Matthew Crosby interview: the Edinburgh Fringe, Pappy’s, stand-up, and fried chicken restaurants

We caught up with comedian Matthew Crosby to talk about his show at the Edinburgh Fringe, stand-up, and fried chicken restaurants…

Matthew Crosby is a busy man. One third of sketch group Pappy’s, who are recording two podcasts and a pilot for E4, Matthew is also previewing his first solo Edinburgh show, Adventure Party. I caught up with him to chat about these projects and more.

Pappy’s have blasted onto the comedy podcast scene with two different shows. How did they come about?

We’ve been wanting to do a podcast for ages, and we end up doing two, and it’s purely through the hard work and the perseverance of a couple of producers who wanted to sort something out. Colin Anderson in the case of Bangers And Mash, and Ben Walker in the case of Flatshare Slamdown. They came to us and said “Let’s do something.”

It’s not that we’re lazy; we know how to do live – we know how to book gigs; how to get on stage; how to perform live shows, but when it comes to editing and putting together a podcast, we kind of fall apart. We need someone else who can chivvy us along. It’s nice to have someone who can help us out.

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Your role in Pappy’s is as the authority figure. Is that quite a demanding role?

I never really feel stressed on stage. Critics will often say it’s forced bonhomie, but most of the time we really are as happy to be on stage as we seem. The other thing people seem to think a lot is that I’m genuinely angry. It is an act. Tom and Ben are two of my very best friends in the world, and if I was annoyed by Tom constantly going off script, I would just have to say to him before the show, “Sorry, but could you not go off script tonight,” but those are some of my favourite moments.

It’s useful for the audience to see someone on stage being angry. So if their patience is being tested, at least I’m there to go, “I know exactly how you feel, I have to work with the guy every day.” Ben represents the audience member with laughter, and I represent the audience who’s sitting there with their arms folded going “I can’t believe I paid fifteen pounds to see these guys.” If I was as genuinely angry with Tom as I claim to be on stage, I would’ve stopped working with him a long time ago.

What makes a successful sketch group?

For us, we just play to our strengths. As much as we can, we try not to be like other people. We got comparisons to Klang when we first started, but I think that’s because we were both different, and unlike most sketch acts, we didn’t use blackouts, and we addressed the audience.

Klang, coming from a stand-up background, did the same thing. None of us are good actors, I think we can write good jokes, but ultimately we were best at messing around and making the show feel as live as possible.

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When I see a sketch act now, the ones I really enjoy are the ones that aren’t doing stuff I’ve seen other people do. The Beta Males are a good example. They’re an excellent new sketch act, partly because they’re not doing what The Penny Dreadfuls are, or the Idiots of Ants are, or Pappy’s are doing. They’re doing kind of long form story shows that could almost be like mini-movies.

Stewart Lee has a fairly monotonous voice. He’s not a high-energy act, but every single word and every nuance in his performance shows that he loves what he does. The same with [Daniel] Kitson. You can tell they’re people who genuinely wouldn’t rather be anywhere else than on the stage, and I think that’s really important.

All my favourite acts have a love of what they do. Too often, you see people who are two or three years into performing stand-up, and they’re treating it like a job. There’s no intuition, they’re just trying to emulate what they’ve seen other stand-ups doing, and there’s no fun in that. If you can’t make yourself happy, then what are you doing here?

It’s a great job to do, because you can make your own rules up, and admittedly, if you do want to be extremely strange and weird, it might take you a little bit longer to get to a position where you get paid for doing it, but at the same time, if you love doing it, you shouldn’t ever worry about that. If Pappy’s worried about getting paid for it, there wouldn’t be three of us in the team. We’d all do solo shows.

Speaking of which, you’re taking your first hour-long show up to Edinburgh this year.

I’ve done five Edinburgh’s with Pappy’s, and we’ve had a really, really good time, so I know how to get through without wanting to kill myself. I’m really genuinely excited – it feels like a holiday. When Pappy’s decided not to do Edinburgh, I thought, “What would I really like to do in my month?” and the answer was to spend a month in Edinburgh.

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So I decided that I’d put together this show, and that would be a fun breakaway from Pappy’s for me, and also something a bit different. I love performing comedy, and I love doing stand-up, and one of the only downsides to doing Pappy’s has been that my stand-up has had to take a backseat, so this is a great opportunity for me to do that and for it not to get in the way of Pappy’s.

You’re on at the Pleasance Courtyard in the late afternoon – that’s quite a nice spot.

In January I decided I was going to do more stand-up, and then around March/April time I decided I might want to do an Edinburgh show, so I thought I’d do a bunch of gigs and see how it went. I started talking a lot on stage about Nando’s and my agent was there one night, and she told Ryan from The Pleasance, who’s a massive Nando’s fan, and the next day I got a message on Twitter from him saying “We’ve got this spot if you want it.”

I saw you at Geek Night Out back in February doing fifteen minutes on Nando’s.

I’d been up in Leicester at the Comedy Festival with my friend Joel Dommett – I’m directing his Edinburgh show – and I came back down, and I’d been invited to do this Geek Night Out show, and I just didn’t know what I was going to talk about. I thought, “Well, I do really like Nando’s; I’ve been tweeting a lot about eating Nando’s, I’ll set it as a challenge for myself to see how long I can talk about Nando’s,” and I genuinely surprised myself by talking for about fifteen minutes.

Not necessarily material but I could talk for fifteen minutes. I had the menu as well, which I’d nicked from one of the Leicester branches. Sorry, Leicester! So that was a really important gig for me – the first time I’d talked about Nando’s on stage, and the first time I realised it was something I could do.

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In the show now, there’s about twenty minutes of Nando’s-related stuff. The one thing I didn’t want it to be was wilful. I like comedy that stretches the form or moves the boundaries of what you can do on stage, but quite a lot of the time I find that comedy can be a bit wilfully obtuse.

When I first started talking about Nando’s, I had twenty minutes where I would only talk about Nando’s in clubs, and after a while, I think it became the joke wasn’t that I had funny material about Nando’s – the joke was, I’m going to talk about Nando’s whether you like it or not, and that’s not necessarily my particular brand of comedy.

Other than the Nando’s element, what’s the show about then?

Well, KFC… no, no… it’s about myself. It’s about me talking about myself and just trying to make sense of my life. Which sounds a lot heavier than it actually is. It’s not, it’s me talking about the sorts of things that are interesting to me; the Internet, specifically stuff like Twitter and Facebook, and what I was like growing up, being geeky and nerdy. I like geeky, I don’t necessarily like nerdy, but I’m more nerdy than I am geeky. So trying to discuss or examine the personality balance in my life. Or personality imbalance.

Is there more pressure when you’re alone on stage, as opposed to a Pappy’s show?

If I start relaxing, and Tom throws something to me that I need to deal with and I’m not on my mettle, then that’s a problem. More often than not, we’ll change lines or mess around or do something completely at odds with what was originally the idea of the sketch, then you have to kind of deal with that. With stand-up, I like to chat to the audience a lot, but if that’s not going well, then you’ve got a script. It’s different.

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I don’t know if I enjoy Pappy’s better than stand-up; I’ve certainly done a lot more Pappy’s recently, so I’m quite enjoying the break. We’ve just finished a tour so it’s really nice to come away and go into this solo show. What I’m really glad of is that Pappy’s have got other projects going on that will make up for the fact that we’re not going to Edinburgh.

We said if we weren’t going to Edinburgh, we’d come up with other projects and the two podcasts happened and we got commissioned for a pilot for E4. People have asked why we’re not going, and if we’re breaking up and we can say no, we’ve got these other things to work on; we’re just taking a year off.

We’ve done five years – that’s a lot of Edinburgh shows – and we’ve been working together in some form or another since 2004, writing and performing shows, a bit of radio, a bit of telly… So it’s the perfect time to change tack and to try different things. We’re not stopping what we’re doing, we are writing another Edinburgh next year.

You mentioned doing TV, and you recorded a pilot in 2008, but nothing happened with that?

It was a very tricky show. We had a really successful year at Edinburgh in 2007, and off the back of that, we got offered lots of things that we said yes to. We went to the Melbourne Comedy Festival, we did a Radio 4 pilot, and we did this pilot for Channel 4 all within the same month. Ultimately we spread ourselves a little bit thin.

Personally, I don’t think the producer or the director necessarily understood what we did live as well as we did, but because they held those positions, we said, “Well, you’re the guys who work for telly, so you should have the experience,” and we took a lot of notes that we probably felt in our heart of hearts weren’t the right notes.

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That’s the key challenge for us: capturing the live spontaneity and bringing it onto the telly. I didn’t dislike it, but it’s not as good as our live stuff. And also, we didn’t have a tremendous wealth of material to draw from; we’d done two Edinburgh shows.

Most people get to do small little things on telly first, the first thing we’d done was a half hour show that we wrote, created and starred in ourselves, so it was a bit ‘too much, too young’ for us. I’m glad we took a break and we really trust the team we’re working with at the moment to make sure that this show comes together.

In early May we did a run-through for the channel with a live audience, and the channel liked it. It’s a show called Mr And Mrs Hotty Hott Hot, which is like a beauty pageant, where everyone in the audience has the chance to be crowned as Beauty King or Queen. It’s a Shooting Stars meets Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush style show, but with Pappy’s hosting it.

Where did the gameshow idea come from?

The Hotty Hott Show is something I did at University in my early twenties, and it was just a silly idea that we really liked. I think what we do on stage is so live; it’s not like a stand-up act or a lot of sketch acts who erect a fourth wall and don’t address the audience. So we were thinking of the best way to capture that live-ness.

One of the reasons I think the pilot was unsuccessful was that there was no real reason for the Fun Club to exist. We kept saying, “We’ve got to save the Fun Club!” and “Pappy’s doing this,” or “Pappy’s doing that,” and there’s an audience sitting there watching going, “Who are you guys? And who’s Pappy? Why is there a Fun Club? And why do we care if it gets closed down, or opened up?” whereas with a game show, you come out at the start and you say, “Hello, this is a game show. At the end of the show someone will have won a prize,” and audience members understand that concept, and then it’s up to us to mess around with the format.

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Shooting Stars brought Vic and Bob to an audience that was far greater than Bang Bang, It’s Reeves And Mortimer or Smell Of Reeves And Mortimer or Big Night Out ever did. Even though I thought those shows were incredible and brilliant, this was something that everyone could understand and fit their brains around – a celebrity panel show.

You mentioned that none of you are good at acting but you have done some… is that something you see yourself doing more of?

I like doing it. I always say I’m not an actor, I’m a performer. Performer is a nice term because it doesn’t suggest any level of competence; it suggests different criteria for which you can be judged. On TV, I’m always playing a slightly heightened version of myself, so it doesn’t really feel like it’s proper acting. I’ve been doing a thing with Trinny and Susannah, which I’ve really enjoyed, but because it was improvised it was a much easier performance. In that a lot of scenes we were improvising within were real scenes with real people.

Anything that feels like comedy I enjoy, whether it’s writing for other comedians, being in TV shows, doing live shows, doing stand-up, directing… The great thing about being a comedian is that there’s no right or wrong way to do it. John Bishop – he’s definitely a comedian; Josie Long is definitely a comedian; Maeve Higgins is definitely a comedian, and Tom Parry is definitely a comedian, but they’re all very different people doing very different things. Kevin Bishop is definitely a comedian, but he’s never done stand-up. These are all very different people all doing the same job.

Who would you cite your influences as?

I was just starting secondary school when Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out was starting, and I used to love it. I remember watching it and thinking that was something I could see myself doing, because it’s not a bloke standing there with a microphone talking about his life, even though that’s quite close to what I do now. It was very silly and big, and they had songs and costumes. There was an element of light entertainment to it. I also really loved Chris Evans’ Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush. I always saw him as not a comedian, but very funny and very inventive.

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I really loved an old video of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. I thought they were superb, and what they did was they often performed as variations on themselves. The typical rules of what makes you a comedian just didn’t apply to them. Spike Milligan was another, and I had tapes of The Goon Show, and it was really nonsensical and silly, and all massively influential.

When we started Pappy’s, we wanted to do sketch comedy for people who don’t like sketch comedy. Trying to work within a genre where you’re doing something that hopefully no one else is doing.

Do you see an evolution of your stand-up from when you started to now?

When I first started, all I wanted to talk about was things that happened to me personally and who I am. The acceptable face of narcissism, where there’s a room full of people all facing towards you, and you’re brightly lit going, “Here are some things that happened to me.” And I think that hasn’t really changed. When people ask what the show is about, except for the big bit about Nando’s, I suppose it’s just about me, talking about myself and things I’ve done, aren’t I brilliant/rubbish.

I’m sure if I had any video or audio of myself doing stand-up, which is out there somewhere, from when I was about 24, I’d watch it and cringe at the mistakes I’m making, or I would be able to hear the voices of the other stand-ups I liked at the time. When I first got into performing stand-up, I was really into people like Patton Oswalt and American stand-ups, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t speak with a slight twang.

I found out about Mr Show in 1999 or 2000 when the DVD came out. A lot of people who were surrounding that show also were stand-ups, like David Cross obviously, Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, Scott Aukerman, Doug Benson… so I started tracking down as much as I could about those people, and listening to those stand-ups and as a result of them, I got into other American stand-ups, like Todd Barry and Marc Maron.

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I’m sure, if I heard myself at 24, I’d think I was just doing an impression of Patton Oswalt or David Cross, even to the point of lifting phrases or phraseology from them. You impersonate who you like until you find your own voice. And it’s starting to happen. Part of the reason for doing an hour is to try and help me find my own voice and see what I really want to do.

Since Richard Herring and Stewart Lee broke into doing solo stand-up post their double act, they kind of do an impression of each other and work off that character.

Yeah, you’re right, so do you think I’ll do two Brummie voices to compensate? No, but I’ve always seen the audience as the other part in the double act. It’s both my favourite thing to do and the thing I hate myself for doing the most. When I get it right, and when I talk to the audience and it works, it’s brilliant, but if I’m lacking confidence in the material, I’ll go “What did you say? What was that?” or “Why are you scratching your nose?” so I think I do have that need for a dialogue.

I have my computer on stage, so I’ve got my PowerPoint display I’m using for the show, and I was shouting at the display at the last preview I did, because it was messing up and that almost felt like the way I’d shout at Tom. It felt like a Pappy’s moment. I know there are lots of comics who write brilliantly crafted jokes, but it seems crazy to be in a room where you’re the only person talking for an hour. It stops it feeling like you’re reading from a script, it makes it exciting for the audience, because they’re seeing something new, and it also makes it exciting for you.

You’re going through the same lines every night, it’s lovely to be able to do something a bit different. Maybe it inherently shows a lack of confidence in the jokes I write for myself. Quite a strange defence mechanism, where I’d sooner go with stuff I’ve never said out loud before and no script than go with stuff I’ve either said before or at least written down and worked out, and I know leads somewhere.

Matthew Crosby, thank you very much.Adventure Party runs from the 3rd to the 29th of August at the Pleasance Cellar at 4:45pm (except 16th). You can book tickets here.

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Pappy’s Bangers And Mash and Flatshare Slamdown are both available on iTunes.