Comedian Dan Schreiber is one of Australia’s most succesful, and yet least known exports. The Sauce’s Cameron Smith sat down with Dan over a beer or eight to try to work out just how at 26 years old Dan has built a career that has seen him work on QI, as a teacher, record with Paul McCartney, and go on a pub crawl with Buzz Aldrin.
How he ended up researching for QI at 19
Why he is on Wikipedias Most Notable Expat List
ComedyBox and Making Sketch Comedy with Rhys Darby (Murray from the NZ Embassy)
His Late Night Show and Getting Signed by Russel Brand’s Manager
On Creating “the Museum of Curiosity” a BBC Radio Show with 2 Million Weekly Listeners
On Becoming a School Teacher
On Returning to Standup
On Jimmy Carr & Incriminating Evidence Against Jimmy Carr
On Australian Panel Shows & Why They Suck
On Alan Davis Biting a Tramp
On Aussie Comics & Comedy
On How to Make it In the Industry
On Brian Blessed
Dan Wants to Know Where These People Are (More on Aussie Comedy)
On Frank Woodley
On the Chaser
On Joining a Boyband with the lead singer from Sparkadia
On Editing his hit BBC radio show
On Lost Aussie Comics
On Working With His Heros
So you used to go to school in Sydney?
I wound up going to Oxford… not the uni, just the area, but I went there for exactly three years before moving to London, it sounds exactly like I went to the University so I try to keep it vague.
So you were born in Hong Kong Though, and then came out here
Yea I was Born in Hong Kong and then came out here when I was 13
And that was in 1997, so presumably that was to do with the Return of HK to China?
Yea, everyone fled! That was kindof a bit like the Mayan Prophesy or the Y2K bug. Everyone moved, and all my friends just dispersed around the world. They were petrified, I don’t know why.
Were you in the English speaking schools?
Yea, but it was weird, I think I’m right in saying I was the only white person in my class. So I was petrified when I came to school here. I though I was going to get beat up, I was petrified of white people, because I’d never been around a lot of white people. I literally though everyone was going to kick my ass because of my accent, but then I ended up keeping it because everyone loved it.
So you were here until year 12?
Yea, I did year 12 and then when everyone was going to Uni that’s where I left. Because the Steiner school I went to they have this weird system by which you don’t have to do the HSC. They have a thing called the major project where they say ‘What do you like’, okay do a big thesis on it, and do a monthly diary about your feelings. So I was like yea sure, instead of the HSC? Brilliant! I ended up writing a standup show that year. I knew I wanted to do comedy and I always enjoyed writing, sketch writing and all that, and the one thing I always wasn’t interested in was standup, so, I don’t know why, I thought I’d try that for the project. I’d seen standup DVD’s and they were all an hour long, so I figured that’s what you do. So I wrote a one hour show, thinking, having never seen a standup show, and did it, and it went well enough. And so I then did a five minute spot at the comedy store, and I just bombed. And I ewas like what!? I did an hour, now i can’t do five?
I think five minutes would definitely be harder
Yea, I do standup now a lot, and when I go back to five minutes, it’s still just like, What am I meant to do!? What do you want from me!? Five minutes?! What the hell am I mean to say?
So from there you somehow wound up as a researcher for QI?
Yea, that’s literally what it was
How does that come about?
Oh man it was the most random wonderful amazing thing it was basically I was a total comedy nerd growing up,. I spent my childhood in second hand bookshops, there’s a place called dial a book, and in there they just had every Spike Miligan book, every classical american comedy book like Groucho Marx’s books, I don’t even know how these books wound up in this book store? It must have been some comedy geek had died and handed in his library just before it. So I kindof had this thought, where the hell do they do comedy in this country? Well I do know where they do do it, London. That’s where comedy happens.
So this was a calculated move to England?
Well, it was half calculated, I have a British passport, but I finished high school, and my grandmother was living in Kosovo at that point, so she said why don’t you come visit us in Kosovo for three months. So I went there for three months, but the ticket that they got, they said there’s so much tax off the back of it that we can get you to London, so I went oh cool! So I did that and then basically I just never came back.
I was living in this small town called Benson and my aunty worked for local BBC radio, and she came home one day and mentioned they had a guy in that day who was one of the producers of Blackadder. So I said oh he was probably lying because there was only one producer, a man named John Lloyd, and she said ‘Oh that was it John Lloyd!’. I was like ‘YOU HAD JOHN LLOYD IN?’ and she said ‘Oh I told him you’re in town he want to get into comedy, and he gave me his number for you to give him a call’ So I asked, where’s the number? And then she went white basically, and went ‘oh no it was on that piece of paper I threw in the bin’ So we just had to hope the bins hadn’t been emptied that day.
So it came down to whether the cleaner was competent?
Exactly! And fortunately they weren’t, which is wonderful. So I got the number, and I spent about 3 or 4 days just umming and ahing because I figured he probably just did it as a nice thing, but eventually I gave him a call and said ‘Hhhey you met my Aunty the other day’ and he said ‘Oh is this dan!’ It was the coolest thing. So we ended up going out for a drink, and we found out we had all these weird connections. And I was 19 at the time, never had a job, but after a couple of months of chatting, and a lot of me hassling, and I don’t know what convinced him, but he said Hey do you want a job on QI? He had the pick of every comedy writer in the country. But he doesn’t care about CV’s, and this is something I’ve learned from him, what he cares about is after the show are we going to go to the bar have a few beers and have fun. He must have gone, yea you want to do that, so I’ll take you on.
So it was mega lucky. But then the first house I moved into, thanks to QI I had enough money to move into my first house, it was in oxford and it was really cheap, and I moved into this place, and the first day I moved in there was this one flatmate who I hadn’t met, Will, and he was like so what are you doing? And I said I’m working on this new comedy show QI, it’s very exciting, and he went Oh my dad’s in comedy too! His names John Howard Daveys, he made Faulty Towers and Monty Python and Mr Bean. I was just going ‘are you fucking kidding me, this has been the easiest thing I’ve ever done. I was incredibly lucky’
So were you instantly research on QI?
I was in-charge of acquiring all the books for the researchers. It was an obvious fit because I’d just started a job at a book store. But as a result of buying them I’d get really interested and start reading the books, and then got invited to one of the meetings, and I just started spouting out some of the stuff I’d read, and John was like ‘Fine, be a researcher then’. It was very lucky.
How many books would you go through?
Oh, probably about 30 a day? The rule of QI was it has to be a source that’s not Wikipedia. So we had to buy books, and you would read these incredibly boring books and there would be this one sentence about 900 pages in, and you’d go that’s it! But then when Stephen reads the cards he’s got effectively a quite interesting essay, which comes from that previous 900 pages that you just put down little things before you got to that one nugget.
When I was at school they had this cool thing if we had to do an essay for English or something I did a comedy essay just taking the piss out of it, but the teachers sort of encouraged it, because what I didn’t realize at the time was when you’re writing comedy, particularly about a specific subject, like trying to make fun of something, you probably have to learn it better than other people just reading it, because you have to understand it in order to make a good joke. My teachers were always like, you haven’t answered any of the questions but you clearly understand the subject in order to have made that joke. I was probably doing that as a result.
Was this all the students, or just you?
No, but I think any student who displayed a kind of stupidity towards authority, they allowed it if it worked. My teachers wouldn’t mind, because they used to say to me, I was up marking papers at 3 in the morning and I got to yours and it made me laugh, so that’s why you got a good mark. It really pissed off my schoolmates.
So you worked with QI ’till 2007?
I still work with them, I’m still one of the elves, I just don’t work on the TV show at the moment, because I did a series two series ago, and thought ‘I’m older now, this should be easier’ but it just wasn’t any easier.
It’s interesting Australia seems to be latching onto it at the moment. I’m so happy because I used to come back on holiday and say I’m working on this show, and people would say ‘I’ve never heard of it’. Now everyone seems to know it which is really cool, there’s even DVDs out of it which aren’t available in England. So you’ve properly latched onto it here.
It’s really taking off here
Yea, but for years I kept saying to John you should do an Aussie version of the show. I even mapped out who the hosts could be, possibly Shaun Micallef or John Clarke. We talked about it for ages. Then the other point was why even remake it, just sell it to Australian they’d love it. But the answer that came back all the time was that Australia won’t like it, they won’t get it. This was from both the English production company and the Australian. They were just like, they won’t get it. And I was like I’m Australian and I fucking get it! Have you seen Australian comedy? It’s intellectual as hell. The Micallef Programme was insanely good, John Clarke, Anything the Working Dog Boys do, Denton.
Denton got in contact with John Lloyd… or the other way round? To discuss one of Denton’s shows. And in any case they had a massive chat, and it turns out Denton’s a huge fan of Lloyds. So when John was telling me there’s this guys Andrew I was talking to, and I asked what’s his full name I might know him, he said oh it’s Andrew Denton. Andrew Denton!? He must be quite humble, because John Didn’t realize how amazing this guy is as a producer. He was like just this Andrew Denton Guy came up with this great idea.
Everyone seems to have disappeared here in comedy. I always get disappointed when I go into bookshops here and see the lack of comedy books from Aussies. Back in the day, you used to have, like Triple J used to do all these books. Helen Razor, and Mikey Robbins, Flacco.
It’s amazing how many big Australian comics there are in England that aren’t known over here. For a long time Minchin, wasn’t known here but he was massive in England. Brendan Burns no one knows who he is here, Brendan Burns won the Perrier award a few years ago, one of the biggest standups. No one knows him here. Jim Jeffries, one of the biggest comics in America, apparently bigger than Billie Connolly in America, he’s an Aussie he’s from Sydney, lived in Pymble I think, no one knows who he is, yet one of the biggest comics overseas. Here, nothing.
That’s a lot like you actually, because not many people would recognise your name, yet you’re listed on Wikipedia as one of the top 28 noteworthy Australians living in Britain.
Yea, alongside Barry Humphries and Clive James.
That’s probably how I, I’ve been trying to sort of unravel a mystery, a year ago now, the Queen came to Australia, her last big tour, I got, well my agents received in the mail an invitation from the Queen to go to Buckingham Palace in advance for her trip to Australia. It was something like 150 Australians who were invited, but it was kindof like notable Australians, and I was like, I’m in no way a notable Australian. But maybe she just goes on Wikipedia and just goes ‘aight who’ve we got ‘ere? Clive James, Schreibs. Right!
I was so worried that they’d invited the wrong guy. Although normally when you google the name Dan Schreiber, there’s a lot of Dan Schreiber deaths. A lot of ‘Dan Schreiber died’ and it’s always a different one. It almost looks like I’m wiping them out just to retain hig Google hits, but it’s had the opposite effect because they’re taking up all the results … death.
So you went on from QI to…
I went to the BBC. The first thing I did when I left QI, at that point they were doing 12 episodes a season, and they didn’t really have what they have which is such a juggernaut, there were no books at the time, we did a DVD which was an interactive DVD, which was the first thing I properly wrote, because with QI you write a question or you write these notes, but then someone takes it and they might rephrase it and stuff like that. And there’s this interactive DVD which was Stephen reading a quiz to the screen, there were about 8 strands of 50 questions, multiple choice, and I wrote a whole strand and gave it to John, and he virtually changed nothing, to the point where the first question was about steel, and he called the round Steely Dan, to sort of say thanks. I was so proud of it because it was my first bit of proper writing, with Stephen Fry reading the whole thing.
So that was the only thing outside the series that was going on, so I said to John I’m gonna move to London, I was living in Oxford at the time, but I didn’t know what to do, so I got a job, which was only about three weeks, which was to help write a book which Jimmy Carr, he wrote a book called the Naked Jape, which is a kind of history of comedy through the ages, her brought me on as a researcher for that, but then I got a job at the BBC, completely randomly.
I sent my CV in, and the girl who was meant to look through the CV’s, she’s from Cambridge, extremely proper, she’s like ‘You’ve got to do things this certain way in life’ and one of the things you have to do is go to university. But before she looked at the CV’s, she’d had this test, to make sure she’s qualified to look at CV’s for the BBC, one of the questions was ‘If it says on the CV that they haven’t been to university, are they ineligible for the job, and she went ‘Yes!’ and the machine went, ‘Uh uh. Just because they haven’t been to university doesn’t mean they’re not worthy of a job here’, so when she saw my CV she went oh I’m gonna try out the new “you don’t need to go to university” thing. So I got an interview as a result of her testing out this thing.
So I worked at the BBC for 3 or 4 months in development, coming up with TV show ideas.
Then I went to a company called RDF, and then I went to a place called Warner, and then onto Museum of Curiosity.
That was head of Warner Music Comedy Arm?
Yea Warner Music Entertainment, music, all ther DVDs. And that with John Lloyd they setup this arm called Comedybox.
I do remember that, can you enlighten us what happened to it?
I think the thing was that most comedy, I said this to the at the beginning as well, they entered this as a corporate business, they wanted to make a comedy site, and I was saying to them, everyone was saying, the internet doesn’t work like that, you can’t just arrive as a juggernaut, and be like have we’re this massive thing. You’ve gotta make it raw, comedy’s raw. It’s not shiny. And they disagreed. And it’s fine because its their thing. They had a huge budget, and I got put in charge of this whole station. They never told me what it was, but they said spend as much as you want. So I just went nuts on it and spent so much money on comics I like, giving them money to make these short little clips. We did some cool things, some really cool things.
My favourite stuff would be the stuff we did with Rhys Darby. That was like amazing. And I discovered these guys named Joke Disco, this pair of kids who have gone onto amazing things since. They were clearly destined for it, it was just so lucky for us. But the whole idea of the comedy box thing was to give money to people who wouldn’t be given money by TV stations to make sketches.
It’s a great concept. Few years too early maybe?
Great concept, awesome, but recession hit, and suddenly for a massive corporation it was too much. I left it before it folded, when they sold it to Myspace, but then Myspace suddenly went we can’t do that anymore. But they were so nice the Comedybox people.
That’s a pretty amazing trajectory: QI to BBC to head of a pretty large corporate venture
Yea it’s not as grand as it sounds. I think with Warner, they said here, have this title, just to make it sound massive, but I was more just dicking about.
Was it a case of you’re young, we don’t understand these things, you do this?
Yea, I think so, I think I was a bit too young, but they took me on because they trusted John, and I was already about to be making my first series of Museum, so they were kind of going, okay if you’re producing a series for the BBC and they’ve said yes we can probably let you do this as well.
But it was cool. I got to work with Rhys Darby. The cool thing about that was, he was leaving the country, and he was going to America to do Yes Man with Jim Carey, so I got onto the phone to him, but he was like mate I’m out of here, I’ve got no time left. And I was like, shit I really wanna make these clips, so I said listen, just gimme a day, we’ll go to a house in hamsten, bring some ideas. We’ll film some. Every sketch we do we’ll give you, I think we said something like 2000 pounds per sketch. If we film ten sketches then, you know, that’s an awesome amount.
So this was literally all done in a day?
Yea, I just said to him the day before, and he was out of there in two days time, but I was desperate, because I could tell he was going to be one of the best comics in the world.
So this was before Flight of the Concords?
Concords was out in America, it wasn’t out anywhere else, I’d heard the BBC radio series and I could just tell, this guy is out there, he’s the best comic. So we just spent this day, it was probably my favorite day in my whole career, I would say, because the ideas completely flew. We did this sketch called robot man, which was an idea where he comes in an pretends to be a robot, and he did this great thing, and because we had no one there we had to be in the sketches. He was doing this thing where Juliet, this girl and I were sitting on the couch watching, and he’s more interested in our backstory, as people wanting to buy a house, and I was like Rhys it doesn’t matter, no one cares what we’re thinking, everyone just wants the robot. So I said, look if you care about it so much, why don’t you just do a directors commentary to the entire sketch. And he went “No, I’m going to America tommrow, I can’t!” Then somehow the idea came about, why don’t we do it live? A live directors commentary. Retake the whole scene and it’ll sound like you’re doing a directors commentary, but then it’ll just cut to you and you’ll just be there. It was so fun.
But the best bit about that day was I said to Rhys, he was doing standup at the time, and he still does, but I was worried that we would stop doing standup because he was about to become a big actor, so I said, you’ve got this amazing material, why don’t we do a DVD, I can talk Warner into doing it, and he was like yea, lets do it! And Warner said yes to it, so we flew out to LA, and we filmed it in LA and it was great. For me, out of Warner, the best thing that came out of it was Rhys, because we’re still mates, and we’ve written a sitcom together, and when he comes back to England I think we’re going to try to do a show together, though who knows, we’ve tried a bunch of times, but America always comes knocking. He’s the coolest guy. If you ever get to meet him, you’ll love him.
You’re working on a lot of pilots from what I can tell?
Yea, the nature of it in England is just constantly doing pilots.
So tell us about the Breakfast show pilot.
Oh yea, well my best friend, he was dating the radio show producer who became quite notorious when Russel Brand made the infamous phone call to Andrew Sx, he was that producer.
So he would have copped it?
He did, yea, he ended up moving away to Hong Kong to work in a missionary centre. He found God and dissapeared. But he said to me one day when I was out, he said to me have you ever thought about being a presenter? And I was like… no, I always thought I would be a producer, and he said no I think you could be a good presenter, why don’t we make a radio show. Come up with an idea. So I came up with an idea called ‘Insomniac Radio’ where instead of it being a late night laid back radio show, which is like, let’s try and get you to sleep, it’s more like Cool! You’re up! We’re up! Let’s party! We’ll learn stuff in the night. We’ll do almost like a breakfast show, where we’ll look at cool things, we’ll make phone calls round the world, because everyone else is up.
So what ended up happening with that show, we had Rhys in town so he came on, we had a really funny chat, I had this amazing bit of luck, there had been this massive bit of news in England, where years ago this guy wrote a book called the masquerade, it’s a book about a boy who tried to catch a star from the sky, and he captures it and it’s in the shape of a golden rabbit, but the author actually made this pimping piece of gold. And he buried it somewhere in England, and all through the book were codes of how to find the location of this thing. This was in the seventies and it was massive, like everone was looking for it, kind of like a Da Vinci Code thing, but in real life, someone could find it, and people were actually institutionalized for mental issues because they were so obsessed with finding it! Eventually someone found it, and it was sold off at Sotheby’s to an anonymous person. And just at the time I was making this pilot there was this huge story about ‘Where it is?’ like a revival, and a friend of mine went, oh I know where it is, it’s in my grandma’s house. And it turns out his grandparents had bought it, so I got them on the radio show. We had so many cool guests on the show, and instead of pitching it, my producer said I want to send it to the agent who looks after Russel Brand, because I think he might be interested, so I just got called in and he signed me on the spot, and we didn’t end up pitching the show… but it got me an agent. Yea.
To be fair the BBC actually gave me a pilot commission off the back of the title “Insomniac Radio”. So I made the pilot, but just never handed it in. They didn’t mind though because there’s no money in radio.
Jesus. Were you doing the Museum show at that point?
I was probably two series into Museum at that point.
Because I definately have to ask you about that.
Yea, that’s my favourite thing to do.
Understandably, because you’re producing that alongside, effectively the biggest name in comedy producers.
Oh mate! My first ever production job! To produce the top producer of comedy in England and it’s the first thing he’s ever hosting. None of us knew what we were doing, that was the amazing thing. Obviously it was a blessing having John.
He’d open doors.
Yea, he helped us get the commission. If they knew he was involved they knew they could trust this. Because it was such a weird format to pitch. Effectively it’s a comedy panel show, and they’d say great! What comedians have you got? Oh it’s effectively gonna be academics and interesting humans…. Okay but you’ve got teams right? No teams. … But there’s a points system right? No points. Any kind of format that they understand, we didn’t have this. We still have a bit of a format but it’s very counter to what they’re used to. To their credit they gave us a commission, which is amazing.
I have read a quote somewhere which described the show as ‘If anyone else but John Llyod had pitched the idea they would have been out on the street again before they even got to taste the biscuits at the BBC’
Yea, yea exactly.
Considering the show’s I’ve heard that sounds pretty accurate.
Do you remember which ones they were?
Well there was one about Pineapples?
Oh yea! So Ben Elton, Fran Bowman who’s married to James Boben, who directed flight of the Conchords and the Muppett Movie, he’s one of the biggest comedy directors and he’s married to a pineapple expert.
So she’s really a pineapple expert then?
She is she’s also a TV presenter, but she wrote this book on pineapples which as a result made her one of the leading pineapple experts in the world.
You do get some amazing people in for this show. Just to name a few you’ve had Bill Bailey as a regular curator, guests include Terry Prachett and Buzz Aldrin
Yea we just had Buzz Aldrin which was incredible. It’s a weird moment when you’re shaking hands with a man who stood on the moon. It really is. And he’s an all American. A proper all American. But the most amazing thing was at 11.45 after the show, this is the evening, he’s 82 and we’re in the hotel bar, and he pulled!
Yea, it was like this old wizard lady who lived in a castle apparently and he pulled, just took this girl to his hotel room. It was incredible.
Yea. So the way the show came about was, whenever we would do all the QI stuff, all the QI research, I’d always be reading these books by someone who’d write a book, about sand for example, (a guy call Michael Welland) and I’d be reading this book and be going ‘The way this guy writes is hilarious, it’s brilliant, I bet he’s an incredibly interesting person, so I suddenly started going to a bunch of lectures, kind of like the TED lectures just to see some of these people talk and take notes so I could get QI facts off the back of it. But when I was at one of the lectures, I saw saw Alistair Folegule, he’s the director that made Planet Earth and Blue Planet and Frozen Planet, he’s the new Attenborough and he makes most of Attenborough’s seminal modern works basically. I was watching him and he was hilarious, I said ‘You are basically doing a standup show in front of us, but you’re doing it with real information and about adventures that you’ve been on, and that’s when I had the kind of thought, that maybe you could do a panel show, which is a comedy show, where the academics are funnier than the comedians, and that’s when John and I and Rich were talking about that, and we all separately brought stuff to it, I didn’t invent the show on my own, but that was definitely a big part of what I brought to it.
This seems to be a re-occuring theme for you, because your pilot ‘1001 People to Meet Before you Die’ seems pretty similar again?
Yea, absolutely. Oh god we tried that out and that was completely wrong. I’m glad that never went ahead. Because you’ve got to meet them in person.
Yea, you were on the phone, and the problem is a lot of these people, they’ve got a lifetime of stories, and they just hear the bit of the question that may sound like something that relates to their story, or they’ll bend it into it, so they’ll never answer your questions. Particularly the older, more eccentric ones, where it’ll be like ‘So you’re an adventurer, you’ve been to look for’ and you’ll say the word ‘look’ and they’ll say ‘Oh! Looking is interesting! I was once looking at a glass…’ and suddenly he’s telling you about his glass collection.
Old people syndrome!
Yea exactly, so it was very dangerous to do it over Skype, I did one episode with a Venezuelan explorer.
I did hear that. There was a lot of stuff about coral?
Yes exactly! Yea, the glowing alien coral rock that he thinks he’s found.
An interesting idea, but possibly better for a more visual medium.
Exactly, and that’s the other thing. I’m doing it as a book now.
I just think it’s really weird because every year you read these obituaries, or even hear about these pretty big people, every year you loose a load of people and I go argh, I can never meet them now. That’s very annoying, because as a result of doing museum, I’d really really recommend meeting highly interesting people, because it changes the way you think about your own life. You kind of sit back and think man, I really want to do something like that, I want to be a… it’s weird when you meet a pineapple expert, and you think maybe I’m not doing the right thing in life, maybe I wanna do my thing better, or more interestingly. That’s kind of what it makes you think. And I was looking at all these books, like 101 places to go, things to do before you die, and I just think, isn’t it weird that we don’t have a recommendation for awesome humans to meet. Where is that? So I just thought fuck it, I’ll do it.
So was the Museum of Curiosity your way of doing this, of meeting these people?
Yea, that’s it. The format was literally created so that I could meet my heroes. That’s exactly it. And that’s what it continues to be! I’ve met some amazing people. There’s an interesting thing as well, when you meet people, not on the level of you’re waiting outside to have a book signed, or you’ve walked up to them and said you’re a very big fan, when you’re working with them, you loose your nervousness. The whole thing has a different, kindof human, dynamic, where you’re going hey we’re doing this thing together, let’s have normal chats. It’s just so nice. Usually if I’d met someone like Clive James, I would be freaking out, but in this context it was fine. In fact I’ve seen myself freak out.
That’s the great thing about the show because you can just go “You’re interesting, I want you on my show”, but I think the best thing is how the audience have taken to it. It’s weird, in England they have such a huge listenership in radio. It’s played on Monday, repeated on Sunday, and between the two I think we get around two million listeners.
Wow, that’s way more than even the top TV shows get here!
I think that’s right. That could be misquoted to me, but that’s what I’ve been told by the BBC.
I’ll put it down in print and then you can quote it.
Even so, I rarely meet people who’ve heard it, despite the audience size. But when you do meet people who’ve heard it, the one consistent thing they say is they’re never interested in the famous people, they’re interested in tuning in and going, I’m about to be introduced to someone I’ve never heard of, but who’s books I’m going to buy now. And that’s the thing I love about it. You can sit Buzz Aldrin on a panel, but more often than not, sitting next to Buzz will be someone you’ve never heard of they will end up the star of the show.
We had one show where we had Al Murray, who’s a massive comedian in England, known as the pub landlord, he’s huge, he plays arena stadiums. Him, Jimmy Carr, John Llyod, and then we had the fly expert from the Natural History Museum, and she stole the show! She’s the funniest woman in the world. She’s just incredible.
I’d guess you’d have to have a sense of humour about being a fly expert.
Well also, she just didn’t tollerate anyone who didn’t agree with her, that flies are the most interesting thing on the planet.
So it was unintentional comedy?
Weirdly, I think she’s aware of it. No one was laughing at her, she knew what she was doing. And she was planting jokes all the way.
So how do you actually go about getting these people? I’d imagine it’s pretty hard to just pick up the phone and say “Get me Buzz Aldrin!”
Yea, I send them an email, I always write individual emails, mainly because I am a fan, I only really get people on who I’m massively into, so it is a fan letter that I write, and then they say yes or no. Then I talk to them on the phone, because they have to decide what they want to ‘put’ into the museum, which is a big choice for a lot of them. It’s always the academics that have the most fun with it, because I think most academics want to be silly, but just never get the chance to, they’re always in serious mode at business meetings, so this gives them the chance to be stupid, and they love it.
Well that brings me to one of the things that I find interesting about you, is that through your work with Museum and QI, you’ve got credentials as not only a standout comedian, but also as something of an academic.
No, that’s completely wrong!
Well, no, I like information, but I don’t have any kind of basic knowledge about anything.
So you’re not vying for a professorship like John then?
Well no I’d love to be a professor, and actually I’ve become a teacher recently…
Yea that’s exactly where I was heading with this!
Yea, at Wapping High.
How did that even come about?
My friend who I used to work with, he ran a bar, and he became a principal, and I was just at this gig and he said hey I’m running this school now, so he said do you want to teach comedy? And I was like yea! I mean, just in my head I went, the only reason I went to Rudolph Steiner (Dan’s former school in Sydney) was that the name made me laugh, I liked the idea of going to ‘Rudolph Steiner School’ and so many things that I’ve ended up doing in life is a title that just makes me go ‘I have to do that’. So when he said would you like to be a teacher at Wapping High, I just said ‘Of course! Of course I want to be a teacher at Wapping high, it sounds already like I’m going to be in a soap, something like Heartbreak High, and so I said yes to it.’
That is amazing. Any experience teaching before?
No! (laughs) But I’m teaching them comedy, so I’ve been studying since I was 13. I’m well versed.
So what are you doing to teach them comedy?
In this case they said, would you teach them standup, and I went ‘Yea, sure’ but… I bet none of them will want to do standup, that’s petrifying even to adults.
That’s like the English teacher saying get up in front of the class and read this Shakespeare dramatically. They just won’t want to do it.
Exactly, so when I got there I said, let me see if they want to do it, and if not I’ll come up with something else. And so I got in there and I asked them, and they all said ‘No’ so I just started talking to them about what do they like laughing at. The unanimous answer was surprisingly, Rowan Atkinson. These are 11 year olds and all of them say Rowan Atkinson, still.
I would have to say as an 11 year old Mr Bean probably would have been my answer too.
But you see, Rowans not as relevant today as he was in our age. We’re in the same bracket where Mr Bean was kindof alive, Blackadder was a rerun thing that you would see.
So do you think it was a teacher beforehand maybe say, this is a guy who knows a guy that made Blackadder?
No, because I’ve only met Rowan once or twice.
Which is more than most people could say!
Yea, but I said to them, that I knew Jimmy Carr, and that I’d met Rowan and I was suddenly … well because you come in and they’re like, okay you’re the funny teacher, make us laugh. But as soon as I said that, they’re all like ‘Okay we’re on your side’. I milked to death the connections I had, because these are twelve year olds and if you don’t move quick you’re dead! I even in desperation at one point told them how I defecated in the ocean once, and then walked out of that class going I’m going to be fired tomorrow, thinking all the kids are going to go home and say ‘Our new teacher told us about the time he had a shit in the sea’ and I was convinced I was fired. But it turns out they’re all very clever, and have worked out that if they did tell their parents I probably wouldn’t come back, and they’re all like ‘Cool we could have a teacher who tells stories like that’.
So how long have you been teaching there for?
Oh I only did four classes, but as soon as I go back to London next week I start again for a whole actual term. It’s great!
What’s really good though, is that they said they don’t want to do standup, so I said okay, why don’t we write a movie, and they came up with this whole amazing story, that’s surprisingly funny for twelve year olds, I guess it’s just one of those things where you just don’t give twelve year olds enough credit for creativity. So we wrote this whole movie about, they’re a group of spies and they’re called the flop-team, like the A-team but they suck…
So far this is better than a lot of professional comedy I’ve seen.
I know! I was like, hey this is better than anything I’ve written! They have a villain, this one kid wants to play the villain which is rare, most people want to play the good guy, and he’s called Dr Deadly and he’s got a giant F-Bomb, like an atomic sized fart bomb that he’s going to release. But the best bit is that he went I’m going to be called Dr Deadly, and another kid went yea and your first name is Silent-Butt, and I went I know that’s a juvenile joke, but the way that he went straight to it, as if he was responding to a heckler, it was just brilliant!
So are you just facilitating this?
Kindof, I’m helping them write it, and come up with ideas, and pushing them into the right directions. It’s a subtle thing that I’m doing underneath it, which is there’s one kid in the class, for example, who is completely silent. At the beginning of the first lesson I was saying ‘What do you like on TV, what makes you laugh?’ and he was just going ‘I don’t know, I don’t know’ he was just one of those kids who are completely introverted, didn’t want to say anything, and then when we got onto the writing of the script, he came up with every idea, and suddenly everyone in the class was looking at him going, jeeze mate, you’re really funny! And then he got this confidence and he was coming into class class every week, designing the logo and that, and the subtle thing about it is, obviously you don’t say this to the kids, but most comedians will say that if they were bullied at school, comedy was the thing that got them out. And I always say that comedy is the one thing, particularly for kids, it helps so much if you look at the world in a funny way. So the subtle thing about that class is to do that, like for this kid the headmaster was like ‘We’ve never seen this side of him before!’ and that’s kindof cool.
That is an amazing thing though, to have a comedy class. It’s seems like something that every school should offer alongside Maths and English and science, because it’d be such a useful skill.
Yea I agree. I think it is a general life skill, and if you don’t want to do it then fine just don’t sign up to the class. I think in my case that anyone who did sign up did that because they like making jokes, and most of the kids these days post their own YouTube clips anyway. Two of the kids had Gangnam style videos that they’d posted.
I hope they let me do it more and more, but yea I’m going back now for my second term.
So do you still do standup, of have you thrown that in for the pipe and leather patches?
I do, fully now that’s kindof my new thing.
Oh it’s a new thing?
Well I only started two years ago I think, maybe a bit longer now.
So this is the reverse to what most people do
Absolutely, I did technically start out with standup because I did the hour show when I was 18, and then I did the two spots at the Comedy Store, both of which I bombed at, but …
It’s a good experience to have though
Yea well this is the weird thing, in London, you’re often doing gigs to one person, that’s often how it is. And you have a moment, I remeber my Dad telling me years ago that he saw an interview with Jim Carey, where he said he purposefully goes on stage to bomb, and I thought ‘Why would you do that?’ If you were Jim Carey you’d be good! And it’s because in the bombing experience you get thrown into this panic where you try to save it from being a total bomb.
So there’s logic to this madness.
Yea, so when I did those two Sydney Comedy Store gigs, they were five minute slots and at about three minutes I’d realised that I’d completely killed the room.
And at three minutes…
There’s still two more minutes after that, it’s just like, shit! And both times I managed to bring it back right at the end, through ditching my material and just going with my head. I didn’t realise until years later that that’s the important bit of standup, that two minutes where you ditched what you went out there to do and you’re actually just thinking aloud, because… I sometimes think standup is a bit like being a bomb disposal unit, you’re there you’ve got the red wire and the blue wire, and you just have minutes to sort it out. And your brain suddenly kicks into this place that it never kicks into when you’re at a bar, or your with your mates, it’s just suddenly focused, but you have to be the most loose focused you’ve ever been and just let your mouth start talking, and if you can save it, which I managed to do on those two gigs, you think ‘Ah, maybe I could do this.’
It’s weird, it’s something I got told about many times before, about bombing in standup, not even necessarily bombing, because if you can save it that’s great, but some nights that’s impossible, but you can still have a good gig off the back of having a shit gig. They genuinely are the most exciting moments in standup. In the learning period. I’m sure when you’re at Eddie Izzard’s stage, you bomb and you’re kindof like … how did that happen?
But you’ve just got to wrack up the gigs. Most of the stuff I’ve done in my career is just jumping into the deep end. Just kindof going, I’ve never produced anything before, I’ve never written anything before, fuck it I’m going to be a QI elf. I’m literally going ‘seriously, how hard could this be?’, but with standup it’s the one thing where there is no shortcut. You literally have to experience every single five minute gig where you’ve driven two hours to get to, you’ve done five minutes and you bomb then you have the two hour ride back.
And as they say, it’s the honest art, you can’t fake laughter.
Exactly, it’s what it is, and you can’t emulate some one else, you have to find your own voice, and you only find your own voice from doing a shitload of gigs.
And that’s what I’ve heard, that whether you do well in standup is not how well you do at first, but rather whether you’re willing to keep sucking for long enough to get good.
Yea. Eddie Izzard, through his first hundred gigs he didn’t get a single laugh. You talk to any comedian of Eddie Izzards generation and they will say he was the worst comedian. Jimmy Carr was the same, Jimmy Carr sucked. Jimmy had a fantastic job when he started comedy, so he was literally getting chauffeured to different gigs but he was bombing at every gig. But then eventually something clicked, and that’s what happens with so many comics.
Have you found that moment with your comedy? Because I’ve seen some of your gigs and they were great.
What have you seen?
I saw the BBC fringe recording and I though that was pretty good.
I didn’t like that gig at all.
I did a month at Edinburgh, I did a whole, every day doing half an hour in Edinburgh, and then came back and I got straight into Muesum, which overtakes my life completely, the months that I do that I’m just immersed, and I hadn’t done a gig in weeks and I suddenly had to do this BBC gig, and it’s that thing again of having to go back down to five minutes, you have to do five minutes of standup, and it’s like I don’t know how to do that anymore! It’s too quick. I picked all the wrong bits of material, I didn’t do the stuff that I should have done really.
That interesting to hear, because I had you pegged as that being your kind of thing. That slightly factual comedy, cramming as much information as you can into a five minute slot, and then people walk away going I’ll laugh an hour later once I’ve digested it all.
Yea! That’s the problem though I’ve managed to do only the bits that are those bits. The rest of my stuff is just talking about what a geek I am, and what my big dates are like.
Staple standup, self referential bits?
Yea, and I didn’t do any of that stuff, so it just came out as a swarm of facts, but my real stuff is kindof more bad sexual experiences. But the weird thing is starting out, that’s the most exciting part. If you ever decide to do standup, don’t be afraid to do dick jokes, because it is the most exciting period of your standup period.
It feels like, if you’re traveling to the moon, lets say there’s like the moon far away, we’re here and between is segmented, and the first segment is called the Dick Belt, and as a comic you’re flying through that, doing dick jokes before you get into, say the politics belt, and then say there’s the philosophy belt and then there’s Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks up at the top who combine all of those together. So I’m in the dick belt period at the moment and it’s great! I don’t want to be that kind of comedian, but it’s so fun!
I’ve realised there is nothing funnier than a fart, because it speaks to every language. Don’t you find it weird that any situation no matter how serious it is, if someone farts you have to laugh? You could be at the UN, there’s no common language, and yet still everyone will get it. Everyone will crack up.
Jimmy Carr is the standout example of that, he is willing to make a joke about anything, he’s not above it, as long as it’s a good joke.
He’ll do anything, but he’ll do it with such thought. He’s the best joke writer I’ve ever seen in my life. When I worked on his book, he gave me a bunch of these books, which were, you know you can get these quote books, that someone’s compiled these comedian’g greatest lines or funniest jokes ever told, or funniest quotes ever told, and he gave me all these books, and every single one of these quotes has a tick or a cross next to them, he’s gone through these entire books, and in some cases he’s re-written certain lines, which I’ve seen appear in his act. And to begin with you go, ‘Oh no you’re plagiarizing!’ but actually he had a show which he called Joke Technician, and that’s exactly what he is, he’s a joke technician, he looks at and rewords stuff and… everything is with such brevity as well, perfectly worded, and he’s an incredible writer.
I have to ask this question while we’re on this as well. Whenever I watch QI, Jimmy is always the one who comes up with these amazing one liners, and I know Stephen has talked about how there’s one guest who is reputed for asking for the questions ahead of time so they can prepare their jokes ahead of time, and I’ve always wondered whether that was him?
Yea, it probably is Jimmy yea. When I worked on QI, he used to come in early, something like four hours earlier than Stephen and Alan, and he would just sit with us and we would go through all the questions. And its a weird one because John Lloyd hates that happening.
They came in and saw us talking to Jimmy once doing that, and Jimmy was like, ‘Well I’m not gonna get the answers right! Don’t worry, I’m not in here to cheat. I just want to give you a better show. I’m a comedian, I write one-liners.’ But that was back in the day, and I bet Jimmy doesn’t do it now, because he seems to have, if you watch the evolution of Jimmy on YouTube clips in the early days, he’s got more confident in performing off the cuff.
But back in the day, he did get the questions… I wonder who else would? They do give a few questions now before, but for good reason, because it’s fucking hard being funny about bacteria, badgers and bonobos in the space of twenty minutes! If you have no prior thought, you need to at least go, what do I know about monkeys? Do I have a funny monkey story?
It doesn’t show though. I know a lot of Aussie panel shows are infamous for coming off as scripted because they give the questions out before they go on stage. Spicks and Specks always gets accused of that.
Oh! I used to watch Spicks and Specks, and it pissed me off! Everyone’s trying to get the answers right! It’s a comedy show! You don’t want people buzzing and saying ‘Ah, that was Midnigh Oil’ you want to dick about and have the host then go ‘It was acutally Midnight Oil’.
And that’s a similar thing with QI as well, people say “If I was on there I could get all the answers right, why do they get these idiots in every week!?” And you’re just like… that would be the worst show ever. Just sitting there watching people answer questions then it ends and everyone goes and pats themselves on the back.
Alan Davis knows most of the answers, that’s the weird thing. He’s one of the most intelligent guys I’ve ever met, but he knows his role is to be the guy who doesn’t know things.
He must get quite pissed off about that?
Oh he does! I remember we made a T-Shirt once, and on it it has children’s writing that said “I’m thicker than Alan Davis” and he was … a bit miffed by it. He was like, “Really? You’re making me sound like I really am a thick one.”
But then again, through doing this he has found himself a place on one of the worlds most popular TV shows, he’s doing alright for himself.
Oh yea, and he’s a wicked guy. He’s one of those guys who will go out drinking with all of us afterwards, and knows everyone’s name, he’s just awesome. I love Alan Davis.
He does strike me as the kind of guy that would be great at the pub. Even on QI, he’s very casual.
Yet he’s always in the news for controversial shit that he’s doing!
Really? We don’t get any of that over here?
Yea he bit a tramps ear.
He … he wait what?
He bit a tramp. In the ear.
Like a Mike Tyson move.
Yea he was outside selling the big issue and he just latched onto him.
I honestly can’t tell if you’re just feeding me a line here?
No no, I promise. Yea, he’d just come back from a funeral and some guy had gone ‘Oy, Jonnathan Creek’ and he went ‘My name is ALAN!’ and just lobbed into his ear, and then made lots of news stories.
I may have to drop the Dan Shreiber bit now and just focus on this angle.
[Dan goes to get a round]
Very recently since doing standup in Britain, I’ve met a lot of really awesome standups who’re Aussies who all at the same time have come over, so there’s a girl called Celia Paquola who’s amazing. She’s trying to do the England thing. There’s also Claudia O’doughety, she’s in that new Sam Simmonds thing? Her dads a guy named Reg Mombassa, who’s a musician and an artist, and bizzarely I read today, also illustrated one of H.G. Nelson’s books. Wherer are they!? Where are Roy and HG!?! The Dream, that’s still my favourite comedy moment of all time, that series. If I had a desert island comedy series to take with me, that would be the it. I just don’t think comedy’s ever been that good.
Are you planning to return to Standup, maybe do Endinburgh again?
It’s a tough time to be in comedy, standup in Edinburgh in particular, because it’s expensive. The comedians are putting up a shitload of money, they loose a lot of money, and you effectively need to sell out your show every night to break even. So, there’s this thing called the Free Fringe, which is what I did, which is this free show in a pub that just puts you up, and then you hold a bucket at the end and the audience give you money. And so the free shows end up making more money than people who have been on TV.
So are you shying away from that idea?
No, I’m gonna do it but I’m probably gonna do the Free Fringe again. It’s less pressure, you don’t loose any money and bizarrely I think that affects a lot of comedians, they become very bitter up there because reviews start coming out, and if you’re not getting audiences and you’re getting bad reviews, you know you’re getting bad reviews because you’re not getting audiences, it’s just continuous, and you can’t help but become bitter because some people will have good Edinburgh shows, and I was having a great time up that, so my whole time I was going “Man I’m having the best time ever!” and people were like, “stop telling me about the great time you’re having, because I’m having a shit time up here.”
Damn that Schreiber with his luck and his QI and…
Yea, and that was a big fear when I got back into standup was, because of the ComedyBox thing, I produced so many great standups and, with John Lloyd he has a simliar thing where he is petrified of going on the other side of the screen because his best friends in the world are Stephen Fry, and Hugh Laurie and Rowan Atkinson, and they’re the best at what they do! And I had the same thing where I knew so many comedians to whom I would openly say “Do you know what you need to do with your set, you need to…” and so I had this horrible thought in my head that all those mates would be going ‘Alright, now it’s your turn to find out how hard it is’.
Is there a risk that you could blow what you have going as a producer by doing a string of bad gigs?
It’s true but everything I’ve done so far has just been following my interests, so I left QI because I was interested in doing something else, and then when that agent said, I want to put you on TV, I went ‘Yea, sure, that sounds really cool’ and then he said I want you to do standup and I went ‘you know what, I do want to do standup again!’ So it all happens as a result of what am I interested in at the moment. So if I fuck up my producing career, it just onto the next thing.
On to teaching?
Yea on to teaching at Wapping High, and just once a week an hour of standup. But that’s exactly it, I may one day just go, ‘Oh I just want to be a teacher’ and that’s fine. If I wanted to do it I would do it.
So there’s nothing you’re really aiming at here? It’s just kindof come what may?
It just has to be comedy. That’s all it is, I like funny stuff.
That is a brilliant philiosphy to have.
I think it works thought, I recommend, if you want to do a career in comedy. I recon the thing to do in comedy is not to follow a strict path. When I left QI and moved to the BBC, it wasn’t for the comedy department. I could have spent years trying to get into the comedy department. What you do is go, okay I’m gonna work in, say, coming up with TV ideas, but what I’ll do is only come up with comedy show ideas the whole time that I’m there, and then I’ll be the departments go to person for comedy ideas, and that is what happened. Then you get this whole insight of the industry you want to work into.
I have this theory, if you want to be a sketch writer, don’t sit at home and just be a sketch writer because I actually think you’ll become a bit bitter, a bit desperate towards approaching producers and stuff. Go and get a job working in the industry you want to work in, but do a creative job, and then on the sideline do all that stuff and it just filters in, and suddenly someone will go, ‘Hey, just jump over to our department’ and that does happen.
I don’t like the idea of the ladder system, where it’s like ‘you know, in six years time you’ll be an assistant producer here’ it’s like ‘fuck you! No! I’m gonna go do this somewhere else’. Not that anyone’s said that to me, but it’s a waste of time. When I was working in TV I was sitting in this room with all these BBC executives, one of the guys created Strictly Come Dancing, which he was producing as dancing with the stars in America, which is one of the biggest shows in America, and he’s sitting there in the room along with the BBC commissioners and all these other people, and they’re coming up with ideas, and I just remember thinking, they’re not having good ideas? That’s really weird. I was 21 at that time and I suddenly realised, you could sit a nine year old in this room and if they happened to be good with ideas, they can have as good an idea as someone who’s been working 30 years in the industry. It was good because it suddenly made you realise, most of the creative industries that I’ve seen, they rely on intimidation, don’t get above your level and all that, you’re doing that job and I’m here because I’m Mr Ideas, and you go no!
A fifteen year old could literally have the next big idea for a TV show, and your job as an older person in the TV industry is to know when that comes out of his mouth, that you don’t brush it off because he’s 15. That’s what your job should be, because anyone can have an idea.
John was telling me about the final scene with Blackadder.
A famous scene.
Yea, it’s the most famous scene of all the series possibly, it’s this final scene where they’re in the trenches and they go over the top, it fades away into poppies. They could only do one take because most of those guys, in that generation, they all had a grandfather that fought in that war, Ben Elton always writes about it, and basically in that scene they were all so emotional that Rowan Atkinson had to tell John we can’t do it again, it’s too emotional, we’re all in bits here. They were all crying, they were all just so into it.
So in the edit, they’re watching it back, and the actors all come over the top, and they’re fumbling and stuff and it just looks shit. Like, just absolutely shit. And it was either the editor or someone making the tea, someone of that level, just when why don’t you slow it down, play some beutiful music and fade it into a field of poppies? And they did it. And it wasn’t a comedian, it wasn’t a writer, it was just someone who kindof had no place being behind such a big, iconic, scene. You would think that would be Ben Elton, or Richard Cutris going oh yes I always envisioned that, but it was just someone going why not, because it just made sense.
That almost harks back to the early days of comedy at the BBC that I’ve heard about, where people would just wander in to the comedy department once a week lured by the offer of tea and buiscuits, and would just workshop comedy ideas for shows, and if enough of your ideas made their way into final scripts the BBC would start asking them back.
John, when he did Not the Nine’o’Clock news, and I think Spitting Image as well, there were a bunch of Police Men who just used to write sketches and send them in, and they were police based sketches, and John would use them because they were hilarious, so suddenly there were these police men with a sideline as comedy writers.
If something’s funny it’s funny. In fact one of the biggest researchers, the guy who, there’s a new QI book out, if you look at the writers, there’s a guy named James Harkin, so when I was working for QI, they had a forum on their website, so we’d be researching every day and there’d always be these interesting chats going on in the forum, and we’d all go and and go ‘Hey! Did you know this?’ and someone would write back. And this one guy called ‘Eggshaped’ just kept showing up, and I think he was an accountant in Bolton, and he would just during his lunch hours and when he got home, he would start posting all this stuff up that he’d found, and he was producing better more interesting and just way more amazing stuff than any of us were doing as full timers on QI. So John got in contact with him and said, listen, quit your job as an accountant and come be on QI, and he’s like ‘No, why would I want to do that?’
Oh wow, really?
John really worked for months and months trying to get this guy and he came in, and he met us all, and all that. He eventually quit his job, and now he’s co-written the new book, he’s the main writer for that, he’s the head researcher for museum of curiosity, but he is the QI boy now, if John lost him he wouldn’t know what to do.
I find it amazing that despite what he was contributing on the site, he didn’t want to join QI when offered.
He wasn’t after working in TV, what he loved was facts, he loved finding these interesting funny facts, that’s his big thing. Still when you meet him he doesn’t want to work in TV, he has no interest, he just wants to watch football and play poker, that’s what he does. He’s amazing, and an awesome guy.
But this is all off the back of John being able to go, I know you’re an accountant, I know you’re not a comedy writer, and you don’t need to be a comedy writer on QI, that’s the other thing, you just need to be someone who has an eye for funny information, so he got the job just off the back of that, but that’s what Lloydy does, that’s his kind of thing, he just goes you’ll be right for this. It’s the way to do it, because you don’t clock off. I never clocked off, I worked my ass off for QI, I didn’t go to sleep because I wanted to arrive in the room with the funnyest, coolest facts you could ever find.
And, cliched saying, you don’t really work then.
Yea, it’s a way of life, and you’re proud of it. John did have a few people who kind of just clocked in and clocked out, just went okay the days over I’m done. And it’s like, what do you mean the day’s over? It’d always confuse us, we’d go ‘What are you gonna do for the rest of the day? You’re just gonna go home?’ and they’d say ‘Oh I’m just going to go watch a movie’ and we’d say ‘Is it… like a … documentary? Something to do with the letter of the series?’ and they’d say ‘No, it’s just a Van Damme movie’ and we’d just be going what?
So… one of the top 28 Australians living in Britain?
I find that the funniest sentence I’ve ever read, about me. I’ve never read sentences about me, but that’s gold. Please keep that.
I thought you might have done that yourself?
No, I think it’s been setup by a guy called Ian Wolf. He’s called wolf because he’s a Furry. I don’t know if you know what that is. But he is one of the biggest QI nerd in the world. So he just set up all of these Wikipedia pages, he does all of QI’s Wikipedia pages. He works for comedy.co.uk, which is
A big site…
Yea, a big site, he’s one of their journalists, but he’s an incredible character. He had a feud with Alan Davis on Wikipedia because Alan changed something and he changed it back. I even got in a, well not a fight, but on the QI forums he’d said about the Wikipedia page for QI, and he’d put a link up for it. So I said hey mate, great page! Just one thing, you might want to change because you said the title of my radio pilot was something like ‘the Museum of Curiosities’ before it got changed’, and I said ‘actually it was called the Professor of Curiosity as the original title’, and he gets back to me saying ‘but there’s this source that says it was Museum of Curiosities and you haven’t got any sources.’ So I’m going ‘I am the source! It’s my title! I came up with it!’ He did however use me as a source from a couple of things I said on my twitter feed.
Speaking of questionable sources, I hear you’re writing a book on Brian Blessed?
I’m afraid to admit I don’t know too much about Brian Blessed but I am led to believe I am in the midst of the world expert?
Yea, probably the leading world expert on him. Actually there’s another guy coming up called Rich Gardner, he’s a very nice guy who’s in charge of brianblessed.com. But, Brian Blessed, he’s like a thespian over in England, he was in Blackadder playing the king in Blackadder 1. When I met him, I kindof had this idea floating around to do a panel show about adventurers, this is what Museum was kindof born out of, we eventually made a pilot where John Llyod was the host of it, called Armchair Adventures, and Buzz Aldrin was a guest on it, and unfortunately I’d left for Warner by then and they didn’t let me work on the pilot. This is the problem when you work for companies, they own the ideas and you can’t really do anything.
But I had read into Brian Blessed at the time when I was looking for adventurers, and just some of the stuff he was saying I was just like ‘Is this guy real? This is insane!’ Like, he claims when he was on Everest he had this avalanche and he yelled it into another direction. And I was like, ‘You really beleive that? That’s brilliant!’ and when I met him on the day he came in for Museum, the stuff he came out with… I’d left him in this room and he’d said he had a flight cancelled to mars by the Russians.
A flight to Mars? The Planet?
Yea, I’d picked him up in reception, he was really happy, though his whole face was blue, dark blue, and he went ‘Don’t be allarmed old son! Got kicked in the face by a horse.’ So I’m going ‘Okay… cool?’ and it happened just that morning apparently, he’d just got clobbered in the face by this horse but still showed up for the radio recording, so I sat him in this room and said ‘I’m just going to get you a script, I’ll be back in a minute, do you need anything?’ and he says ‘no, I’m happy, all good’. So I walked out, came back literally two minutes later and he’s huffing and puffing around the room just fuming and I’m like ‘Brian are you okay? What’s wrong?’ and he said that line, he went ‘JUST GOT OFF THE PHONE TO THE RUSSIANS, THEY’VE CANCELLED MY TRIP TO MARS!’
So this is in the first few minutes of meeting him he’s told you he’d been kicked in the face by a horse, then had a flight to mars cancelled? I can see why you want to write a book about him.
The thing I like about him is he’s a genuine explorer adventurer, he’s been up Everest three times, never got to the top but he’s got very close. For his age though, he started doing it in his 50’s, that an old age to start doing that. I couldn’t do that. I walked up to the lighthouse at Palm Beach and almost passed out when I got to the top. He’s also been to Venezuala looking for dinosaurs, he’s been to Mongolia looking for Yeti’s, and he’s been to the magnetic north pole, so he’s got a lot under his belt in terms of experience.
But those things he says kindof remind you of explorers of the 1800’s like Scott and that, the fabled characters, almost like he’s lept out of a fictional book. I get annoyed that, in the present day that we live in, there aren’t those sort of excentrics around anymore, so I think it’s really important to latch onto someone and not question it, just believe it, because it’s fun! It’s like having an awesome Grandfather telling you these amazing stories. So what I wanted to do was, every time I read one of his books he’s very sincere and doesn’t want to get into the weirder stuff, so I just want to do a collection of facts from Brian Blessed, mixed in with my experiences with him, because I’ve met him quite a few times now. We were going to go around the world, exploring, looking for the Mongolian death worm, and looking for the lost treasure of El Dorado and he wanted to look for Noahs Arc, and go and find the Yeti. So I’m writing this book, he doesn’t know about it, I think he’ll hate it, so it’s a tough one because I’ll lose a friendship over it.
So I’m not to get in contact with him asking about his thoughts?
I think he subtly knows I’m writing it.
So the plan is just to release this and just … not mention it?
No, I’ll mention it. What I’m gonna do is say to him ‘I’m gonna release this book do you want to write the foreward?’ and I’ll offer him a split of the money, because I’m using a lot of his stories, or don’t write the foreward and we’ll still do the same split, or if he doesn’t want it released I’ll just self publish it and give copies to my friends. I don’t want to fuck him off, and also because he does a lot of after dinner speaking I don’t want to steal his stories. There’s a bit of me that went ‘Oh my god, is this like going to an Eddie Izzard concert and just using his jokes?’ I suddenly thought, maybe there are his jokes, these are his greatest stories that he doesn’t want in print because he uses them to make money in every other area? But if I got it right, I think it would do for him with the public, what happened with Shatner recently or Chuck Norris, just a revival of celebrating the eccentricities of him.
A Brian Blessed 4chan thread?
I just think he’s such an interesting guy, and every sentence … he claims to have boxed with the Dalai Lama, and watched him cure a dying snake. Litterally one of the most incredible human. But… he might just become a chapter in 101 People to Meet Before You Die, because I’m definitely writing that book.
Any plans to bring the Museum to Australian airways.
Yea, I’d love to, I just don’t know how. I’d love to bring so many things to Australia… how do you do things in Australia? I’ve no idea. Where do they do comedy here?
If you’re talking radio I’d say the ABC’s radio national is where it’s at. They even play Goon Show reruns throughout the night.
Oh yea, because I went to the ABC website today and it said ‘New Releases – The Goon Show’. And I was like really? That’s getting top billing?
That’s how far we’ve progressed.
But then, I bought countless Goon Show CD’s from the ABC shop. That used to be the best place! What happened?
They went commercial.
Every time I walk into a bookshop here I just want to see a new Micalef book sitting next to the Sandman books, where are they all now? Helen Razor, Mikey Robbins.
I think they’ve all moved onto drive radio these days.
So who are the main comics on Radio now?
Because I only hear about the controversial shock jocks, like Kyle and that.
Well I know Ballard and Dyson do the triple J breakfast at the moment, they do alright, and there’s…
Do Hamish and Andy still do it? Do Merric and Rosso still do it?
I think … they do other things now? I wish I knew the answers in this turnaround!
I’ve missed out on a whole…
I think a lot of them do old folks radio now, vega and that, I know Sean Micalef went there for a while.
Where’s twelth man gone?
There are still twelth man releases every once in a while.
Mick Molloy? Is he in movies now?
No, I haven’t really heard about any big Working Dog releases with him for a while now?
Because they had those books. Mulvania, and Fake Tan. If you get a chance to get a copy of Mulvania, it is one of the funniest books ever. It’s mean to be like Lonely Planet or Rough Guides, but fake. Every paragraph is a little nugget of a joke, and it is a golden joke. They were amazing!
Australia does really good comedy. Danger Five, best comedy I’ve seen in a long time! It comes out of Adelaide, it’s basically Thunderbirds meets Jurrasic Park, meets Ray Harry Harrison weird animation claymation. It’s increadible, it’s about a group trying to kill Hitler during world war two, but they’re like Thunderbirds, but it’s a real live action thing. It’s just faultless. I’m convinced this guy is gonna be Australia’s Wes Anderson, it’s so stylised, it’s so amazing.
I’ll have to check it out! Though… I forget what my question was now.
Sorry, I keep ignoring the questions and just going WHERE THE HELL IS FLACO? [hits table and laughs]
If you’d given advanced warning I could have tried to get him here?
I just think they’re the best and they’re not here anymore.
If you wanna make a list I can look them all up and…
If this gets put out there, just make it “Dan wants to know where these people are” and just make a list, just put their picture and say “Where are they? Please call, reward” Offer a reward! I will give … $100 Australian dollars per name if you can tell me where any of these people are. Flaco, Helen Razor, Mikey Robbins, Paul Livingston…
I think one of them wound up teaching comedy at Melbourne University, though his name escapes me…
I wonder who that could be? Because there were books as well, paperbacks…
Forget the BBC, you need to start a book store.
I really want to, I want to just come back to Australia and just smash Australia with…
Yea! Because it’s so … I get really annoyed that, say Celia Paqola has a new DVD and I’ve been to JBHifi, because there’s no such thing as any other place to buy DVDs now!
It just swamped everything else. It’s the Starbucks of Australia.
Yea! So you go into JBhifi and you go in going, okay give me the Aussie comics, just have that. You know QI’s doing well here, but at the same time you kindof go… yea but, have Celia’s DVD up next to that and get the home grown thing going!
Well you do get the really big ones, Lano and Woodley for example.
Well Frank Woodley, I saw him do his solo show, the one where it’s a play and he lives in a lighthose. I saw it at Edinburgh a few years ago, but the thing is they booked him this ginourmous room, which is stupid because noone knows who he is there.
Yea, because Lano and Woodley didn’t make it over to England.
I would have thought they’d be fairly well known through their comedy.
Well, this was the assumption because, Lano and Woodley won the Edinburgh festival, the main award, the year that Alan Davis was nominated for it as well, and they won it, so they were the big guys over there at that time, but then they never did a show after that as far as I know, and this is something like twenty years after the fact, so he returned almost as if they were trying to push him as a returning hero, but no-one went to the show, because that’s just not how… it’s like what I was saying earlier about Comedy Box and the shininess, no one cares! You can’t go to Edinburgh and go “Oh he’s good! He won it years ago!” People go, well a lot of other people won it years ago too!
Pretty much everyone else performing at Edinburgh.
Yea, so I ended up going to see it and, there was hardly anyone in the audience, and I saw it about three times because I loved it so much.
Yea there was about eight of us in the audience, and this was before I did standup and I remember just watching it go wow! All those stunts where he falls down the stairs. It was amazing show. But no one went to see it, and it made for a better show as an audience member, because it felt like you were watching something really special, and you knew about it when no one else did, that’s what was so cool about it. Is he still big here?
Oh he’s huge yea.
Really? Frank Woodley?
Yea him and Colin Lane.
What does Colin Lane do now?
Not much really, daytime TV, RSL’s?
RSL’s are a big thing here! That’s what I keep thinking, what am I going to do if I move here? Probably be just a residency as a MC at Dee Why RSL, doing L90 jokes. Wey hey! What’s up with the L-90 bus!? … If I could work it that’d be wicked.
You’d be screaming “I WAS ON QI” in a week.
They wouldn’t care…
Because they’d have John Farnham up next.
Yes! Angry Andersons playing at the Mona Vale Bowls club now!?
Well come to think of it, this was a hugely proud moment for me on this trip [pulls out RSL membership card]
Oh that’s an amazing picture!
I know, she asked me to smile so I went [makes face] and she said “No, smile” and I said “I AM SMILING” so she reluctantly took that.
Very nice, that’ll get you places.
Not really, I just go in and play pokies with my friend Joel Hill who goes to Sydney University. But as I was saying WHERE THE HELL IS SANDMAN!
Oh, I really wish I’d looked that up.
I wish Roy and HG were still as big, that’s a shame.
Well they’re still big, people still know their names.
That’s the thing they’re all still around!
Maybe it’s just not my crowd.
How about the Chaser, what are they up to now?
They’ve been working their butts off, they’ve been doing the Hamster Wheel, and they’re doing the Unbelievable Truth, the spinoff of the BBC radio show.
The David Mitchell radio show?
…What are they doing, doing that show? That’s so weird!
Well, I think one of them knows Graheme Garden who…
He devised it didn’t he?
Yea, so they’re doing what the GNW people and Working Dog people do best and they’re importing British panel show formats.
I just don’t understand that, because it’s all about fake things and just being funny!? I would think something more like ‘Have I Got News For You’? I know Good News Week exists, but something in that teritory where they’re analising real news, that’s what they do! They’re not going to suddenly just do a breakfast show with Kerry Anne? Wha?
Maybe the money is the draw card there?
It’s amazing they’re not in England, I tried to get them over with Warner.
Yea, we had chats and stuff.
Nothing came of it?
Well nothing came of it because so many people were courting them at the time, it was not long after the moment where they dressed as Osama and went riding into the APEC, because that made international news.
So they would have been hot property?
Yea, though people still didn’t know really who they were. Their whole thing was a lot like the Onion, when they were the initial paper that is, but fuck they were so good when they were with that initial paper! I remember buying them, but they stopped them pretty soon after that, I think, there must have been maybe three more issues after the one that I bought. I remember at a newsagents in Avalon seeing one that had Sadam Hussein on the front, and it was increadibly funny.
They’re really great at that stuff. But… um… I can’t remember what I was supposed to be asking you now! There’s going to be a lot of stuff in this about other people I think!
[Dan laughs] That’s fine I’m a producer, I work with other people, that’s my whole thing.
I’m just going make up quotes from you I think.
Oh yea, don’t use anything I say though.
“Dan has this to say about Stephen Fry”
[Laughs and mouths a curseword in jest]
Okay back to the questions here. Any chance of a return of the Uptown Sharks?
[Laughs] Oh fuckin hell! How? Did you find a myspace or something?
Oh I researched the hell out of your shady past.
That’s a great research moment! It’s just a joke, I always start these little bands…
So Uptown Sharks, my friends in London had a band called the Downtown Wolves and I thought they needed some rivals.
Always a good thing for musicians.
Yea, you always need a good rivalry, so the Uptown Sharks came into existence and… we don’t actually have any music. What we do is show up to Downtown Wolf gigs and say “Well well well. What the hell is a Downtown Wolf doing in the uptown?” and then we have a sort of west side story fight off with a lot of clicking. But I’m in a new band now, and it’s effectively like Boys2Men, and it’s me and my ex-flatmate, a guy called Alex Brunette, who’s the lead singer of a band called Sparkadia, and a guy called Luke Haynes, we’re all Sydney boys. We’re called Male Energy. It’s very similar to Boys2Men… in fact we sing mainly Boys2Men covers.
Where can we see this?
We have a facebook page called 121A/OneToOneA.
How did I not come across this?
Well we’ve been keeping it on the downlow, because we want to launch Male Energy. You’ve got Girl Power and Girls Alloud and all that, and we just thought it’s time, because back in the day Boys2Men really dominated the charts.
We need to bring it back, is that what you’re saying?
Yea, although there’s been a splinter group recently in Male Energy, because Alex, he’s good he’s got Sparkadia, but I don’t think he’s taking Male Energy seriously. So me an Luke have started another band called Man2Man. And it’s just two guys having a man to man. Moments is what we’ll call the album. Man2Man moments.
I’m just in my head running through how we could book you guys a gig at uni.
Yea, definately on our next tour of Sydney. We’ve got bedsheets at the moment as merchandise… though we don’t actually have any music. Sometimes merchandise is what’s more important, it makes it feel more real. That and we’ve got table spoons. You know those table spoons that would have a picture of princess Diana at the top? For your tea. So at the top will be Male Energy, just the three of us, in your tea. Teaspoons and bedsheets, that’s where we’re at. It’s almost a disaster when you acutally have to produce the music, maybe we should stick to bedsheets.
Oh that reminds me! Do you actually edit the Museum of Curiosity?
Yea, yea I do. I mean we have an actual editor, who sits with us and does it, and who’s increadibly important because he makes as much if not more descisions about the editing as we do, but yea, we’re quite notorious at the BBC as being some of the most hardcore editors, like we do it for days. For a radio show everyone else does it for a few hours.
How long would your original take be?
We’d do a two hour recording, and then we’d edit it down to 27 minutes.
That’s quite an achievement.
Yea, and it’s tough! Because it’s not just like a comedy show where it’s “Okay round two, and now it’s the quotes round”, you can’t just lift a chunk out, you’ve got to weave in all these things, you might have a neuroscientist sitting in talking about that, and he’ll get to a joke but you’ll need so many elements to get up to that joke.
That’d be a nightmare!
It is a nightmare, and once your done the relief… it’s like tantric sex. Not that I’ve had it, but I’d imagine it’s like that, you put in the hard work and then you finish the edit and it’s just like a creative orgasm now that it’s done, because it really is difficult, we fight like crazy, which I image during tantric sex there’s a lot of fighting too, because there’s a lot of time of doing noting. Sting and Trudy must have a lot of moments where they’re just going “Did you remember to take those DVDs back? No. But they’re due today! Well we’re locked in!”
I will have to contact them to verify this for the article…
Just to make sure its accurate, yea. Or just put it on Wikipedia, get someone to quote it and that becomes fact. I like that that’s how things become fact. That’s a great method. But yea, so I do edit it, and its horendous, but its worth it. Then the other thing is you’ve got to make sure that you’re not taking the piss out of the person that you have on.
Which can be hard to do I imagine with professors who are experts in Pineapples.
Well if they bring it on themselves then it’s fine, but we’re not a show that’s …[bird flies past] wow look at that lad! His positioning was just looking awesome a second ago. It was just like a background shot.
This is going to sound really weird in the recording.
Oh yea, “look at that lad on the roof! Aw he’s gone” [laughs] But yea, if they bring it on themselves then it’s fine, but we’re not a show that’s trying to be in any way controversial, we just bring in people we like and say what would you like to bring on?
So you’re not the Russel Brand of information?
[snigering] No, definately not, no. I think that’s why people like our show, we gurantee that it’s not going to be that. I think a lot of people come onto our show going “Oh fuck there’s going to be a live audience are they going to like me and I’m going to be sitting next to this big comedian!” and you go “the thing is, they’ve shown up because they want to hear you! They can hear Tim Minchin anywhere.”
Tim’s great though, that was a great show. We had him on with Clive James and Philip Paulman who wrote the Northen Light Series, along with Sean Lock and John Lloyd. That was my Aussie show.
Tim would be an interesting pick, because he’s known for his music, but he’s got a great philosophical mind as well.
He was amazing. We spent hours on the phone trying to work out what he would put in, because he kept coming up with ideas and they kept faultering.
So they actually pick their item? It’s not just a comedian with a free hour reading a script?
No, no they all take it seriously! I think in England moreso, particularly with the BBC thing, they want to take it seriously when they know the calibre of people who come onto the show.
It’s we’re almost in the early days of very slightly turning into, there’s a show in England called Desert Island discs, which is a show that’s been going for 40 years, and they get on a popular personality and they say “If you could take six songs to a desert island what would they be”, so they do a biography with them and they punctuate the whole show with these song choices, and then at the end they say “okay you could bring one book other than the bible with you, and you can bring one guilty um… pleasure item… but they word it differently.”
Well I think I’ve now gone through all the questions I had to ask.
Have I answered any?
[Break to get more booze]
WHERE IS SANDMAN!?!
[Laughs] Where is he though, he was so good! He could have been like Barry Humphries, he looks like Barry Humpries come to think of it. Steve Abbot’s his name. He wrote this book with Mikey Robbins and a guy called Toby Squires, it’s called big man’s world. Bit of a weird book, its basically about what happens to men, and every article is clearly penned by a different author, but it doesn’t tell you who’s writing it? So it’s just like “when I do this” but your going “But who…? There’s three of you?” it’s a very lazy book. The whole introduction talks about them not wanting to write it. Them getting together and trying to write it. [Sarcastically] Maybe they ruined the whole Aussie comic thing?
Everyone just read it and went “Never again!”
Yea, “That’s that whole industry done.” It’s a shame it’s such a good industry here!
I did have a question I wanted to ask you along this vein…
Is it to do with Sandman?
Do you know where he is?
You’ve known all along?
Uh…. no? It was actually about Barry Humphries, because there seems to be this reocurring theme in my research of you where Barry Humphries keeps cropping up. For example there’s a picture floating around out there of you and Barry Humphries way back in 1994.
Fuck! Where’d you find that!? Jesus? I didn’t even know that was online!
It was somewhere on the internet.
Amazing! Wow… Yea, I’m obsessed with Barry Humphries, I say him live in Hong Kong when I was a kid, and we got to go backstage to meet him afterwards because my best friend’s parents met him when he was on holiday, and he invited them along. It was just the most mindblowingly awesome show, I remember nothing about it, I just remember that I loved it. And afterwards, I do remember someone knocked on his door to let him know that we were out there, and I just heard Barries voice go “SHUT THE FUCKING DOOR!” and then they go “There’s kids outside!” and we hear [gasp] and the door shuts and opens and there’s Dame Edna going “Hello possums!”
We had a photo with her, there that was probably the one you saw, but I’ve met him a few times since then. He did QI.
That was a later series, so were you still working on it then?
That was the series I came back for, and I was main script editor for it.
Did he work alright with the QI format?
No, those guys don’t. He’s a storyteller, there’s no space for storytellers on pannel shows.
Similar to his interview on Rove then, where Rove had said to his face during an interview that he expected Joaquin Pheonix to appear before him at any moment?
Really? Yea, because if you put him on Parkinson he’s in a safe room, because Parkinson’s not trying to… the problem with modern day interviewers is that they want the one-up on the guest, they’re not happy to sit back and let the story come out. With people like Barry, he doesn’t want to do that. For Barry that story is his comedy, so he’ll be starting a story about say Taronga Zoo, and suddenly Rove will be chiming in with “You know the thing about Taronga Zoo?” And Barry would be going “Why are you? Just let me tell my Taronga Zoo story?”
Exactly, he doesn’t suit the modern kind of interview. It’s the same thing with QI, so he’d try and say anything and suddenly Alan Davis will be like “Oh! I’ve been to Taronga! They had this…” and it’s tough. But then if he’s left to his own devices then he’s amazing.
So was he what led you into comedy?
It’s a weird one because I’ve always liked performing, I guess most kids do, but it doesn’t nessecarily transpire into being the thing that you do in life. I must have liked Charlie Chaplin because I was looking back at some photographs from halloween when I was a kid, and I was eight and dressed as Charlie Chaplin… but I never would have seen a movie of Charlie Chaplin back then or anything like that. But Barry Humphries, maybe because he was Australian and I’d met him and seen him, that was really cool and he was probably the biggest one [influence?]. I think there were a few moments that led me into comedy. The big one, the big one as a child was I used to watch M*A*S*H nonstop. I used to sit and record all the episodes on one of those old school tape recorders and listen to it on the bus. Alan Alda was my hero, my absolute hero. I got to meet him at a book signing. I really want to get him on Museum if he’s ever in town. But when I met him, I lost all interest in being cool or anything about it. I shook his hand, and I think it was literally the most sincere thing I’ve ever said in my life, I just went, “I just want to let you know that I work in Comedy, and basically everything that has happened with my life, in terms of even my attitude towards life, is down to you and MASH” and he did this weird thing where he shook my hand, but he looked deadly serious, and went “thankyou” and it was this odd really nice moment. It was increadible, and it was a really nice moment.
Then I got here, and I got here and I think it was Spike Milligan that really just threw me into a new world. The Goon Show. And the Marx brothers as well, I used to watch that. I was the weird kid at school who used to walk in having read and watched every Marx Brothers movie, and every Chaplin movie, all the black and white stuff from America back in the day. Woody Allen. Not at 13, but maybe around 15.
Wow, so you really had the comedy pedigree, and that’s a pretty sizeable lineup for a 15 year old to have worked through.
I got into it, I don’t know why but it just appealed to me so much. And no one else liked it? I had no one to talk to about it. The Big One, the one that absolutely changed my life was the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. It just threw me.
And you’d be working with people from that now, wouldn’t you?
Yea, a lot of people, but I never got to meet Douglas Adams. I remember finding out about him dying at school and it was just heartbreaking, because he was the person who took the universe and made it interesting. I think I became interested in science and in the world because of that book. It took these huge concepts and philosophies and bits of science and broke them down into silly jokes. I still read it, that would be the book that I take to that Desert Island. That and Roy and HG’s the Dream.
End of Part One. Good Lord.