The suave, dry and astonishingly funny Marcel Lucont is easily up there with the best comedy characters ever created, and deserves to be as well known as Alan Partridge and David Brent. Back in October I described him as “one of the funniest comedians around” and his laid back, laconic humour got the biggest reactions of the night, and this was a gig where Phil Wang, Olga Koch and Steen Raskopoulos also performed. Described by The Guardians as a “brilliantly conceived creation”, The Scotsman wrote “Marcel’s control of his audience is like that of Stewart Lee. And I have no higher praise than that”, and Time Out commented “His elegant, sardonic turns of phrase are an utter joy”, and if that’s not enough to persuade you to go and see him then you should check yourself in to a mental institution asap. Here Marcel’s creator Alexis Dubus tells us about how the character was created, his time studying clowning at École Philippe Gaulier, working on Nathan Barley, Red Dwarf and Derek, and how the words “Man would not stop masturbating” led to one of his best ever gigs.
Comedy To Watch: You’ve been performing as Marcel Lucont for almost a decade now, what led to your creating the character?
Alexis: I’d been playing the circuit for a few years and wanted to do something a little more theatrical. A lot of my favourite comedy at the time was character-based – Alan Partridge, David Brent, Garth Marenghi, Jeremy Lion – and it just felt like a more interesting direction to be taking my comedy. I was running Falling Down With Laughter in London Bridge with Sy Thomas and we started putting on regular experimental nights where no straight stand-up was allowed. I had an old blue suit and, for some reason, a roll-neck jumper, so I donned those and started hosting the nights as Marcel, an aloof and jaded Frenchman who didn’t care who he was introducing or how much energy the room had. In the early days I’d work my way through a whole baguette or wheel of camembert, or both, throughout the course of the evening.
CTW: And how has he evolved over that time?
Alexis: Well at first it was just the attitude, then I started writing jokes for him, also going back over some of my old notebooks to work in some of the darker jokes I could never pull off as myself. After a few more shows at Falling Down I started taking him out onto the circuit. There was an interesting transitional period where I had to ask promoters whether, instead of an energetic English comedian, they’d consider having a dour Frenchman on the bill instead. Some went for it straight away, others needed a bit more persuasion. I started playing the cabaret scene too, and so started writing songs and poems to fit that genre more, as a renaissance man such as Marcel surely had to be performing. That also really helped to write my first hour, as an hour of just deadpan stand-up may have been too one-note. More recently I’ve consciously tried to erode a few of the more misogynistic elements of Marcel’s persona. Back in the day I think it was very clear it was a spoof, but these days the lines are getting a bit blurry. The last thing I want is to start getting men’s rights followers.
Oh, and the eating of a whole Camembert had to be knocked on the head, for obvious reasons.
CTW: You studied clowning at École Philippe Gaulier under master clown Philippe Gaulier, can you tell us a little about your time there?
Alexis: Oh, I did a month there, I was very much a part-time clown, and by his standards a very bad one. It was 7 hours a day for a month (4 hours of Le Jeu – basically stagecraft, focus and collaboration skills – and then 3 hours of clowning in the afternoon). It was incredibly intense but utterly fascinating. By the end of the first day everybody had been told they were shit several times over and in increasingly verbose and surreal ways. His definition of clowning is incredibly specific – being in the moment but not being self-important, playing to an imaginary king at the back of the room, having to get yourself in the shit to then get out of it again and never being embarrassed about the idiocy you’re performing. This essentially boiled down to (in his own words) “presenting the audience with a poo and being happy with it.” The whole thing is one big game, certainly to Gaulier, and his judgement was instant and definite: “are we laughing or do we wish this person to leave the stage immediately?” or often more succinctly, “do we like them or do we wish to kill them?” I was killed far more often than I was liked.
CTW: Have you considered creating other characters? Or performing stand up again as your self?
Alexis: Actually I’ve done both but Marcel remains my most commercially viable, which is surprising for something which began as an experiment. I’ve done a few other characters at ACMS – Alternative Comedy Memorial Society. Mostly they remain one-offs, as that night celebrates failure, so they’d never work on a regular stand-up night. Some don’t even work there, for example “Gene Wilders” – basically the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders singing “Pure Imagination” dressed as Willy Wonka, with talcum-powdered hair, bursting E.U. balloons and offering chocolate only to white people. I’d say it worked better on paper, but I’m not sure it even stretched that far.
CTW: You did a certain amount of audience participation during the times I’ve seen you, what’s the funniest interaction that’s ever happened?
Alexis: My favourite recent one was in Edinburgh, during my Whine List show, which was almost entirely improvised. The audience were asked what their worst day at work was, and a demure-looking older woman in glasses had written “man would not stop masturbating.” This became quite a goldmine, as she recounted the tale in a lilting and calm accent, explaining that to stop him, she simply had to say “tea time, tea time!” Everyone assumed she worked in a psychiatric ward or at least some kind of medical profession, but it turned out she was a speech therapist. I assured her that, with her pleasant vocal tones perhaps the man just couldn’t help himself. Meanwhile, a drunken quartet consisting of two couples had started snogging and talking loudly by the bar at the back of the room, incurring the anger of a burly Scottish man in the audience. I had to curtail the questioning to deal with what was going on. Instead of policing it myself, I asked the woman in the audience to use her powers. She duly stood up and announced “tea time, tea time!” and they were escorted out of the venue.
CTW: And conversely, has it ever gone terribly wrong?
Alexis: Same show, different venue. On the first night of my Soho Theatre run someone had simply written a date for their worst day at work. I love specific answers like this, especially in the ‘Worst Amorous Encounter’ section when someone just writes “Graham,” or even better a full name. Anyway, I went with it, sensed a certain hesitancy from the audience member, but pushed further. Turns out the date was that of the London bombings, and they were working for London Underground at the time. I genuinely can’t remember how I dug myself out of that one, but relatively admirably according to Steve Bennett’s Chortle review of the night.
CTW: What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
Alexis: I think right up there would have to be the Comedy Convoy tours I’ve done in New Zealand – two weeks bombing round that beautiful country in a tour van. The first time was with Gordon Southern, Urzila Carlson, Simon McKinney and Jeremy Corbett, then a few years later I got to host it, with Lloyd Langford, Angela Barnes and Jesse Griffin doing Wilson Dixon (an absolute comedy hero of mine). We played Opera Houses, grand theatres and remote towns, filled our faces thrice daily, got shown some incredible places and, being New Zealand, got catapulted over canyons, luged down hillsides and treated like emperors at wineries. So much fun.
CTW: You had a small role in Chris Morris and Charlie Brooker’s Nathan Barley, what was your experience of working on the show?
Alexis: I was only on set for a day, but it was really interesting to see how hands-on Chris Morris was with everything, a real perfectionist as you’d expect. Charlie Brooker was lurking in the background a lot more from what I recall, probably mentally jotting down a dozen other TV ideas. But I’m very proud to have been a part of that, even just for that day. I still pick TV Go Home from the shelf every once in a while and laugh my arse off by turning to any page and the TV show of Nathan Barley (originally just called “Cunt” in TV Go Home) has aged really well.
CTW: You’ve also acted in other comedy series like Red Dwarf and Derek, is this something you’d like to do more of in the future?
Alexis: Absolutely. In Red Dwarf not only did I get that initial excitement of walking into that first script reading to see the cast’s names around the table, I found out I was acting alongside Kevin Eldon, another absolute comedy idol of mine. And with Derek, while improvising the scenes, I got the extremely rewarding sound of the Gervais cackle when something hit.
CTW: Would you be interested in creating your own sitcom, and if so, what would it be like?
Alexis: Yes, I’d love to. I always admired The Sarah Silverman Show for its absolute lack of morality and freewheeling stupidity, I’d love to harness that in the form of a Marcel sitcom. My agent and I have tried to sell this a number of times but sadly nothing’s ever come of it. Maybe I should just write the damn thing anyway.
CTW: You hosted the Comedy Cul-de-Sac podcast, in which comedians talked about their worst ever experiences on stage, but what would you say was yours?
Alexis: All the worst ones have been with pissed-up unintelligent crowds who don’t have the patience to listen to a slow-spoken “Frenchman” edging his way to a punchline. An early one of these was my first weekend at Up The Creek in Greenwich as Marcel. The Friday had been a dream, then England happened to beat France in the rugby the following day and one whole section was taken up with a pack of barrel-chested, meat-headed men who had been boozing since lunchtime and, of course, watching the game. I’ve actually got an audio recording somewhere of both nights, the first of which I labelled “BON,” the second “MAL.” The set didn’t start well, and from what I recall you couldn’t even hear the second half of the set over all the booing. And to cap it off, as I was leaving the stage one of them squared up to me, having to be held at arm’s length by a security guard, red-faced and angry over how unfunny he’d found it. I somehow stayed in character and just said “good,” then trembled my way to the dressing room. I watched Terry Alderton deal with them in the final section, and after about 8 minutes he just went “fuck this” and left the stage. The next day Jane, the promoter called me up and said, “If that ever happens again there, feel free to do the same, just walk off, you’re better than that,” which was good to hear after that ordeal. There have been a few others similar to that. People assume that Marcel’s bullet-proof, but that’s only when the audience is actually listening to him in the first place.
CTW: What would you like to see change about the current comedy scene?
Alexis: I’d love to see a return to the old days of the alternative scene, where comics could be a bit more loose and creative and an audience would go with it. There’s so much slick and polished stand-up on TV these days, which to me doesn’t represent the true joy of comedy – the experimentation, the testing out of a loose concept while on stage, the testing of an audience’s patience at times. Back in the day, Phil Kay had his own TV show where he could do what he wanted, there were strange late-night showcases featuring acts getting away with all manner of oddities and comedy, variety and cabaret were a lot more interlinked. Fortunately there are still those kind of nights around thanks to 2Northdown, ACMS, Knock2Bag, the Bill Murray etc. but they feel a lot more niche than they used to be.
Going back to Gaulier, I never admitted to him that I did stand-up, as I was pretty certain he’d have a dim view of it. I was quite correct about that – when asked by another student he replied that “stand-up comedy is making an audience vomit out the laughter.” He saw it as pushing certain buttons to get laughs, whereas to him clowning is pure – playing the moment and conjuring up laughs from the most unlikely places. I definitely rediscovered a love of mucking about after my month there.
CTW: If money were no object, what would you like to create?
Alexis: I’d love to create a Marcel magazine-style show, talking current affairs, interviewing bizarre guests and presenting travelogues from around Britain. I did a non-broadcast pilot of this for the BBC entitled ‘Merde In Britain’ but sadly it never went anywhere. I used to love The Clive James Show and wanted a similar feel to that – silliness presided over by intelligence.
CTW: What one piece of underrated comedy do you wish more people knew about?
Alexis: Mr .Show – David Cross and Bob Odenkirk’s masterpiece. I’ve no idea why more Brits don’t know about this, especially given its definite British sensibilities in the style of the humour. The comeback shows on Netflix were terrific as well – a lovely big-budget update of Mr. Show’s silliness while staying true to the original concept.
In the UK I think Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher’s Snuffbox was criminally overlooked. I hope in time that gets the same retrospective treatment that Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace received.
CTW: And finally, if you could interview yourself, what question would you most like to ask? And what would the answer be?
Alexis: Do you have any significant Marcel shows on the horizon? Great question. A final London performance (I said that last time) of Marcel Lucont’s Whine List at the Bush Theatre on 20th December.