Back on tour again, comedian FRANK SKINNER is having the time of his life. He puts his 27-year career down to a Protestant work ethic and a Catholic fear of regret
As a boy, I used to dress up in a full cowboy outfit and strum a plastic guitar in front of my family. I’m not a very nostalgic person, but when I see my son Buzz doing comedy in that idiosyncratic two-year-old way, I do think, ‘God, I must have been like that.’ As much as I don’t spend much time thinking about the past, I do find the image of a comedian- in-waiting rather satisfying. But then it’s very easy to transpose things retrospectively – the way I held the Mars bar when I was ‘performing’ didn’t mean I was born to hold a microphone.
I can still remember the first stand-up show I ever did. It was as the host of a charity gig for the Birmingham Anglers’ Association back in 1987 and I was absolutely convinced – in all seriousness – that I would be on Saturday Live alongside the likes of Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson within the week. I thought I was a sensation just waiting to be discovered, so it was quite a blow when nothing happened. I couldn’t believe the audience at this gig wasn’t howling with hilarity – I was used to big laughs in my regular domestic settings, after all. It took a while for me to nail it and I didn’t storm it till the third week. And that’s what I call my wilderness fortnight.
You need profound self-belief to be up there on stage as a stand-up, but self-doubt to be any good. You have to hate failure enough to make sure it doesn’t happen again. If I had to choose one reason for my longevity, I’d say it’s hard work. My dad instilled that in me. It’s a bit odd to have a Protestant work ethic when you’re Catholic, but I can’t escape it. I give everything I do 100 per cent, otherwise I can’t cope with the aftermath of regret and self-loathing. And if that ever goes away, I think I’ll retire, because the idea of doing this as a routine job disgusts me. I always have to be the best and funniest I can be.
The hardest aspect of my work is getting together the material for a stand-up show. When you’re doing TV or radio, there seems to be a little bit more air between gags, but when you do a stand-up show, it really needs to be gag, gag, gag – that’s why comedians stop doing stand-up once they have the option to do other things. I still love the challenge, though – once I’ve done the initial writing, the tinkering and fine-tuning is a really joyous experience.
I don’t really think about comic timing when I’m writing – I have to believe it will be in there. I can only compare it to clay-pigeon shooting: I already have the machinery and I just need to put in the clay pigeon and fire it correctly. If you believe in your very marrow that you’re the funniest person on the planet, you’ll get through every stage of self-doubt. But then I’ve always been quietly obsessive and romantic about stand-up – I think that, if you treat it badly, it might all go away, so it has to be treated like a delicate bird sitting on your shoulder.
It’s possible that I put more into my work now than I did as a younger man. I was talking to a photographer recently about having kids and asked what he thought about [literary critic and writer] Cyril Connolly’s idea that ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’. The photographer said being a father made him more motivated because he wants to be his children’s hero. I want to be Buzz’s hero. That’s not to say my stand-up has become benign – it’s still quite an adult show, but there’s less sex in it. Sex is not as big a part of my life as it used to be – or if it is, it’s domesticated.
Television and radio shows are very different to stand-up gigs, but I still end up comparing them. You might have only a small studio audience for telly but it feels like playing to an arena, whereas I have 800,000 listeners to my Absolute Radio show yet it feels like talking to an intimate, 80-seater venue. I always imagine the radio audience are falling about laughing and that gives me more confidence. I can go up side roads knowing I won’t lose my nerve like I might on stage if the audience has suddenly stopped laughing.
There’s nothing like a good stand-up show – I even enjoy the heckling. It makes each show unique and it means I have to improvise, which is always exciting. In the old days, I’d stop working on my material once it was getting laughs all the way through; now, I can’t stop tinkering with it and changing it around. I need something new to try out each night to keep it fresh, even if it’s just one line.
I’ve noticed I feel more relaxed on stage than I used to – maybe getting older is just a natural muscle relaxant. There’s always a little fire burning inside me before I go on stage, but I don’t know if I’d call it nerves. I think it’s just a readiness to go out and make people laugh.