Interview: Dan Atkinson

Comedian Dan Atkinson, ahead of his Edinburgh shows, spared time with us for a chat...

How are you, Dan?

Yeah, I’m really pumped! I’ve just written probably ten minutes of amazing jokes which I didn’t have when I woke up, so it’s been a really productive day. I’ve got a special ending for my show and I did the recording for that today but it’s been in the pipeline in my head for about six months so I’m really pleased.

It’s ten minutes of stuff that I needed to write for a long time and I kept putting off going, “Oh, Edinburgh’s ages away” and I knew where I was going with it but I actually got it down with jokes today.

Your Edinburgh show this year is called Death by a Thousand Pricks.

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That is correct.

Is it safe to assume that, unlike last year, the show isn’t a reference to sharing a flat with your brother?

I don’t share a flat with my brother anymore and it’s one of my big fears for the show this year is that people are going to get the wrong end of the stick. The premise of the show is that my radio broke this year; the dial came off, so I have to listen to only radio talk shows; it’s the only channel I can get. These people just do my head in, so they’re the thousand pricks. The show is a journey about me and my relationship to these people on the radio. If I name them, I get sued.

How long have you been working on the show?

Since January. I did last year’s Edinburgh and then between then and Christmas I did the Edinburgh and Beyond Tour and that’s quite intense; like thirty days. You’re just out all the time, spending the rider and when you’ve spent the rider it’s quite hard to work, if you can read between the lines of what I mean? So I did that for Autumn and I suppose ideas were gestating and you start thinking about it immediately. I’m already thinking about next year’s show, but I don’t start serious work til’ January. I think you owe yourself at least a quarter of the year without being in a state of horrific panic.

Your shows are usually based on experiences you’ve had, things that have happened to you.

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What I like to do is use my personal circumstance or whatever as a kick-off for dealing with bigger ideas. I’ve always been interested in comedy that deals with ideas but I think it’s good to start from an accessible point, and then move from that to talk about abstract concepts and ideas. I touch on ideas of oppression and repression in this year’s show and so hopefully deal with something that isn’t just, “This is what happened to me!”

How’s the show developed since January?

I literally threw it away two months ago. I was working on a show with big ideas in it and then realised I hadn’t written enough jokes so I just chucked the show away. In the last two months I’ve brought bits of that back in but also I did a show called The Dot Farm with Jon Richardson and Lloyd Langford on Sunday afternoons; a live show where we’d come up with stuff every week, and I had a section in that where I was dealing with a radio phone-in idea and I combined that with my big show idea and that’s come together quite nicely.

With The Dot Farm did you find it challenging to improvise a set amount of material?

Jon and Lloyd and I are good friends off stage and we spend social time with each other so we’ve got a fairly decent rapport and we’d just bitch at each other like we would in normal life but in front of people. So it was actually very easy.

Do you prefer improvisation to working to a set script?

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I’ve done loads of compering over time and I still love it because improvising is a genuine pleasure. In fact, I think that when you’re on stage and you relate something that’s happened in the room that’s when you’re really being a comedian. I mean, you are a comedian if you write stuff; then you deliver it; people laugh, that is being a comedian, but if something happens and you instantly spontaneously do something funny then and there, that’s really being a comedian. I love the hit and miss.

Sometimes it won’t work, sometimes it will and that’s part of the danger, it keeps it exciting. There’s always latitude for improvisation and adding to it. Generally ‘cos I haven’t written enough by the time Edinburgh comes.

The improvisation skill works well dealing with heckling too.

I love hecklers. I’ve been doing this for a long time; they haven’t been heckling for as long as I’ve been on stage. I did a gig at the Guardian offices, Edinburgh previews with Avalon, and before I put my foot on stage I got the most obnoxious heckle I’ve had all year. He heckled, before I said a word, about the previous show. I was mopping up for someone else and then he was rude to me. He was a nightmare but I think I won.

This is your third hour-long show at Edinburgh. Is the experience the same each time?

No, I don’t know how it goes after this, but the way I see it is Year 1: you do the best of your material you’ve written over the time of you being a comedian but you have no idea of how to structure an hour-long show so you don’t do your material justice and you end up with some half-way product that’s quite good. Then you go to Year 2 and you’ve got a much better idea how to structure an hour, but you’re on to the B-team of the material from Year 1 so you do the hour justice but with weaker material. Year 3 you start from scratch, you’ve got nothing. But you have a very clear idea of what structure should be over an hour and I think it’s a real sink or swim year. If you’re capable you can come up with a show that’s coherent because all the jokes are for the show, rather than shoehorning stuff in. But if you’re not capable of that you find out pretty quickly, so I’m excited about this year.

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Do the previews help? Going in not knowing if the material is going to work?

I work a two-step preview process where I start off just not doing actual previews but going to new material nights and just trying the stuff out, then you get a gauge on whether the stuff works and then the previews are really about for seeing how it fits together. So I try to find out if the jokes work in little ten minute chunks but this year it’s been harder to do that because the end relies on the beginning and it was only in previews that I could really get it together.

It’s an essential process and it very much depends on the audience. You go to some places and just get eight people who don’t give a shit and didn’t know what was going to happen and it’s just awful. Other ones are just a replica of a good Edinburgh experience and it’s really good for your confidence.

So you see Edinburgh as fairly important to your career?

It gives my year definition; without it I don’t know what I’d do. It’s an end point for me to generate a show. And it’s such a wonderful opportunity to do a show on anything and it doesn’t have to be funny, it helps if it is funny, but I could do anything. And so it’s a really good thing for growth, for improving. This is my third year; I see it as a product that I’m happy to show people but really it’s a step on a journey of being as good as I can be. It’s all developing and getting better over time.

It’s like smack, isn’t it? You can’t stop.

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Do you read the reviews of your Edinburgh shows while you’re up there?

In my first year someone read me a two-star review that I got very early on and it made my show very hard to perform because I lost confidence in it. Maybe it was a fair review, maybe it wasn’t, but the benefits of reading a good review are not the same as the damage that reading a bad review can do to you so I read them all afterwards and then get angry.

Would a review necessarily influence any changes in the show post-Edinburgh?

The intensity of the Edinburgh experience… I can’t describe it! Just for a whole month you have to be ‘on’ at any time. I’m a man and I’m a comedian so I can’t be a performer all the time but in Edinburgh you can be called on at any moment to be a performer and it’s exhausting. That wrapped up with the emotion of it all and wanting people to appreciate what you’ve made. But when you’re out of Edinburgh that’s not the same, so no, I don’t. I’m a lot more level-headed when I’m not in that city.

How did you start out in stand-up?

I was a prick at school and it turns out you can make money out of being a prick. I dunno, I started when I was 17, doing a double-act with a mate from school. He went on to do something else, I carried on. I set up my own club in 2001, which I ran for five years in York. I compared that, learnt my mistakes outside London. Came to London, I’m here!

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Most people could be stand-ups if they had the ego and tenacity. You’ve got to be a little bit funny to start with, I suppose. But you can learn it, and everyone was shit, all of us were shit. Then you get better.

Who or what would you cite your influences as?

I try to take a lot of influences from outside stand-up, actually. I don’t like to be influenced by other stand-ups; I think it’s a bit dangerous, watching other people going, “I wanna be like that” because it doesn’t fit with who you are and what you’re really like. There’s more to you than a stand-up comedian.

I was at the Latitude Festival [a few weeks ago] and I was at the Comedy Tent for loads of it but actually watching Nick Cave, for example, on the final day where he headlined, I got more influence from that than watching any single comedy performance. I think comedy would benefit from a lot more cross-pollination.

I’ve always loved the underdog, I’m a big Tom Waits fan, but I love his whole demeanour; he’s a tramp but with a heart. Songs or performances that tell stories and comedy is story telling; even a one-liner is a story.

I don’t get inspired when I’m watching other comedians; I’m too ‘in it’. I’m an obsessive about the craft of comedy and I would bore you with an interview on it. I would talk to you for half a day on the craft of comedy; what it means; what it is to be a comedian; what comedy is for, and I’m obsessed by it so I can’t watch a comedian and really laugh a lot now. Everyone can be improved, even the best ones. I can’t help it, I watch it and I go “that’s amazing, but it could be better”. There’s no perfection.

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Is it not harmful if you can’t watch comedy for comedy’s sake?

Absolutely, but I don’t have a choice. I don’t choose not to enjoy it. I don’t have the same thing outside of comedy because I’m not, for example, literate in making a science-fiction book. I don’t know how to do that so I can’t read it with an eye going “this would be better” ‘cos I don’t know how to do it. So I do just appreciate it, I go, “that’s amazing! I could take that, and I could have that, and I can maybe use that somehow.” So no, it’s just comedy that I’ve ruined for myself.

Do you have any plans to commit any of your old material, your past shows, to DVD?

No, not really; I’m not very happy with it. As I said before it’s all development work. People enjoyed them so maybe there is a value in that, but I’m not very proud of a lot of the stuff that was in some of those shows, so I don’t want people remembering it in perpetuity. Eventually you’ve got to start committing stuff down but I’m still at the beginning of a longer journey. I’m playing the long game; one day I’ll be great.

Do you consider the size or type of audience you’re playing to when you’re writing or performing material?

Writing, no. I think it’s very damaging to write that way. The best way is to write what you care about and you write the jokes that you have an instinct about and then if people still don’t go to it you might be wrong but you might still be right but if you start writing to try and please certain people then you end up compromising the best comedy that could  be produced. The best comedy, I think, is from something personal that also relates. Allow people to enjoy your stuff, that’s how you get better things, I think. But I’ve only realised that really this year.

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In terms of performance, yeah, well, if you’re comparing of course, that’s the job, but if you’re not comparing… sometimes it’s necessary. You do a Saturday night Jongleurs gig and you need to be accessible because there’s a lot of people out on hen and stag do’s so you can’t ruin their evening. But in terms of an Edinburgh show I think you should do the best you think you can do and not compromise.

What keeps you busy when you’re not writing or performing?

I play a lot of Scrabble on the computer; I’ve got my average up to about 400 now. And I have an Xbox which doesn’t help my performance, but I am good. I’ve just finished reading this series called Y: The Last Man. Absolutely incredible! I’ve got the full set.

Are graphic novels a big interest of yours then?

I really like the medium. I don’t write stand-up about it but I get loads from it for stand-up. You’ve got all the classic stuff; the Frank Millers; the Alan Moores. The best one I’ve got is Maus. A classic. But I’ve got all the Preachers, all the Y’s. Age of Apocalypse, the old X-Men series. The best ones are stories that aren’t about Superheroes; they’re Superhero stories that are analogous to something else.

I’m a huge science-fiction fan; particularly post-apocalyptic literature, and I’ve used some of that in this year’s show. Going back to the 1950s, George Stewart wrote Earth Abides and that was the first really good post-apocalyptic book and then I read from there up to the modern day, the best ones.

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It fascinates me the way people deal with the post-apocalyptic scenario. You can write something that is incredibly bleak, like The Road by Cormack McCarthy, or you can write something positive about the human spirit and it provides the perfect canvas to write something that is about more than just some people in a ship. It’s about the people. I love it.

How about adaptations of comic books? Are there any you enjoy?

Watchmen was a good effort. It’s such a sprawling novel you couldn’t commit it to film but I thought it was a really good try. The director clearly loves it – that comes across. Apart from that, and this won’t be very popular and is an argument I’ve had with Rob Deering for a very long time, Ang Lee’s Hulk. It’s a very good film. He says the Ed Norton Incredible Hulk is better than Ang Lee’s Hulk but he’s absolutely wrong because… yeah, yeah it ends up with two big things hitting each other but they all do. I think the Ang Lee Hulk dealt with human issues. Again, it’s when it’s about something else. All the best science-fiction is about something bigger than itself.

If you speak to Rob Deering he will bullshit you on why it’s not the case, but I’m right and he’s wrong.

So would you say you’re a geek?

I have never labelled myself a geek because I eschew all labelling. I probably spend my spare time doing things frowned upon by people considered to be cool. I’ve got my two shelves full of graphic novels, I’ve got a Wii, an Xbox, a DS. I build little models.

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No, I’m not that far gone! No, like medieval siege weapons, trebuchets. And that’s my fun. But I spend huge amounts of time on the computer and computer gaming is becoming an art form properly now. Bioshock was one of the big watershed games; like stand-up they’re bringing in influences outside the game world into it and it’s also an amazing commentary on the act of playing games.

I’m unbeatable on Pro-Evo. The new Call of Juarez was really good, I recommend it. Fallout 3 has been a big one for me because that’s a post-apocalyptic computer game… God, I’ve got a boner for that.

I’ve got two shelves full of Xbox and DS games and that’s a level of dedication that is probably unhealthy.

Are any topics off-limits for comedy?

I think the answer is really obvious and the answer is no. I think everything is about context. Say my mum dies. God forbid she doesn’t. If someone makes a joke the moment it’s happened and it’s crass and it’s offensive that is not a joke that should be made. If I lived in medieval times and my mum had died if someone made a joke about it now, in 2009, it’s different, yeah?

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You can’t choose any one thing. 9/11, the day after everyone was going “you can’t do jokes that because it’s a tragedy” but can I not make jokes about the plague, then? So everything’s about context and it’s also about the treatment of it. I think comedy reveals a lot about the person behind the comic. All jokes are written from some sort of personal perspective and there’s a lot of very mean-spirited comedy. If you see mean-spirited comedy I think you are justified in thinking somewhere in there that guy or girl is mean-spirited and if you say those things on stage it reveals some ugly characteristics.

I don’t think people should be prevented from saying anything, that’s really important but I think the audience should also be allowed to judge, people should be able to walk out if they want to. There should be no censorship; nothing’s off-limits but how you deal with it is your choice, and if you’re comfortable with trying to provoke people. People have different moralities, y’know? And you can’t account for all that, you have to do what you do, but don’t be a prick. That’s the golden rule. And some people are on stage. I try not to be.

You’ve got a website, you had a blog on Chortle, and you’ve got Twitter. Do you see the internet as a platform for comedy?

I would like to. I think if you get to a certain level as a comedian, a certain level of decency and you are trying to say something or be interesting use it for more than just a cheap gag, then I think there will always be an audience for you. The problem is finding that audience. There’s the classic thing of if you don’t get on telly, you can’t get anywhere. All the people who’ve got somewhere in the last ten years have been on telly, even certain big names who now shun TV and say they don’t do that sort of thing got their breaks from certain sitcoms.

The internet is a way of reaching people and if you’re consistently funny and interesting and you can reach them through the internet, that’s got to be bloody brilliant. It means you can make fewer compromises and that’s got to be good for comedy I think.

Dan Atkinson, thank you very much!

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Dan is appearing at the Pleasance Courtyard in Edinburgh at 9:30pm throughout August. Tickets are available here.

And you can follow him on Twitter like all the other cool kids here.

Interviews at Den Of Geek