How would you describe your comedy?
Erm... Badly, probably. That's one of those questions I'm always terrible at answering, like "What's your fee?" I get bored easily, so I've changed what I do a bit over the years, from observational to sketch comedy to lecture-style shows. These days I mainly pretend to be a louche, grumpy Frenchman for cash (fee varies).
Why did you start performing stand-up? Where did you bite the bullet and how did it go?
I've been a massive comedy fan all my life, and became part of a sketch troupe in my first year at the University of Warwick, where I was studying psychology and philosophy. We were called Ubersausage and ended up doing three Edinburgh Fringe shows, with a fair amount of success for a student group. My first ever stand-up gig was in 2001, doing 5 minutes for the now-defunct Daily Telegraph Open Mic Award, and my heat happened to be at Warwick Students' Union. I paced about with increasingly loosened bowels for about a month before, packed the place with mates, and the whole thing was a bit of a blur, but what a rush! Tom Price (also ex-Ubersausage) and I basically goaded each other into doing it, and are still going strong a decade on. My first ever gag was a kind of visual one-liner, holding up a Sooty puppet, staring at it for ages, and then saying "it's the quiet ones you've got to watch." Pretty ropey stuff, and I didn't get any further in that competition, although I did reach the semi's the year after, Sooty joke included.
Did you watch live comedy regularly before? Did you do a comedy course?
I'd only properly got into live comedy from my first year at uni, when we had the likes of Daniel Kitson, Dan Antopolski, Adam Bloom, Rob Rouse and the Mighty Boosh come and play, all of whom were hugely influential. The highlight for me was when I got to review Stewart Lee, a legendary figure in my life from the days of Fist Of Fun, whose set blew me away. Years later when I started up a comedy night in London (Falling Down With Laughter) I got Stew to come and play our little club, and old school friends rocked up, clutching Fist Of Fun annuals. We used to record the Radio 1 shows and play them during lunch breaks in sixth form, so it was a fairly surreal but amazing experience.
I did do a comedy course - Logan Murray's first ever Amused Moose one, in fact. A handful of us had done a few gigs here and there beforehand, while others were completely new to it all and mildly terrified. Logan was terrific at getting the best out of us, and there are undoubtedly a few little techniques of his I'll subconsciously employ today. I'd just moved to London with my best mate and fellow comic Sy Thomas, and we decided to give it a go, as a little stepping stone onto the London circuit. Other guinea pigs on that same course with us were Rhod Gilbert, Greg Davies and Steve Hall, who I believe are all still plodding around the open mic circuit...
How hard were the first few years? What kept you going? What were your weaknesses? How did you improve them?
I think the nerves went after the first 30 or so gigs, and I didn't properly hit the circuit until 2003. What kept me going was the excitement of being in London, and being constantly inspired by other performers. Comedy had been my passion for a long time and here I was in London at the age of 24 trying to make a go of it, with a mate I'd known all my life (Sy and I moved into a ridiculously underpriced London Bridge apartment, where I then stayed for 8 years). I'd never had a 'proper' job and had no intention of getting one - the closest I'd come was a sabbatical job at Warwick Students' Union for the year after my degree. We kept ourselves afloat by doing various part-time jobs, including hosting boozy student gigs for Bacardi and Aftershock and doing a number of increasingly insane jobs for the wonderful Ministry Of Fun. However, there came a point 2 or 3 years in where this still provided the bulk of my income, and I felt my stand-up was falling short of the standard I felt it should be at this stage. A mate texted me saying, "I saw someone dressed as a giant bollock at Charing Cross station. Was it you?" and felt I should probably start to up my game a bit.
Sadly, I think as time went on I actually started to take less and less risks with my comedy and instead tried to write something with a wider appeal, in an attempt to get more paid work. However, I'd started doing a bit of children's TV for Nickelodeon, which meant I had to give up the late-night gigging for a while. Recalling a conversation I'd had with Josie Long about writing comedy for yourself rather than what you think people want to hear, I decided to take some time off to do just that. I handed the Nickelodeon job over to Sy and took off on the gap half-year I'd never had, taking a 6-month break to South America, largely funded by designing other comics' Edinburgh Fringe posters while out there and posting them back from various internet cafés (I'd done a graphic design diploma after uni in case the comedy went tits-up). To be honest, I barely thought about comedy at all for those 6 months, and it felt good to just clear my mind of all the London baggage in there, including all the neuroses about my own material and the 'comedy voice' that I felt I still hadn't really found.
I returned with a renewed vigour, and convinced that I was at the point of no return with comedy, which was exciting. The time out had done me the world of good. I decided to knuckle down, really make a go of it, and start writing comedy that I wanted to hear. I gigged my arse off and started to get more and more paid work, while supplementing that income with photography work, a hobby of mine that I then developed as a proper skill while out in South America (I mainly did promo shots for comedians and other performers, and still do from time to time).
Who are your heroes? Who still influences what you do? Do any other things (music/film/writers etc...) have an effect on your comedy?
Those acts who have followed their own path and retained absolute integrity - Simon Munnery, Stewart Lee, Daniel Kitson, Robin Ince, Tim Key, to name just a few. I do have a love and fascination for leftfield comedy, and watching someone like Paul Foot, Tony Law, Ed Aczel or Dan Skinner as Angelos Epithemiou taking the roof off a gig (or baffle half a room and have the others crying with laughter) is an absolute joy. I love watching something and allowing your mind to let go, completely unsure of what's coming next, so I also find writers like Charlie Kaufman or Kurt Vonnegut hugely influential. That said, a brilliantly-crafted gag gets me every time, so I'll never tire of seeing Paul Sinha, Carey Marx, Nick Doody, Sean Lock, Milton Jones, Andy Zaltzman or Justin Edwards.
In terms of earlier influences, I'd say Monty Python, Reeves and Mortimer, Chris Morris and Steve Coogan, plus anything Armando Iannucci or Peter Baynham have put their name to.
How did Marcel come about? Did you try other personas first?
Marcel began life at my comedy night, The Falling Down With Laughter Experiment. The ethos was no straight stand-up, just characters, sketch acts and experimental stuff. I wanted to experiment with having a low-energy compere who simply didn't want to be there. So on went the roll-neck which I owned for some reason but never wore, and on went a blue suit I'd had since I was 17. French seemed the natural accent / demeanour of choice and so Marcel was born. He only gained a surname when I started to do him at other clubs. I'd done other characters in sketch shows but none that I felt I could take onto the stand-up scene.
Who were Marcel's influences?
I wanted him to be a Gainsbourg-type character, which seems quite obvious I suppose, but what a fascinating character he was. It still amazes me that nobody had done a similar act on the comedy circuit. The closest was John Hopkins' Fabrice character, which he used to do with Priorité A Gauche at the Edinburgh Fringe, one of my absolute favourite acts. As I started writing my first full-length Marcel show I did a bit of research into Gainsbourg. I'd already written an episode for a fake memoir, and there turned out to be some remarkable similarities between Marcel and Serge. I'll always try and get some literary or philosophical references into the Marcel shows, so Voltaire, Camus and Sartre have been name checked in the past. At least I get to feel I'm making vague use of my degree.
At what point did you realise "Right - I'm the French guy now! This is what I'm doing most nights of the week?"
When I started to enjoy it more. Our experimental night was beginning to outsell our regular stand-up night at Falling Down With Laughter, which kind of mirrored my affection for doing something a little different myself. As a promoter you begin to look at your own act more objectively, and if I asked myself who I'd rather book, me or Marcel, I think I was starting to favour the Frenchman. That wasn't the case with every promoter. Effectively I'’d be turning up to a show saying "do you mind if I do something totally different to what you originally booked me for?" Some took more persuasion than others to replace a high-energy Englishman with a low-energy Frenchman, and fair enough. That just gave me even more motivation to give a shit-hot performance as Marcel. And, in fact, I'd gone back over some old notes and revived a few gags that were too abrasive or cutting coming out of my mouth as myself, but put them in Marcel's and they flew!
You always strike me as quite a sunny, lovely person offstage or when you are yourself onstage... whereas Marcel is... a bit of bastard? Is he an outlet for the real Alexis? Would you get along with him?
Haha…cheers. I am quite a positive person, but I do have an affinity for cynics and people unafraid to tell it like it is. It can definitely be cathartic doing Marcel, especially at the rowdier shows. I can get away with so much more. And in fact Marcel often works best at late-night drunken gigs, when I can really let individuals know what I think of them, while hiding behind a mask. It's an utter joy to get an entire crowd behind me against one dickhead, especially a crowd whose nation I've been slagging off for the past 15 minutes. It says a lot for the British love-hate relationship with the French...
How important is the Edinburgh Festival to you?
It's been very very good to me, Edinburgh. Not financially, obviously, but I love having that focal point in a year to work towards, a culmination of a year's work where you get to show it off to anyone who'll watch. Some of my fondest memories are from the Edinburgh Fringe - I've been doing shows there since 1998. I still find it incredibly exciting, and through Edinburgh I've found myself performing all over the world. My favourite festival is still New Zealand Comedy Festival in May, where as an international act you're made to feel like a king. Then it's back to England for June and July, where that regal status is diminished somewhat, fumbling through bits of paper at Edinburgh previews before you hot the big one in August. It's incredibly intense as an experience, but as long as I've booked some time off then the Fringe acts as a wonderfully tough and stimulating comedy workout. For the first time this year I counted how many shows I did during that month - 82!
If you don't come out of that month a better comic, you're doing it wrong.
Your straight stand-up takes the form of a cheeky lecture on a risque subject - nudity, swearing. Do you have a love of research?
Absolutely. I'm as much of a geek as most other comics, and have always had a fascination with words. The Swearing and Nudity shows both took a good 9 months to research, and I loved imparting bizarre facts while getting laughs. I'd like to try and turn those shows into books. I keep the Marcel shows and Alexis shows as distinct as possible, as though they're done by two separate performers. Occasionally I'll promote a Marcel show at an Alexis show, but never vice-versa. I like people to leave a Marcel show believing they've just seen a Frenchman doing comedy, rather than a character act. My mate Bob overheard a couple picking up a Marcel flyer after my show last year and saying, "Ooh, he's back again. He was great last year wasn't he?" So they'd just sat through an entire show of mine, and presumably seen the previous year's Marcel show, and still had no idea it was the same person. It makes the whole Superman / Clark Kent thing seem all the more plausible.
What's your writing process? How do you process new material?
I wish I had one. Most of my ideas still occur when I'm meant to be doing something else. I think I've got better at realising when my brain's fully geared up for writing, so I'll make sure I sit myself down and get that done. On off days I realise there's no point in trying to get blood from a stone, so get other stuff done in my life that doesn't require my brain to be funny.
Was there ever a subject you wanted to do an hour about which you just couldn't find enough funny about?
Not yet. You'll know from the reviews when that day comes...
Any unfulfilled ambitions? Are you already tempted to jettison all your material and "house-styles" and start a fresh? Any new characters bubbling who might usurp Monsieur Lucont?
I'm actually not that ambitious, I don't have a grand plan, I'm just very happy to be making a living from what I love. I've got various stupid ideas planned, some of which may come off. I would like to introduce some more characters at some point, or resurrect my old sketch troupe Cat Of The Week in some form, but I'd like to see how far I can push Marcel. I'm hoping Adam Riches' Edinburgh Award win might get character comedy into the public eye a bit more. I still get the impression we're seen by many promoters as the 'novelty act,' whereas a great character act can elicit just as much of a response as a stand-up, just look at Wilson Dixon, Jeremy Lion and Lee Nelson. It's a real shame Ealing Live never went to TV, we're really lacking a Saturday Night Live style show to showcase the talents of our sketch and character acts.
Any great bits of advice for readers?
As I say, just to discover the importance of being true to yourself when writing. Don't just try and trigger a response from an audience, anyone can do that. What's your unique take on the world that will fire peoples' imaginations? Find that unique spark, without disappearing up your own arse or taking yourself too seriously, and hopefully you're onto a winner.
You used to run a lovely busy gig near London Bridge? Did you enjoy promoting or was it a means to an ends?
I loved that club, and Sy and I ran it for 6 years, but it just took up too much of my time and, coupled with some truly inept management at the venue, became more trouble than it was worth. I'm not saying it won't rise from the ashes again though - I'm extremely proud of the nights we put on there.
They were awesome. I always enjoyed being an audience member there. Do you miss it? It was a shame it closed but it seems you have outgrown the need to create stagetime for yourself?
Yeah, that's obviously how it started back in the day, to get more stage time, but later on I saw it as a way to champion the best new alternative comedy. Two Episodes Of MASH did their first gig there, Pappy's were regulars from the start, as was Russell Brand, and Dan used to try a load of Angelos Epithemiou ideas out to a wonderfully receptive crowd. The more I talk about it, the more I miss it, selectively forgetting the amount of admin that went into it all...
Any deaths / horror stories?
Absolutely. Someone once said to me that, with his aloof Gallic attitude, Marcel can technically never die. That's definitely not the case, I can assure you. It was at Up The Creek (as many great comedy death stories begin...) in 2009. After a ridiculously delightful Friday night show, where I felt I could have been carried out of the room on a wave of comedy joy, Saturday was an altogether different beast. I arrived in the first interval, and Dan Atkinson, who was compering, warned me they'd been a little 'excitable' as a crowd. What I found out later, though, was that the cause of this excitement to two massive groups of men was that of England thrashing France in the rugby that day. They took up most of the back section, and had been drinking all day. Cue volatile atmosphere. Cue Dan doing his best verbal firefighting job.
Cue Dan introducing a 'Frenchman' to the stage...
Cue the toughest gig of my career to date.
A comic can be as witty as they like, but even with the mic at full volume they will always fail to be heard over a barrage of abuse and rugby chants. Looking back, I'm kind of impressed that I still did my 20 minutes (the headliner had to ditch the gig as unplayable halfway through his set), and didn't break character once. I recorded both gigs, and still have them on file, one labelled 'BON,' the other 'MAL.' If nothing else, it serves as a reminder that as a comic we can never truly rest on our laurels, even in the same club on the same weekend.
Being Up The Creek, you have to walk through the crowd to get off the stage, whereby one of the gang squared up to me, and in a forceful cockney accent, announced in my face, "THAT WAS THE MOST UNFUNNIEST THING I'VE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE, YOU CUNT."
Malcolm would have loved it.
Any dates or productions you want to pimp out shamelessly?
Of course! Well, the book's out. Having wanted to turn the Swearing show into a book for some time, Marcel beat me to it, and got a publishing deal. "What We French Think Of You British... And Where You Are Going Wrong" is out now (New Holland Publishers), and I'm pretty proud of it. I'm also doing the final performance of my 2010 Marcel show, 'Encore,' at Manchester Comedy Festival on Oct 18th and 19th then Brighton Comedy Festival on October 21st.
Plus you can see me doing weirder stuff at the wonderful Alternative Comedy Memorial Society, fortnightly on Tuesdays at the New Red Lion Theatre, Islington.
And you are headling my gig The Decapitated Puppy at The Intrepid Fox on Wednesday October 12th. Merci, Marcel.
Alexis Dubus - Comedy Hero! We Salute you!