We only saw Michael perform for the first time last month but he instantly became one of our favourite comedians, with his recent show, The Great Fire Of London, being a beautifully unusual and incredibly inventive piece of comedy, so much so that it made the list of CTW editor Alex Finch’s favourite ever live gigs. In the following interview Michael discusses how he got in to comedy, his work with Ken Campbell, how he creates his unique shows and how he’ll soon be performing an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House for dogs.
Comedy To Watch: What inspired you to get in to comedy?
Michael: In 2007 I bumped into Ken Campbell in Kentish Town and managed to introduce myself. He invited me into a workshop that he happened to be running that evening – he was teaching ‘hard bardics’, ‘waffling’ and ‘divination by trouser creases’.
CTW: How was your first gig?
Michael: A few months later, Ken asked me to take part in an experimental extemporised musical at the Actors Centre. It featured improvisers of varying amounts of experience and myself, who had never done any performing of any kind. We did a week’s worth of workshops covering the basics of improv, and then put on the show on the Sunday. I was a complete mess, but the audience was of course very forgiving, and I found it exhilarating. (That project eventually metamorphosed into Showstopper! The Improvised Musical.)
CTW: Unfortunately we only saw you for the first time recently, could you tell us about your previous shows, and how your work has changed over the years?
Michael: I spent a few years as a somewhat mediocre improviser, but I began to prefer performing one-off stunts at alternative comedy nights, such as chewing the legs off a heron, or pouring cereal down my trousers while reciting Chaucer. I almost immediately started stringing them together into hour-long shows. I’ve now done five of these, each one slightly more coherent and structured than the last. The Great Fire of London is my first show written ‘from start to finish’, in which everything was specially created for it.
CTW: What you ever consider re-staging these works, or possibly recording them for a streaming site like Next Up or Go Faster Stripe?
Michael: No. I don’t have any enthusiasm for redoing old material, and I never film my shows, because they’re designed to be live experiences for the audience in the room.
CTW: The Great Fire of London is an incredibly diverse piece of work, with an impressive amount of different characters, and types of humour – If possible, could you walk me through your process of developing your material? What comes first for you? Is it the subject matter or the comedy behind the situation? And how do all of the pieces of the puzzle fit together?
Michael: I always pick a tricky subject matter first, and work backwards. Last year, I chose the title Parsley, so the whole show had to be about parsley. For The Great Fire of London, I had decided from the outset that I wanted to do a historical story, and this made assembling the show very easy, since the sequence of scenes and characters were already in place: Samuel Pepys, the baker at Pudding Lane, the Fire, Sir Christopher Wren, etc. With a handful of exceptions which take a bit of working out, I normally run with the first idea that springs to mind, and don’t spend long refining it or changing it. There’s no script, just a list in my head of things I’d like to happen.
CTW: In a previous interview you mentioned that you’re very shy, but this seems to be at odds with the audience interaction in your latest show, so how do you deal with doing such a thing?
Michael: Off stage, I’m awkward around people, especially in a larger group. On stage, I manufacture an environment in which I’m given permission to be the centre of attention, and there’s no pressure about trying to impress anyone, because I look ridiculous.
CTW: I have to confess to be an enormous fan of musicals and loved the musical elements in the show – would you ever consider writing a full-length musical?
Michael: I’d love to do a musical; but musicals are a highly stylised and much-parodied genre, so the trick would be to find an approach and a subject matter that feels fresh and authentic.
CTW: I noticed you’re not at the Edinburgh Festival this year, was there a specific reason for this? And what do you think of the festival in general?
Michael: I absolutely love the Fringe. The most important thing is to have a goal: something specific you want to achieve there, even if that goal is just to muck about and have fun. Last year was my favourite Fringe ever. My specific goal was to avoid industry ballyhoo altogether, so I didn’t do press interviews or invite reviewers to my show. Instead, I got a top flyering team to bring in an audience, and I concentrated solely on entertaining the people in the room each day. This year, the best Fringe goal I could come up with was ‘do that same thing again’, which didn’t seem an intriguing enough incentive, so I thought I’d sit it out and come back keener in 2019.
CTW: Apart from performing live is there anything else you’d like to do in the comedy world?
Michael: I would love to run a proper variety night; I had a go at this a few years ago, and it was fun, but a flop. Maybe one day I’ll have another crack at it.
CTW: What would you say is the hardest part about being a comedian?
Michael: I find the marketing side of things – self-promotion, booking gigs, selling tickets – absolutely horrible. I wish I had someone do all that for me.
CTW: Has there ever been anything you’ve regretted doing?
Michael: There’s been a couple of acts I’ve tried which were in bad taste, or which made the audience uncomfortable; they were lazy. I don’t think there’s any virtue in upsetting anyone even slightly or accidentally.
CTW: What was the best gig you ever did, and why?
Michael: I’m not sure. Two years ago, I did a show in Edinburgh called The Hay Wain Reloaded, which ended with me as John Constable painting The Hay Wain on my chest. I’d had stressful Fringe, and had struggled to attract audiences, but on the last night of the run I finally managed to fill the room to bursting, and the crowd started spontaneously chanting ‘Hay Wain! Hay Wain! Hay Wain!’ It was deeply emotional.
CTW: And conversely, what was the worst gig you did, and why?
Michael: A few weeks after that show, I did an extract from The Hay Wain Reloaded on a high stage in front of about 300 people in a hall in South London. I was dressed as 1960s fashion designer Mary Quant and was describing my experiences hunting humpback whales off the coast of Newfoundland, while the audience stared at me in glassy silence. I’ve had worse gigs, but that one haunts me a bit.
CTW: As mentioned earlier, in the past you have worked with Ken Campbell – What can you tell us about your forthcoming appearance at the The School of Ken: What I Learned from Ken Campbell?
Michael: Throughout his life, Ken encouraged dozens if not hundreds of people to astonish themselves and to become more remarkable performers, in many different ways. ‘The School of Ken’ brings a lot of them together at a special event at the British Library to mark the 10th anniversary of his death. I’m planning an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House for dogs.
CTW: What do you think the world of comedy needs more of today?
Michael: It needs more diversity; we need to hear more working-class and minority voices, and fewer people like me.
CTW: This site is all about celebrating comedy – who are your particular favourite stand up comedians?
Michael: I’m not a huge fan of ‘stand-up’, but among my favourite performers at the moment are Cheekykita, Mr Twonkey, Sean Morley and of course my fellow performers of the Weirdos Comedy Collective.
CTW: And what do you find laugh-out-loud funny?
Michael: Moments of creativity in a show that come unbidden, that couldn’t have been anticipated. I laugh every time something contrived and artificial abruptly comes magically to life.
CTW: What TV or film comedy are you passionate about?
Michael: My biggest passion is for live comedy, but I love old comedy movies: Marx Brothers, the Crazy Gang, Ealing Comedies, etc.
CTW: And finally, what do you plan to do in the future? And what would you most like to do if money were no object?
Michael: For years I’ve been planning to write a play, or to run a night, or to make short films or podcasts. If money were no object I’d probably have to find more inventive ways of delaying those projects. In the meantime, I will continue to make at least one new show every year, refining and improving my work. And performing one-off, never-to-be-repeated stunts. They’re my favourite thing to do.
Michael can next be seen at The School Of Ken Campbell – What I Learned From Ken Campbell all dayer at the British Library.
Whilst your next chance to see The Great Fire Of London is on October 10th at The Museum Of Comedy.