Frank Skinner interview: writing, comic book movies, Unplanned and more

As he releases his latest book, Frank Skinner chats to us about Captain America, stand-up, Ghost Dog and a whole lot more…

Frank Skinner is busy. He’s got several television projects on the go, a radio show, a regular column for The Times, and plans for new stand-up work.

His latest book is a collection of those aforementioned columns, along with the start of his unfinished novel, and, er, an obituary for Margaret Thatcher. And he spared us some time to talk about it all…

You described stand up, when you started your last tour, as “going back to the source”. With the range of things you’re tackling now, is that need to do that still there, or does what you’d class as ‘the source’ alter a little?We’ve already planned stand-up stuff that I’m doing in January, so at least I know at the end of it that there’s going to be some live stuff. I did a thing a couple of years ago called The Credit Crunch Cabaret, and we’re bringing that back. At least, as we go to press, there’s not strictly a credit crunch. So it’s going to be called Frank Skinner And Friends. So it’s going to be new stuff, and with guests.

Is that more of a treat for yourself, because the necessity to do this presumably isn’t there in the way that it once was?

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I don’t know. Because it’s a constant source of guilt to me that I’m not constantly doing stand-up. So I need to do it. Also, I still don’t think I’m as good as I could be. I’d like to find out before I die how good I could be. In my head, I have a vision of my doing a stand-up gig that’s out of this world.

Where would that be, do you think? Do you have it mapped out?

No, there’s a lot of dry ice and stuff! So it’s a spiritual, other-worldly gig, and I’m absolutely blowing them away. The only problem is that I can’t hear what I’m saying! Otherwise I could just transcribe it and go on tour tomorrow. But in the book, I said that every stand-up tour feels like a warm-up gig for the next one.

Whenever you’ve talked about the stand-up gigs that you’ve done that have gone the best, they also seem to be the warm-up ones. That’s certainly the impression you give.

Presumably that’s the bit where you click into the groove of doing it, and it all comes together for you?

Well, I think that the most exciting stage of any tour is getting the tour together. Because when new material works, there is no other feeling like that. It’s just brilliant. And for the first half of the tour, you’re still often finding the extra stuff in that material. You’re exploring it every night. But after you’ve done about 35 gigs of a tour, you’ve often covered every area of that material, and then it’s a case of repeating it. It’s still great to get the laughs, and there’s still improvisation going on. But it’s not as exciting as that initial finding your way.

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Do you find that just with comedy, though? Do you get a similar buzz from the other things that you’ve done, perhaps something like clicking into an episode of Question Time?

No. You get it if you’re doing a comedy show on telly, but those things that I’ve done, Question Time, This Week and Panorama, all that stuff, I think it was a bit of me saying I can do that if I need to. But there’s not such a thrilling return for that kind of work. My view now is that I need to stick to comedy, I think I’ve got that through my system.

Reading through the columns you’ve collected in Dispatches From The Sofa, though, you were doing election night coverage way back in 1997. When you came back to doing stand-up, it was described in some places as the second coming of Frank Skinner. But actually, the serious stuff is more deep rooted than that?Yeah. I don’t think I necessarily see it as serious stuff. I suppose when I started out I didn’t know the kind of comic I wanted to be at all. So in a way, the audience wrote my act. I went in and did stuff that I would have done in the pub, and some of it they liked, and some of it they didn’t. And I kept what they laughed at. So I was very much a product of the time, really.

I think, as I’ve gone on, I’ve got a sense that there are some laughs I want, and some laughs I don’t want. So I think I’ve sort of arrived at, not quite finely tuned, a comedy manifesto.

Does that come from writing more and more? Penning a weekly column, writing books, forcing yourself to structure and choose what you put down on a piece of paper?

I think it starts a bit deeper than that. Because the stand-up that I’ve done has always been very autobiographical and personal, so has the work I’ve done. The columns are all in the first person, and although they’re sometimes ostensibly about news stories, they often hark back to at least my own opinions, and often my experiences. I think you just change as you get older, and so comedy changes, the writing changes, and everything else changes.

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There’s an argument that this collection is a third autobiography. You talk at one point about how the comedy revolution of the past 10 to 20 years is a duality, forcing people to present more and more of themselves to the audience. Is that a good thing, do you think?

I was talking about that mainstream thing where people were squeaky clean on stage, and off-stage they were dark and threatening? I think that’s sort of the kind of comedy that’s been around for the last 20 years, what began as alternative comedy, and is known now as comedy, I think that was always more confessional. And more honest, as well. I think we should be very proud of that.

It really cleaned up comedy in all sorts of ways. It made it more of what Wordsworth would call a man speaking to men. And also, it got rid of a lot of the obvious shit that was around. Really, it was like a new sheriff came to town when alternative comedy arrived. I think there’s been a lot of plusses from that, and one of them is that duality.

Going on to your television work, you talk about how at one stage you had three series happening in any one year. And it strikes me you’re roughly heading back there. You’ve got Opinionated, Room 101, and the newly-announced pilot of Class Dismissed. Would you say you fell out of love with television, and are you back in love with it, if so?

I don’t think I’m in love with television. I think I’m in love with stand-up, and I’m in love with radio. And then, television is my employer. I don’t know why that is, but there’s something about television that’s never quite as enjoyable as it ought to be. Maybe it’s just a bit more pressure, more witnesses.

Was Unplanned about as pure as it got for you on television, then?

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Yeah, it was, exactly. I wouldn’t want to do a chat show again, I can’t really watch them any more. But Unplanned was a joyous thing to do. To just be there. I met this French woman who spoke to me at length about Unplanned in a very French way, that it was an avant garde thing to do on television. No one in Britain would say that!

I miss that. It was such a joy to do, I can’t tell you.

It was genuinely risky, but very funny. Would you consider going back to it, or has it passed for you now? I know that you did it on stage.

People say would you do Fantasy Football again, and would you do chat again, and all that. And I wouldn’t, and they’ve all gone. I don’t want it to be like those old Star Trek movies, when they’ve all got wigs on, and corsets.

Unplanned I would definitely do again. It was pure pleasure, really, with someone who I love. So it was shoulder to shoulder with a real mate, we didn’t know where it was going to go. We’d make each other laugh, we’d make ourselves laugh, it was great. I think it’s kind of being largely forgotten, but I don’t have any problem with that. I think it’s the way of stuff.

I think that’s partly the point of it, though?

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Exactly, yeah. It’s like disposable contact lenses!

You drop quite a few movie references in the book. I got a real sense from it that your ideal night in is just sat on the sofa watching 50 sci-fi movies?

That’s pretty close, yeah. If I could only sit with one movie, it would be Forbidden Planet.

You also talk about your Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai phase.

Yeah, that was an experiment!

You spent a period of your life trying to live by the samurai code after watching the film? How long did you do that for?

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I’m always looking for a regime that’s going to change my life and make me a better person. And I saw that film, it completely blew me away. It was one of those films where I didn’t really read anything, and no one was talking about it. It was like a weird episode of The Outer Limits, where I’d seen this film that no one else had seen in the world. It was life-changing. So I got the samurai code, which is what the guy lives by in the movie.

I tried some of those things. So, every decision to be made in the space of seven breaths, for example. I tried that. I did it a few times. There’s also a thing where it talks about the sparrowhawk. It says that when a sparrowhawk goes into a crowd of birds, it decides which bird it’s going to go for. And even if another bird flies close to it, a bigger bird or whatever, it doesn’t change its course. It remains focused on that. I still use that, certainly in work and stuff like that. That was the bird I started out at, I’m not going to let anything else get in my way.

And there’s a brilliant one about if you walk down a street and it starts to rain heavily, just get wet. Don’t start scampering from doorway to doorway, because you’ll get wet anyway. You’ll also get disturbed and shaken, though, so just take it, say I’m going to get wet, I’m going to absorb it, and that’s that. I’ll continue as I am. I think that’s good. If things are going wrong, just get wet. Don’t start scampering about trying to get out of the way.

What I think is interesting about Ghost Dog is that it’s a film that was sold in a way that disguises what it is, and I think that’s why lots of people didn’t talk about it. It isn’t the box cover. Have you found any other movies that have crept up on you that way?

I always think, every time I go to the cinema, I think there’s a possibility that I’m going to see something that might completely change my life. I’m one of those people, if I leave the cinema after a film, for about a couple of hours, I can hear myself talking as one of the characters in the film. Or I walk like them. Something about the darkened room. I don’t get it so much if I watch a DVD.

When I was 17, I saw Lenny, and they did a thing at the BFI, where you had to choose your epiphany movie. So I chose it, and I got interviewed beforehand about why this film had change my life.

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And the Lenny Bruce thing, it wasn’t about my comedy, it was about a guy who was honest about himself, and that ran into my whole life. It was before I was a comic that I discovered it. Just those routines that he does.

When I sat down, and people started watching it in the cinema, it was absolutely traumatic. You know when you’ve got a film that you love, and you show it to people, and they don’t like it? It’s nightmarish. I thought people were going to start walking out and stuff, and they’re trampling over my life!

But thankfully, people came up to me after and said oh, that was great.

I find that worst with films that you expect at some point to make them laugh. Because I find myself turning around, and checking that they’re laughing.Yeah.

I know Lenny isn’t a massively funny film per se, but there’s lots of things going on with it.

Lenny Bruce, in a way, wasn’t that funny. He was brilliant.

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The other week, I went to see Captain America. I don’t know why it is that comic books tend to be aimed at bright, imaginative people who are looking for the big ideas, yet Comic book movies seem to be aimed at imbeciles. It’s not always true, but that is a general trend.

When Stan Lee stands at the pearly gates, his automatic ticket from his comic book work is going to be held back while he explains the films.

Did you see X-Men: First Class? That’s got more to it.

No, I didn’t see it.

I think you might get more out of that.

I really liked the Watchmen movie. And I really liked Kick-Ass, too.

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When a comic book movie does something well, and I do sort of agree with your point, they tend to be very clever at finding something to say. I think that Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are good examples of that. But you find it elsewhere, too. X-Men and Thor, for instance.

I agree with Captain America, though. I thought it set up something interesting, and then pissed it away.

What’s the Bruce Willis one, when he sort of accidentally discovered he’s got superpowers? He’s survived that major crash. Unbreakable.

That was interesting. That was back when M Night Shyamalan was making interesting films, too.

The two Batman movies, as you said, are obvious examples. They did exist. I just don’t agree with this thing that people who like sci-fi and comic books are people who, well, smell. I’ve been to a load of sci-fi talks with authors and such like, there have been a load in the British Library recently. The Q&As are far and away the best that I’ve heard, and I got to a lot of writer talks. A sci-fi Q&A has always got the best questions, and the most knowledgeable audiences there.

And at that point, sadly, our time was up. Frank Skinner, thank you very much!

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Dispatches from the Sofa: The Collected Wisdom of Frank Skinner is published by Century in hardback priced £12.99.

A new series of Frank Skinner’s Opinionated returns to BBC Two this autumn