Interview: David Allison

david allison interviewComedy Auction and This Is Your Trial were two of the funniest shows that I saw last year, both being very funny improv based formats that absolutely delighted, and they were created by the same man, David Allison, who’s also responsible for the Sick Note show and the forthcoming CBBC series Monster Court. Here he talks about those shows, what inspired him to create them, the live comedy shows he’s hosted in his garden during the pandemic, the various tv shows he’s worked on, and how This Is Your Trial transformed in to Monster Court.

Comedy To Watch: How would you promote Comedy Auction and This Is Your Trial to people unaware of them?

David: With high energy, excitement and surprise, because if anyone was unaware of my shows, there’s nothing I enjoy more, than telling the uninitiated all about them. I’m sure all my friends are worn out from hearing me bang on about the shows. In short, both are formatted live comedy shows, totally improvised and require plenty of audience participation.

This Is Your Trial provides audience members the chance to make accusations against someone they’re with, and some of those accused will be put on trial. Comedians are judge, defence and prosecution arguing the cases. Everyone in the audience is also the jury. Comedy Auction also has three comedians, an auctioneer and two ‘experts’ who are competing to try persuade the audience members to bid for the Lots that each expert has to describe and tell stories about. Audience members each have 250ADs with which to bid. They keep any Lot they win.

CTW: What is it that draws you to high format comedy?

David: I studied law. But quickly realised I didn’t want to become a lawyer. I wanted to tell stories and make films. So in my second year at Uni, I started making a documentary about a transvestite, a drag-queen and a transsexual. This was after my learning of the differences upon reading an article about it. I should probably clarify that. I wanted to share that knowledge. I left Uni to pursue a career in television initially with an internship on Ch4’s Big Breakfast, then another with MTV. I became obsessed with inventing TV format ideas. After 6 months as a classic car researcher for a show called ‘Deals on Wheels’ in Glasgow, I returned to London with an idea for a show.

I made a 4minute pilot video with some friends, with a script and ideas for scenes, locations and sketches. Then managed to get a commission for a 20x episode series with PlayUK through a production company I had previously worked for. That was Pop Will Shoot Itself. – RunDMC episode. Invention, format, structure and a big idea has always been my thing.

CTW: Were you ever involved in just normal stand up ? If so what was the progression to the formats?

David: I’ve never been a performer, actor, or someone in front of an audience. I have directed plenty of those types, from behind a camera. Back in 2011/2012, my friend was running open mic nights at a pub in Liverpool Street. I’d often go to that. I recognised some of the headliners from TV, like Stewart Lee and Tony Law. I also saw people like Dane Baptiste doing some of his very first bits. I really enjoyed the scene. I also helped my friend who’d arranged some comedy workshops there. Those were really enlightening. I was only watching the door, but followed all the exercises and got involved. I’m a far more confident writer than performer.

Previously, I produced a late night show on ITV called ‘Young, Gifted and Broke’ with the presenter Magenta Devine. This was a precursor to X-Factor, giving a tv platform for all kinds of artist. One episode included stand-up comedians who were just starting out. A few years later, I got to know and work with Mark Dolan. I recalled how I was responsible for his very first tv appearance on YGB. (He was bloody awful then. We’re good friends now. I threaten to post that video on social media one day if he ever causes me trouble!)

CTW: Do you like the added drama? Or does stand up just bore you?

David: Stand-up doesn’t bore me at all. But I never want to see things twice. It’s an ADHD thing I think. So I’d never be able to produce a stand-up show. I do love unexpected drama. Again, that’s likely to be down to my ADHD diagnosis. It’s really helped explain to me how and why I am buoyed by drama, in fact, I’m needing it for stimulus. It seems I’ve always tried to create it in some way, subconsciously. I get bored easily with routine. So I tend to toss the odd spanner in the works. Fortunately, improvised live comedy, with a heavy emphasis on audience interaction is exactly what my doctor ordered. Stand-up only bores me when it goes too smoothly. I get off on mistakes and reactions that weren’t anticipated.

CTW: What was your first ‘format’?

David: The first format I ever came up with to gather any attention was Pop Will Shoot Itself. A TV series that unpicked the making of classic pop music videos. We told stories of how ideas came together for the promos, involving input (mostly none) from the bands, with amateur analysis of the production method and the ambitions of the director. Or how we imagined them. We would represent directors like Michel Gondry by sticking a couple of eyes on one of my trainers and then make them talk. I enlisted a very senior Methodist Minister, Superintendent Leslie Griffiths, to review all the videos. He was amazing. Providing advice to Madonna and Eminem about their music and videos. Such a laugh, making stupid sketches. It was the time of my life.

CTW: How long did it take you to get This Is Your Trial from (I seem to remember) some pub in central London to TV?

David: The very first outing of This Is Your Trial was in 2012, at a bar in the City. A charity event. All the audience worked for the same charity and somehow I persuaded them it would be fun to put some of the team on trial for things they’d done, in front of work colleagues, who would provide accusations and evidence. From that very first show, it was clear to everyone in the room, something special had happened. It went so smoothly, as if we’d done it many times before. It was so obviously hilarious, everyone got involved, brought more to the show than ever anticipated. There was no doubt, we could do something similar again and again. So it was eight years later to finally get a broadcaster to commission it.

During those years, there were several attempts with other broadcasters and ideas for hosts tested in shows with the production company who were pitching the show. We’ve had Joey Essex and Clive Anderson as the judge in pilot shows for ITV2 and BBC.

CTW: When did you know it was worth plugging away with it? You never ever gave up, which is ridiculously admirable.

David: To be honest, I knew immediately there was something worth plugging away at. It just made complete sense. Even while different comedians with different experience and skills mostly open mic, the format held them together, made them look and perform brilliantly as a team. Which seemed to be a very new thing for them all.

I didn’t appreciate how unfamiliar stand up comedians were with playing roles in a team to make comedy happen. I was naive to their limited experiences of that. The first Ed fringe gave me the opportunity to raise the bar with the standard of acts, introducing FitzHigham, Law, Lock.

CTW: When did the next format come along, and how?

David: I had loads of ideas for TV formats. One was called The Big Swap. I made a website and everything. The concept was based on a weird loophole I found in the laws of stamp duty when buying and selling property. Basically, if you swapped houses in a sale, with perhaps one side paying a bit more for the bigger one, both parties were exempt of stamp duty. This would always be a significant sum. So if there was a website organising all that, even dealing with a chain of swaps, the savings would become a large pool of funding to share with buy, seller and website. In theory. And to promote that service, a TV reality doc series would see people living in each others’ homes before deciding to agree to a swap. Then the government changed the law on stamp duty and that business idea disappeared.

Another format idea I pursued was called UnWanted FC. Taking a squad of young footballers rejected from premiership clubs at 17, on tour across Europe and/or the US to have trials with top clubs in countries like Sweden, Estonia, Netherlands etc with the aim of finding a professional career in football outside the UK. With regards to live comedy, it was Comedy Auction in 2018.

CTW: Was Sicknote inspired by COVID?

David: No. Huge coincidence. After the Trial, then Auction, I was trying to think of a third show following similar approaches of improv and audience interaction and some symbolic use of a hammer, gavel. I embrace being considered a one trick pony. It’s a good trick.

So from law to medicine was quite an obvious leap in hindsight. Having the improvisers dressed up and pretending to be doctors wasn’t a big leap, but it did take a while to figure out the hook, how or why any audience member might want to have an appointment with them in front of everyone else. When the concept of them wanting a sicknote came up it was obvious. And then recognising that simply meant seeking a pass, an authorised excuse to avoid something.

CTW: Is it easier to have more than one format going at the same time? As you have now?

David: Errrr, yuh. Yes, I think so. Last year in Edinburgh, I launched Comedy Auction, which ran alongside the two This Is Your Trial shows. It was easier in some ways to have all those shows because I could offer more opportunities to comedians to take part. And of course there are some efficiencies with regards marketing and printing having more shows.

Previously, with both family friendly Trial and the adult one, that created more opportunities and options for the private bookings I am always seeking. That’s when we all actually get paid. I do have others listed on my Thisisyourlaugh website like bingo, panto. It’s super useful when speaking to potential corporate bookers to have options to offer if they don’t want a trial.

CTW: How did Comedy Auction come about?

David: The idea for the Comedy Auction show came about as they normally do, during a late night chat with friends about the world and how to fix it.

I had worked on a few charity auctions and found them disappointingly boring and there were typically only 4 or 5 managers on group tables actually making bids for the golfing weekends and donated paintings. It was only the richest men in the room, swinging their cocks about. What I have always found the most fun with improv comedy shows and workshops with performers is when they make up stories to explain something, which also happens with This Is Your Trial.

I love games of bluff, pretending to be an expert, to know something others don’t and see how far you can take it. Inventing technical knowledge with words that sound as if they’re part of professional jargon. I am the sort of person to never throw things away but also the type to collect the weirdest objects from my experiences and travels.

I went to China 20 years ago with my brother and brought back a bust of Chairman Mao which looks like it’s made of stone but is hollow rubber and is hilarious to throw and bounce. I’ve always collected strange clothes, objects, currency and vinyl record sleeves. There’s almost always some of these things as Lots in the shows.

In addition, my obsession with law and rules and how to challenge them always leads me towards trying to subvert any standard processes or expectations. This again, is an ADHD thing. With Comedy Auction, I was drawn to the idea of challenging perceptions of the value of objects, how to alter that by adding story and jokes to them.

CTW: Do you have TV hopes for your other formats?

David: Of course I’ve huge hopes for the other formats. It’s always in the back of my mind how the shows might work on TV and what routes to take helping them get there. Now with one in the bag after 7 years of trying, confidence is high. And hopefully after all that experience, I can skip past more of the frogs I’ve been kissing in pursuit of that dream. The process in development has certainly sped up from the lessons already learned.

CTW: When did you start to believe that the back garden gigs could be the way forward?

David: There was no other option really. When I got the theatre booking for Sick Note in April, we had only done the show once in March. I had expected to have been doing them weekly in preparation, but then lockdown happened. The venue I was putting on shows, The Taproom, is no more. They had to close it, sadly. Awful times.

So needs must, the show needed work, developing further, before trying to sell any tickets to see it in October. I do have a decent sized garden in Camden. There’s a raised bit at the back like a stage. It was overgrown with nettles, but I soon got the impetus to hack all that away and try to create a little outside venue.

I found 16x different chairs after a local hunt and putting the word out on Facebook. They took some effort to drag them across North London. From different places and from different friends. Then there was the other stage furniture, tables, framework for clip boards and cupboard doors from my sister in law. I’m a womble really. Very good at finding stuff for free. This approach to everything has become a key aspect to making Comedy Auction work, finding Lots to be sold in that show.

CTW: Do you think more comics should be proactive the way you are, rather that sit on Zoom reminiscing about the sound of live laughter?

David: In some ways, I’m fortunate to not be a performer, as needing or reliant on an audience coming to see me. So I cannot imagine really, their experience or what’s missing. I’m more of an inventor, an entrepreneur, seeking to adapt and find new models for the work I try to sell. I’m a little embarrassed to say, but I have actually thrived on the change of normal, the upset apple cart. I’m an improviser in form and approach, always excited by the challenge of needing to adapt or rethink what I am doing. Another blessing of my ADHD perhaps.

CTW: Do you promote everything yourself? Do you HAVE a life outside the comedy courtroom etc?

David: Yes, I do seem to be doing it all really. I’m not very good at finding ways to delegate or perhaps people wanting to help. I could or should be far more efficient with my own time and skills. I’m competent at most things but never an expert. I cannot help myself from doing everything myself.

But I do have a life outside of comedy. I have children. Zyggy 13, and Scarlett 10. They keep me busy that’s for sure. I also get freelance work producing legal education videos. It’s a peculiar niche.

CTW: How did This is Your Trial become a children’s format?

I’m a huge fan of law. Not to follow. More to understand. I worked for 10yrs with the University of Law creating media to teach it. I’ve always wanted to find ways of making the understanding of it more accessible to everyone. So although the format did start as a show for adults only, I always had it in the back of my mind how it could be good fun to have kids involved. The very first family friendly This Is Your Trial shows were held in Crouch End in 2014. They took place in Hornsey Townhall. It was and still is the best looking Court room the show has ever played in. The actual former townhall assembly room, a beautiful, grand, wooden panelled auditorium. Though not really ideal for comedy because the seats were spaced too far apart, preventing that essential, infectious shoulder-rubbing that comedy clubs need for atmosphere and sharing laughter. Obviously now, safe-distancing is a thing, which I personally think is a challenge for clubs to really get the same audience responses. But, looked awesome, got kids in, parents too, crazy

CTW: Do you have plans to make a kids version of Sicknote?

David: With each of the shows now, I start doing them as family friendly versions, because it’s the more challenging and kind of purer way to test the formats. If they can work for all ages, they must be more robust. It’s sometimes too easy to do for adults only because comedians will know they can retreat to some of their adult content, be openly rude and find easier laughs. If there are kids in the room, they must always have to work a bit harder to both engage parents and their children.

Alex Finch.
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Related Link:
David’s ThisIsYourLaugh Website.

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