The journey of a comedian from open mics above pubs in north London to headlining the Apollo is a fascinating one for us at Laugh Out London. Just how does someone deal with the pressure and popularity and the while maintaining an integrity that made them a great act in the first place?
That is the theme of Death of a Comedian, a new play that has just started at the Soho Theatre. Written by Owen McCafferty and directed by Soho’s artistic director Steve Marmion the show charts the rise of Steve Johnston from Ramones t-shirt wearing rookie, with a penchant for swear words and disregard for hierarchy, into a crowd favourite complete with smart shirt, radio mic and plenty of jokes about relationships, observing things and ducks.
We spoke to Brian Doherty, who plays Johnston, to discuss the poisoned chalice of popularity.
How would you describe the show?
I play a wannabe be stand up comedian who at the start of the play is performing in a small club and the material he is doing is kind of rough and ready and in your face, and quite political to an extent.
After the gig the character is unhappy with how it went, as I suppose most comedians quite often are – they are never fully satisfied. But then an agent comes in, and he sees a certain energy – a potential in this main character. And as the play develops you see how that the relationship between him and the agent evolves and how that affects his relationship with his girlfriend and the direction of his comedy goes in order to be more successful.
How did you get involved in the play?
I’m not a stand-up – I have an acting background. I’ve also previously worked with Steve who directed it, and we’ve said before we wanted to do something together and then this came up.
The way Owen writes, there is only one punctuation mark and that is the dash. There is no explanation of anything else – no exclamation mark, no full stop. You are decoding as you go along. That gives you a great freedom for your to interpret in the way that makes sense to you.
There are very few plays that have done stand-up comedy. It’s not often you get the opportunity to do something as equally scary and exciting.
How did you find the experience of performing stand-up in a play?
You do have to reassure yourself that this is a play and not think that my career is dependent on these stand up gigs going well. But there are also moments where you are performing and if it is going particularly well and people are reacting, in particular to the earlier routines… there are moments when you think oh great, I am a stand up comedian. But I’m not – I’m not writing the stuff.
It’s an interesting thing and I’ve got more used to it now. There is definitely a rhythm and understanding. It’s an interesting one for an audience to watch as well; they become the audience in the stand up. They are playing a role in the show and then they are also observing how those stand up routines are going. So it has that dichotomy for an audience; you are part of it but you are separate from it as well. That sets up a tension. and people become quite uncomfortable with that as well. They don’t quite feel right about what they should be doing at any moment.Are they watching it? Are they in it? Are they seeing how other people are reacting?
The show must be very dependent on the audience…
We had two previews at the Soho Theatre. In the first one the audience was very vociferous and big laughers from the get go. And the second one, they were much much quieter. It’s the same show but it was like two completely different shows. As anyone who does stand up must experience, there are times when people are just not going for it. But we are on safer ground as it is a play and sometimes people just want to watch and listen. It doesn’t mean they are not getting anything from it.
Are you a fan of stand up?
I don’t attend shows on a regular basis – if i’m in there i’m usually working – but I am a fan. In preparation for this show I went to see quite a lot at the Soho actually, like Stewart Lee.
What experience do you think comedians will have watching the show?
We’ve had stand-ups see it in Dublin who really really loved it. I think for a lot of comics it will be quite fascinating: “do I know people who have had similar experience?” Or “is there anything about me?” The shows is not about a specific person. The same play could be written about a lot of other things that deal with the compromises we make to achieve a certain level of success..
The show ran in Ireland to much acclaim. Are you excited for the Soho run?
It feels like we are coming home now. The show looks really well in there – the space is right for it. The Soho has got a very sophisticated audience who know their comedy, who know that world. It feels like this is where the play belongs ultimately.