Back when it was on TV was probably the busiest time of my life. We’d start filming at 4am, then I’d go into work at GQ about 8am, then that evening I’d have to go out and do a gig. After that I’d get home, get a couple of hours sleep and start all over again. Between all that trying to spend some time with my son as well, so that was an insane time. Working into the night isn’t easy; no amount of makeup can cover bags under your eyes like I had, but when you’re doing something you love it doesn’t feel like a chore, and even though you might be physically exhausted, mentally you’re very stimulated. It was hard work but I loved doing it.
Platform: What impact has the internet had on your career?
James: The great thing about the internet is the immediacy of it. That childhood dream of having a TV show is undeniably exciting, the web is obviously the way forward. I interviewed Judd Apatow the other week and he joked that in a few years time, everything will be web based. I mean, Netflix salvaged Arrested Development and they’re not bringing it back to life on the internet. People are plugging in their iPads to their TV’s to watch stuff that isn’t on terrestrial channels.
It’s also changes how comedians are discovered. There are a lot of comedians, like Russell Peters in America, who started out as a circuit comedian in Canada, then one of his routines went viral on Youtube and it went everywhere. Now he sells out stadiums all over the world; pretty much all from one routine. But that said, that is quite rare – every comedian in the world is filming themself and putting it online, and might only get 100 hits on there. So it’s this one-in-a-million chance of it going viral. Ten years ago a comedian needed to get on TV for their work to be seen – now they just put it up on Youtube and anyone that wants to see it can see it. It’s definitely been a force for good.
I actually studied women’s studies at university, and I feel quite passionately about feminism. I feel like it’s misunderstood. A lot of people think that to be a feminist you have to hate men, which is not the case. It’s really an issue of equality. In that show I would come up and say to the audience “How many people think they’re feminists?” Only a handful of people would put their hands up, and I’d say “Well how many people think that women should be treated equally in society?” and almost everyone put their hands up…. Well a few arseholes didn’t but generally this sort of proved my point. I thought it would be an interesting subject for a show, especially for a man to do, and of course with my role at a men’s magazine as well, the fort of misnomer that men’s magazines are misogynistic, I wanted to rail against that. Really it was, like a lot of stand-up shows, a theme that I had that would essentially string together lots of stories and anecdotes from my life, but points of it were just to get across the idea that if you believe in equality, then you’re a feminist.
Platform: Is it a topic you’d ever think of revisiting?
In clubs and stuff I can’t do it as much, people don’t want to be preached at, and in a club they just want to hear gags, whereas when you do a show with a name like that, people do come out specifically to see it because they know what they’re getting. Last year the Cambridge festival asked me to come and dust off the show and do it again which was nice, and I wouldn’t mind performing it again if I was asked, but it’s that thing of wanting to do a new show, so every year I’ll try and come up with a new concept. I’m working on one now called Living the Dream, which is basically about positivity and the way that the phrase ‘living the dream’ used to be used as a term of excitement, whereas now whenever people use the phrase it tends to be sarcastic, you never hear someone say “Oh I’ve had a wonderful day, I’m living the dream.” They generally go “Oh I’ve got to clean shit off the toilet again, I’m living the dream.” So it’s basically about the way in which the current government have made us all so miserable and depressed that even an uplifting phrase like that has been rebranded as a negative thing. So that’s the theme, but then, as always, it will be an excuse to tell lots of (hopefully funny) stories. It’s that thing of wanting to give people a story to latch on to, but then ultimately driving gags through that.
Platform: What do you think of the comedy scene today? How do you think it’s changed over the last decade, if at all?
It’s definitely changed a lot, in terms of there being so many more comedians, and there are so many more of them because of the fact that so many of them have done so well. Someone like Micky Flanagan who was a highly respected circuit comedian suddenly now fills up arenas which, 15 years ago would have been something only like, Madonna would sell. So it’s definitely changed for the better in that it’s so much more competitive – everyone has to be better. It’s harder to get gigs now than it ever was because there are so many comedy courses churning out new comedians all the time. It means that, on an average club act, not to say you don’t still get crappy open mic nights, with lots of bad acts, but ultimately you go somewhere like The Glee Club where they are so fierce with their booking policy that really you get the best comedians, so I think it’s one of those things – you go to any purpose-built comedy club, then you know you’re going to get a solid act because there are so many to choose from no that only the best survive. So that’s the big issue with change; people like Michael McIntire and so forth bringing as much from his tours as the Kings of Leon – it’s just incredible, and would have been unthinkable 15 years ago. So while a lot of people complain about it, ultimately it’s all for the best because the general public are all way more into comedy. Only five years ago there was only one stand-up show on TV – Live at the Apollo – and that was it, but now you can’t turn on the TV without seeing a stand-up show, so if you work in comedy that can only be for the best – that the public at large are embracing it in every way.
Platform: Having toured America, have you found any differences between audiences and styles of comedy in the UK and the USA?
American comedy clubs are very different to English ones. In England there’s this huge emphasis put on a club that the bar is shut while the acts are on, and we have lots of breaks so that people can go and buy drinks then, but sit quietly during the act, whereas in America, the show runs straight through, and you have waitresses walking round while the acts are on. It seems bizarre the comic’s on-stage and there’s a waitress in the front row taking a drinks order. I guess it makes comedy in America, especially in clubs, a lot more gag-driven. With so many distractions in the room you can’t really have a three-minute buildup, so you just have to be a lot tighter and certainly in America there’s a way in which comperes work, they come on and introduce a comedian by listing his TV credits sort of like “This next act, you’ll have seen on Comedy Central and HBO, he played the dustman in Adam Sandler’s latest vehicle…” and it goes on. If you’re a compere in the UK, you’re about to introduce a big TV act and they’ll always say “Oh don’t big me up too much.” I think English audiences are charmingly cynical, in that if the compere comes up and says “You’ll know this guy from Mock the Week” and whatever, the audience will then just lean back and say “alright then, well make me laugh you bastard.” Whereas in America they’re all kind of,whooping and cheering. It’s just very very different out there. Obviously there are similarities – there are great acts and there are not-so-great acts, but there is definitely a very different vibe. With American audiences I tend to go for tighter gags and play up the ‘English’ thing more. A lot of the stuff I do here is pretty deep in British culture, which won’t necessarily go down well there. So I do definitely change my set a lot when I’m doing those.
Platform: Any advice for aspiring comics?
James: It really is just a matter of getting on stage and doing it as much as possible. I do wish that someone had told me early on to respect the promoters. It’s easy to be grumpy if you’ve just travelled across the country for an unpaid gig. But you have to treat it like a job interview; you’ve got to be the sort of person they’d want back, and want to pay. So as well as doing a good set, all your behaviour, from the second you arrive to the second you leave is being noticed. If you’re not charming and friendly the whole time, that club doesn’t want you back – it’s the same with my job. Someone could be highly qualified for a job, but if the boss doesn’t want you there in the office, then they’re not going to get it. I would definitely warn aspiring comedians to be aware of that.
James Mullinger will be performing at the Glee Club in Nottingham on the 18th and 19th of October this year (To book tickets for the show go to http://www.glee.co.uk/performers/james-mullinger.htm) and his new show Living The Dream as part of the Nottingham Comedy Festival on 25th September.
For more information go to James Mullinger’s website at www.jamesmullinger.com