Our exclusive interviewee this month, Hal Cruttenden, is renown as one of the hardest-working comedians on the comedy circuit, so finding time to catch up with him was a hard task in itself. Having finally collared him, Hal talks candidly about the secret to writing great comedy, tailoring his material for international audiences and how to give the best performance at a corporate show. Watch the full interview or read the transcript below.
In conversation with Hal Cruttenden
When did you discover your interest in comedy, were you the class clown at school?
I never thought I was the class clown, and then someone asked me this and I went “oh yes, I remember that!” Because I didn’t become a comic until I was late twenties, until a lot of the rest of my life had gone wrong. I didn’t think it was something I could do at all, and then I did it for the first time and went “I am doing this for the rest of my life”. It was completely like that.
Having said that, when I was 9 years old I was at school and sports was rained off for the afternoon and somebody had brought in a wig. I don’t know why, it was a school play or something. It was an all boy’s school and there was a long brown wig and boys started getting up in front of the class, with a teacher there, and doing impressions.
I was up every other time, so at nine years old, I say I’m not a camp man, I was doing Shirley Bassey! I was up and down and thought yeah, there’s a little show-off within me. I always think I remember myself as this meek, sweet little boy, and actually no, I was a little show-off.
Why did you become a stand-up comedian?
The great thing about stand-up was I always wanted to be a writer/performer, but I wasn’t… I did do English at school, I did do English A-Level, but I never felt that confident as a writer. I’m still not sure about the use of semicolons, things like that.
But stand up is the writing you want to do if you feel like you might not obey the grammatical rules. The only rule in stand-up is to be funny. So if you don’t think you are that intellectual, even though most of us are, it’s the thing to go in to.
There is something very freeing about it. For me, it was always that and also there are a couple of methods. There are books on writing stand-up comedy. There’s a guy, I don’t even remember the name of the guy, this is how much I am not an expert in the academia of stand-up, but there’s two methods of writing that I was always told about. Rant and rave, and I think its Gene Perret or something, which was all about making lists of stuff and seeing where jokes are.
But for me, the best way to write stand-up comedy is to get on a subject that you feel passionately about, record yourself ranting about it, then turn it off and take out where you have been funny. Because if you care passionately about something, and you have a strong opinion about something, for some reason you end up being funny about it. I really believe this.
The best jokes I ever write are things I actually deeply care about; but you become ridiculous in your caring about something. So for me that’s always been a method in to comedy. I think most of my jokes are about something that I feel strongly about, usually about myself, but also about society and politics and people.
It’s very cathartic, comedy. I don’t know why I am such a mess still, psychologically, because you are getting rid of stuff the whole time, it’s great. You actually get to express yourself, as long as you are funny. It’s self-expression.
Can you recall your first paid stand-up gig?
My first gig was lovely and cosy. It was a door split. We probably did get £2 or something. These friends of mine, they used to run a gig called The Croc of Wit in Notting Hill. It was downstairs beneath an Italian restaurant, it was incredibly middle class, it was the metropolitan elite we were playing to.
It was the late 90’s, it was incredibly cosy, and I think my sisters had come. I have two older sisters who are very tense and they were in the third row doing this [rigid pose]; I was a smoker then and I must have smoked five cigarettes in about ten minutes before going on.
I was terrified, but do you know what? I was the first time, I was very scared but I came off and I did well and I knew when I walked off. I also knew it was slightly like a drug addiction even though I have never been a drug addict, but it was like a boost. I walked out and went “whoa I want to do that again!”
Even though I am quite a neurotic person naturally, it was just fantastic. You never quite match it and I must admit I have been on stage at the O2 in front of twelve, thirteen thousand people, and you still don’t match the first time that people laugh at jokes that you have thought up, written up, first performed them, and you are getting a laugh from strangers – oh!
When did you realise you could make a living as a comedian?
I don’t know. The first gig I thought, I can do this. Even though I seem quite neurotic, I was quite confident that I could make a living doing it.
There is no one big break, there is about fifty. There’s the big break when you are a new act and you get booked to do a spot at a club; that is massive. You get booked to do a spot at a club, and they are going to pay you like £30 to do a 10-minute spot, and someone’s paying you to do it, that is a massive thrill.
The next big thrill is when Don Ward at The Comedy Store says to you “I want to put you in for a weekend” and you go “I’m in for a weekend!”, that is about three years in. I mean, this is different levels.
Then for me, 2009 I was supporting Rob Brydon on tour, playing big theatres; I was well known on the comedy circuit in clubs, but I couldn’t tour in my own right, and I got The Royal Variety Performance. I met the Queen and it was just brilliant because I was completely unknown on the bill, in terms of the wider comedy world; I had done bits of cable TV but very little on mainstream TV.
To be on The Royal Variety was fantastic, and to meet the Queen was… and I’m not a big royalist at all but I would die for that woman – love her!
Do you change your material for international audiences?
Yes, basically, not massively, anything too colloquial. Doing abroad, places like Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, especially the Netherlands; they are very cocky. They do speak great English, but they think they speak better English than they actually do, because they miss certain jokes I find.
You just have to be clearer, and you also have to think in American English. It’s the same changes you would make if you’re playing in America or Canada. I do like playing abroad because I’m seen as very English so I have done a lot in Canada around Just for Laughs. I’ve toured across Canada with Just for Laughs, I’ve done Montreal [Comedy Festival] several times, and I really like being the very English guy. And it’s different levels.
Places like Australia you hardly have to change a thing because they’re actually so like us, even though they think they are different, they’re not. You have to change the odd word, so it is different levels of change.
I tend to be more successful abroad because I get laughs just saying hello in Canada. I go “hello” and they go oh, it’s a funny English idiot.
What is the biggest challenge with corporate bookings?
It’s how far you have to go to turn it into a stand-up comedy gig, which is what you’re doing really. The problem is when people think it’s like music and they can put it on in the corner, and it doesn’t really matter if people pay attention or not. It’s Not.
It’s somewhere between music and theatre; it’s not as difficult as theatre to key in to, but you need a bit of focus and attention. Also, a comic can deal with a little bit of having to deal with movement in the room, with what’s going on and what’s happening in the environment but it can’t be in the background. You can’t go oh we will have a listen to the comic or not because gradual chat and disinterest will… the comic needs attention more than a musician.
Shall I tell you the worst thing that my agent at the time turned down without even asking me and I was rather impressed that they did? I was once offered a gig to go to Brussels, get on the Eurostar, and do a gig coming back. Now, they didn’t set up a room for me to do the gig, they said “could you go from table to table being funny?”
Maybe some old-style comics could do that, but it would still be weird. Old style comics going I will tell you a joke about a duck, you know, and they will come and give you a joke. Most modern comics are not going “do you want to hear about the Englishman, the Irishman and the Scotsman?” Most people aren’t doing that.
I would say it might suit your company if they are very, very near retirement or you are getting some old boys back in, and that’s very old people. They might go I would like to hear an Irishman joke or whatever, something vaguely racist or something of that formula.
It’s the idea that it’s not a show, and it is a show and it is creating a show, and most people know that. That’s why we find a dance floor tough. God, I have performed in a shopping centre with people walking past, admittedly that was more of a presenting job, but if you really expect me to do a stand-up gig with people walking past, shopping, it’s not going to work. It has got to have a more centred focus.
Do you tailor your set for corporate audiences?
I think you have got to. They love stuff that is about them, but you can’t pretend to understand what they do, so I always do it from an idiot’s point of view. Like finance people, I will go “I don’t really know what you do, I know it’s vaguely evil”, something like that. Something that is just silly and fun, and from the idiot layman’s point of view.
Sometimes people will try and explain the intricacies of their business and you have got to realise that is the reason we are in showbiz; we weren’t good at this at school, we don’t understand. But some of the most fun I have had have been the most highbrow. Science things where there is just no way I’m ever going to understand anything of what you do, and they are all very intellectual.
So I like making jokes about what they are, and people working, all the different things, healthcare, politicians or something. But you have got to do it from a certain point of view.
I do like doing jokes but I also like the safe jokes that we do in our normal set that is about being a man of a certain age, being married, being in relationships, all the things that are universal. Those are also the jokes that will make up a lot of our sets, because then we know we are going to connect with you on it.
What is the most unusual private event you have performed at?
The strangest in terms of massive budget for a tiny event was for an ex-hedge fund manager, I think he has retired early, and he booked out Cliveden, with the big house. He booked out the whole thing for him and 30 – 40 mates for a Christmas party; he does something massive every year.
There are little cottages on the estate and we went to one little cottage where they’d hired out a room and it was James Morrison first, then me, then Roger Daltrey, and it shouldn’t have worked because first of all it was doing a gig for 30 people. As a musician they will sit and listen but it was this incredibly loaded man; I was very worried about it because I’m in front of him and 30 of his mates and they all know each other very well and you are the big stranger in the room.
They were so lovely. I found out they have done it for years. McIntyre’s done it, Sting’s done it, all these, and it was just fantastic. It was really, really enjoyable but it was one of those events where you think you’re not sure this will work and they go “don’t worry, it will work, we always do it, it always works great.”
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