In anticipation of their one night performing in Cambridge, David Ralfe interviewed If.com nominees Pappy’s Fun Club about their experiences of improv, comedy and Fern Cotton’s calves.
TCS: The Fun Club was established in 2004, what were the origins of the group?
Tom: Three of us met at university and starting working together there, we met regularly and started improvising together, we put on sketch-shows, did lots of stand-up comedy. Then me and Ben set up a theatre company together and we started doing a comedy night in Wolverhampton, and the guys I’d met at university would come up for that too. Then gradually we decided to do something a bit more organized. We started doing characters together and sketches and Pappy’s grew out of that.
TCS: And by that time you were doing fairly regular shows in London?
Matthew: Yes, at that time there were seven of us. We all lived in different places all over the country, so we’d all write scripts and email them to each other and then rehearse on a Friday night before performing on the Saturday. We did about ten shows over eighteen months and then we decided to make a go of it properly, start doing it in comedy clubs and take it up to Edinburgh. We ended up with a team whittled down to four.
TCS: The three who’d left must have been annoyed when you received the if.com Best Newcomer nomination then.
Brendan: I hope not, I still live with one of them!
TCS: Obviously that was a big milestone for you, how did you react?
Tom: Ben punched himself in the penis.
Ben: I got a little excited and didn’t quite know where to channel my energies.
TCS: Well I think that’s how any virile man would react to a comedy award nomination.
Tom: He did it really hard actually, he genuinely winded himself.
Ben: And I was driving at the time. It was very unsafe.
TCS: How awful. Any lasting damage?
Ben: No, if anything it’s made it better.
TCS: I find myself oddly tempted to ask for even more details, but I think I should refrain from doing so. Instead let me ask how has life changed for Pappy’s Fun Club since the nomination?
Tom: The opportunities that have come our way have been better but the way we’re treated by audiences hasn’t changed, we’re still going out and tanking some nights and doing well other nights. The thing that has changed is the opportunities to try and start working in different mediums, being able to go and talk to people about doing radio stuff or possibly stuff about the telly, that wasn’t there before. But in terms of life, we still go out and do live gigs, we still have to travel ridiculous distances to then not get a lot of money. A couple of us still have our day jobs, Brendan works in the city, I teach part time. It hasn’t changed our lives much, though it has given us a few opportunities to meet some really exciting people.
TCS: Yes, I know you’ve done Radio 1 with Annie Mac. She’s one of my favourite DJ’s, what’s she like?
Matthew: She’s lovely! She’s really, really friendly. Especially compared to Fearne and Reggie who did not want to talk to us!
Tom: Annie was really hungover, she’d been clubbing all night, she’d fallen asleep in the cab on the way to the studio, it was just like chatting to one of my sister’s cool friends!
TCS: But Fearne and Reggie weren’t so interested?
Matthew: We got off to a pretty bad start. We were set up to scare them, so they got us to hide in a darkened studio and jump out and grab them. But by the time they’d turned the lights on it was four people they didn’t recognise, one of whom was grabbing Fearne round the calf…
TCS: Well in future I’ll know, when trying to woo Fearne Cotton don’t grab her calf.
Brendan: Exactly, don’t start with the calf. That’s crucial. You have to gain a bond of trust before doing that.
TCS: Would you like the future of the group to go more towards radio and TV perhaps, rather than the live stuff?
Tom: No, we always want to keep the live stuff going. At the end of the day that’s what we do, there’s no better way to do what we do, Pappy’s is a live thing. It’s always a really nice challenge to try and write for radio or telly but even when we’re doing that we’re writing for a live studio audience. We don’t want to lose the live element, it’s what we know and what we love doing. You can’t beat that feeling of being able to muck around with your mates in front of a live crowd.
TCS: You’re slightly unusual for a sketch outfit because you play the stand-up circuit a lot. Is that difficult?
Brendan: It’s difficult but it’s exciting. I think when you step onstage as a four-piece when people aren’t expecting sketch comedy, it’s a bit of a shock for them and they’re not necessarily confident that you’re going to be funny, so we’ve got some punchy stuff that we always start with to try and get the audience onside. But it’s pretty exciting and when you go on in the middle of a show and it’s something a bit different then the audience are generally quite into it. There is a sketch circuit too, but we often find we have more fun on the stand-up circuit.
Matthew: I think there’s a lot more justice in stand-up clubs than in sketch clubs. I think you have to work a lot harder to convince an audience, they’ve got a much lower tolerance so we’re forced not to be lazy and make sure we come out with genuinely funny stuff.
Tom: You really feel the absence of jokes in a stand-up club. At a sketch show the audience think, “We’ll wait, I’m sure there’ll be a lovely punchline at the end.” But in stand-up if you don’t say something funny within thirty seconds then they’re going to lose interest.
Matthew: At a sketch night they’ll tolerate a beautifully observed character even if it’s not funny. They won’t at a stand-up club. That’s probably why we don’t have any beautifully observed characters…
Brendan: It also explains why not many of our sketches have a fourth wall, in the vast majority of our sketches we’re talking to the audience and they’re part of it.
TCS: And you’re coming to Cambridge soon. What can we expect?
Ben: A fight between good and evil.
Tom: And four guys trying to remember a show they haven’t done for a while! The last show was November and we haven’t really discussed it since. I think that’s good though, it gives it a bit of an energy. If it’s too well rehearsed then it’s never a good show.
Ben: If it’s going well we have to deliberately mess it up!
TCS: Now strictly speaking you’re not an improv group. How have you managed to sneak your way onto this run of improv shows?
Brendan: We’re still fairly loose, we react to whatever’s going on in the room. Sketches will be performed in different ways each night, there’s a gentle level of improvisation going on all the way through.
Tom: Improvisation informs our process of creation but as such it’s not an improvised show.
Matthew: We don’t take suggestions off the audience or any of that cack, that’s for tools. These people can’t think of funny ideas on their own mate. Just sit in a room, come up with something, then put it on the stage, don’t do your writing onstage, if you haven’t got the show prepared by the time you get onstage just cancel the show.
TCS: Quite. So how does improvisation inform your writing process? Can you tell me a bit more about how you come up with your material?
Ben: It always seems to be a bit different, we’re constantly trying to remember what our best or favourite process is. For the Edinburgh show, I’m not sure any of it was actually ever written down!
Matthew: All the time on stage we’re trying to find new ways of shaping a sketch, changing the script and playing with it. Being out in front of an audience you often find ways of making a thing work that you hadn’t seen before. There’s an element of writing onstage.
Tom: And if things go wrong, one of us will probably point it out and make something of it. We try and keep a knock-around kind of atmosphere going.
Matthew: Having said that, it’s all well and good to try and intellectualize our process but fundamentally, we are unable to learn scripts. As actors we are constantly forgetful. We’ve had to make our weaknesses our strengths!
Pappy’s Fun Club will be giving a forgetful but hilarious performance in the Allcock Allstars’ show on Friday 18th January 2008 at the ADC Theatre, 11pm.