Wil Anderson is a comedian, writer, presenter, and podcaster. Mostly, he is a comedian–one of those comedians who loves watching comedy.
Listen to Episode #21 here:
From Farm To Stage with Wil Anderson
Our guest is a comedian, writer, presenter and podcaster, Wil Anderson. Welcome, Wil.
I always feel weird when there are words after the comedian. I always say that should do it. It should just be, “Wil Anderson, comedian.” For some reason, people are like, “You’re a writer.” I’m like, “I just write comedy.”
You’re a podcaster but you talk about comedy.
It’s a comedy podcast. I’m great at comedy. You’re the one who’s putting labels on this, but it does sound impressive once you put a few slashes in there I suppose.
This was on your Wikipedia page, so I figured it’s 90% accurate.
Let’s hope so.
This is perfect for my first question, which is if you weren’t working as a comedian/podcaster/presenter, what would you be doing?
These days, there is no reason that you wouldn’t be working as a comedian. When I first started here, 22, 23 years ago, it was a conscious choice to be a comedian. I was running away to join the circus and it was an industry that was full of gatekeepers of various kinds whether it be at the local room, you were running to do well enough to get onto the lineup and then do well enough to get to the next level gig. In every aspect of that, maybe you get into the radio, the television, the newspaper or any of those various ways that you will get an opportunity, at every level of that there were gatekeepers in the way.
Whereas these days, you can make something funny in your bedroom and put it out on the internet and people can see it all over the world. One of the funniest people I know in the entire world is a guy who does a podcast called the Weekly Planet and his name is Nick Mason. He drives a tram. He’s not a professional stand-up comedian. He doesn’t do gigs and doesn’t work on the radio or the television. He has a podcast where they talk about comic books and he is one of the funniest, quickest, witty people that I’ve ever heard in my entire life. Regardless of what I was doing, I would hope that we live in a world now where even if I were driving a tram for a living, you still have an opportunity to make comedy and put comedy out to the world.
Maybe I’ll be a farmer. My parents are farmers, their parents were farmers and my brother is a farmer. My dad lives on the road that he was born on for nearly 75 years. His father built a house on that road and my mother’s parents lived on an intersecting road to that. My brother lives on the same block of land that my dad does and they farm that land together. There was a chance that perhaps if I would never have left there, that I would have stayed at home and built a different life, but I have soft hands and I enjoy indoor work. If I’m going to get up at 5:00 AM, it’s not going to be to milk cows. It’s going to be to do breakfast radio and somebody brings you a latte.
I probably would have found my way to comedy in some way. At that time, what I would have told you when I was a person who was seventeen or eighteen was that I would have been happy to be involved in any aspect of comedy, that I wanted to be around comedy. I could have been a booker, a manager or an impromptu performer. I could have been somebody who ran my own venue and put the best comedians in the world through there. There’s still a part of me that’s like, “You always have your escape plans. What am I going to do when people stop getting interested in what I do now?”
One of those has always been I would love to run a night, a venue or a place where I could put on comedy that I like, that I’m not necessarily performing. Key-write something, create something and make a space for other people to be creative and to be funny because I am one of those comedians who loves watching comedy and enjoying another people’s comedy. There are some comedians who don’t like to watch other people, who are going to be influenced by that idea that they might pick up a joke or an idea. I know there is that danger in that, but I enjoy watching other people perform and take risks. I’m inspired by their creativity in what they do. I probably would have found a way to be around comedy, regardless all that said, that’s what I would have told you back then.
If I’m being brutally honest, I probably always knew that I desired to be a performer like that I desire to write and produce comedy that I could perform for myself. The fact that in 23 years of doing it, I’ve never written for anyone else, I’ve never had anyone else write for me. On my television show, I work collaboratively with some people, but I haven’t decided at any stage to be doing other people’s work and I certainly haven’t decided to be producing work for other people. If I am going to write something, if I’m going to create something, it’s always with the point of view that I will be the person performing that thing as well. I was probably lying to myself and everybody is my answer and what I’m doing now is probably more accurately what it is that I thought and hoped that I might do.
Was this a dairy farm?
A dairy farm about 250 people in total with no shops or anything. The nearest town was about fifteen kilometers away, so ten minutes in the car and that had about 1,200 people. Then the next biggest town where I went to high school was about 12,000 people. In the grand scheme of things, it was very small. In the dairy, milking 250 cows twice a day every day.
I assume if you were a child on a farm, you’d start farming early.
You get a work ethic. One of the things that I’ve been very aware of in my career is that I am not talented enough to not work hard. If you’re looking at a competitive advantage, why is it that I’ve managed to build a career out of telling jokes to people? For some people, the reason they might have managed to build a career out of telling jokes to people is they are so brilliantly funny and amazing that you can’t contain it.
Chappelle basically in his last special said, “I’m just so good at this.”
Some people like John Crist would say, “Bring funny to the table.” They arrive funny. I’m not going to arrive as a funny guy. To be honest, if you see me with my friends and my out-of-comedy life, you would probably not pick me as being the person who makes a living telling jokes to people.
You were not funny on the elevator ride up here.
I was not, and I don’t know if I’m being funny so far in this podcast. You didn’t tell me of the stuff that I had to do. It’s a free podcast. I’m a professional funny man. Increasing as I am professionally funny, I am less and less funny in the rest of my life because you don’t want to take your work home with you, but I don’t think that I was ever particularly that classic class clown or anything. I’ve always loved comedy, but I always knew that I had to take that farmer’s work ethic of doing it as a job. The thing about comedy, as opposed to farming, is that if I have a bad gig particularly early on, there might be a week or two weeks until you do another one and you’re obsessed about how you did and go over it a million times in your mind.Comedy is as much about listening as it is about talking. Click To Tweet
If you are a farmer and you have a bad milking, if that can be the case, this cow still going to be milked again 5:00 the next morning. It doesn’t matter, you still got to get up and you still got to milk the cow. You still got to do it again that afternoon. Certainly, as a comedian, there have been many times where I’ve reminded myself of that. It doesn’t matter what happened, you’ve still got to get up and milk the cows tomorrow. The nice thing about the difference between comedy and milking cows is now, I’ve got to a point where you can send the younger comedian out, you can’t do that as a farmer. You can’t send the younger farmer out to warm up the cows for you and get them in the right mood for you before coming out and milk them. People don’t applaud when you get to work as a farmer.
Did you not milk cows? You said you have soft hands, was that a joke? I can imagine a lot of people love the labor per se.
There’s something about that because the truth of it is that milking cow is just an exercise in doing something over and over again. There’s not much milking anymore. There’s not a stool and pink tiles or anything like that. It’s a rotary machine, cows get on one side. These days, I’ve been back to the farm because my dad and my brother is running a joke that at every Christmas they offered that I could get up the next morning and go milk the cows. There was a point where I could have done that twenty years ago. I could have gone and milked the cows, but I would walk into the dairy now and I wouldn’t know how to use any of the equipment because all of the cows are microchipped now. They get on the milking machine and it’s all hooked up to a computer. There’s none of this random thing anymore where a cow would come around and they weren’t milked out, so you’d send them around again. The cows are stopped being milked by the machine when they have no milk. I wouldn’t know how to do that.
A lot of it are computer programs, spreadsheets and stuff like that. There was a part of milking cows that I liked, which was that it’s a very simple task once you know how to do it. There’s a repetitive nature to it that is meditative, but it is not boring because you have to have awareness. You have to be aware if a cow is going to kick or if they’re being upset, you’re looking at an infection they might have or any of these sorts of things. The other thing is at 4:00 AM, you’re looking for their tail to go up because if their tail goes up, that means something is about to come out from where the tail formally was, and you have to step out of the way. There’s enough of that meditative process to it that you can have time to think and consider the world and all these things that I enjoy doing, but there’s enough of an awareness of having to do something that you don’t become bored by the tasks that you’re doing.
In the same way as sometimes when I’m writing, the best thing that I can do is I can sit down at the desk for hours working on a bit and then I’ll go and clean the pool. I’ll go and get some leaves out of the pool for twenty minutes and it will all fall into place because what you need to do is now that your brain is working that way, if your body is half concentrating on something else, your brain starts working in a different way to when you’re sitting down in front of your desk concentrating on the problem. If it was only the milking, I’d be okay. The rest of it is much harder.
This may sound strange to you, Wil, because this farmer’s work ethic is interesting to me. I’ve told stories to people about you, which may seem weird because we’ve only met each other twice. One of them is real and the second one, I’d want to find out if it is real or not. The second time we met, you were kind enough to sit on a science versus comedy panel when we were launching The Humor Code at Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon. I had done those panels several times before and normally what happens is me and maybe my co-author, Joel Warner, will sit with two, three or four comedians and then a moderator would ask questions about comedy.
It’s a tremendously entertaining event and the audience loves it. The comedians are showing off and there are lots of laughs. Then you also cover interesting topics including what makes things funny and so on. Normally, I destroy the comedians in these debates. The reason is simple, not because I’m smarter or anything else but I had years of reading, writing and experimentation. I wrote the book on this thing. The whole thing is rigged for it to be an entertaining affair, but for us to look good. I was expecting that to happen at Powell’s.
Our moderator started asking questions and you start answering those questions. My words were coming out of your mouth, I don’t know if you remember this. I’m like, “This guy is killing it.” The audience didn’t care. It didn’t matter in any other way. It was a great event. I came up afterward and I said, “Wil, you read the book, didn’t you?” You’re like, “Yes. I picked it up and read it on the plane on the way over here,” which was a first. I said, “You were the only comedian whom I’ve ever done this with who prepped and you’ve prepped in the perfect way. You read the handbook and then you shined. You were by far the funniest and smartest person on the stage as a result of that.” That always stuck with me. I was like, “This is a guy who’s a professional in the way that a lot of comedians aren’t always.” That’s the first story. I tell that story a lot and people get a kick out of it.
Firstly, it comes from that idea we were already discussing, which is that I need to be bringing something extra to the table. Secondly, my humor is always at its best where I feel like I’ve done all the work and then I can listen. I think that comedy exists in two very distinct modes and often we forget about one of them, which is listening. Comedy is as much about listening as it is about talking. Even stand-up comedy where I’m the only person talking, I have to constantly remind myself, the audience will tell you everything you need to know if you just listen to them, what they’re liking, what they’re not liking. Whether you should be talking more about that bit or whether you should be talking less about that bit.
A lot of people will say to me, “I’m not a comedian who has a set list but I will do all the preparation of all the millions of things that I could talk about.” I don’t want to go to something and launch into a bit about how I don’t like going to the gym and then suddenly, I discovered I’m in a room full of people who would love going to the gym and I’ve still got four and a half minutes left on this gym that I’m now pushing uphill like much more than I’ve ever pushed something uphill at the gym. I like the idea that I’m fully prepared. Then the competitive advantage is listening because if you listen to what someone says rather than trying to jam in your pre-prepared line or joke or looking for that opportunity to tell that joke.
There was something I learned from doing panel show very early on in this country because that was where I started to break out into people knowing who I was doing these news comedy panel shows. The trick that I always saw was these people would come in and they would have other comedians who have the four or five jokes that they wanted to get into the show and have them on a piece of paper in front of them. You’d often even see them looking down to say, and you could tell they weren’t listening. The bits that would fly on these shows were not the bits where someone jammed in a pre-prepared joke, but when someone recognized that there was a moment happening, that something fun was happening or that you could react off it, you have to do all the work so that you’re confident enough that you can then throw it all away.
Cricket is probably not the best of all analogies to use to an international audience, but there was an Australian captain of our national cricket strike, which they call it unofficial prime minister in those countries, named Steve Waugh. He was an absolute idol of mine. When I was interviewing him I said, “When the West Indians at their peak were bawling to you at 195 kilometers an hour and you’ve got 22 yards to decide what shot to play, how do you possibly decide what shot to play?” He said, “You can’t decide in that split second whether to hit over here, in the air, over here or along the ground over there. You have to do all the training. Then you have to get out there and trust your instincts.” You have to get out of your own way once you’re out there. Let all the training take over, let the preparation takeover. I didn’t come to that thing, going here are the five parts of this book that I’m going to bring up. I’ve read the book. Then I listened to the questions and answered the questions.
That stuck with me because you were ready in a way that I was ready, but I wasn’t expecting it. It’s a much better story than if it had gone like every other one. The other thing, I spoke to one of your old friends and she was telling me some stories. I have this very Hemingwayesque view of you and it goes something like this. You enjoy life, you may go out, you may get after it, have some drinks, have some fun, whatever but the next morning, you’re up and working in the way that Hemingway, despite his shenanigans, was up writing the next day, no matter how hung-over he was. This fits your farmer’s work ethic idea. You’ve got to get up and milk the cows, regardless of if you’re hung-over, you’re sick or you’re tired or whatever it is. Someone told me, and this might be my bad memory, that when you’re on the road, you carry two bags. One bag of clothing and one bag of materials. Is that true?
That’s an extrapolation of probably what the truth is more like these days particularly with computers and technology.
You don’t need piles of materials.
There was a point where I would be traveling with piles of materials, newspaper articles that I would cut out of the paper.
You would set them up in your hotel room to be able to work on it.
That is true. It’s much more romantic but there is certainly an element of when I was traveling. Work is always first like I’m going to somewhere to work. Part of the reason that I was drawn to the world of comedy, particularly ride the world of comedy, here it was a generation behind where it was at in America. When I started here, you’re talking about an industry that was establishing itself. These days in Australia, to be honest, if you said to your parents that, “I’m going to go into comedy as an industry,” they would go, “It’s a good industry. You can make a lot of money. It’s a well-established industry in this country. There are festivals everywhere. I see comedians on the radio and the television writing newspaper articles all the time. That seems like a job that people have. You go and do that job.”Embrace failure and realize that it's teaching you something every time that it happens. Click To Tweet
Whereas when I did it, it was not like that at all. Part of what I liked about the job was that for this kid who had grown up in the country with a dad who’s never had a drink of alcohol in his life, never smoked a cigarette, married the first woman he ever kissed, I’m not that person. My dad has lived on the same road all his life and I have been someone who has loved to use my work and my opportunities to explore the world. Not just to explore the world in a literal sense as in like getting on a plane and going places, although that has been part of it, but to explore the nature of what it means to be a human being, whether that is in an intellectual way, to try to read and understand what it is that other people think life is about. Also to experience some of those things, to try those things. Drugs are the obvious example that you go to in this situation.
For me, my parents probably would be worried about the way that I’ve used drugs in my life, but I’ve never been worried about the way that I’ve used drugs in my life. They’ve always been part of a broader experimentation that’s going on within my mind and my body about the limits of who we are as human beings, what motivates us, what makes us feel good and not feel good. The understanding of the difference between those things, the understanding of consequences for actions, with highs comes lows and all those things that those experiences have taught me.
I’m very cognizant of the fact that I’ve not been drinking for a few months. For me, drinking had become a regular part of performing. Then I was like, “That’s not for any good reason, is it?” That’s because you have become so comfortable with this that you enjoy. You might as well have a couple of beers while you’re doing it, but now that it’s become something that you do as a 100% habit, an expectation, rather than something that you’re doing as a trick, are you doing it as an enabler? Has the doing of your job become something that could not exist without you drinking? Then to me, the minute I had that revelation or felt like that was the case, I decided for this show I’m going to see if I can do it without drinking, see how that feels and see if I’m still connecting with the material and with the performance aspect of it in the same way.
It might be something that I, at some stage, go back to and go, “This is how I’d prefer the other way.” I feel those things can be in our industry. They can become inexorably linked to each other. Particularly I found when I was touring America, I’m in a strange town every week. For those people, you’re the new person in town, every week is a Christmas holiday, every week is New Year’s Eve. Everyone wants to take you out, you’re at comedy clubs where they’ll refill your drinks and if you want to sit around and drink with the staff into the way every other night, you can. You don’t have anything to do the next day, so there’s no excuse not to in a way.
There’s a point where some of that’s fun and then some of it you go, “Is this what I want the other half of my life that isn’t the bit on stage to look like?” It’s one of those things where I’m always with any of those things and with comedy itself as well, which is checking in on what your relationship with something is because it can be the same with comedy. What’s my relationship with comedy at the moment? Am I over stressed about it? As we speak, I’m two days away from debuting a new show. I’ve been working on this show for eight months, which is the longest lead time probably I’ve ever had on a show.
My major problem with it is it’s still probably twice as long as it should be and I don’t know what to cut out, which is the greatest problem you could ever have in your entire life. The other night I noticed it. I’m like, “You’ve been with a good show with people. You’re standing there stressed about things you don’t have any stress about.” What’s that about? Where’s that coming from? I’d forgotten because this is the thing you do with comedy all the time. The problem with writing a show every year is that the last show of your previous tour is so close to the first show of your new tour, that you go into the new tour thinking it should feel like how the old tour had finished.
Which you need eight months or five months to get it there.
I’ve been doing that show 100 times. It feels great. I’ve got every bit of it going. You remember back to when you did it the first night and it was still fun, but it wasn’t anything like what it had ended up being. Perfection is this idea that’s like on the first night it should be perfect. Nothing that I have ever done has been perfect. I can’t look back on anything and go, “That was perfect.” I know that. Even sometimes in comedy, you can have a joke that’s perfect, but the world will change around you and then the joke becomes not perfect anymore because the comedy doesn’t exist without context. If the context changes, a perfect joke can suddenly not be a perfect joke anymore.
Somebody once said to me, “It’s like you’ve been living on this luxurious island and there are swimming pools and beach lounges. Someone’s made you a cocktail and there’s a golf course over here and that’s the show at the end of the tour. Then you decide at the end of the tour to swim over to this other deserted island. What you’ve got to remember is when you first arrived at that place, it was a deserted island as well. You’ve built all that stuff and you can build it again.” I’ve never been perfect. I’ve never done our first night of something that is perfect, so why am I getting so stressed that it won’t be perfect on the first night?
There’s this wonderful paper about why, for instance, people engage in what’s called the planning fallacy. Why they think, “It will take me X months to write this paper. It will take us X years to build this building, whatever it is. Almost always it takes longer and it costs more.” Danny Conoman and this guy wrote this paper. They’re talking about the inside view versus the outside view and what it is that people often take the inside view. They look at the reasons why this should be good, this will happen and they don’t take the outside view which is that historical view, which is what you just did. Every time I’ve done a new show, it’s never perfect the first time. Why should this be any different? It’s not in our nature to normally take the outside view to do the record keeping and then to cross-reference our predictions against our records.
That’s a good example of where I started on that, which was, “What’s my relationship with comedy? Am I treating this rationally or irrationally?” That was an example maybe of an irrational event or something that if I could just step away from it a little bit and go, “This is what I need.” I took a big break to work on this show. One of the things that stand-ups will tell you intermittently is, “Don’t stop. You’ve got to keep doing it. You get out of form quickly.” There’s probably some value to that, particularly early on. I’ve been doing this much consistently. I’ve probably done 200 to 250 shows and what I’m talking about for the last fifteen years hour-long shows, not sets.
Sometimes if you don’t get off the ride, step back and reconsider what your assets are, what you’ve learned, what it is you can now bring to the table, what you do is continue perhaps a growth or an evolution of what it is you’re doing. You don’t do that thing of stepping back properly, almost letting yourself reset a bit and you’re going into something with a different energy. The previous show is very much about the world, about my experiences of being a person living both in America and Australia in the light of what had happened with Donald Trump and the election of him there. I ended up more broadly about the nature of subjective and objective truth. I’ve talked a lot about the anti-vaccine movement and these harder political, sociopolitical issues. Whereas this show that I’m doing this year is a story. It’s one story about something that happened to me. It would be silly of me to take the approach that I took for that previous show and transplant that onto this show, the energy of performing it.
Sometimes when you are gigging all the time, I can take the energy of the end of the last tour, which is a show at its punchiest. Everything is bang, bang, bang and then try to apply that to something that’s learning where the funny bits are still. I heard something about Chris Rock, which might be one of those stories that’s a bit apocryphal or someone’s added a little too. I hear that when he tests out the material for the first time, he’ll go to clubs and read it off his notepad. He’ll read it in a normal voice rather than adding the Chris Rock to it because the idea being that once he adds the Chris Rock to almost anything, it sounds funny. You can certainly get it across the line. What you could miss if you don’t give a shower room to breathe at the start as well is that opportunity to find those bits that you haven’t already thought of, the bits that you don’t know. The listening bits, the bits where the audience tells you that there’s something in your story that is more interesting to them than you thought it would be interesting to them. The things that are interesting to me might intersect with the things that are interesting to them.
I was backstage at Largo and I like to report this to people as if Bill Burr was giving me some great advice. He was more generally holding court and I happened to be there in the room, but I’ll take it. There was probably two or three other people who’ll also tell the story about, “Bill Burr gave me this piece of advice.” It was something that resonated with me and I was reminding myself when I was having this moment over thinking of what it is that I’m doing. He said, “If something funny happened to you and you wanted to tell your friends about it, you don’t sit in your car out the front of their house before the barbecue and make a note and say, ‘I’ll talk about this first and I’ll do this, then I’ll do this.”‘Comedy can be a little like a pressure cooker. If you have that joke or two on the way, you've laid out the steam for the big punch line. Click To Tweet
He said, “What you’ll do is you start telling the story. If they liked the bit about the old lady, then you suddenly start describing the old lady and you’ll lay into the bit about the old lady. If you get on to the thing about the short man, then they all lose a bit. What happens when you’re telling that story is you drop the short man quickly and you move to the funny bit. In your bedroom, in your office, in front of your computer, in the cafe, the old woman and the short man are equally important because I’ve tried to pick them both apart.” They’re both to me funny and important. The minute I start talking about it to the audience. They will tell me which one is funny or which one’s more important.
I have a word of a warning for you. There’s a research about young people and old people telling stories. It goes something like this. You ask the young people to tell a story, then you ask them to tell it again and it gets punchier. They tighten it up. You ask the older people to do that, it doesn’t get tighten up. It might even get longer. I don’t know the theorizing behind it, but it probably has something to do with the executive functioning and change and so on that happens developmentally.
It will probably but I will say anecdotally, the best of all sides. One of the things that on the radio, I will never do is ask someone for their dinner party story because if it’s a dinner party you may have something that you’ve clearly told a few times. Most people don’t have a set of dinner party stories, that funny story about that one or two things that happen. The more you tell it to a dinner party, the more you’re adding in another bit and that’s your moment, so you revel at the moment. With younger people, you’re fine because we’ve been growing up in this age where you have Twitter. Everything becomes shorter and shorter. They may memefy everything. There is that temptation to take a complex issue and some of it will loppy with a picture of a frog.
Anecdotally, I can definitely say that it’s part of the reason why I’d try my material in front of like this show I do the first night. I did a series of work in progress shows where I tried a whole bunch of stuff. As a show, the first time that anyone will ever see this show is in front of 600 paying people. I find trial shows or those things completely misleading because I can’t find a focus group that is like my audience. My audience, you’ll walk in the door and there are going to be kids there who are in their teens, there are going to be people in their 70s and everything in between.
If I go and try the material out on Tuesday Night at Catfish Comedy, those are going to be young Millennials, hipster audience. They’re going to be some of my audience, but they’re not going to be all my audience. If you tell them one of those jokes like you said, that element of what might be right for them. I might tighten a story. For example, the way they’ve responded to the comedy was in the same way, which is they responded better to tighter, punchier jokes. On our side, that is the case. For the sake of this whole experiment, what I might be tempted to do by going and trialing the show there is tighten that bit up to tight, punchier jokes. Then when I go and tell that story in front of my audience, that might not be the best way to execute that story for that entire group of people. The amazing thing about comedy is that you’re bringing a group of really disparate strangers of all ages together.
Billy Connolly was the first person I ever saw doing stand-up. I started hanging at home with my mom when I was seventeen and there were 3,000 people in the room and they would have been fourteen to 70. The thing that I found most amazing was that all these very different people, if you pretty much went out on the street, grabbed any two of them and ask them about an issue that you wouldn’t be able to find things in common with them. Yet in these moments, they are all united in this story. Sometimes I can be tempted to go, “There’s a minute, there’s like 30 seconds here that there’s no laugh. It feels like forever. I’m onstage and I should put a joke in there.” Whereas Connolly is a good example of someone and Chappelle is a bit the same where they’ll do the hard work upfront to give you all the information you need so that I can then bring that thing home stronger.
Sometimes a comedy can be a little like a pressure cooker. Chappelle sometimes doesn’t let any of the steam out of the way. Sometimes if you have that joke or two on the way, you’ve almost laid out the steam for the big punchline. Guys like Connolly and Chappelle are very good at going, “No, I’m more than happy to spend a minute, two minutes or three minutes to sketch out exactly what I’m saying so that when I get to the bit where I want to bring it all together, you have the full picture painted and you’re going to enjoy that moment because you know what she looked like or you knew what this guy had to be in.” Even though that seems like an incidental detail, once I’m imagining this guy with this big bit, that’s going to be better for the joke.
Then, as an audience, you learn to trust these people because they deliver. I want to highlight an idea that is interesting about what you were saying is, you have this rational approach to life that goes as far as saying I might use drugs to experiment with ideas, but I also might not do drugs to experiment with ideas. Your approach is to learn more about the world and about yourself. If drugs and alcohol help you with that, you’ll do that. If you find that they’re getting in the way or you don’t know if they’re in the way or not, then you’ll give them up in order to do it.
That’s probably pretty accurate. There had been times when it has gotten that way. I did experiment with DMT a little bit. For me, that was a mind-blowing experience like it is with a whole bunch of people. I wasn’t one of those people who then was like, “I’m going to do DMT all the time.” I was like, “Here’s a view of how the brain works, what your brain is capable of or the images that your brain can.” If all of it is a drug reacting with your brain, then that’s an interesting thing to have an experience. I’m glad that I have. I feel like my brain and my perspective on the world is more rounded for knowing that. My worldview is that we’re in a random accident in the corner of the universe then when I die I’ll be dead. At the same time, I find life, the fact that if that is true, if what I believe is true, then why the fuck all this? Why has it manifested itself in this way and why do people believe in all these different things? Where did these stories come from? What can I learn about the experience of being a human being from trying this or listening to this person’s perspective?
It’s funny because it’s probably a weird thing too. I’m very certain about what I believe. My favorite conversations are sitting down and talking to someone who thinks that life is about something different. I’m fascinated by what other people think life is about because the truth of it is I think it’s a bit unknowable, so I love the idea that we’ve all got a theory. There are some theories that probably make more sense than others. There’s an aspect of just like, “What is this and why is this happening?”
One of the things that you’re alluding to in terms of the way you’ve approached your work is one of the nice things about being an academic is you get sabbaticals. You’re allowed to release yourself from the day-to-day, go to another place and it’s designed in many ways to open your mind to new ideas. You’re supposed to read things that you wouldn’t normally read, meet people that you wouldn’t normally meet, work on ideas that you wouldn’t normally work on. This trip to Melbourne for me is not a sabbatical, but it’s serving some of that function because it’s long enough that I’m away.
I’ve been reading this book called Sapiens, which is making a little bit of a splash these days. It’s a wide-ranging book basically about human history. It’s written by a historian, but then it brings into play biology, theology and so on. You’ll get a kick out of it. What’s fascinating about that book is the author makes a case that wheat domesticated humans. It’s a fascinating idea. It’s a new one and I haven’t heard of it before. It’s interesting because you come from a family of farmers, but your life is more like that of a hunter-gatherer in terms of the beats in your day, the fact that you move around a lot and that in the same way that a hunter-gatherer needs to work to eat but doesn’t need to be up at 5:00 AM. That book talks about a lot of the things that sounds like you’ve been puzzling over and thinking about in terms of what is all this for, what is it that we know for sure and what is it that we don’t know. One of the themes is how big the role of imagination is in Homo sapiens. It is a thing that makes us different than any other animal and even other humans that used to exist.
I enjoy thinking about the world. Sometimes you have to pull yourself up because you’ve got to be very aware that most people don’t have the luxury to think about the world all the time. They’ve got to go to work, they’ve got to get the kids to school and they’ve got to do what it is that they do. Then I’m just sitting around a whole bunch going, “I wonder about this and I’m going to read a range of contrary opinions and come to me and form an opinion about what it is.”
Then write a 400-page book about it on top of it. When they get home from work and finish feeding the family, they’re so tired that they just plop down and sit in front of a television and watch incredibly entertaining shows.
Not one thing draws you to something, but people are often puzzled. I’m pretty well-known here and that’s a fact. I would be being falsely modest if I pretended that wasn’t the case. The greatest eight years of my life were when I was in America and no one knew who I was because I was able to concentrate on the part of the job that I find the fascinating thing. We all come to things for different reasons. I do as much thinking about, I sit in front of 30 people who don’t know me as I do about one in front of 3,000 people who do. The thinking’s still the same so you still get to do the fun bit. Having people know who you are isn’t for me the bit of, “That’s interesting.”
There’s a downside to the thing.
There’s a way that you can do this without that. I don’t think that the two have to be intrinsically linked. You want as many people as you possibly want to come and see your shows, but more than the reason, that’s not to say there aren’t a million other compelling reasons that I like to do this. The things that motivate me to do this on a basic level, this is 100% the best way with the talents that I have, that I can pay my bills. There is absolutely no doubt about that. I have chosen based on the talents, what they may be that I have. This is the maximization of my potential in regard to using that.
I am not wasting some other great talent by doing this as a living. On a very basic level, this is the easiest way for me to pay my mortgage. If it’s going to be that, then I would love it to be something more than that. How then do I find meaning in something, in my work, in the world, through my work? The great luxury of comedy is that not only do I get the opportunity to explore the world through my work, but I get an opportunity to check in with myself every year and go, “Where are you at? What do you think now that you didn’t use to think? How have things changed? Who are you compared to who you used to be?” I have to because I have to write a new show every year and I have to talk about those things.Most people don't have the luxury to think about the world all the time. Click To Tweet
Most people don’t have that enforced thing on them to go, maybe they’ll go to a wellness retreat or whatever. It’s an inbuilt part of my job to have the luxury to do that. Can there be a downside to that? If something big does happen, can you then over process it? Of course, that’s the other side of that, but it’s great. The performance is the end result that justifies most of it that I like, which is the sitting around and thinking about it and coming up with the ideas and trying to construct the ideas and imagine what it will be. Then I love the performing of it obviously, once you’ve done it to show it. Honestly, if you told me that I had another set for whatever reason, all the festivals have been postponed for another six months and you can go away and show for another six months and think about what you want to talk about for another six months, I’d be ripped.
It’s interesting for me thinking between comedy and academia don’t normally feel parallel to me, but talking to you, it does. I have to write papers. I have to deliver papers and they have to be outstanding in order for them to get published. Rewards come with that, so that differentiates good scholars from not good scholars. What I do is I enjoy sitting around and writing the papers. When the paper finally gets in, it’s like, “That’s nice,” but even if I stopped being an academic, I would still want to write, think and do that because that’s rewarding in itself. You use your name in punny ways for your show. Goodwil, Wil Communication, Kill Wil, Jagged Little Wil, Wil of Fortune. There are 23 of those. What started this?
American Comedian Will Durst was out here during the Melbourne Comedy Festival. It must have been in 1996 or 1997. I just started doing stand-up. Melbourne Comedy Festival is one of the most brilliant, amazing things in the world and I wanted to be involved. I went down to the Comedy Festival and I was volunteering like putting up posters and whatever. What I would do in return, I didn’t realize back then, I felt so bestowed with the honor. What I realized in retrospect was that it’s good for them to have people that they can pipe in venues with if one of their artists who is pressed and they needed a few extra. To me, it was great. They gave me free tickets to go and see comedy shows.
I went and saw this American Comedian Will Durst. He’s still working, an American political satirist. I reckon he was doing a show called Myth America. I ran into him in Edinburgh in 1999. He was doing a show called The Durst Amendment. I spoke to him after the show. I said, “I came to your show in Australia. I’m doing comedy here in Edinburgh. Do you have any advice?” He said, “Just put your name in the title of the show. Then people will remember you. Make it pun if you want.” I thought that was a great bit of advice. It turns out in retrospect again, he was probably just trying to get rid of me. I did go out to have a drink. He probably didn’t want some young idiotic comedy fan from Australia.
The backstory of them always comes down to practicality rather than some great story. Generally, for the Adelaide festival, which is a February, March festival, you probably need to be getting gear programs, submissions and stuff being around August the previous year, July or August. Technically, every year about mid-tour that I’m doing, I will get a phone call from a management going, “Are you doing a new show next year?” “Yes.” “What’s it going to be called?” At that point, I have no idea what the show will be. The pun titles became a really effective way of going quiet. I can just give him a title. It’s not one of those things where it’s going to be called, like twenty lessons I’ve learned from my dad. I get around to Adelaide fringe and I realized my dad only told me seventeen things. It just always felt like a bit of a blank check to tell the audience this will be a different show to the last year, but I haven’t really locked myself into anything. In the end, it’s become a reasonably good branding thing. It’s the thing that people ask about and notices. In the lead up to doing a new show where people engage in what it might be called.
Do you get suggestions from people?
People always ask me, “When will you run out of titles?” I was like, “People suggest them to me all the time. I’ve probably got another 50 titles. I certainly did not have another 50 shows left in it. I will die with a good 25 titles up by my sleeve and I will leave them in my Wil, so to the other Wil comedian all feel that could ever go with them.
Your name is Wil with one L. Did you drop the L or you’ve always been Wil with one L?
My high school girlfriend, Beth English, she likes it. She thought it looked more like a name. Will is a word and it’s not a name. Also over the years, Liam Gallagher is a William. He took the Liam and so I’ve always liked the idea that I could split my name into two. I was like Wil Anderson, but my full name was named after both of my grandfathers. William James Anderson is traditional as it can get. My granddad was called Bill. I loved it back then when I would paint things or write things. The idea that if I split my name in half, I had two names. I used the Wil Anderson as my name, but if I wanted to write something under a nondeployment, it can be Liam James, which is the rest of my name. That was all high school stuff when you’re just mocking around doing high school stuff. By the time that I started doing this, it was Wil and I truly stuck with it.
I had mentioned Sapiens as something that has caught my attention. I’m somewhat obsessed with the book at this point. Is there anything you’re reading, watching, listening to that stands out like you feel a bit obsessed about?
I haven’t been reading as much as perhaps that I ordinarily would be. This will be an interesting book for an international business. I’m going to recommend something that’s very specific that could be enjoyed by a whole bunch of different people. There’s a brilliant writer from Australia called Martin Flanagan. He’s a sports writer but he’s a long-form literary poetic sports writer. The football team that I support here, the Western Bulldogs, have not won a premiership, the grand finale. The big thing in Australian Football since 1954. I used to do a joke about that if I wanted to watch a replay of the grand finale, I would have had to wait another two years until television came to Australia. It was that long ago.
He has written a book about it this year and the year that they won. That in itself might not be of interest to people. The thing that I’m most interested in the moment is about perspective. My new show is all about one incident. I got arrested on a plane to Wagga Wagga and I was cleared of everything. It was a complete misunderstanding. I was in the middle of something that had appeared the same set of evidence through different sets of eyes that had been interpreted in different ways. That is quite a universal thing at the moment.
The idea of objective truth and subjective truth. The idea that we live in a world now where it’s so easy for us to find evidence that suits our argument, that our minds are almost attuned to that. The idea that something is actually the truth and are there things that are objectively true versus everybody’s perception of what happened? The major thing that I’m exploring in the show is that idea of one incident view through a whole lot of different presets. It’s like trying to tell a more universal story about that is perhaps where we are in the world right now is because of the Trump thing and all that thing. People that have chosen to use the truth in a very different way.
I’m always fascinated by that as a topic because my comedy is by its very nature, my story. The very nature of what I do of course is self-serving. What I’m trying to do within the context of the show is giving an idea of how this was my perception, but also then challenge my own perception of the same things. It was an idea perhaps that this is something more broadly that we should be more in the habit of. This book is an amazing thing because what he’s done is recreate the story and this is why it took him so long. It’s taken him two years. You suddenly get to see this story. You’re on the morning of the grand final for example and each paragraph is flipping from one person to the next, whether it be some supporter who has been following the club for 100 years to the coach of the team to whatever, these various people.
What he has managed to do is recreate that one thing and tell the story of that thing, but through the different eyes and perspectives of those moments. Regardless of what it was about, the way that it’s told and the insight it gives you that no one that day was experiencing the exact same thing. No one, when they come to my show, when I do it, will experience the exact same thing. There is some joy at that moment when you create something in a room. Why it works is because everybody saw the setup. Everybody met Gary at the same time and found out that he was a plumber at the same time. Then Gary’s not going to think about that in the same way as everybody else thought about.
Even in that room, even in that month, everyone’s got a different perspective. The plumber who’s heard that joke a million times or a guy called Gary and he said that a million times or that Gary with two eyes who doesn’t like Gary’s with one eye or whatever it is. We’re all constantly bringing our perspective to the table. I think that’s probably the thing that most interests me at the moment is this idea of life that we are genuinely old. It comes back to that idea I was talking to you about the meaning of life and religion and people’s theories behind that, which is I’m not confident that I found out what the meaning for my life would be. I’m not the same person in the morning than I am in the nighttime. That scene might not apply.We are all different people even when we're experiencing the same thing. Click To Tweet
Depending on the day, I have various different ways. There is a me who thinks I have a lot more time to write than the actual me because I cannot walk past the airport bookshop without buying a book that potentially thinks he’s going to have time to write at some stage. This idea that we are all different people even when we’re experiencing the same thing and what that means and how we unlock that in a way that we can still do what we necessarily need to do as human beings, which is work together is a fascinating idea to me. I don’t have any answers or whatever, but that’s definitely the thing that’s fascinating to me the most at the moment. That idea of having different people can view the exact same thing in extremely different ways. That’s as fascinating as anything that’s going on at the moment.
What you’re highlighting, you could have been a behavioral scientist, Wil.
Comedians, they will be a few. You can say that, right?
That could be your alternative life because the things that you’re talking about are things that psychologists have identified, tested and puzzled over. Things like motivated reasoning, this idea that we’re actually good at coming up with supporting evidence for the things that we believe. Interestingly, the smartest people are the best at it. They become even more polarized in some ways because they’re good at making arguments.
I joked about it before but it’s true, which is like that often I’m the worst person to ask something about me. I’ll tell you what I think right now. If you tell me, “What were you like at high school?” I’ll tell you what I think I was like at high school through who I am now and all of the reframing that goes with that, one way or another. You’re better off to ask someone who knew me. I’ll tell you what I was. I will tell you whatever romantic reframing of that story that I’ve told over and over, shaped and spawned but I don’t even know. It’s like I’m a different person. The cells in my body are different, my brain’s different. It’s almost impossible for me to give you an actual answer to any of those questions. All you get is what the modern me imagines those things were like.
You get a story. It’s a game of telephone but with yourself over time.
Who knows if my rationalization the other night when I couldn’t sleep that the first night it always will improve on is that me guy. That’s good. You’re a very sensible person these days, you can step back from that and you can understand that or is that me finding a whole bunch of evidence to support the fact that it’s going to be not as good as the first night. I don’t know and I’m not sure if there’s any way that I could know. You try to find it. You try to acknowledge it that it’s a thing that can happen and then tries to work out whether you’re doing that or not.
Last question and the answer can’t be hard work. What is the secret to success everybody knows, but can’t seem to do?
It’s absolutely the easiest thing in the world. This is the one that I do know. Fail as soon as you possibly can and get comfortable with it as part of the process. If I can go back in time and give myself a piece of advice, it’s the only one that I would give myself because you can tell yourself a million things of like, “Do this like this or do this like that.” No, the only way you’re going to learn almost all the time, the important lesson is to fuck it up first and make the mistake first. Get them out of the way in the dark. Learn how to deal with those failures before you’re in a situation where it really matters. I always joke that the idea of comedy is such a weird job because on the first day of you doing it, they’ll let you do the same job as the person who’s been doing it for twenty years. Most jobs don’t let you operate the photocopier by yourself on the first day. You have to work yourself up into that. It’s not like the first day of a pilot school. They’d be like, “We’ll let you fly for five minutes but we’re going to get you alive at five.”
You’ve been a passenger on the plane a bunch of times.
Not fail on purpose but put yourself in uncomfortable situations where you are challenged to succeed or fail knowing that sometimes you will fail, and you will probably learn as much. I’m not one of those people who’s like you learn more from failure than you do from success. They both can teach you in that sense. One without the other is no good as well. At some stage, you will fail. Every comedian in the world has done a shit gig and every comedian in the world has one gig away from another shit gig. I was watching Seinfeld’s Comedian documentary. It’s such a great film. There’s that moment where there are people who are talking in the club and he was like, “How big do you have to be?” Even Jerry Seinfeld is going to do a spot one night, and people are going to be talking in the corner. That’s the idea of comedy is that the failure comes at its best. Failure is right there. That’s the great thing about that Chappelle thing where he’s taking all that way. It’s like the more he builds the stakes, the more chance there is that it will be a failure. They’re at the end.
The reviews of that show are mixed.
Open yourself to the idea that firstly, get over the fact that you want everybody to like what you do. Go to the internet. Think of the person you love the most in the entire world and you think is the most beloved in the world. Then type that person as a dickhead into Google.
The more beloved they are, the more likely they are hated. Those things go together.
If people feel strongly about you one way, then you are opening yourself up to the possibility they’re going to feel very strongly about you the other way.
That’s yin and yang also.
Failure is the classic one. Get used to it. Have as much of it. Go into it as being part of the experience and learn from it. Embrace it and realize that it’s teaching you something every time that it happens. No one in the history of comedy has ever done a gig so bad that everyone’s got around had gone, “You’re not allowed to do comedy anymore.” It’s a great job that way. You crashed one plane, suddenly they’re a little suspicious if you can get back in the air. In comedy, if you have a bad gig, you’ll probably get material out of it and talk about it for five years. Stewart Lee, in his book, talked about the idea of the super fan and this is also a good way.
He said about 1,000 true fans.
If you get 2,000 people paying $50 a year to get something of yours, that’s $100,000. You can pay the mortgage. It’s one of those things where you concentrate on the people who like you first, serve them and grow from there. Don’t start with that idea that everyone’s going to like you. Start with the idea that a few people might like you and build it outwards.
Wil, thanks so much for doing this. Those great eight years that you’ve had in the United States you didn’t have people bugging you to podcasts like this.
It’s comedians in the United States. I was always being invited to do podcasts.
I appreciate the time. This is fun.
- Wil Anderson
- Wil Anderson’s Wikipedia page
- Weekly Planet
- John Crist
- The Humor Code
- Joel Warner
- Melbourne Comedy Festival
- Stewart Lee
About Wil Anderson
Wil Anderson is a comedian, writer, presenter, and podcaster. Mostly, he is a comedian.