Striding back out on stage in front of a hundreds of people by yourself is always a daunting prospect, especially if you’ve been working in compact, cosy and shared television studios and sets with only a limited physical audience present for a good 12 years. But this is what Jonathan Creek star and QI panelist Alan Davies has done – in 2012 he embarked on a huge tour of the UK, to a response of overwhelming acclaim from critics and audiences, asserting that he is truly at home on stage. And now, back on tour around the country again with a brand new show titled ‘Little Victories’, it’s clear he has no sign of slowing down. Ahead of his night in Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall later this week, we had the privilege of speaking to him about his return to stand-up and what he enjoys most about being on stage.
Reminiscing on what brought about his lust to return to the stage spotlight, Alan draws upon his experiences when podcasting about his favourite football club, Arsenal: “The process of that was when you heard something funny you’d make a note of it, and it’s the same process of accumulating stand-up material over a period of time – once you’re in the habit of that, you’re nearly back into a routine.”
But it wasn’t just football banter that brought Alan back to the stage – other projects were tried which didn’t experience the level of success as QI. A book which he committed 6 months of his time never took off, and in the same year his television show Whites was axed after one series. “I found myself wanting to take control and not spend 6 months writing and no one to read it” Alan remarks. When asked if there was one significant motivation to return, he talks about all of them having an impact:
“It’s hard to pinpoint one, I think the canning of Whites was the big disappointment – I knew that if people weren’t liking that show then you may as well give up, as I knew it was high class writing and the cast were excellent, I just thought it was a ridiculously stupid decision to can it, I believed it was one of the high class comedy sketch shows of that era of television – though I’m not in the habit of slag off other shows.”
Getting back into the stand-up scene in 2011, Alan was understandably unsure how it would play out. “As a comedian you often think you’ll never write a funnier routine or funny joke, and shaping a routine takes time to evolve, I mean there’s no short up to it, it takes several months of trying out stuff in pub venues and warm up gigs, and then you progress to bigger shows and gradually it starts to come together.”
Alan need not have worried – thanks to his promoter in Australia sorting him out warm up gigs, he was back into the scene with a full strength, vibrant and energetic show titled ‘Life is Pain’ in 2012. But Alan wasn’t done after that – with enough left over notes stored from the years of QIing, Creeking and podcasting, Alan decided he could give touring a second stint. Now back with ‘Little Victories’, he’s on even better form than before:
“The new show [Little Victories] I think is a better show, as Life is Pain had several autobiographical elements to it alongside somewhat generic stand-up material. But this current show I don’t believe that another comedian could come along and do it, because it’s all about my life, and that might sound narcissistic and self-indulgent, but it’s all about being a kid, or being a parent, or being a husband, and to know it’s you and your life tends to resonate well with audiences, and I’ve been getting a good response.”
What I was thinking at this point was that Life is Pain and Little Victories sound tonally rather different – but Alan has hilarious reasons for these titles. Chuckling at the memory, Alan says that Life is Pain was something a girl said to her mother – “she was being told off and she turned around and said in response ‘life is pain’, and I found this so funny that it became one of the anecdotes in the show, and then ended up sticking with it for the title”.
As it turns out, Little Victories wasn’t even the planned name for this tour. “I wanted to call the new show ‘Sex is Pain’, because I got into quite a good routine that was brewing up about trying to keep up with my wife, who is 12 years younger than me, imagining that I had to be more flexible and athletic and such”.
As brilliant as that sounds, some Australians decided to steer him away from such a title when warming up down under. “My Australian promoter took me aside and said ‘We’re not really sure if “Sex is Pain” is really…I mean we see where you’re coming from, but you might attract all kinds of people that aren’t necessarily… on the same page’. Reluctantly, I agreed to change the title.”
So then Little Victories came about, it was all to do with winning an argument with his dear father for 10 years. “When you wanted something in the house you had to get past my dad, he was quite a difficult opponent to get around in day to day life” Alan states, sounded bemused. I’m sure many of us can relate to this day to day struggle within family homes, when we were all rebellious little fellows.
Moving the discussion on to the job of a stand-up comedian, I, being a student interviewing for a student magazine, ponder over just what Alan brings to a young adult audience. “I don’t think age is a factor” Alan states confidently, which is entirely justified – he brings a soft and relatable comedy edge to his material that everyone can enjoy, which is clearly working. Alan exemplifies a gig in Ipswich: “The oldest [audience] member was born in 1930, and the youngest 2001, partly I think due to the popularity of QI, which breaks across all age groups”.
This could not be better for Alan, as he loves his younger, newer audiences and their reactions to him. “These younger audiences don’t know I’m a stand-up, it’s quite interesting – they see it as an absolute eye-opener, they think ‘Oh f***, he’s like this? I had no idea!’ It’s really quite fun undercutting expectations people have from QI, and I think that’s what I do best.”
Alan could not be more grateful for his audience and their support – and he likes to show his gratitude by always talking to them during every gig he does. “It can get the ball rolling, break the ice and all those other clichés” he chuckles, adding “it can make it more interesting for me, instead of just walking out and starting a monologue”. But fundamentally he wants to please the audience, “it’s like a curtesy really – finding out about them before talking to them for two hours”.
Of course, like all hardened and experienced comedians, Alan has a great story behind his debates with audiences.
“There was an incident it Peterborough one time. It’s a small town so people come in from all around, and there was quite a debate in the audience about which was the poshest village in the area – and it is quite fun the find out these things, I think it was deduced that Stamford was really posh. Back when I did a show in Warwick Arts Centre, the whole audience was unanimous that the village called Bedworth near Coventry was an absolute s*** hole. And there was someone in the audience from Bedworth – you might have expected them to say ‘Ah it’s alright!’ but they just said ‘Nah they’re right, it’s terrible’. I quite liked that person, and I was subsequently invited to do a show in Bedworth, which was good fun – I enjoy going around everywhere and seeing places.”
Alan has recently found success with improvisation outside of stand-up also, his successful series As Yet Untitled did a good run on Dave last summer and is set to return – just Alan and three comics, with no show planned, just a conversation around a table. “It’s so unusual now for people to sit down and have a conversation without getting their phone out and Facebooking, Googling or Tweeting, so it’s nice and old fashioned”.
So how about a fully improvised stand-up routine? A big challenge no doubt, but Alan believes that may be overstretching proceedings. “Once you get routines that work and they become settled, it’s very hard to match that with improvisation. The thing that gets a laugh from improvisation is the fact that you just thought of it – it gives you an extra gloss: ‘he’s just made that up? That’s hilarious!’”
When it boils down to it, Alan thinks that nothing can beat a solid, well-rehearsed routine, which can have a cheek bending and side splitting effect. “I remember seeing Dave Allen in the west end when I was younger and having that experience – my face and sides were hurting and everyone was in the same condition – you can’t get that from improvised monologue. There’s nothing spare, and every wasted word has been long forgotten”
To close the lovely and enthusiastic interview I had with Alan, it would seem fitting to ask just what inspired him to enter the comedy circuit. And rather beautifully, Alan relates his inspiration to his return to stand up.
“I think early on I was a huge fan of Billy Connelly and Dave Allen, and then I got into the comedy circuit and started admiring my peers at the time – Eddie Izzard, Lee Evans, Jo Brand, Bill Bailey. And in that period in my twenties when I was first into the comedy circuit there was so many people I saw handling situations and developing, and that’s the period I’m going back to now doing stand-up – that was the period which formed me into a comic, it was an amazing time.”
Alan Davies’ “Little Victories” tour comes to Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall on Thursday 13th November. Tickets available at: http://www.trch.co.uk/index.aspx?articleid=26117
Interviewer – Ellis Whitehouse