SIMON EVANS (00:00):
If you go on stage and you act like you’re better than everyone else, if they decide they don’t find you amusing, they may hate you. Whereas if you go on stage in your low status, even if your jokes aren’t funny, people will kind of oh, poor bloke. You know,
PAUL BOROSS (00:18):
Welcome to the Humourology podcast with me, Paul Boross and my glittering lineup of guests from the world’s of business, sport and entertainment, who are here to share their wisdom and their use of humour with you. Humourology is the study of how humour can dramatically improve every aspect of your business and your life. Humourology puts the fun into business fundamentals, increases the value of your laughing stock, and puts a punchline back into your bottom line. Please remember to like, subscribe and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts.
My guest on this edition of the Humourology Podcast is a prolific standup comedian whose list of entertainment credits spans across radio, television, and the stage. When he isn’t selling out shows across the country, you can find him on BBC One’s live at the Apollo, Channel Four’s stand up for the week and his own BBC Radio 4 series “Simon Evans goes to market”. In addition to making crowds cackle with his comedy on stage in screen, he has amassed an impressive list of credits in the writer’s rooms for shows like The Big Breakfast, 8 out of 10 Cats, and Not Going Out just to name a few. It would be a mistake to underestimate him as simply a funny man. He is also a past winner of Celebrity Mastermind and a participant on University Challenge where he represented his alma mater, Southampton University. Simon Evans, welcome to the Humourology Podcast.
SIMON EVANS (01:57):
Thank you very much Paul. And before we go any further, I’m gonna add I also represented the Comedians’ Professionals cohort on University Challenge and that they have various sort of iterations of the Christmas special. So I’ve been on it twice, but never as a student, unfortunately.
PAUL BOROSS (02:13):
And did you win?
SIMON EVANS (02:15):
No, we lost as the comedians to the Ministry of Justice, who I’d never even heard of prior to that. I thought that was only out of 1984. But they apparently were a real department and they were very well informed and they steam loaded us and then they won the entire competition. They won the series. But we did win our heat when I was representing Southampton as old boys, old boys and girls. But, um, but not by enough to get into the semi-final. You have, they only take the best four winners outta the Yeah, so I’ve got third time lucky and I’m gonna have to reenter university now I’m gonna have to go back like Rodney Dangerfield and become an old boy once we get to have that third, third crack at the whip.
PAUL BOROSS (02:52):
And what would your subject be, which you would study a third time given a choice? Cuz you did law first time, didn’t you?
SIMON EVANS (02:58):
Yes. That’s very good question. If I went back to university now, I think I would try and get something that had a bit of a philosophical bent. But then, I mean, Law actually, although I, you know, I went into study law thinking I was gonna be a lawyer. I knew within minutes that it wasn’t made a terrible error, but I sort of carried on just accruing it and, and sort of – I suppose it’s, it’s a way of understanding human nature, isn’t it? Studying law. It’s a way of understanding attempts to mitigate human nature and to keep it, you know, to apply constraints, but not too many and so on. So it has a philosophical edge. I’d like to go back and study something like philosophy, so philosophy and literature and maybe combine philosophy, literature and neurology, neuroscience. There’s a chap doing that called Ian McGilchrist, who’s written some amazing books and does a lot of podcasts talking about it. I find kind of cross-disciplinary problematic kind of people very interesting. Now I think that’s where the most interesting conversations take place, actually.
PAUL BOROSS (03:54):
No, it’s fascinating. No, I’d love and you must tell me about Ian Gilchrist books on neurosciences, cuz I haven’t come across ’em yet, so,
SIMON EVANS (04:02):
Well, his big one is called the Master and His Emissary, and it’s about the two sides of the brain. And he has theories about why we have a left and a right hemisphere and why they are actually subtly different in their way of understanding and framing the world. It’s, it really is fascinating.
PAUL BOROSS (04:15):
Oh, I love that kind of stuff. Anyway, you grew up as an only child in St. Albans. We’ll get onto the only child thing a little bit later on, I hope <laugh>. Was humour actually valued in your family?
SIMON EVANS (04:32):
It really was actually. Sometimes when I think, why did I become a standup? You know, and it’s one of those questions you get asked on everything from local radio obviously to, you know, podcast. But, um, you know, that whole we you were class clown thing. I don’t know necessarily that I, that I engaged with it that much, but it was definitely a way in which I understood that I could connect with my father, you know, a and, uh, for, for other reasons, as you say that you’re intended to come onto later, I realise in hindsight why some of those attempts to connect with him weren’t always as successful as others. But one thing I always registered was just how much he enjoyed good, uh, b BBC sitcoms, how much he enjoyed more common wise and the two runners, and lasted the summer wine and, you know, what would be regarded as very mainstream and obvious stuff.
He didn’t have like a cultivated connoisseur tasting comedy perhaps, but it was hugely therapeutic for him at the end of a working day to come home and sit down in front of the telly, he would always have a little wooden board on his lap. And he was always building a model aeroplane. He was never just like slumped in front of the telly with a, with a beer and a fag. He would always have some model on the go. But the big comedy shows Les Dawson, he was very fond of Wogan, you know, and, and the blankety blank kind of panel games or that a whole thing was huge part of what we regarded as culture really, you know, that was about as far as we went. We didn’t, we, we weren’t a particularly bookish household. We weren’t, I don’t think I ever saw them going to the theatre. I think my mom was slightly frustrated that my dad had no interest in leaving the house after 6:00 PM you know, but, yeah, comedy was a big part of, I think it kept him sane, you know, as much as anything else. You know, it’s a, it, it was, I registered at quite an early age that it was an important release for, for tensions and stresses.
PAUL BOROSS (06:12):
And, and was that also a big bonding mechanism between you and your father as well?
SIMON EVANS (06:19):
Yeah, I would say so. I would say if I, I remember like probably a lot of kids lying flat on my belly, on the, on the rug in the middle of the living room while my parents were in armchairs watching the tele, I’d be on the floor with a dog. And I remember seeing like a sketch on, on the two runners registering that the audience laughed and then looking to my dad to see if he’d laughed as well. And feeling that that, I mean, a lot of people do that look to see if somebody there with laughs and share that laugh. I remember looking back and forth between him and the tele and enjoying it more if he was laughing. And also he had this habit, you could argue slightly annoying <laugh> of laughing ahead of the joke when he saw it coming, you know, to let you know that he’d got it. But he would see that definitely as a tribute to the writing because oh, yes, I could, you know what I mean? That kind of,
PAUL BOROSS (07:03):
I know where this is going. Yeah,
SIMON EVANS (07:05):
Exactly. A man’s up a ladder cleaning windows, and we’ve already seen the ladies in the shower, you know, so <laugh>
PAUL BOROSS (07:12):
Was there an element whereby you could see, okay, this is a really important cultural thing to be able to use humour and therefore it’s important to me and it’s going to be important to me in life?
SIMON EVANS (07:26):
I think partly, and I would certainly say maybe retrospectively, once I realised how much I enjoyed also making people laugh. I don’t know whether it’s the same reason. I think to some extent centering yourself on stage is more egotistical than that. And I wouldn’t want to say I only wanted to do it because I’d seen how much it helped my dad. You know, I’m not, I’m not gonna create a sort of saintly <laugh> justification, but I do think I registered, this is good and this is a nice thing to do. The, you know, this is, there are lots of professions where you can make lots of money, if you don’t really care who you trample over. And then there are other professions where you can, you know, like caring for people where you’re not necessarily gonna get huge remuneration, but you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve made a difference in somebody’s life.
Humour seemed to me to be a, a really, I felt from quite an early age that there was a, there was a nice kind of intersection there, you know, there was, it was the opportunity to make people’s lives better, to, to spread little joy and happiness or, or a little bit of warmth and human connection, and also potentially to become rich and famous, which, you know, I didn’t want to, eliminate the possibility of, you know, so I think I registered a, an early age that was an appealing profession because I didn’t ever really want to have, um, a regular, traditional, conventional job. I really shied away from those from an early age.
PAUL BOROSS (08:44):
Well, what was that laziness, <laugh>, because a lot of comedians, obviously, both of us know hundreds of comedians and a thing. Is that sort of, or because I thought I like you, I thought it seemed like an easier way to go. Yeah,
SIMON EVANS (09:03):
Well, in a shorter hour, certainly, isn’t it? You know,
PAUL BOROSS (09:05):
<laugh>, oh yeah. And you go you I’m gonna go into a 20 minute set and somebody’s gonna give me a hundred pounds, or whatever it was.
SIMON EVANS (09:13):
I mean, I think, to be fair, when I first started doing standup, I didn’t actually intend it to be a living at all. I thought who I wanted to be really was Alan Koran or John Mork, somebody like that. Somebody who had respectful middle class establishment in a way, but without having to be a, a barrister or an accountant or a GP. So I wanted to write that, that was, I thought I pictured myself spending my days with my typewriter in an agreeable study with a globe which would open to reveal a few bottles of, you know, mid-price Scotch <laugh> around four o’clock in the afternoon. And that’s what I thought would be like the good life. I still think that’s the good life, you know, and, and a lot of my heroes are people who have established a study for themselves, as simple as that.
You know, I, there’s a picture I cherish of Roger scrutiny in his study, which is po possibly as much as I, you know, can tell you about his philosophy and his arguments in favour of beauty and conservation and so on. It’s really just, ah, yeah, there’s a man who study is you know, <laugh>. So standup is of course the opposite of that because you spend time in your car, spend time in the trains, and then you spend time in the most dismal dressing rooms. I still to this day, think the public have no idea quite how grim 99% of dressing rooms, even in quite nice theatres, let alone the ones that I get to play. You know? So, it didn’t provide that I really got into standup as a way of testing material, of honing my edge, you know, that’s what I thought it would be.
I regarded it more as the gym rather than the, the playing field really. But it soon started paying in a way that, that, uh, writing columns and so on, you know, manifestly hadn’t, I could earn more in 20 minutes on a Thursday night than I could in the entire week, you know, writing off 200 words of supposedly a musicly sort of diary entries for the local paper or whatever. So, you know, the truth is there are many more standup comedians earning a living at any given point than there ever were Alan Corans or, or John Mortimers. And, and that was before, you know, digital media made.The whole journalistic, you know, the whole of Fleet Street now is completely created. And we are quite lucky. I mean, I think I’m very lucky and to have sort of almost randomly chosen or found myself in a profession which does demand live attendance by an audience. And so you can still make them pay.
PAUL BOROSS (11:24):
You originally, as you just said, wanted to be a writer. What was the catalyst, cuz I think you’ve said to me once before that you went and saw some improv, was it spontaneous combustion or something?
SIMON EVANS (11:35):
It was spontaneous combustion. Yeah,
PAUL BOROSS (11:37):
That’s right. Luke. Luke Sorba. Was it with Luke Sorba?
SIMON EVANS (11:41):
That’s right. Luke Sorba with an S, not Zorba, like a, yeah,
PAUL BOROSS (11:44):
SIMON EVANS (11:44):
Think of him bouncing down there. Yeah. Yes. But,
PAUL BOROSS (11:47):
Yeah, he’s the Greek version. Yes, yes. <laugh>,
SIMON EVANS (11:51):
He, him, Stella Duffy, and who were the others? Uh, Alison, Goldie and Nile, something. I wasn’t Ferguson. That was the Historian, isn’t it? Something like that. Anyway, I can’t remember. And they, they were a great batch. Five five, very funny people. Yes, it was a local paper. I, I did a essentially, I went away, you know, I, I had a job for a few years after university selling advertising space. I had a vague sense I wanted to get into the published ending industry, but I thought if I get a sense of how it works before I then maybe can set up a magazine, this was just before the internet. If I’d waited a couple of years, I could have launched a website and I would’ve been fine, you know, <laugh>. But I was just at the sort of the fag end of publishing.
So I had something in mind more like halfway between Danny Baker’s Sniffing Glue, punk fanzine, oh God, you know, Private Eye and the Olympia Press in Paris in the sixties, who published things like Ulysses and you know Tropic of Cancer and stuff, you know. So I was, had slightly high flown ideas about what I, where I, my position would be in the, in the London. I wanted to have salons and that kind of thing. I just wanted there to be conversations in my life all the time, you know? So yeah, I did a few years of selling Adspace. I worked in Soho. It was great fun drinking in the pubs of soho. The sandwich bars of soho alone were good enough reason to work there. But the, but eventually I realised I was being sucked into the corporate funnel, you know, rather than the, uh, the creative go alone kind of path I’d wanted to take.
So I, I jacked it in, went travelling for a year with about, had about a thousand pounds in my pocket, booked a one-way flight to Karachi, and managed to survive for about 14 months on that. You know, doing a little bit of, of work of one kind or another. Very, very itinerant. And, um, and then when I came back, I thought, right, I’m never gonna have a proper job again. I’m absolutely determined to make sure that happens. Writing has been, I think that’s a key skill. And I, you know, I would say as a standup, you need to be able to write. So I did a short course at the London College of Printing, which was in specifically in periodical journalism, so features and so on for magazines rather than Reporting. And they also taught at what they already knew were redundant and archaic skills, like page layout, which was already being done, you know, by software at the click of a button.
But, you know, they taught you how to, how to set old type and so on. And it was fun. Three months there was great fun. And off the back of that, I started doing a few pieces for local papers, and one of them was the Camden and St Pancreas Chronicle, and they asked me to write a story about this workshop that people were doing just for fun, really on improvised comedy. Whose line is it anyway, was on the tele at the time? It was about 94, I think. Clive Anderson had become very famous and all the performers like Steve Frost and Mike McChain and so on. And, um, and I was, I love that show. So I thought, yeah, okay, why don’t I have a go at that? There were people like John Sessions as well, who had actually been to my school, John Sessions.
He was a few years older than me, but not many. And I just thought he was a amazing, absolutely brilliant. You know, I was staggered by his genius as time wore on. You learn with improv, of course, there are certain tricks that they do know, you know, it’s, it’s not like they’re not making up every shot from scratch, but, you know that’s how genius operates, isn’t it? But yeah, so I went along and wrote that story and signed up for a full length course, and I did about two years of improv before somebody sort of nudged me into standup.
PAUL BOROSS (15:08):
Oh, that’s really interesting. Because I dunno if you know Mike I was one of the original guests with the Comedy store players, right. And we were all taught all the games by Mike Myers. And there was b and uh, Neil Malarkey, Josie Lawrence, Paul Merton, Kit Hollaback at the time. Yes all, all those people. And we used to go in the afternoons and Mike would teach us all the Second City games.
SIMON EVANS (15:41):
I was gonna say he was Second City, which was like, that, that was the kind of Florence in the Renaissance of, of improv, wasn’t it really?
PAUL BOROSS (15:49):
Yeah I had Neil malarkey on the show. Uh, uh, and there’s some interesting parallels, I think, with what business can learn ab about business, and Neil teaches this, um, yeah. From improv. What, what do you think improv can teach you generally in business?
SIMON EVANS (16:08):
It’s, it’s a really good question. I’ve bought a couple of books over the years, actually three or four, which I’ve read, which have attempted to answer that question and harness improv and, use it as a teaching, a for order of amounts to self-help in a corporate setting whatever. And I think they’re of limited use and help, I have to say, but I think if you actually engaged with it physically, it’s one of those things, it’s very hard to get off the page. It’s very hard to put into useful, practical terms in a lecture or in a, a presentation. It’s a thing you learn by doing it, but when you actually do it, you experience quite shocking realisations about the nature of status and re dependency and games people play. I mean, you know, in any social setting, I remember one of the very first things Luke Soba taught me in improv, but again, you had to sort of see it happen in scenes to make it to understand it, was that in any good scene, and this can be in checkoff or Shakespeare or Glen Gary, Glen Ross or whatever, you know, there have to be, people enter the scene with a, something they want to get out of it.
And over the course of the scene, there is a wrangling. These people, it might be completely unconscious, they might not know what they want, what they’re trying to get out of it. And a status has to shift within the course of that scene. So if it’s just two people, the simplest example, you and I come in and you know, you are the boss and I’m the employee, and you want me to do some overtime, and by the end of the scene I’ve agreed to do the overtime, but you are now in my back pocket. You, I have some whammy over you, which is going to obviously have ramifications for the future. It’s just these constant transactions. And you realise that these are, this sort of thing is going on all the time in a business environment, also in a family environment.
There’s a great book which doesn’t attempt to use improv, but kind of is imbued with it, which is called Your Brain at Work. I dunno if you’ve ever encountered that. It’s a very interesting book about the, again, the kind of neuroscience to some extent or, and the heuristics and so on that people use to get through the workday. And it’s particularly acute and insightful about the, the degree to which status is important to people. Status is how people understand their role and their position in the world, you know? And it’s why kids want to grow up and leave home and that kind of stuff, you know, because you want to get somewhere where your status is elevated. And of course, we live in a society where advertisers and so on absolutely prey on that. And at the same time, there’s a lot of guilt about it because people think, oh God, did I just buy that car? Because it’s a status symbol, you know, and well, maybe you did, you know, we all need them <laugh>.
PAUL BOROSS (18:46):
So how important is status to you in the things, because I think that the comedians are very high status, even though they don’t conform to the norms of everything, because you are allowed, I always found this that we were allowed into any strater of society and treated as an equal. Whereas you couldn’t be a plumber and, and make that shift. But somehow comedians are allowed to make that shift.
SIMON EVANS (19:19):
Well, they are outsiders, aren’t they? I think they’re understood as outsiders. They’re understood as, somebody who might say tricksters or whatever. You know, they have that kind of shame of, I know Stuart Lee wrote a whole book sort of tracing his understanding of the profession. He’s entered back to the north America native shaman. Is it from that tradition, or is it, it may be from somewhere else, but anyway, you know, which doctors or all that kind of stuff. You know, as a comedian, you are slightly outside of the rules. You have that extra licence, lis fool and so on. But I do also think it’s interesting. It’s very interesting to me, status as played on stage. I didn’t, I don’t think consciously choose to play a high status individual on stage. But that’s how I ended up. Certainly I am, uh, I play very high status most of the time, and only in the last few years I’ve dropped my status.
And now I’m more of a, kind of like a Galton and Simpson character, you know, like a Steptoe or a Hancock. You know, somebody who’s a bit put upon by the world, you know, bloody hell, would you believe it? You know? Whereas I always used to be like stainless steel rising above it, you know, my spats wouldn’t touch the dirt on the, in the, in the, on the pavement. You know, there was that sense that I would just float above all the, the… I see they’re homeless in this part of the, of the world. What a shame. You know, that kind of <laugh>, how terribly distressing anyway, moving on, you know, that kind of attitude, which was very risky. It’s a high risk strategy because if you go on stage and you act like you’re better than everyone else, if they decide they don’t find you amusing, then they hate you.
Whereas if you go on stage and you are low status, even if your jokes aren’t funny, people will kind of figure out, poor bloke, you know, he’s, he’s having it rough. But somebody like Daniel Kitson, for instance, who was a brilliant standup and went very much his own way, his status was as low as it could be. I mean, he would genuinely draw attention to the fact that he, he did physically resemble the classic paedophile. You know, he had thick glasses and a straggly sort of beard and, and, and he dishevelled and he started earning a lot of money, you know, and he could very easily have afforded decent grooming and to smarten himself up, you know, not necessarily lose weight, but he could certainly have just presented differently, but he didn’t want to, it was important to him to sustain that. You know, somebody like Eddie Izzard, I think, struggled a little bit when he first became really successful.
Cause a lot of his material was about not just the minutia of everyday life, but really quite, you know, the launderette and that sort of thing. Well, you think, come on, Eddie, you don’t go to the Launderette. You weren’t like 15 grand tonight, you know, <laugh>. And it’s difficult. And he found, you know, an outlet through you know, unconventional clothing, which is evolved over time and, you know, wherever it’s taken him. I don’t know, I still have slight doubts about the extent to which he’s in control of that now. But there’s a, there’s, there’s a, there’s a, a danger for all comedians who start out with low status when they become successful. Stuart Lee, who I mentioned earlier, now it’s playing five nights at the Dome in Brighton, which is our kind of premier comedy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another comedian like do a run there of anything approaching five nights that’s puts him in the absolute first rank of, of comedians in terms of success.
And yet he will amble onto the stage, you know, still looking as if he’s a runner for the NME, you know, and, uh, but you know, t boy and, uh, <laugh> making no attempt to conceal or by decent tailoring to mitigate his slightly poorly status and so on. So, you know, it’s, it’s status is absolutely key. And it’s, it’s key to your proposition as a comedian. I’m not accusing any of these people are being hypocrites, I’m just saying if you want to make the comedy work, you have to be aware of your status and you have to present it and project it with confidence. You know, you have to know how you’re gonna be perceived. And the audience will allow all of that to melt away. They will allow the fact that Stewart Lee will earn getting on for a hundred grand over the course of that week in Brighton. They will allow that to fade away, and he will be allowed to present himself as somebody who is still struggling to get by in Stoke Newington.
PAUL BOROSS (23:02):
It’s very interesting status, isn’t it? Because you could say that Trump in America said he had low status and he was a man of the people and, and he was firing a against all the, the people who were in enjoy. And, and you were going, what?
SIMON EVANS (23:20):
Well, it that is very interesting as well, because Americans and the Brits have a slightly different notion of money and class for the British money and class are entirely different things. You can certainly be very wealthy and have no class, and you can be very high class and utterly on destitute. There was a wonderful TV documentary years ago about, I think they were called The Fucking Bulletins or something like that. They were a family, yes, that swore relentlessly. And they had a really ramshackle old stately home in Devon that was leaking and it had dry rot and all the rest of it, but they were clearly, you know, proper came over with the, with William the conqueror, aristocrats, you know, so Trump is a kind of uber example of that. Very, very wealthy. Although of course the money is like on a thin venere, you do think you can, he could, he could flip over at any moment, or he could have done before he was president.
A lot of people, I think quite plausibly say that his, his desire to be in the White House was as much as anything are sort of shoring up of his against, you know, even a bankruptcy. But no class at all. But Americans see that difference. You see, they think of that as quite noble. Whereas I think if we’re honest, most Brits have more affection for a down heel Aristocrat than they do for a novo, you know, somebody who’s made several million out of selling widgets, you know, uh, car phone warehouse millionaires, those kind of people without being, I don’t know, without having any of the sort of manners or the taste or knowing how to, to open an oyster. Do you know what I mean? I, it’s, I just observed that this is,
PAUL BOROSS (24:46):
It’s “chuck” an oyster. Just so we’re clear. Show my status there.
SIMON EVANS (24:56):
Very good. Is that what you do with them? Oh, I remember he came into my head because I was reading a bit of Woodhouse yesterday, and he had couple, was it Rodrick? Spode had the, had an eye that could open an oyster at 20 paces.
He only beady look at you. It might not have been spode. But anyway, he, um, he Trump represented for Americans, the, the kind of principle, I mean, not all Americans of course, but a distressingly large number, the principle that you can create yourself as a wealthy go-getting man. There’s nothing to be afraid of and nothing to be ashamed of. And his vulgarity, his Tie too long, his fondness for Diet Coke and McDonald’s burgers, you know, was exemplary, was like a throwback to the good old days, the Norman Rockwell days, you know, of every man being able to have a level gaze when he encounters the president, you know?
PAUL BOROSS (25:46):
But, I’m intrigued by this whole element of class and everything, and in this country, I mean, obviously we, for comedic terms, so many of our comedies have been built on class. Is it Very true. But is that, I mean, one you can’t really name many, which aren’t about, you know, Lance, and we go back to the Frost Report with John Klees and the two Ronnies. Well
SIMON EVANS (26:14):
That was pretty on the nose, wasn’t it? But I mean, earlier than that, again, I mentioned Galton and Simpson, who I regard as, you know, probably the Shakespeare of the comedy <laugh> writing fraternity, their, their creation, their characters. And I, I would also probably add in maybe knobs understood it as well. And I’ve forgotten it, and I wrote an obituary for him about a year ago as well. The chap created Rigsby. But cuz Rigsby is an extraordinary, I mean, he’s Dickensian and really Rigsby, he is very much like Fawlty. He is absolutely paralysed by snobbery. So it’s not just that he has class and he’s aware of it. He desperately wants to demonstrate and achieve solid middle class status. And he clearly isn’t, he clearly doesn’t have the right to regard himself in that light, you know?
But everyone else around him as, as with Fawlty, is comfortable with their status with their class. And, and he is absolutely spasming with embarrassment. And then, I mean, Steptoe, you know, you had that, the main driver of Steptoe was that young Steptoe desperately wanted to be a respectable, you know, individual. And, and his father was quite as happy as a pig in shit, quite literally. And the, the irony of course, was being that Harry H Corbit was a bit like that he wanted to be a Shakespearean actor, he didn’t wanna be regarded as Steptoe, you know, so he inhabited that role with a, with a <laugh> extraordinary close fit. But yeah, I mean, so it’s not just class, it’s about the comedy comes from anyone who is not comfortable with their class. And, and actually that’s not entirely like unique to Britain.
People who lack self-awareness are funny all around the world. It’s just that class is a subtle thing. So it’s quite easy and plausible for somebody to not quite understand how the rest of the world sees them. And for, and for the, the humour to rise from that. In America, it might be, for instance, and I’m just off the top of my head, it might be a man, a young man or woman who has a diluted notion of how attractive they are. What catnip they are for the ladies or whatever it might be. Somebody who, who believes that they’re a great businessman, but that’s a Trotter, of course. But they’re always going bust. You’ve gotta have delusions to be a comic character. Anyone who understands themselves, well, you can make a great comedy around them, but they won’t be the, you know, that’s kind of Seinfeld, I guess he was sort of the only one in that show that wasn’t funny, right?
PAUL BOROSS (28:40):
Yeah. I’m, I’m interested because of, of how we react to class and from a humour thing we do, we seem in the UK more pedestal, you know, you’ll put people on a pedestal, based on their, their class. And it’s very hard to move classes here. Yeah. But you’ve managed to move classes because <laugh> you I’m interested, and I think I have as well, because my father was a Hungarian refugee and my mother’s an east end of Glasgow, so it, I obviously have, but you have as well, in the sense that you were brought up as an only child in St Albans and a failed state school, but then you obviously saw something or modelled something in, in psychological terms that could elevate your status. And it was that the voice, what, what do you think that is?
SIMON EVANS (29:41):
Well, that’s, you mean in terms of the character I present on stage? Cuz I don’t know whether I’ve shifted class in terms of how I actually live. Maybe a little bit, you know, but, but not like a, a massive leap.
PAUL BOROSS (29:51):
Well, you’re not chucking oysters yet, to be honest with you. So I <laugh>
SIMON EVANS (29:55):
My, uh, my parents made a more significant change. You know, my, my grandparents were really solidly working class like yours. And one of them, you know, worked all life in a rubber factory and got the full silicosis of the lung. And the other one was a, was a council gardener and then a gardener for, you know, just a, um, I think it was electricity board headquarters, you know, so just a classic wheeling wheelbarrow of leave sort of level of gardener. And my father, you know made himself lower middle class, which is of course, an easy subject for derision and the Benjamin style sort of snobbery against it. But that’s a more significant change, really. Then it’s just a question of degree after that, how many books you put on your shelf or whatever, but the, the character represent on stage, who is, I think, um, yes.
I mean, my earliest sort of signature joke was about, if you can’t place my accent, it is in fact educated, the implication being that it was privately educated, but it wasn’t, you know? Yeah. So I was, as with a lot of things, I was really just reflecting back what people seem to see and hear in me as a standup. You know, when I first started out as a standup, I loved the idea that you could do jokes and make observations and people laughed, but I hadn’t quite understood the extent to which you need to present a coherent and strong, almost cartoonishly, simplified, you know, profile a silhouette if you like. And then I started noticing that some material I do, the audience would immediately go, ah, yes, that’s really you, isn’t it? You are like that, you know? And then, and then other material they go, Hmm, no, we don’t really believe that you would’ve had that conversation or that you would feel that way if that happened.
You know? And they’re right most of the time, I mean, is an odd thing, you know, I didn’t have to create a lie, but it’s a particular facet, I suppose, that they just find about you that works. Where that came from, I suspect the studying law, I suspect that studying law at Southampton, which isn’t like as prestigious as Oxbridge was a good faculty though. And I would say about 95% of the student cohort there were privately educated. So that was when I was thrown in amongst them. And when I was looking for, I suppose, a little bit of a carapace, a little bit of a shield, a bit of distance for a character to play on stage, I’d registered that a lot of them seemed to be very confident, witty, sharp, able to hold the table, you know?
And I borrowed that I think to some extent. And now, as I say, going back now, a lot of the people I find funniest are the few remaining East End Spurs fans, you know, that you encounter sometimes randomly in a pub, in St James’ watching a game of footy on the tv, you know? And I tell you what it is, Simon. You see what you’ve gotta understand, you know, that those people, I find them funny because they seem incredibly comfortable in themselves and confident and anchored, you know, they’re like trees, you know, some of these people who, uh, they have none of that kind of anxiety that the middle class nowadays have. I think there’s terrible anxiety in this country at the moment, more than there was, funnily enough in the seventies era of Rigsby and Fawlty, because I think people are anxious about class, yes, but also about race. They’re anxious about are men a part of the patriarchy? We’re worried about toxic masculinity. They, everyone is worried about whether they’ve, you know, demonstrated their virtue or not any number of metrics. We used to have much less of that kind of thing to be worried about. You were basically just worried about whether you were earning enough, you know, 30 years ago. It’s got, it’s got a lot worse since
PAUL BOROSS (33:28):
Then. Well, you had more basic, basic things to, to concern yourself with. I, I’m interested about the confidence angle because obviously it’s all about humour, this podcast, but every aspect of humour, and I, I think in order to be good at humour, you have to have an element of confidence, don’t you? You have to know where you are coming from. You have to feel that you can put these points across. You have to feel confident enough to actually give your opinion across. So how can people develop that kind of confidence in order to be more humorous, I suppose?
SIMON EVANS (34:10):
Yeah, it’s a good question. I, I do think you’re right. There’s almost nothing worse in a comedian than they are nervous. Even if they are funny and the audience is laughing, if they don’t believe it themselves, you pick up on that and you start to feel bad for them. And everyone feels uncomfortable. I think the primary responsibility of a comedian is to reassure everyone that they’re fine. <laugh>, even if you don’t find me funny, I’ll live.
PAUL BOROSS (34:31):
Well no, that’s true. Because from a psychological perspective, you know, I’m always saying to people that if you want anyone to go into any state, you have to go into that state first. And one of the examples I always give is, have you ever been to a comedy show? And they go, yes. And they go, have you ever been when the comedian is dying or nervous on stage? And everybody will do the same look, which is, oh my god, yes.
SIMON EVANS (35:02):
PAUL BOROSS (35:02):
Yeah. And they literally convulse with just the the memory of it. So it is something about you have to have that kind of confidence. Sorry, I interrupted you…
SIMON EVANS (35:15):
No, no, it’s fine. I think it’s quite interesting that a lot of the comedians that come across as most confident Jack Dee for instance, who I never saw in the early days, but apparently used to present as quite a comical character, you know, a much more cheerful and engaging character. But he really landed, when he started to come on, it was immediately grumpy. And part of that is its confidence, isn’t it? What you pick up on, if a comedian comes on stage and immediately looks sour, angry, disappointed, like they’re about to complain, you know, that they’re confident because they’re not trying to kind of go, eh, we’re all having a laugh, aren’t we? It’s all a bit of a laugh. It’s nice to get outta the house, isn’t it? It’s nice, isn’t it, <laugh>? I mean, that is funny too, you know, that kind of Max Miller thing.
All right, ladies, only a bit of a laugh, isn’t it? <laugh>, but it’s more confident really, or all other things being equal to come and go bloody hell, you know? Because the audience immediately know, well, this chap believes he’s got good material, cuz he’s not trying to sort of butter the parsnips with just like a smiling face and a happy attitude. So I mean, I’ve found early on when I, I’ll be honest with you, I, I was confident, I was quite naturally confident, so I might not be the best person to, you know, offer therapeutic advice for those who suffer. I, if anything, I’ve probably erred on the side of being oblivious to the fact that I might not be going down, well, not even just on stage, but sometimes in company and so on as well, rather than the other way round.
Do you know what I mean? I, I tend to be a little bit brilliant sometimes, you know, and I might not notice that other people are getting a bit tired of me or something, you know? So I’ve never really had that problem. And as a standup, I think I was very lucky that the first two gigs I did went really well by any standards that I could have expected. And then I was off and running and I had a few deaths obviously after that. But if those first two gigs have been deaths, I might have struggled, I might have lost all my confidence and retreated back into my shell, but instead I was fun flying, you know, it was like, it’s like your first skydive, it works and you just think, wow, that’s amazing.
But what I do remember is sort of channelling other comedians. I do remember thinking, I mean, funny enough, Seinfeld, although I’m nothing like him, but I did used to like the way his sitcom, which was around exactly as I started in 96, that was quite a big thing. We’d always start with three or four minutes of him in a club talking about the kind of material that was gonna be explored in the series in the show that was coming up. And even though his standup wasn’t amazing, really in those sort of two or three minutes, it was very confident, you know, he was just floating an idea in kind of going, cuz people always like mock that observational humour. McIntyre is another one they kind of tease and ridicule for going, oh, it’s just like, have you ever noticed, have you ever noticed, you know, that was Coogan’s thing, wasn’t it?
Have you ever noticed when you get home, the back of your blazer is covered in spit <laugh>? And that was, you know, it was, but the thing is, there is bravery in that material because you are taking a risk. Other people may not have noticed it, or they may think that you are a bit weird for noticing it, or you are a bit creepy, or you are maybe a little bit of a fascist for noticing that, you know what I mean? And there are, and the rules are changing constantly now. So there’s always a little bit more courage than is maybe immediately obvious to people when you are doing that kind of material. And I think that came out with Seinfeld that he, that courage, he had the conviction that, you know, his observations, he was gonna get there. You know, the first couple of lines might not be hilarious, but then when the twist came, it would work. And so I sort of literally thought I’m gonna do a Seinfeld impression. Nobody’s gonna understand. They’re not, I’m not gonna do the voice, I’m not gonna do the accent, but that’s who I’m gonna feel I’m being, you know, and boys have been doing that with footballers and so on for years, haven’t they? I mean, it’s a pretty natural way of doing it,
PAUL BOROSS (39:02):
By the way, in, in, in psychology, we would talk about that as modelling somebody, right? And I I’m always saying go the easy route model. You just talked about modelling Seinfeld. I once heard an interview with Paul McCartney, who’s hopefully coming on this show soon. McCartney said we were terrified in the early days of the Beatles because we thought that everybody would realise that some of our early songs we were copying Motown songs or, or, or something.
SIMON EVANS (39:38):
Well they literally did like Chuck Berry songs and Buddy Holly songs and stuff, didn’t they? Yes.
PAUL BOROSS (39:42):
Yeah, no, they did them. But obviously what happens is you go in with that attitude, but it comes out completely differently. Because it goes through you. But I actually think it’s one of those things that actually everybody should realise that it’s easier to actually go, I’ll go in with a Seinfeld attitude or this attitude and see what happens, because then you can borrow confidence.
SIMON EVANS (40:10):
I think that’s really true. I remember an Elvis Costello quote that I read in a magazine many years ago, and I’ve said it to, my son is learning electric guitar now, he’s about 15, he’s got a band with his mates, you know, and he’s like, starting to get, how are we gonna write songs? How are we gonna be original? And I always said, oh, I wouldn’t worry about that just for now. You know the Costello quote was something along the lines of all worthwhile progress in music is made by musicians trying to copy their favourite, their heroes and getting it slightly wrong. And it’s just the way you get it slightly wrong that moves things on. Anytime there’s a handful of people who maybe make serious innovations, maybe the Edge with his guitar technique, you know, or something wasn’t.
But even then, it’s often if you actually asked them or if you dig into it, you find, ah, well, what he was doing was he was kind of copying this musician who isn’t in the mainstream of rock or doesn’t even play a guitar. You know, he was trying to make his guitar sound like Tubella Bells or something. And, um, you know, like the Beatles, as you mentioned, McCartney, astonishing levels of creativity in the mid sixties. But a lot of that came from like listening to Bernard Cribbins records or Spike Milligan or, you know, uh, you know, they were listening to wider range of things when they started out. They were listening to Buddy Holly and, and Chuck Berry. And, and by the mid sixties they were listening to a much wider range of, of musical influences. And it was having an effect. You don’t have to try to be original, you just have to allow the influences that you’ve been exposed to. That’s where I think originality comes from. It’s the, it’s the originality of your listening choices rather than what you choose to say, if you see what I mean.
PAUL BOROSS (41:44):
No, I know. I think that’s brilliant. And I, I, I recently read, uh, a wonderful article by you where you said that comedy shares with music a dependency on rhythm. Yes. Often referred to as timing, though this arguably evokes only the correct pause before the punchline arrives. And really there’s lot more to that. What else do you feel that comedy and music have in common?
SIMON EVANS (42:13):
Wow, that’s a very good question. God, that, that’s a huge deep, I mean, in that article as well, I was drawing comparisons and also saying, this is the distinction, one of which is that music, good music seems to be timeless. You know, there’s very little music, there’s some pop that excites you when you’re a teenager enough, which you realise it’s a bit shallow. But most great pop from the sixties we still recognise is great. Burt Bacharach and the Beatles and the Motown is still understood to be yeah, absolutely timeless, let alone sort of Motzart, Beethoven, you know, whereas most comedy in truth does date quite quickly. But I think when you’re in the, in the immediate presence of a good standup in a comedy club, there’s a kind of rhythm. And it is partly, I think it’s like surfing a little bit. I mean, that’s quite a big part of it.
Every comedian knows that they have to be able to play the audience they’re in front of. You couldn’t possibly just deliver your set at the same speed every night. You have to be kind of rolling with it. You’re trying to catch the catch the peak and then, and then like carrying on the next one, you know? And the waves are coming in off the back of the wall sometimes, and they’re not always creating the same rhythm as you’re getting from the front row. And that can be tricky in itself, you know, the first couple of times… I remember I toured with Lee Mack in 2010, and he was playing 3000 seaters, some of which weren’t really very well designed, 3000 seaters. They were like corn exchanges that had Oh, I know, 500 rows, you know, all the way to the back. You know.
Whereas if you have a nice, like five tier Victorian theatre holding 3000 people like Sunland Empire, then, then it’s great. Everyone’s almost equidistant. You know, you’re almost playing to the, to uh, you know, from the centre of a sphere. But, um, but these ones where the people at the back of the room are literally getting the joke half a half a second later, and then they’re, they’re laughter is reaching you another half a second later. And that’s enough to really throw the timing out, you know, cuz you are playing to the front row and then just halfway through the next line, the laugh comes in from the previous one, you know? But rhythm of it, I think is partly, it is like a dance. I mean, part of the, the, um, skill of a standup is that the audience shouldn’t feel they’re being subjected to a lecture or a monologue. They should almost feel as if they’re in a conversation and it’s just a matter of coincidence that they haven’t had to actually say anything, you know, for a while. So there is that sort of sense that you are having a, a kind of rhythmic dance with them and you are pulling them around, you know, you are leading on the dance floor, but you are not, it’s not a solo dance, it’s more of a Waltz.
PAUL BOROSS (44:31):
That’s nice. But it’ll be, but you’ve talked about it, comedy being ephemeral if you like. But how do you explain then that you, you’ve been doing it for over 25 years?
SIMON EVANS (44:43):
Well, the individual can last for a long time. And I mean, Connolly, you know, remained hugely watchable, you know, right up until the diagnosis. Yeah. And, uh, a few others sort of come and go. Some of them go away and then come back. I mean, I think Les Dawson, you know, everyone felt was kind of exhausted at the point of which the new comedy came in in the mid eighties. And he was one of those guys in a bow tie and a velvet jacket that was regarded his old hat. And then there was a sudden point about 10 years later when everyone went, actually Les Dawson, he is really funny, you know, he’s not, he’s not just a bitter old misogynist or whatever. And he was brought back in and everyone rediscovered his extraordinary sort of lyricism and lovable persona.
So the persona can, but the material itself, and there are exceptions to this, but the material itself has to… is in the present moment, I think. And it addresses very specific, usually anxieties that are predominant in society, the extent to which a, um, a particular topic, you know, suddenly seems to flower up and every comedian needs to have five minutes on being OCD or five minutes on, you know, mixed race relationship or something. And then, and then, and then a couple years later, it’s gone. Everything that needed to be said about that has been said. And um, and if you try and do material about that subject a few years later, unless it’s amazing, it is possible to get around it, you know? But if you, if you just hear some old material that you wrote at that time and it’s all moved on, it’s kind of obvious that it has.
And also, I mean, for me, I think consciously you have to move through certain stages that reflect your time of life. So when I started out in comedy, I was a, I was a bachelor living in a, you know, initially a shared house in Peckham, and then moved, bought my first shabby little one bedroom flat, you know, in King’s Cross. But, but I was a single man with a certain amount of, of liberty. And, uh, you know, that, that was the trade off. Now I’m a, you know, a a family man with a, with a mortgage and a, uh, and a wife and kids. And if I was to carry on trying to present the same kind of material, it just wouldn’t work. Nobody would think, you know, you can’t be that. Or if you have remained that, that cynical and uh, and detached, that must be quite hard for your family.
PAUL BOROSS (46:59):
But by the way, isn’t that, that great humour comes from some kind of authenticity as well, where you have to believe that that person, because you know, you are what I would call you are a teasing comedian.
SIMON EVANS (47:17):
Yeah, that’s true.
PAUL BOROSS (47:19):
Which is beautiful. And I, I, I love the whole idea of teasing and I worry that it’s getting lost because you can’t play as anymore. And I love it. I mean, I do speak to corporate audiences all the time, and I will always be teasing, but
SIMON EVANS (47:37):
PAUL BOROSS (47:38):
I think people are much brighter than you think they know when you’ve got enough rap rapport, they know when you are playing, don’t they?
SIMON EVANS (47:47):
Yes, I think they do. And I think you can still get away with it, but you are right. People are more anxious about it. The, the, the weird anxiety at the moment in comedy audiences and generally is people are anxious on behalf of other people. So they’re not offended themselves, but they’re just thinking. So if you are, the kind of teasing you’re talking about is like a setup that suggests that the punchline might be racist, and then the punchline isn’t racist. And then you’ll kind of go, huh, you thought I was gonna be, you know, and everyone’s like laughing with relief that they haven’t been forced into supporting or, or, or legitimising your appalling shoes or whatever. But now people will be thinking, well, I found it funny, but I, I worry that there might be some people in the audience who were, who were alarmed even by the prospect of a, of a racist punchline, you know?
PAUL BOROSS (48:31):
Well, my, my first act as, you know, with Maurice Minor and the Majors, when we had our first, uh, big hit, it was stutter rap. And we, we did get a little bit of people coming backstage, you know, my friend stutters, and I’m offended for him type stuff and everything, but I wonder now if stutter rap would even be allowed. Even the, because the joke was, the premise was we were rappers, but we had a stutter. So the joke was on us, if you see what I mean. But now I, I wonder if people would get, well, you can’t go there,
SIMON EVANS (49:15):
I suppose it might evolve constantly and it might be a thing that you would say, well, is that cultural appropriation? Patrick Campbell, who is very, very funny writer, used to be one of the regulars on Call. My Bluff had had a terrible stutter. And he wrote a very, very funny piece called The Hot Box about when he was a journalist, and he was en encountered another man with a, with a similar stam, but on different letters. And they just sort of, he said they were like a box of fireworks going off in <laugh> <laugh>. And it, it’s, it is weeping funny. But of course, if he hadn’t himself, and you know, when you read the book, you know, he has got a staman, it is about him. It’s not some sort of, you know, so I suppose that already there was that difference, but then again, you could say My Generation by the who, that probably has the most famous sta stutter in, you know, oh, why don’t you just fade away…
PAUL BOROSS (50:03):
SIMON EVANS (50:04):
And it’s, it’s still electric. I mean, if you play that on radio one or two or whatever, now you still go, oh my God, it’s gonna <laugh> It’s still exciting, you know? So I think if you play around it with enough skill, I, I say, I mean, I am a little bit anxious that we are losing our sense of humour, but I would say most of the time, if you, if you have enough skill, if you have enough dexterity, there is always an edge that you can dance back and forth across, which is where the laughs are, you know?
PAUL BOROSS (50:34):
And finally, Simon Evans, your Desert Island gag.
SIMON EVANS (50:39):
This is a joke, which I remember one of the comedians telling on that show, the comedians Grard TV from the seventies, bit like Dave Allen. Uh, I think Bernard Manning was occasionally on it as well. This one wasn’t, I can’t remember his name. He was an old George something, George, I might have to go back and check. He used to wear big round, uh, big square framed glasses, and like they all did, he wore his big velvet bow tie and so on. Anyway, it’s up in the north, I think, let’s say it was Bradford. And there’s a, there’s a haulage firm, and they, generally speaking, they just do local jobs, but one day they get an order for some wood to be delivered down to an address in London. And, um, and one of the drivers agrees to do it, but he’s never been to London before.
Anyway, drives down there. It’s about five or six hours down down the M1. And he finally gets into Wembley, let’s say <laugh>. I’m not telling the joke at all. Well, and he’s like, oh, he’s completely lost. He has no idea where he is obviously pulls over to the side of the road. He is got like five tonnes of timber on the back of the truck winds, window down, beckon’s over somebody who’s walking up the street, goes, hello, mate. Hello. Hello. Is this London? Goes, yeah, where’d you want this wood?
Brilliant. That sort of joke has been, it’s been done in different ways. You know, that kind of, oh, you’re going to New York. Do you, you know, British people get in America and they’re like, oh, you’re British. Do you know my cousin? You know that, but there’s something lovely about where do you want this wood that again, I would give that the Galton and Simpson level of pith.
PAUL BOROSS (52:22):
We had so much to talk about and such a great intellectual and comedic chat that we decided to make another part. Listen out for it in the next podcast. The Humourology podcast was hosted by Paul Boross, produced by David Rose, music, by Steve Hayworth, creative Direction by Les Hughes, and additional research by Helen Sykes. Please remember to subscribe, like, and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. This has been a Big Sky production.