Never take stand-up lying down
Many comedians would find the thought of a Glasgow audience intimidating, but not Andy Parsons. He talks to Mark Brown about coming to the Comedy Festival
“The Glasgow crowd are up for it”, says comedian Andy Parsons, explaining why he’s bringing his latest stand-up show (entitled, Monty Python-style, “I’ve Got A Shed”) to the Glasgow International Comedy Festival. “Glasgow audiences aren’t like the reserved Home Counties English crowd. They come out to have a good night.”
Gone are the days, says the comic, when Glasgow was considered a graveyard for English comedians. “I was first up in Glasgow doing a gig in the early Nineties”, he remembers, “and, ever since I’ve been coming up, it’s never fitted that bill [of being tough for English comedians] at all. In fact, there are a lot of English comedians who film their shows for DVD in Glasgow, just because they enjoy the crowd so much.”
Parsons has enjoyed a distinguished career as both a writer and performer in radio and on television, ranging from writing on ITV’s hit puppet satire programme Spitting Image to, more recently, starring on BBC panel show Mock The Week. Now that he’s on the British comedy A-list, he’s selling out large houses, such as Glasgow’s King’s Theatre, where he plays on Wednesday night.
It wasn’t always this way, however. Having trained as a lawyer, and quickly left the profession (which he “hated with a passion”), Parsons started on the bottom rung of the comedy ladder. He certainly doesn’t take his current success for granted.
“I did the clubs for many years, when you’re just part of a bill, and nobody really knows who you are”, he recollects. “So, being able to go and sell out a theatre under your own name, that is a fantastic thrill and something I’ve yet to get over.”
Where Glasgow is concerned, much of his success was earned in a comedy institution which he continues to hold in high regard. “Most of my experience of playing in Glasgow has been related in some way to The Stand comedy club”, he says. “It is a brilliant venue. In the world of corporate gigs run by people who don’t know much about comedy, it stands out as a beacon.”
For Parsons, performing stand-up is the apogee of his career. “Touring is my favourite”, he comments. “You get to do every facet of the business. You get to be the producer, the director, the writer and the performer. You have total, 100 per cent control. You get to do whatever you want to do. Although, admittedly, you do, therefore, have to take any flack that’s going.”
Flack or not, the freedom of stand-up is, he says, in stark contrast to the increasingly nervous world of TV comedy, especially in the modern day BBC. “The trouble with doing radio or TV is that there’s always a higher power, and somebody, somewhere will be saying. ‘no, you can’t do that.’
“The boundaries have changed ever since Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross’s infamous phone call. Obviously, Mock The Week was cutting across those boundaries. We got away with a lot more before [the Brand/Ross phone call] than we have subsequently. People who come to see the live show over the three hours will see a very different show from what goes out in the half-an-hour. I would love it to go back the other way.”
Parsons is understandably diplomatic when it comes to the issue of fellow stand-up Frankie Boyle’s famous departure from Mock The Week. He won’t be drawn on whether or not he sympathised with Boyle’s decision to leave the programme, saying only, “Frankie had been wanting to leave Mock The Week for some time.”
Nevertheless, Parsons is absolutely emphatic about the nature of Boyle’s departure from the BBC show. “In Frankie’s court case with the Daily Mirror, I believe that was one of the points in contention. They said he was kicked off the show when, in fact, he wasn’t at all kicked off. He left of his own volition.”
Despite Boyle leaving the programme, Parsons says he and the Scottish comic “get on well”. Indeed, when he takes to the King’s stage on Wednesday, the Englishman expects to see Boyle in the audience.
Given that he has worked with many of the best writers and performers in modern British comedy, I wonder what have been the greatest influences on Parsons’ career. “When you’re into comedy, everything influences you”, he replies.
“However, my first grounding, when I didn’t know that much about what I was doing, was when I was working on Spitting Image. That taught me a massive amount about TV, about how to frame sketches, and also how to do satire. So, Spitting Image, out of everything I’ve done, has influenced me the most.”
Having worked on the show, which was credited with severely damaging the careers of numerous politicians (not least David Steel, who it portrayed as a tiny, abused sidekick of David Owen during the days of the Liberal/SDP Alliance), does Parsons agree with those who say that Spitting Image marked a high watermark in British TV satire which has never been equalled since? It is, he says, “probably true” to say that British satire has gone backwards since the days of the ITV show.
Spitting Image was, he says, “very much on the nail.” By contrast, “The Thick Of It is less specific [in its satire], and, in terms of specific material, there is nothing like Spitting Image on the TV at the moment.”
This lack of political bite in TV comedy is something that Parsons very much regrets, not least because we are living in such turbulent times. “Politics is entering into everybody’s lives in a way that it hasn’t done for a while”, he observes. “Ever since the financial crisis, everybody now knows somebody who is out of work, and that gives a certain piquancy to whatever you’re talking about as a comedian.”
There has been a lot of talk, in these days of Michael McIntyre and Jimmy Carr, of the domination of contemporary English comedy by performers from middle-class backgrounds. Does Parsons, who is the son of a nurse and a teacher, and was educated in state schools, feel that he has a greater connection with the lives of people at the sharp end of the economic crisis than many of his stand-up colleagues?
“I come from very much a middle-class background”, he says. “A lot of the stand-up circuit these days is dominated by people who have been to university, and that is definitely a change from comedy 30 years ago.”
Nevertheless, surely he has more to say about the lives of people who are being hit by job losses and benefit cuts than someone like Michael McIntyre. “Given that he [McIntyre] observes things that happen to everybody, his job will become tougher and tougher”, says Parsons. “The more money he earns, the more difficult he’ll find it to respond to things that everybody experiences.”
As a denunciation, this is mild compared to Jerry Sadowitz’s expletive-laden proclamation of hatred for McIntyre at last year’s Glasgow International Comedy Festival. That’s typical of Parsons, however. Perhaps it has something to do with the legal training that he so hated, but there is a carefully considered subtlety to much of his material which sets him apart from the likes of Boyle and Sadowitz.
Indeed, Parsons’ combination of satirical wit and careful precision seems tailored to the scandals of recent weeks, from the fall from grace of Cardinal Keith O’Brien to the jailing of Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce. Surely there are times when an issue arises which makes him wish he was recording Mock The Week.
“You wish you were”, he agrees. “But, to take the case of Cardinal O’Brien, given that it’s both sexual abuse and religion, the chances of getting something on the BBC on those two topics at the moment might be fairly limited. So you might be better off doing a live show anyway.”
So, will his Glasgow audience be offered material on the Scottish cleric? “Obviously, there’s a basic structure to the show, says Parsons, “and some things will fit very neatly into that structure. At the moment, Cardinal O’Brien is in the clear, but who’s to say that will still be the case by Wednesday night?”
Andy Parsons plays the King’s Theatre, Glasgow on Wednesday night at 7.30pm. For tickets and more information, visit: http://www.glasgowcomedyfestival.com
This preview was originally published in The Herald on March 16, 2013
© Mark Brown