Chris Addison: interview
Geeky cult comedian Chris Addison tells Ben Williams how he's been taught to open up
Back in 2005, Chris Addison was best known for creating daft comedy shows about highbrow subjects: evolution, civilisation, the periodic table. Seven years and three series of ‘The Thick of It’ later, the Manchester-born comic is practically a household name. A regular panellist on the notoriously competitive ‘Mock the Week’ and beamed in the homes of the nation every 12 minutes as a Direct Line insurance salesman, Addison is now recognisable to a public beyond the lah-di-dah Edinburgh Fringe-goers.
The fresh-faced comic is, at least for the time being, keeping clear of writing shows with specific, niche themes. In the crowded creative marketplace of the Edinburgh Fringe the hooks helped him stand out from the crowd, ‘but I kind of painted myself into a corner with them eventually,’ he says. ‘If you say, “This is a show about clever stuff,” I think people find it off-putting. Not because they think it’s going to be too clever, but because they think it’s going to be too dry.’ The triple Perrier Award-nominee now writes from a blank sheet of paper, and the broader themes have introduced him to a larger audience. But he admits that the writing process is trickier without a premise on which to hang the jokes. When writing with a theme, he says, you can pretend you’re writing when you’re not. ‘You can go, “Yes, well, I need to read this book, because this is all research,” rather than doing the unpleasant business of the sitting down and writing bit.’
When he returned to the stage in 2010, following a five-year hiatus to write and act, Addison, 40, felt he needed to establish himself as a straight stand-up and, as a result, has become more open in his comedy. ‘I’m prepared to talk about more personal things on stage,’ he tells me. ‘I’m happier to admit my own personal flaws and weaknesses in a slightly more honest and deeper way. In the five years I was away from comedy I became a dad, I became more successful and I became five years older, coincidentally. All of those things basically add up to you not caring so much about what people think of you and being a bit more certain of yourself.’
The man responsible for Addison’s five-year break from stand-up is master satirist Armando Iannucci. The ‘Day Today’ and ‘Alan Partridge’ co-creator cast the comic as Ollie in BBC Four’s acclaimed series ‘The Thick of It’ and Toby in the show’s Oscar-nominated big-screen spin-off ‘In the Loop’. Addison says his first foray into acting was ‘immensely good fun and ridiculously challenging. It was more nerve-wracking, terrifying and stretching than any stand-up that I’ve done. On that first day, walking into a room that contained Armando Iannucci, Chris Langham and Peter Capaldi, I did think: “Holy fuck, what am I doing here?”’ He was indirectly offered the role after recording an episode of Radio 4’s ‘The News Quiz’ with Iannucci. Bonding over their love of ‘Yes Minister’ and ‘Yes, Prime Minister’, Iannucci mentioned he was considering writing a modern equivalent of those classic sitcoms and that Addison should meet with him to discuss it. Later that year, following an improvised audition process, he was cast as Oliver Reeder; special advisor to Langham’s character Hugh Abbot.
Addison describes the first series as ‘just a workplace sitcom that happens to be set in the world of politics’. It was shot just before the last Labour victory and broadcast shortly after. ‘At that point nobody was really that interested in politics,’ says Addison. ‘There was one big marquee issue and that was Gulf War II – the Iraq war – and other than that nobody really cared. The Conservatives were a laughable force and Labour was largely benign. But by the time we came to make the specials in 2007 there was a big interest in politics. Blair was a lame duck, there was massive interest in the succession and there was a growing hatred of the incompetent government. That’s the point where people started getting interested in politics. Now politics, and even the economy – imagine that: the economy! – are a currency of everyday conversation for the first time in a very long time. So I think there’s fertile ground for satire now.’
Intelligent satire is an element Addison also brings to his most recent TV outing as a regular panellist on BBC Two’s ‘Mock the Week’. ‘I was expecting it to be hideous’, he admits. ‘It had a reputation of being just awful. I refused to do it for years, until two years ago.’ Why the change of heart? ‘I had a lot of tickets to sell, so I had to bite the bullet and do it. And I really enjoyed it, as it turned out. It was a lot less competitive than I had been led to believe.’ Bearpit or not, the job certainly helps to fill seats – the Hammersmith Apollo show will be Addison’s biggest ever solo gig. He’s a true geek done good.
Chris Addison's live DVD is out now.