Frank Skinner: interview
The Black Country comedy hero tells Ben Williams what he loves about playing host
Once a comedian reaches the level of touring their own solo show, most will say goodbye to the days of MCing and never look back. Not Frank Skinner. As well as writing a weekly column for The Times, an early Saturday morning slot on Absolute Radio and schlepping up and down the country to record and edit BBC Two series ‘Opinionated’, the West Bromwich-born comic is taking the time to compere a series of glitzy variety shows in the West End. This isn’t the first time either; ‘Frank Skinner & Friends’ follows the comedian’s weekly ‘Credit Crunch Cabaret’ gigs in 2009, which stuck to a similar variety format. Here, the ‘Unplanned’ star tells us what keeps luring him back to MCing duties.
What is it about hosting that still appeals to you?
‘Compering was a very significant thing for me when I was becoming a comic; it was where I learned how to do it. I forgot how incredibly enjoyable it was to be that kind of bridge between the audience and the acts. I just loved doing it. I think it’s a much-underrated craft. As you’ll know if you’ve ever seen a bad one.’
These West End gigs are variety shows rather than comedy bills. Why didn’t you go down the path of straight stand-up line-ups?
‘Well, when I first started out I think you’d be surprised at the variety of people that were on, even at the Comedy Store. It wasn’t just slick male stand-up after slick male stand-up. I like the idea of getting some magicians on and things like that – there’s something about a West End theatre that kind of fits it.’
You haven’t performed live stand-up much since the ‘Credit Crunch Cabaret’. What’s been holding you back?
‘I hate it, but there is a kind of hierarchy thing that if you’re being offered telly you end up thinking: Well, I can always do the stand-up later. And then it gets put back and put back. When I do it I really want to do it right. I’m not much of a man for regret, but if I do have a regret it might well be that I haven’t done as much stand-up as I should have.’
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that the most exciting part of touring is working up material for a show. What is it about the work-in-progress process that you enjoy?
‘It’s that thing of trying stuff for the first time and finding out it works. I don’t know anything else as exhilarating as that. You do also get that pleasure of polishing and expanding. But still, if new stuff goes great that’s a fabulous experience.’
How do you feel when you have the finished product? Do you still take pleasure in performing the honed material each night?
‘Well, it gets to a stage where it’s in good shape, and then during the first two thirds of a tour it will, often, still grow organically. I think most comics would admit that the last ten, 15 gigs of a tour can be the toughest, as often you feel like you’ve explored every nook and cranny of each routine and you switch your torch off because there just aren’t any more gags in there. You have to be careful you don’t get to the stage where you can hear someone doing your material one night and you realise it’s you. But sometimes I think: Why is it all geared towards a tour? Why don’t I just do the clubs again or something little? You know, Stewart Lee has done three months at the Leicester Square Theatre. That seems to me to be a good way of doing it. I don’t need to be doing 2,000 seaters to feel like a comedian.’
So would you consider doing something like that or playing the clubs again?
‘Yeah. Also I think 20 minutes is the perfect time for comedy. Maybe that’s not quite right. But I’ve seen quite a lot of comedians doing theatre acts and they’re doing an hour and a half, something like that, and even people who I fucking love, at about an hour ten, hour 15 I’m thinking: I would like this more if you stopped now than if you carried on, even though I’m loving it. I’ve always felt an obligation that if I don’t give [the audience] an hour and 45 they’ll feel shortchanged. Now, I don’t know if that’s correct. I wanted to do this tour called “The Three Tellers”, as in tellers of jokes. I spoke to a few comics, I said: “What about me, you and someone else, going on the road? We’d only have to write 40 minutes each, it would be all sharp and honed, we’d have a laugh because there would be three of us on tour, and we’d swap the order round every night, it’d be great.” And everyone I spoke to said: “I don’t know, it would be weird sharing the billing, I don’t know if my agent would like it.” All that stuff. I thought it would be a good laugh and great for the audience as well; it would be like a super club night.’