We went backstage on tour with Al Murray for an exclusive chat with the man behind one of the UK's most loved comedy characters, "The Pub Landlord". Al talks about how he accidentally created 'The Pub Landlord', the challenges of corporate events and his pub quiz! Watch the interview or read the full transcript below.
In conversation with Al Murray
How did you create the character of the Pub Landlord?
The mad thing about The Pub Landlord is that it was an accident – I never came up with it in itself. I never sat down and worked it out. We were in Edinburgh and I was working with Harry Hill, and we had a gap in the show. The show was in a bar at the Edinburgh Fringe, and I said “well, why don’t we fill the gap by saying the act / the compere, hasn’t turned up and the barman in this bar has offered to fill in?” And he kind of went, “yeah, whatever”. So I went on and did that with a couple of ideas and it worked. And then I came off stage and started writing these things down. I wrote more ideas while Harry was on, went back on myself and did a bit more that worked, and then we had a run in Edinburgh that was for three weeks, and by the end of it I had an act. It was a complete accident.
How far can you push the character’s outrageous attitudes?
Well, the thing about being in character is everyone knows that when you tackle a topic they know you’re not coming at it at face value – they know you’re coming at it from a different angle. Although people can take what you say at face value; which is always the trap or the tricky bit of doing a character. But what is really good, what you can do with a character, is rather than come on and go “isn’t this attitude awful?” what you do is you show that it’s awful. You take it and you can drive it into the ground.
I had some material the tour before last, which was about the idea that kids don’t know the meaning of hard work any more. So I started from that point of view, that premise, and by the end of it, I ended up proposing that everyone under eighteen be building pyramids and being in chains, and all that sort of thing. The audience were going “woo!” because they know that you can start somewhere that sounds relatively kind of anodyne, something kind of sensible, and you can take it somewhere really crazy if you think like that.
What are the biggest challenges with corporate bookings?
A stand-up’s enemy is distraction, right?! Corporate shows are very often put on in environments where there are multiple distractions. Because you’re basically a guest at a corporate event when you are hosting or you’re appearing, it’s not your show.
It’s the difference between playing a theatre where everyone is coming to see you, and going to an event where they go “…now we’ve got someone on who’s going to talk to you” and they’re on a table of ten people. If you’ve got those banqueting tables, ten people to a table, half of them have got their back to you – so there’s a distraction! There’s drink – there’s another distraction! There may be people catching up with each other, they haven’t seen in ages, or they’re sat next to someone they don’t want to sit next to – there’s a distraction! They’ve got awards they may or may not win that evening – there’s another distraction! Maybe they’ve just had a bollocking off their boss, it’s not like they are at the theatre to chill out. So, you’ve got all these added distractions. They may not particularly care for you in the way that someone who’s bought a ticket to your show does. So there are all of these things coming at you, and then you always get the thing where someone goes “whatever you do, don’t have a go at table eleven… you are not allowed to speak to table eleven!” Very often you do that, and afterwards table eleven go, “well why didn’t you have a go at us?!” Well, that’s because someone in the middle was covering their arse from getting in to trouble.
A corporate gig has all these distractions built in and all these things you have to deal with. I actually like the challenge of trying to hack through that stuff. Even a big room like the Grosvenor Hotel, you know, where there are 1,200 people in there – just getting them all to listen is a thing in itself. So all that sort of stuff, and I really like the challenge of it. I really like that the bonus of playing at a corporate is that you go in to a room where everyone basically knows who everyone else is. Everyone knows what the pecking order is; so if you go down and you start talking to people, you tap into that in a way that you never can in a theatre, because no one in a theatre knows anyone else, right? You get a different dynamic… so corporates have their swings and roundabouts, let’s put it that way.
At corporate events, does being a household name make your job easier?
It presents its own problems, because at a theatre show, where they bought a ticket to see The Pub Landlord, they expect you to come on and be horrendously rude to people, and sometimes you maybe hassle someone and they don’t like it, so it’s no guarantee of anything. The other thing is that you do get that thing where people go, “well, I’m not going to let you take the piss out of me”, it’s better if you just let me roll with it, and I’ll move on to someone else in a minute, don’t worry about it. So you’ve got all that to deal with, but that’s part of the fun of corporates; it’s tapping into that. Also, you might trip across someone who’s a general manager that everyone knows.
When I do corporates I always ask to not know who is there; I like to know what the company is, but I don’t like being told “Derek is on table twelve and you have got to have a go at him, he is the one with the ginger ponytail, that’ll be hilarious!”. Because if I go make a beeline for him, it looks fixed, and the best way to do those things is for them to be real and organic, and trip over these people, you know? Trip over the graduate trainee… or when you find the finance guy… everyone hates a finance guy, so he is always a gem to discover, but I always find it’s better if you go truffle hunting.
But, you know, sometimes being a household name, they might not like you, they might go, “well why couldn’t we get… where is Michael McIntyre? We had him last year!”
Can you get the same audience reaction at corporates as you do from theatre shows?
No. You can never get the same thing, but you can do a different thing, you can create an atmosphere that makes that night memorable, and that’s what you can do as a comic at a corporate. You can’t turn it into a standing ovation show, or whatever you are used to with the beginning, middle and end. I mean, the last corporate I did I had the band that I sometimes work with, and we rehearsed a load of songs to do, and it soon became pretty clear, because of the way the evening was running, that we weren’t going to do them. So you need to leave yourself open to taking it all as it comes. But if you can make an evening that’s memorable, then that’s the job done, you know, and people go away saying “that was fun, it was funny, it was nice to let our hair down”… and that’s what you are after.
How do you select your material for corporate and private events?
Well, I always improvise anyway. If I’m doing a half hour set then I will improvise for fifteen to twenty minutes of it, and then go resolve and do a couple of set pieces to wind it up. I think I’m known for my crowd work, so people like me going in amongst them and being cheeky. I have a twenty-minute set that is absolutely sure-fire stuff that I will do at a corporate, which won’t necessarily be stuff I’m doing now.
You realise as you write new shows, you think, now actually that bit I’ll put to one side and that will always work at a corporate, that’s solid, that’s a solid chunk. Because the thing you don’t do at corporates is take risks on your material; you don’t do the new, edgy, flight of fancy bit - the kind of material you can do an hour into your own show when the audience is fully tuned in to what you’re about. You do the stuff that you know is going to land.
Do you tone down The Pub Landlord for corporate performances?
Yeah, you do but tone down is the wrong word, I would call it tailoring, because they may not be completely familiar with the character or what the joke is, and also the thing you tend not to have at a corporate gig is the luxury of time. So, what you can’t do is the thing you can do for an hour in the theatre, tickle people in, you know. And very often the stuff you do in the second half of a long show is stuff you could never do in the first twenty minutes. They’ve got to be tuned in to you. So that’s the thing you don’t have the luxury of at a corporate gig; the benefit of the time to tickle people into your character’s worldview. But The Pub Landlord is so brash and in your face that you are kind of off to that start anyway.
Sometimes you get people asking you not to use this language or that language, or saying we are 50% female here so can you not… and the thing is, actually, any comic with any brains, who is paying attention to what is going on around him, will know that he can’t go on and do this, that or the other, or she can’t go on and do this, that or the other.
How long should an after dinner comedy set last?
I think the ideal length for a comedy set after dinner is not forty-five minutes, it’s certainly not an hour… you are probably best hiring someone and giving them half an hour, and then if they are enjoying themselves and give you an extra ten minutes, everyone’s laughing.
But, I think, certainly, it also depends where you programme it. So at the start of the evening you could probably get a solid twenty minutes or maybe half an hour out of someone and you’re doing fine. But after the dinner, if you are on after coffee, say twenty minutes, maybe half an hour, but never longer than that! And if it’s an awards do, and the comic is hosting, then you let him do ten minutes at the top to set the tone, and then host the awards afterwards. What you don’t do, is say that you’ll do forty minutes and then host the awards; because you get to the end of a forty-minute set and then you’re like, you’re punched, and then you pick up the cards, or the auto-cue starts… ‘this is award one out of twenty-five’, and you think, well, we’re in for the long haul here, aren’t we?!
So, a big part of these corporate things, a big part of these awards things, is keep it moving, keep the energy going, never expect anyone’s attention span to last too long, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. You know, you are at a party very often, if a conversation goes on too long at a party, someone outstays their welcome, it spoils the evening. So it’s all about being punchy I think.
What is the Al Murray Pub Quiz?
Well, the pub quiz we do for corporates is really very simple. I host it, you organise yourselves into tables or into teams, so, either it’s the allotted tables you are on, or you all play off against each other. It’s as simple as that. And it’s the competitive element fed in to a corporate event, I think it’s really good fun.
The times we have done it before, we did one for VW, for their parts-servicing outfit, which is a massive operation in the UK. And we would do a general knowledge round, you do sport, you do whatever, music, but you also do a picture round, which is very-close-up pictures of VW parts, and you’ve got a whole room of people racking their brains about their speciality. Getting people competitive about what their thing is, that is gold-dust in a room, you know, that really sets the thing off. And you can do that as long or short as you want, the company can set their own questions, their own topics, and all that sort of thing, and that works really, really nicely. We will write you a bespoke quiz, you take part in it.
What we tend to do is give the winners a frozen chicken, so that what they are really playing for is fun, it doesn’t really matter, but the times we have done that it has been really great fun. And the technology has crept in now as well, so that you could do it with tablets, so that the scores add themselves up, or you can do it the old-fashioned way with bit of paper and everyone marks each other’s bits of paper. It’s good fun.
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