When we got to speak to Stephen K Amos, for the launch of his newly released stand-up DVD, he’d just appeared on breakfast television, and looked a man in need of caffeine. We needn’t have worried, though, for he was wide awake and happy to chat about his new television show, his comedy career, and a certain appearance on Have I Got News For You…
Edinburgh seems to have been a magnet for building and refining your performances over the years. Would you say that it’s pretty much the core of your career?
I think every comic, you spend the majority of the year doing lots of clubs, a 20 minute set, going around the country. Edinburgh is the only time where you get a month in one place, you get an hour, so you get time to hone a show really well, and learn how things work better. And the audience let you do that.
Whereas if you do the club circuit, you don’t really have time to do that, to experiment, because you have to nail the gig, every time. Edinburgh’s a great space for growing.
There’s a gong show mentality in some of the clubs, even if you are a named comic?
I understand you financed last year’s stand-up DVD yourself. Is that right?
Kind of. I filmed it in Australia, and I paid for it myself. Basically, I wanted to have full control of what I was putting into it. I had the finished product, and then ITV and other companies said, “We’ll release it for you.” And I went with ITV.
There’s quite an element of gamble there, though? Was there pre-order interest in there before you went and did it?
No, to be honest. I just had belief in myself, and also, because I do Australia quite a bit, I knew they’d be a really good audience, and they’d be really up for it. And so, I thought go out on a limb, and do it. Thankfully, it worked.
The advantage you had then, with it being your maiden stand-up DVD, is that you could take a ‘best of’ approach to the material you chose for it.
Yeah. Had I thought to myself when I started doing comedy that one could release a DVD of yourself and sell it, and put it out there … I’ve done about seven or eight previous Edinburgh shows, and last year’s DVD was a culmination of all of those into one. It made a laugh-a-minute gig, I suppose.
How was it when you came to this one, then?
There’s a lot to live up to! I kind of knew when this one was going to be made, that it was always going to be good, because I started the show literally as I finished the last DVD. So, I’ve been working on it for at least nine months, perfecting it. So, by the time we got to film it at Hammersmith Apollo, I’d already taken it out on tour for about 70 dates. So, I knew where we were going to go with it.
I love the ending of your DVD, too. I like the build up to it, which I don’t want to spoil. Presumably, then, ITV committed to this DVD before you filmed it, and it meant you could plan on it being the culmination of every idea you couldn’t take to the smaller venues. How did it all pan out live?
Basically, the live version is slightly different from what you see on the DVD, because there was a lot of stuff we couldn’t use, because of music, rights, that sort of jazz. But ITV came to see – I’ve got a very good exec who came to see the show about four or five times, so they kind of knew what they wanted. They said this is fine, and so it was just thinking about what we could leave in and leave out.
So, the day we recorded it, we basically put in the entire show and snipped off a bit at the end and a bit at the beginning.
I detected a little crackle of nervousness in the crowd as you were recording your finale. You must know, after years of doing stand-up, roughly where an audience is going to go, but it’s still quite a bold gamble. It could have gone badly wrong!
[Laughs] It could have gone badly wrong, but I did try it for the whole of Edinburgh with that ending. I tried it, not on the tour, but on the last four nights before we got to film.
Normally, I don’t like those kind of surprises, but it was done in such a way that the audience didn’t see it coming. And that’s what I liked about it!
You strike me as a mix of stand-up comedian and a real performer, and they’re two very different disciplines. Your TV show, for instance, sees you being a lot more collaborative, inevitably. But secondly, there feels like a creative release, in some of the off-the-wall stuff you’re able to throw into a TV show. Has that been storing up for a while?
I think it has been. Even though I love stand-up comedy in its purest form, a bloke standing there telling jokes, I prefer somebody who brings a story alive. Or brings something of themselves to it. All my years of being a little kid, playing dress-up… me and my brother used to play detectives…
Who did you used to dress up as?
[Laughs] That’s another story!
We used to play this double act, as detectives, and we modelled ourselves on Roger Moore and Tony Curtis. And all that kind of stuff just came to life with this show. I got a chance to do lots of different characters, and if you want the entire series, every sketch stands on its own. We could actually do a compilation show of all the sketches. They’re not recurring characters. Short and sharp, and bang – you get a punchline.
It meant I could be a different person all the time.
The thing that strikes me about sketch shows now is that there’s a perception they have to be extreme, be at the Little Britain level, to work. And yours isn’t. Yours is pulling slightly back to the tone of the old Harry Enfield shows. There’s that kind of spirit to it, even though the material is very different.
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. That is exactly what I was trying to do. I’ve seen a few sketch shows, and what I can’t stand in some of the shows that I’ve seen is that the sketches are too long, they’re trying to be too clever, and they’ve lost me. I want to do something with me doing a bit of stand-up, and a sketch that punctuates, or illustrates what I’ve just spoken about. But it’s short, sharp, to the point, bang.
I was very conscious that I didn’t want to be catchphrase-driven. There’s only two characters I think that you see again. The mum character and the guy who’s the stunt man. He comes back two or three times. Apart from that, every other sketch is standalone. I didn’t want to walk down the street with people shouting a catchphrase at me!
Was that never even a mild temptation?
No. When I was doing this show I looked at people like Dave Allen and Dave Chappelle, who, if you look at their shows, it was a monologue thing, then a sketch. Bear in mind that Dave Chappelle was only a few years ago, and Dave Allen was many years ago. It’s very similar, and I think it’s fine. You don’t have to be out there, or deep and whatever. You can just be funny. That’s what I went for.
Finally, I have to ask about your appearance on Have I Got News For You, when Boris Johnson first hosted it. You were a panellist that day, and I think it’s fair to say that you had one of the most pronounced WTF looks on your face I’ve ever seen…
We got 40 minutes of that, then an hour on DVD. Can you give us a flavour of what it was like in that studio as the man was going mental?
Do you know, it was the most surreal thing I’ve ever done! I think it was my second appearance on Have I Got News For You, and what I didn’t anticipate was that they would alter some of the rounds around him, the host. And I also wasn’t banking on the fact that the audience absolutely loved him. That really threw me.
I was about to go, “Okay, you’re the host, I’m going to give you a lot of stick.” But I had to change tack, because the audience were just lapping him up. And he, all credit to him, just played along and was hilarious.
You had two or three carefully guided missiles that night…
Exactly. It was really strange. And now he’s mayor! The world’s gone mad!
Stephen K Amos, thank you very much.
Stephen K Amos: The Feel Good Factor is out now on DVD.
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