From writing for Mock The Week and 8 Out Of 10 Cats to appearing on Live at The Apollo, Gary Delaney has secured his place as one of the great British comics. He joined us at NMP Live to share how he swapped economics for comedy, his stand up origin story involving Martin Lewis, the Money Saving Expert plus, what it's like writing for other comedy giants.
Watch the full interview or read the transcript below.
In conversation with Gary Delaney
What was your big break?
I wanted to be a bond trader or a currency trader and that was why I did my degree in economics. My plan was to go to the city and at the time I'd finished university, I’d pretty much given up on that, I’d got bored of the idea, but I'm still really interested in all that stuff. On the way down today, I stopped and had a look to see how the FTSE was today, how the FT 250 was, what was happening with pound, dollar, cable. I find that sort of stuff really interesting; a very unusual area of interest for comics but I’m well into all that sort of stuff.
Nowadays, it's a hobby but that was always my plan to go to the city and then I changed my mind on that, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I organised conferences for years as pretty much a default. It wasn't my dream, it's just what I ended up doing and then I jacked that in a week before my 30th birthday because I started getting paid for stand up and I was like ‘oh hang on, I'll do that’, plus at thirty, it’s the right time to decide so that was my decision.
Then I spent years being broke and then finally started climbing up the tree and getting headline spots, then getting TV spots and finally started making some money.
How was Martin Lewis, the Money Saving Expert involved in your stand-up career?
Well Martin disputes this; we have different versions of the story and I will tell mine.
So, we were both at LSE together, early nineties, and then we were sabbatical officers working for the Student Union for a year doing all that sort of stuff. I organised all the entertainments, he was called the general secretary although he used to refer to himself as president, so I knew him from then.
And Martin dabbled in stand-up in the mid-90s and I was very interested in stand-up. I first went to see it when I was at university and I was like ‘oh I like this’ but I never had the nerve frankly to do it or enough drive to get over that inertia and that initial fear to actually give it a go. I went to comedy a lot and was very interested in it and was trying to make people laugh/ being annoying however you care to refer to that.
Martin dabbled in stand-up, he was doing a bit of financial journalism at the time, it was before he launched all that all the money saving stuff. He's a tremendously confident man, a very good performer, he never had any sort of issues on that side, but I helped him write the stuff because I was always the funny one, the annoying one however you care to see it.
So, we’d work on this stuff and I’d say hey how about this joke, how about that joke and I'd go along to his gigs and vicariously enjoy the fact that people were laughing at my work. That took us up to about ’95, ’96, something like that and then Martin was jacking it in, winding it down as he started to get really serious about the money stuff.
So, we were at a gig at a comedy club called The Buccaneer on Tottenham Court Road and we were having a drink afterwards with a guy called Andy Lord who ran the club, it was a pub called The Hope boy, if I remember rightly. We were hanging around for drink after and a chat and basically Martin was jacking it in so, I was like ‘well how am I going to get my get my jollies, how am I going to get my fill of this.’
I'd written him this joke and it was a joke about nurses and it was quite rude so I won't say here because it wouldn't be the time or the place, but nonetheless I wrote him this joke and I was like ‘Martin do that, that is the best joke I’ve written, I'll bring the house down.’ And he did it a couple of times and he said ‘no, it's not as good as you think that joke.’ I said, ‘well try it like this, you should be doing it like this,’ and he said, ‘if that’s how it should be done, you do it.’ It’s the obvious answer and he was right. He wasn't being mean; he was trying to give me the kick up the bum that I needed frankly.
So, all this was going on and then we were having this discussion after a gig and basically Martin bet me that I wouldn't have the nerve to do a gig myself and I said 20 quid, ‘I will, I will.’ So, I drunkenly agreed, and I thought what I'll do I'll write a set, the closing joke will be the nurse joke and I'll prove how good it is, I'll do it myself, it'll get a big laugh. I wrote a set and I did it and people laughed, and the first time I stood on a stage and people laughed, that is an amazing feeling, that is a life-changing moment. Oh, wow boom that's what it feels like have a roomful of people laugh at your stuff.
So that's how I would tell my origin story, Martin disagrees on one bit. We recently met up last year sometime, ITV were doing some documentary thing about him. He came along to a gig and we had a bit of a chat in the dressing room with the cameras and I told some of my story on that and Martin said, ‘that's not what happened’, Martin disagrees. Now I’ll tell you exactly my story and I genuinely maintain this is true, I never got the £20 because Martin set a six-week limit on it and it took me seven weeks to get a gig, so I never got the £20.
That's how I tell the story, Martin disagrees on all of those details. It's only fair that I say this, Martin says that he was jacking it up, I wanted to give it a go and he says it was just a case of ‘come on you got to do this yourself, why are you messing about, come on you need to do this.’ And that was undoubtedly what was going on underlying, maybe the rest is lost in the mists of time or maybe it's how I remember a drunken conversation and he remembers it differently. But he remembers no bet, whereas I remember he didn't pay, so one of us is wrong and we were both young and we were both drunk and it was a long time ago.
I have to say, in Martin's defence, something you will observe with a lot of comics is that they can have a little bit of a slight grip on the truth, in that as you tell a story many, many times it becomes embellished and you can forget what originally happened.
A lot of comedy is, even though I'm not a storyteller, still you have your stock of stories and your dressing-room stories and the like and every time you tell it they usually get a little bit better, a little bit longer, a little bit… so it's possible I have embellished that story so much I have forgotten what actually happened.
Or Martin's wrong. Decide whether you trust the man who does d**k jokes for a living or the one who gives financial advice to millions. Up to you, I'd say.
Which comedians and TV shows have you written for?
I'll tell you about all the ones where I've written as an agreed writing credit rather than as a very quiet, don't mention it writing credit which is sometimes the case.
I've written for 8 Out of 10 Cats. I used to, as an official staff writer, a lot of power shows have unofficial writers; generally, if a comic goes on a panel show, because you need a huge amount of topical material, they will have other comics and people writing for them. I said when I eventually got on Mock (the Week), I'd been writing for it for a lot longer, so I was pretty good at prepping that. But I'd still, even though I was quite a prolific writer by most standards, I'd still get a couple of mates in to help me because of the volume and material that you need on a programme like that.
I'd been doing that for years unofficially helping mates out on programmes, some more official. So, yes 8 Out of 10 Cats I worked on for years. I used to do a bit of the sporty one, that's terrible isn't it, what's that one, that’s awful, please if anyone's watching, I really enjoyed working on your programme, sorry. I'm not a terribly sporty man. I used to have to bluff the sporty bits, but it doesn't matter, you say ‘here’s the details on this footballer,’ ‘what's he known for,’ ‘the dogging scandal’, ‘right, the jokes about the dogging scandal, you don't need the rest.’ I don't need to know that he started at Northampton and converted from a midfielder to a left back, not relevant.
I worked on that and I did loads of stuff for Jason Manford over the years. I used to do a bit of stuff for him on Cats when he was one of the team captains on that and then when he got his own series on ITV, a lot of stuff for him on there. Quite a few people I've helped out with their tour shows although most of those probably wouldn't want me talking about that and all manner of odds and ends.
I've worked on a couple of film scripts, where people have got a film script and gone this isn't funny enough, we want somebody to go through and add jokes to this, I've done a bit of that. Most of those film scripts never end up seeing the light of day but I don't mind I'll make them funny before you eventually delete the thing.
I used to do a lot of writing for people, usually two or three days a week. I don't do so much; in fact, I do next to nothing of it now because I need all the material myself because I'm doing my own tours, but it was frankly the first dozen years of my career. I made more money writing than as a stand-up.
How did you develop your style of comedy?
You listen to your audience. They will tell you who you are.
When you start off, you will try lots of different styles of comedy. I tried some longer bits, I tried a little bit of observational, I used to link the jokes together and then when I had a bit distance from it, I looked back, I saw that it was all crap apart from the one-liners. So, I was like, well I'll do that, that's what I'm good at.
When you start off, you will have an idea of who you want to be as a comic, you're probably wrong. You'll start off and you'll want to be like your heroes, and I wanted to be wacky; turns out I'm not wacky. I tried a couple of things, I really liked some of the more out there Simon Munnery stuff, this and the other, it's not me. When I tried those things, audiences didn't laugh. When I tried to do more observational bits or longer bits or link bits together, audiences didn't laugh.
When I did one-liners, audiences laughed.
I think we have a tendency to overstate things like the character and the persona and whatnot of a performer because I don't think they're the performers to choose. The performer tries different things; in all areas of human life I’m a massive believer in trial and error. Trial and error is where nearly all human progress comes from frankly, and in comedy trial and error is relatively risk-free; you try something, it doesn't work, you don't do it again.
If you engage in a process of trial and error and you listen to your audience, your audience will tell you what sort of a comic you are. It is not for you to make that decision. It's kind of arrogant of you to make that decision, your audience will tell you and the audience told me I was good at one-liners and they were right.
I always had a love of one-liners, I'm really interested in the mechanics of it, how they work, why they work, tinkering in the engine. I loved far-out comics, but I also really loved Emo Philips, Mitch Hedberg, Steven Wright, Max Miller and Henny Youngman, those sorts of guys. It's like well ‘how can I make that work.’
What’s the biggest challenge to corporate bookings?
The challenge is that it's a challenge. After 20 years you get to know what you’re good at. When you start as a comic, you do the hardest gigs that you'll ever do and when you reach the stage where some people know who you are, you've got an audience, you’ve got Twitter followers, you've got a mailing list, you've been on a bit of telly, people come and see you, people like you, all that sort of stuff.
When I do a tour show, like I'm doing one tonight, when I do that I'll walk out, everybody in that audience is there to see me. They know I do one-liners; they know some of them are a bit rude, they know what to expect and they've already decided that they like me, that's why they're there. So, I walk out, and I've already won, frankly, you'd have to really mess up to do badly at your own tour show because they are absolutely self-selected to be the perfect market for your show. They are the easiest shows that you ever do, the ones that come later in your career.
A corporate is the exact opposite. They are not necessarily there for the comedy, they're primarily there for the AGM or whatever the event is, and they may know there's a comedy element, but they are not your audience, there for your show and you're not the centrepiece. You're an adjunct, you are something to lighten, you know this is a two-day event and you're a bit of a bit of lightness in the meal to break it up or you're something to come on after the MD’s done his keynote speech. Whatever it is, you're an ingredient and they're not all your fans. Some will be, there's lots of people there who won't be or won't have heard of you or whatever, they're just there for the free booze or they're just there because they have to be, or their boss said or whatever it is.
So, they're harder work and you've got to put in extra work to win them over. But that's good, it's a challenge sometimes, it's a good feeling to do well at that gig because some of the challenges start to run out after a while, frankly. Your own show, it's easy, I'm tempting fate now, tonight everything will go horribly wrong and this would be my epitaph, but it's nice to have a challenge.
Sometimes it's nice to use it a little bit of my background knowledge about these things. I like to chat to the client before the day and find out what they want and what they don't want. In particular I find on these things what usually works the best or is certainly necessary at the top is some jokes about them to show that you know who they are and what they're there for and that you're not just doing the same spiel you do night after night.
What’s the ideal length for an after-dinner comedy set?
It's certainly not the case with one-liners that the longer you do the more you're getting. With one-liners, less is more and when I was a younger comic, I was perhaps less circumspect of my words than I am now. Sometimes when I had a good 20 but not really longer than that, a club would call me up and say ‘hey you did really well doing your 20 last time, we want you to close and that's a 30 or 40 could you do a 30 or 40?,’ and I used to say, ‘I could if I worked a lot less hard at my jokes.’
It is a really arrogant thing to say but one-liners are all about brevity, a good one-liner takes 12 seconds, that's five jokes per minute, that's the normal sort of thing and that hopefully is like seven or eight seconds to say it. You can say a joke really, really, really, really quickly, I’ll try to think of some short jokes, what's my shortest jokes that I've ever used. ‘I bought a chameleon, lost it.’ Five words right, that's all, you don't need any more on that idea.
You're chucking them out, so you don't want to do too many. For me, given the choice, I would always do a 20-minute set. It's not always my choice, if people want different things then fair enough, ultimately, it's their event and they're paying the bill. If I'm in charge, I would always say 20 minutes because that is enough to get you going, give you the chance to do some different stuff but you get off before it starts to tail off a little bit.
You can do 25 or 30, especially if you're starting off with a bit about them; sometimes at a corporate a lot of corporates have all sorts of screens and PowerPoint behind me for presenting awards. You can use all that gear and I always have a visual element in my tour shows for longer shows where I'll bring in some funny PowerPoint and this, that and the other. So, I can use that gear, I can bring in different flavours and do other stuff to hold their attention and stuff.
But in an ideal world, 20 minutes, that's 100 one-liners, bang off you go.
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