Andy Parsons has a writing background that has taken in the likes of Spitting Image and Alas Smith and Jones, and has subsequently also built a strong stand-up comedy career, as well as earning plaudits for the likes of Parsons and Naylor’s Pull-Out Sections.
He’s best known as one of the regulars on the superb Mock The Week, and on New Year’s Day, he’ll be hosting The PMQ Show on Radio 5 Live. And he managed to squeeze some time into his busy schedule for a quick chat…
How do you get from studying law, to shipyards, to comedy?
Law was never anything I wanted to do as a vocation. It was a way of getting away from science ‘A’ levels. Having done science ‘A’ levels nobody seemed that interested in letting me read English at University.
Having got to University, I did some acting but they all seemed like right luvvies – the comedy bunch seemed much less pretentious and more fun.
Your most prominent earlier work was your writing. Did you enjoy writing lines for other people, or do you prefer writing material to perform yourself?
Writing for other people can be a frustrating business. By the time you’ve been told to rewrite something for the seventh time, whatever shred of humour you found in it initially has gone. One of the reasons I started doing stand-up was that when any jokes were rejected, I wanted a way of testing out whether they really were funny or not. It’s a great feeling to be able to tell producers ,“No, that is funny – I did it last night to 400 people and it got a round of applause.”
How did you get your early writing breaks?
There was a long-running Radio 4 show called Weekending and anybody could turn up to the non-commissioned writers’ meeting on a Tuesday lunchtime – and virtually anybody did, including a man who used to keep his trousers up with string. I persuaded my sympathetic boss at the law firm to let me have a very long lunch on a Tuesday, and gradually started getting the occasional line on and earning the odd £7.45.
When the job in the shipyards got settled out of court, I managed to take early redundancy with a three month pay-off and, thankfully, that was enough to get me up and running full-time with comedy. With the demise of Weekending, there was no easy way for new writers to submit material to BBC radio so when Henry Naylor and I got commissioned to do Parsons and Naylor’s Pull-Out Sections on Radio 2 we made sure we had a script editor whose sole job was looking through non-commissioned writers’ submissions.
I have to ask: how was working on a show like Noel’s House Party? What kind of material were you having to write, and was it as frantic as it came across on screen?
This is one of those Internet mistakes that nobody seems to bother to correct. Henry and I were asked by the then Head of Comedy Entertainment at the BBC, Paul Jackson, to submit ideas for what turned out to be the last series of Noel’s House Party. We came up with a list of ideas none of which were accepted – a fact that we were rather proud about – especially when the series got cancelled.
You were lead writer too on Spitting Image; did you thrive on the pressure and turnaround of material there?
Spitting Image was great fun and a really good learning curve. Coming up with new ideas for puppets and then seeing them on the screen was a real thrill and privilege – and proof that comedy can have real power.
Are you looking forward to getting back on the road and doing stand-up again? What kind of things can we look forward to in your upcoming tour?
Britain has some great regional theatres and going out and playing them when they are packed is a wonderful experience. My first tour was in some ways a greatest hits show from the last few years. The 2009 tour is a more honed affair and is called “Citizens!”. It is an emotional response to topical events and a roll-call to the disillusioned and apathetic. With banks being nationalised and Barack Obama winning the US election, the world feels a little different and it will be trying to convey that, even in recession, we live in exciting times.
Did you have any apprehension about joining a show such as Mock The Week when it was already a couple of series in?
I had done some of the earlier episodes so I had some idea of what I was letting myself in for. There are some difficulties in joining entrenched performers but each series has had its own quirks and I’m sure a next series will be no different in this post-Brand/Ross world.
Is the ‘scoring’ system on Mock The Week the most corrupt thing on British television?!
As anybody who has come to a recording of Mock the Week will know, the scores are recorded for both sides and then decided in the edit by a process unknown even to us. How the BBC Trust haven’t been involved with this misleading of viewers I have no idea!
The timing of your comedy delivery is both inspired and distinct. Is that something natural to you, or does it come out of your grounding in writing?
There are certain rhythms that work well for comedy and seem to trip nicely off the tongue. In a world of limited attention spans, having an economy of language is definitely an advantage and there is a certain joy in crafting pithiness.
What can you tell us about The PMQ Show?
It’s a show where people pitch to become the People’s Prime Minister – and this time I am in charge of the arbitrary scoring.
And what would you change if you were Prime Minister?
Comedy scoring systems – so as they were always more weighted in my favour.
You’ve got an extensive list of radio credits, and it’s a medium that’s always served comedians well. Were you keen to get back and do more radio work?
TV, radio and live work all have their own idiosyncrasies. One of the joys of radio was that you didn’t have to turn up looking presentable but now with the advent of webcams and John Barrowman getting his cock out, even that has changed.
And any further plans for 2009?
I am on UK tour February – May 2009 and for those in the Birmingham area have just added in a date at Wolverhampton amongst others.
I also have a second series of a radio sitcom to write and record as well as a few projects to persuade commissioning editors about. And if that all goes tits up, there’s always the law…
Andy Parsons, thank you very much!
The PMQ Show will be on Radio 5 Live on 1 st January 2009 at 12pm, and is repeated later that day at 9pm.
For details of Andy Parsons’ tour dates, check out his MySpace page.