Gordon Southern is a UK stand-up comedian with over 20 years of comedy experience, He has performed all over the world, and is a regular on the Australian comedy circuit. He writes copy in the daytime and performs comedy live at night – earning him the moniker, “International Word Clown”. For Gordon, improvising comedy is when the magic truly happens. Maybe it’s also because when you do a well-honed bit of material, you can already anticipate where it’s going. There’s no thrill anymore. But when you surprise yourself, the audience will join in on that. The world can see the joy that you clearly get from it.
Listen to Episode #10 here:
Meet the International Word Clown Gordon Southern
Our guest is UK Comedian, Gordon Southern. With over twenty years of comedy experienced, he has performed all over the world and he refer to himself as the International Word Clown. He’s a regular on the Australian comedy circuit. Welcome, Gordon.
Thanks for having me.
If you weren’t working as a comedian, what would you be doing?
I’ve devoted my entire life to comedy. I came straight from university into it. I know that as a young man, I had aspirations to either be an actor or an advertising copywriter. In some ways, being a comedian is a melding of those two professions because you have the creativity of the advertising copywriter and the performance skill of an actor. I was maybe always hardwired into going in that direction.
You’re writing copy during the day and then you’re performing it at night.
That’s what I’m doing. I’m making my own tiny adverts.
Hence the ‘Word Clown’. You’re very lyrical. That’s probably not the right word.
I’d love to think I was lyrical. I did spend a lot of time thinking I was a very poetic and soulful comedian then I realized that I wasn’t getting enough laughs.
Then you turn to what?
Then you just start editing.
Are you a literary, do you read a lot?
I wish I could read more, but I came from a literary background. I studied English and drama. I do like a comedian who has a good turn of phrase.
I love talking to comedians who are not American because the words and the language are different.
There’s a real distinction between North American comedians and British ones. We tend to be maybe a bit more surreal and whimsical. Whereas a lot of the Americans seem almost business-like, ruthless in their efficiency to get to extract as many laughs as they can.
Tell me about this copywriter idea. I teach marketing and so I’m interested in that draw.
I didn’t know that stand-up comedy was an option. I wanted to be a comedy writer and my first ever comedy engagements were writing one liners and sketches for radio comedy. Then myself and five other colleagues, we created comedy sketch team. That is very writer heavy, and then if you’re performing it on radio, there’s certain vocal performance skills that you develop, but physically you don’t have to because you’re just there in front of a mic, reading off of scripts.
I saw you do voice-over work.
A little bit.
Just because it pays well?
It used to pay very well, like a lot of things in this profession. The money was great before the GFC.
Let’s suppose the money was good and I wanted to do a little side hustle doing voice-over work. Just having a good voice is not enough.
For me, voice-over work came through being a stand-up comedian. What happens is your agent will go, “Let’s see if we can get you some voice over gigs because they’re quite easy money if they go well.” I was hired on the basis that I’d be handed a script and I would be creative with that script.
You could improv.
There’s also people who have these voices that drip honey and they walk into the studio and they can also do that magical skill, which is at the end of the advert goes, “Casts may vary. Must end encore,” like a machine gun of words.
That’s not a different person?
Sometimes it’s a different person. I’ve done adverts where you do the funny bit at the beginning and then this guy comes in and like, “I’m the closer.”
You’re doing improvisational work within this, I assume you might do 50 takes of the same thing and you’re fussing around with it.
Usually, if they’ve got a 30-second advert to do and they’ve got an hour of studio time, they’ll get as many takes as possible. There’s always some quiet person in the back of the studio, then the guy goes, “Sorry, Gordon. The client wants you to make the product sound more reliable by your tone of voice.” I’m like, “I’ll see what I can do.”
Were there certain products or certain personas that you shine, like they’re like, “We need to bring in Gordon. He’s greatest selling at selling copiers.”
It was just dumb luck. I’ve only done a handful of voice-over, but there was a time when there was so much money in voice-over. I was on holiday with my girlfriend in Spain and after one day on holiday, I’ll get the phone call, “You need to come back.” It was for this reason. It was a soap product and in the voice-over, I had to say kills 99.9% of bacteria all the time.” Then they went to their lawyers and they went, “We’re not sure if we can claim that legitimately. I had to fly back at my own expense because I knew the money would make it worthwhile to say, “Kills 99.9% of bacteria most of the time.” Now, we’re legally allowed to sell this soap. Because they’ve got to have that 0.1% so if the soap doesn’t protect you from bacteria, you can’t sue whatever the soap company may or may not have been.
Let’s talk more about words though. International Word Clown, which I think is interesting because that sums you up because that’s the copywriter. That’s the writer, the word part, and then the clown is the performer.
And the physicality of it, yes.
I watched some of your clips. You have a big personality on stage.
I tend to jump around quite a bit. It’s a sweaty undertaking.
Do you wear certain clothes because you sweat a lot on stage?
It was 42 degrees here and I had on a nice light blue shirt and I knew to take another shirt with me to work so I could wear the dark denim shirt on stage, which wouldn’t show the sweat patches had a couple of the comedians went, “Two shirts. Good idea.”
I do some speaking and I’m very cautious about the shirts I wear. Have you been trained as a clown?
No, I did a drama degree. That was most of my training. With stand-up comedy, you have to learn on the job. The brilliant and also an awful thing about being a comedian is your entire apprenticeship is in public. All your failures and successes have to be witnessed or else, they don’t exist.
I was making a comment about how difficult your craft is. You were saying, “I don’t know.” You’re twenty years in.
When you start out, it is terrifying because for a lot of people, it’s in their top three things they dread doing is public speaking.
It’s a particularly difficult form of speaking because you’re having to not just inform people but entertain them.
Yes, and the feedback is instantaneous. When I was an actor, I could be in plays and be like, “This is awful. The audience know this is awful, but we’ll just get through it in silence.”At the end, they’ll clap, and I’ll walk off. With stand-up comedy, it’s awful right there and then because the instant feedback of laughter and applause is gone, and you go, “Oh, dear.” You either cut your losses and go or if you dug it, you stay there for the amount of time you’ve been booked to perform.
Have you ever walked the room? Have you ever just stuck with it and get people off?
Many times. I’ve dug my heels in to do one time because I knew management were watching. I’m like, “I better do my time or close to it.”
I know you interact with your audience. If things are quiet, will you go into the audience?
Over twenty years, you developed lots and lots of different skills and ways of feeling your way around the room. There’s doing a material and there’s crowd work. Generally, I’ll try and mix up between the two because I find that the most intoxicating thing to watch myself. If someone is all material, I’ll go, “This material’s fantastic. This is going to get boring.” Conversely, if someone is entirely crowd-work, you go, “This is great that you’re quick on your feet, but have you got any jokes?”
The only time I’ve ever done that, I went to Hermosa Beach in California. There was this dude who did an entire set of crowd work from beginning to end. He was funny, he was enjoyable, but I’ve never seen 100% crowd-work before.
I saw an Edinburgh show that was 100% crowd-work and although it was impressive, I did leave feeling a little bit short changed.
Australia, you’re here a lot, why is that?
I am married to an Australian. We’re now separated but for ten years, we were together. She’s also a performer and works in the arts. We would follow the summer together and it was wonderful when it worked because festivals tend to be when a city is at its best. In Melbourne, it’s late summer. In Adelaide, it’s late summer. August is Edinburgh, which is the tail end of their summer. We’re following this sunset, almost, around the planet doing all of these festivals.
[Tweet “We are all self-employed, and we all hate our boss.”]
Does your particular form of comedy work especially well here?
What’s interesting about Australian comedians, there’s loads of amazing ones and much like the British, they’ve got influence by British television. A lot of it comes straight from the BBC to the ABC. They’re very strong on their poetic and surreal comedians. One thing British comedians have an advantage over Australian comedians is the bigger population. There’s nearly 70 million people in the tiny island of Great Britain. Australia, 25 million smeared over a continent mostly around the edges, so British comedians tend to work a lot more. We’ll do maybe five or six shows a week when it’s busy. Whereas an Australian comedian would do two or three. We turn up for these festivals and we’re a bit more match fit and were a bit better at crowd-work just because we’ve had more reps.
I had a comedian here who was saying, “You got to keep things fresh in Australia.” It’s hard to practice a lot.
Because if you live in Melbourne, you can do every gig in Melbourne twice and then people want to see new stuff.
You have an advantage because you get to formulate it broad.
I can turn up and I’ve got a back catalog of maybe when I first came here, ten years’ worth of stuff to pick from. Also, there’s that lovely thing as an Englishman coming to Australia, you’re a fish out of water and that’s always nice when you turn up somewhere and go, “I’ve noticed this and this and this.” If you’ve got a unique take on it, people like it. If you turn up and go, “Australia, some of your animals are deadly.” The audience, they’re folding their arms going, “We are aware that some of our animals are deadly.”
How do you cultivate that? This is an important idea. Naturally, being an outsider helps but just being an outsider is not enough. There has to be something else to it. I’m an outside here.
In some ways, being an outsider is what a comedian does. Even a Melbournian comedian would come up to a room full of strangers and go, “I’m a little bit unusual.” Or they can go the other way and go, “We’re all the same. This is our common ground.” The exciting and interesting comedians do offer a fresh window into a world that the audience wouldn’t otherwise know.
How? It may come naturally to you. It’s probably automatic for you twenty years in. Is it just you pay more attention? What’s an insight from Australia that you’ve had about how it’s different and you get to point it out to the Aussies?
I’ve made some observations about many Australian things over the years. I talk about the vastness of it. I talk about some of the cultural differences compared to the UK. Also, they’ve got preconceptions about what an Englishman should be like and I can play with that a little bit and go, “I’m quite uptight and I find you a little bit rough around the edges.”At the same time, I can Aussie it up a bit because I’ve spent a bit of time here. You’re always toying with them in terms of how much you know, how much you don’t know, and what you reveal of that.
I can call you an Englishman?
Yeah, I’m British as well.
Is it ever not okay to call someone an Englishman?
If they’re Scottish or if they’re from Northern Ireland as well. As you might know, Great Britain is in a state of upheaval with the Brexit, Scottish Independence Movement. Things are changing and we’re doing a lot of the fluid-border stuff that Central Europe did 28 years ago.
I always say British. I just keep it to be safe.
In the same way that if someone’s got a North American accent, I would say, “Are you from North American?” if you accuse a Canadian of being American, they go, “No, we’re not one of that lot.”
What are you best at?
I’d say improvising. That’s when the magic truly happens for me. Maybe it’s also because I enjoy it the most because if you do a well-honed bit of material, you know where it’s going. If you surprise yourself with a bit of comedy, the audience can see the joy that you get from it and they will join in on that.
Is that a way to take what would be work and turn it into play?
There were some gates where, “You walk away going that felt like work. There are other gigs where you skip off stage and you want to say to the MC, “Did you see that bit?”
Do you get nervous?
Even today, I’ll pace up and down and I’ve been told that right about 5:00 PM, I’m less good company. If I’ve got a gig later on because I’m starting to flash forward to what I might be talking about next that night.
Do you do anything in particular to get prepped for a show?
I’ve got a notepad full of set list.
What have you got? Give me one of these. This is how I make my podcast funny. I just ask people what they’re working on.
Australians love this joke. In 2006, a lovely Australian girl said to me, “We should get married.”Then in 2016, Then she said, “I don’t think we should be married anymore.” It makes me an Australian record holder for having received the longest, “Yeah, nah” in history. I’ve got jokes about Australia to start with to prove that I know my way around Australia and build a bit of connections with local knowledge. Then I talk about being married. Then I talk about no longer being married, and how that’s going to affect my life in the future as I thrusted out into the world, a middle-aged man, single again, what joy. If I’ve got time, I’ll talk about history. I talk about the formation of Australia.
You book-end it?
I like a bit of narrative and this is why I like festivals because when you do a festival show, it’s an hour show. They’ve come to see you and no one else and you can take them in a journey and tell a story.
As you build the order of that set list, you’re thinking about, “How do I create a story?” You don’t start with your divorce and your marriage. You start with marriage then divorce.
This is a club gig they’ll be doing, so you can do a mixture of little stories but also snippets of crowd-work jokes. Just everything is kind of geared towards keeping the laugh rate up and the energy and enjoyment up. Then we need to do a festival show. You can dial the pace down a little bit because they trust you. They bought a ticket to see just you. On a club night, they’ve come to see the comedy. These are the people afterwards, they’ll come up to you and go, “What were you on earlier?”
I teach an MBA course and when I meet people who are MBAs at other universities, I ask them the name of the person who teaches my course. There’s a good chance I know that person. It is a small field. Very often, they’ll go, “Some Korean guy, I think. I’m like, “Shit.”
We get this all the time. We went to the comedy, we saw a funny guy. He had hair and he was fat. I’ll be going, “That’s John Fothergill”. I’ll know straight away from that description.
I pour my heart and soul into that class. It’s eight hard weeks of teaching. I’m sweating blood. They don’t even remember who I am. This is a problem with comedy. Comedians are terribly branded. You guys all look alike. You all have these names that are hard to remember, and you have a pretty good name.
If I thought about it more when I was younger, I would’ve preferred a short, punchy name just because it looks bigger on the poster and if it’s noteworthy, people remember it.
Comedians don’t think marketing until too late oftentimes. They just think comedy. You have a good name, Gordon Southern. It’s two syllables.
This is a very good example of someone who thought about marketing first and he’s a global brand now as his name, Russell Brand. He was very canny.
Is that not his real name?
I’m pretty sure it isn’t. I saw his career. He’s a little bit younger than me, but he grew up five miles away from where I grew up. After messing around a bit with druggy TV presenter lifestyle, he got stylist. He started to look like a sexy cowboy from the future and his accent suddenly became very Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and his stock rose almost inexorably.
He’s hard to ignore. He’s easy to remember.
He understood the marketing side of things. Whereas, for comedians, we don’t understand it. I’m still dragging my heels about sending out press releases for a festival that I’m doing in two months. I should be getting on with it, but there’s something about the comedians’ massive ego and low self-esteem, which makes us who we are that you go, “I don’t want to bother any journalists with my silly little show.” Then you get to the festival and you go, “Why aren’t journalists seeing my genius show? This is terrible.”
Also, the thing that attracts people to comedy is that they don’t want to play by the rules. They want to sit in the back of the classroom and entertain but not do the homework. It’s a great irony of artists. The thing that makes them great artist is that they don’t behave, and they don’t follow rules.
A little bit. We’re all self-employed and we all hate our boss, which is one of the best combination.
I think about Larry the Cable Guy. There’s a lot of people that look down at Larry the Cable Guy. Are you familiar with him? He’s one of the blue-collar guys.
I’m aware of the idea of him because there’s a lot of canny comedians who say, “I’m going to be that thing that needs to be short-hand.” I never want to get pigeon-holed by that short-hand lot. Maybe over here, it’s like, “He’s that English guy who’s a bit confused by Australia.” In Great Britain, I want to be as versatile as possible and that, marketing-wise, makes me impossible to sell. It’s like nailing jelly to a wall. Whereas the Cable Guy, it’s like, “I’m Larry and I’m the cable guy,” You know already what they’re getting straight away.
I’ve never met him. I haven’t looked into it deeply, but my guess is that if I met Larry the Cable Guy at a cafe or a coffee shop, he doesn’t talk like that. He does the same way as Russell Brand’s affectations changed.
As soon as you point a camera or spotlight at Russell Brand, the brand that is Russell Brand is activated.
Here’s my Australia question for you, and this is for non-Australian audience, which I expect I’ll have more. Perth and Adelaide, I’ve never been to either of those places. Give me a quick summary of them and make the case for why I should visit one over the other.
I’m very fond of Adelaide because that was the first Australian city I came to. My wife is from Adelaide. Adelaide is a very beautiful compact country town that also finds itself to be the state capital of an enormous bit of territory. It’s like a desert flower because it springs to life vibrantly every March. It has the Fringe Festival, it has WOMAD, it has a big horse racing event, it has a big motor racing event. There’s cycling in January, so in the summer, Adelaide crams all of this culture into a few short weeks, and just says to the rest of the world, “Come, have a look. It’s all going off in Adelaide.” For the rest of the time, I hear it’s very sleepy country town that goes to bed early. Adelaide, I’m very fond off. You go in March and you will be blown away by how much is going on. It’s a very pretty place. There’s lots of nice countryside. The Adelaide hills, which is the food area and where the wine comes from and then you short tram journey to the beach. It’s got a lot going on in a very compact space. Perth is like a bigger version of Adelaide, but because of its remoteness, it also feels a little bit of an outpost.
That’s the second time I’ve heard that term.
Of not just Australia, but also the British Empire because it’s full of British people who came over in the ’70s, including a lot of my distant relations. When I go to Perth, I’ve got to put a thing on Facebook, “Come see my show. We don’t really know each other. We’re related.”
I liked being an Australia because you far away from it all. It’s the benefit and cost of Australia. Perth seems you’re as far away from it all as you can be.
The nearest major convocation to Perth is Bali. That’s an Indonesian island. The amount of desert that surrounds Perth, there’s not really a lot. There’s a couple of small towns. I was lucky enough to tour regional Western Australia going up the Northeast coast. It was like some of the drives with your foot right down, going as fast as you can ten hours between towns and nothing. Nothing in the gaps other than there’d be occasional roadhouses or gas stations, which were exactly one tank of petrol apart.
You like to improvise, but you have material that you serve. Do you have a favorite opener? Do you start with something that kicks things off?
Depends where you are. I used to have an opener in the UK for years that just doesn’t work in Australia. Tradespeople here are more respected. In the UK, the joke was, “I used to be a plumber. I did that for 212 years. It’s just an estimate.” In the UK, that would work because people go, “Tradespeople are duplicitous.” Then you come to Australia and people go, “No, we quite like our trades folk here, so we wouldn’t get that joke.”
[Tweet “Once you think you can laugh at something serious, you take away that monster.”]
It’s a little flatter society here.
There’s definitely a rigid class system in the UK, whereas in Australia, there seems to be a lot more fluidity under the surface, it’s still there.
This tall poppy idea, I think it’s interesting. For people who don’t know this, the saying is, “The tall poppy gets cut down.”
Don’t get a big head about yourself.
I tend to think of that as they’re Asian in a sense. The Japanese have a saying about, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” As an American, we don’t have any saying like that.
You’ve got the American dream, which is if you just knuckle down, you could be the next president.
That’s consistent, this plumber idea. No one’s too good, no?
What I love about Australia, I call it the fair-go thing that everyone should have a fair-go and society is if you’re struggling, there will be government support for you and different organizations that will help you. Also, don’t overreach with your ambition and your sense of self. A lot of the Australians regard their super wealthy. In America, they’d be seen as an elite. Whereas in Australia, they’re seen as maybe a pest or a parasite, vulgar.
You’ve mentioned this idea of hating your boss. Tell me more about that.
A lot of comedians have a very strange relationship with their own sense of self because we have an inflated ego and that desire to entertain people and be validated and at the same time, you go up and probably not worth bothering about. It oscillates throughout the course of the day.
How do you deal with that?
Is that true? You have a good therapist?
My new show is about a crazy relationship that I had with a therapist who was great for me, but then after we stopped doing the therapy, we became friends. Then certain things were revealed about him that I went, “He’s in a lot of trouble himself,” because it is that physician-heal-thyself thing that I go, “You need a therapist to deal with your problems.” It goes up and up to what I assume would be the ghost of Sigmund Freud.
It’s like a pyramid scheme. I become friends with a lot of people I come into play with. I have drinks with my contractor who works at my house or invite him to a party. The person who does my financial planning, I invite her to things and so on. To me, that’s not unusual. It’s an unusual thing, but it’s not unusual for me to do that. I have a great deal of affection for my therapists. He’s worth every penny that I pay him, but I don’t think I’d become friends with them.
We patch down the process of therapy because I was going to Australia for several months. He went, “We can’t carry on.” Then we became friends and then he stopped practicing therapy. I miss that because it’s like, “You were very useful to me,” and then I thought, “Were useful to me or was just talking aloud over these things useful to me?” I’ve now got a very different take on what the therapeutic process is.
I think that it’s both. Therapy provides a triple threat. The first one is the act of going to a therapist, signing up, deciding you need it, want it already sets in motion a positive change.
That’s almost like taking a tablet for an illness. Even if it’s a placebo, you will start to feel better because you’ve made that action.
There’s this thing that you recognized that this is a problem and you need to fix it and that if it’s serious enough that you’re going to bring in an expert and pay them a lot of money, that alone already spurs the other associated behavior. Second one is you’re in crisis, making the appointment already helps. You’re having a tough time, you make an appointment with their therapist. Now you know there’s help on the way. That already helps. Then the last part is this combination of hearing yourself talk about this stuff and sometimes how ridiculous you might sound. Then the other one is a good therapist. All of that first part is independent of how good the therapist is. Doesn’t even matter if they’re good or not. Their existence and your interaction with him or her already helps you.
He was my second therapist. The first therapist I would call from the nodding dog school of therapy where they just go, “How does that make you feel?” You go, “Are you even listening?” Bizarrely, this female therapist warned me that she lives in my neighborhood, “Will that be a problem?” I said, “I’m sure it won’t be a problem.” There’s a lot of people in London. It’s highly unlikely I’ll bump into you. What was even more unlikely was that her house backed onto mine after eight, nine weeks of therapy, I’m doing the washing up, looking out my window and I go, “No, my therapist is at the bottom of my garden.” They’ve got this big open plan kitchen, I’m looking into their world and going, “They’re not the most functional looking families. What makes her an expert?” I had this strange thing where I go, “Your life doesn’t appear to be in order, so how can you fix mine?” Which is a strange way of looking at things because the two things can be exclusive.
The best athletes aren’t always the best coaches. I do think it is hard to find a good therapist because it’s like a matching process. I want to talk to you about this big change you have in your life. You’re getting divorced. Are you sure you’re getting divorced?
Yes, it’s just a matter of paperwork now.
How are you feeling about this?
It’s not been an easy couple of years. It’s been quite rocky. What’s been more difficult is family health. My father has a health condition, dementia, and that has rapidly, just like a fire, it’s engulf the whole family. I have issues of guilt that I’m not doing my bit in terms of daily care around that family situation. When people say, “How’s the divorce going?”I go, “The divorce is really bad,” but this, for me, is worse and the hardest to deal with.
I went through this a bit younger. My mom had some health issues. My dad passed when I was young. I was 27. I was unprepared for that. I’m a responsible guy. I’m an organized, responsible guy. I was the person who stepped up and did my best to help with the situation, but that was hard. I was unprepared for it. Maybe if I had been a father I would have been better prepared for it.
The idea of parenting your parent is an interesting concept. My way of coping with these things is to write shows about it. The show I did was about me and my father and how, as a family, we cope with dementia. Then last year’s show, it was supposed to be about Brexit and Trump, but it turned out to be that Brexit, Trump, and my divorce were all intertwined. This is how I deal with it.
Turning tragedy into comedy.
That’s how I deal with any difficult situation is to try and see the funny side of it. Once you think you can laugh at something serious, you take away that monster. You turn the monster into something comical.
There’s a lot of theoretical work that suggests that you’re absolutely right. Comedy helps tragedy by way of four pads. The actual laughing is good for you. The positivity associated with the comedy is really good for you.
The collective experience, it makes you feel less alone in the world.
The social element of it that it can help people rally around you. We want to help people who we like, and we tend to like funny people more than tragic people. Then the last one, which is what you’re describing most is when you’re able to make jokes about this terrible thing, this terrible thing seems less terrible. It loses his teeth, so to speak. That’s probably the best therapy you can do.
What’s interesting in politics is that in years, I’ve noticed a real seat change, that people are electing entertainers rather than professional politicians. I’d say that Donald Trump is much more of an entertainer than anything else in Great Britain. People like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, these are monsters because they’ve worked out that if they looked like a bumbling buffoon with a quick wit, they can seize power. Trump is the same because sometimes I think Trump is a moron. Then you go, “He can’t be because he managed to engineer becoming president of America.” A moron couldn’t do that.
The mistake that people make is to not look deeply enough into what’s going on behind the scenes.
As a comedian, you can choose whether or not you also, within your colleagues, have a social responsibility. There are laughs that are easy but so expensive in other ways. I had a debate, almost an argument with a comedian because I said, “There’s a couple of bits in your show that might be transphobic.”He said, “No, I’ve checked it.”In the same way that someone who’s making racist jokes, he said, “I’ve got a lot of friends who are transsexual.”In the old days, they go, “I’m not racist. Some of my best friends are black.” We talked about it a little bit and he said, “All of my stuff, I don’t think there’s any problem with it. I don’t think you were listening properly.”Then he went, “But I do have a problem with trans people. I think it’s got out of hand.” I wanted to say, “Just by the fact that you feel that way, that comes across.”
What are you reading, watching or listening to that stands out to you as great?
Because I’m trying to write a show, I’m trying to feed myself with as much information as possible. Stephen King’s On Writing.
Murder your darlings.
I knew that for years. “Trim the fat, kill your babies.” That’s been very useful. I’m also reading a wonderful book by a West Australian author, Tim Winton, which is called Cloudstreet.
What’s that about?
If you want to go to Perth and you can’t be bothered doing the long flight, maybe read Cloudstreet. It’s a lovely story. A saga set in Perth at around the end of World War II. It seems to span a whole generation and it gives a lovely insight into Australian culture and that Larrikin vibe that you get from Australia working people.
Larrikin? I don’t know what that is.
The Larrikin is like a maverick or a cowboy attire. It doesn’t go by the rules and that’s something that is very entrenched in Australian culture. I quite like that about Australia.
The problem is everything’s good nowadays, so what’s great?
A lot of people are addicted to watching comedy on YouTube. I prefer the shared collective experience of live comedy. When you watch it on your phone, you’re not even going to laugh out loud because why would you? You don’t need to signal to people around you that you’re enjoying it. That might be one of the nails in the coffin of live stand-up comedy is people go, “I could just watch the content for free on my phone,” and then look at it and go, “It’s pretty good, but I don’t think it’s worth paying a lot of dollars leave the house for.”
It is amplified in a club.
Going to a theater and watching live comedy, it’s almost like you wouldn’t watch a church service. You have to go to it to experience.
In the United States, we have church service on TV.
For the housebound. It’s televangelist, isn’t it? That’s a big thing.
What’s the secret to success that everyone knows, but they can’t seem to do?
Do the work. Whenever you fail, it’s because you haven’t done the work. There’s also, within a lot of comedians, a strange self-sabotage mechanism where you go, “Whatever I do, I should not stuff up this particular occasion because this could be big for me if I don’t stuff it up.”
“Stuff it up” means?
Get it wrong, make a mistake, throw it away.
Whatever you do, do not screw this up.
Don’t screw it up. For a lot of successful comedians, they’ve worked that out and they bring their A- game when it’s necessary. For most comedians, there were moments when you go, “Why did I let it get to me?” A great example is in London. There’s a gig called The Comedy Store, one of the finest comedy rooms in the whole world. Beautifully set up, brilliant staff, no one’s more than ten meters from the comedy, and yet there’s 400 people crammed into the great room. One of the best I’ve ever played. You have open spots, try-outs, and they’ll come along. Even if they’ve got years of experience, they see the room and you see their eyes and they go, “I’m freaking out. I’m daunted.”You can explain to them, “This is the easiest room to play. As long as you don’t get nervous, you’ll be fine.” Of course, they get nervous and they die.
[Tweet “Whenever you fail, it’s because you haven’t done the work.”]
They tighten up and the audience knows.
They can smell fear like a dog can.
When you say, “Do the work,” define that for me.
If you’re a writer-based comedian, get your laptop open, do the writing.
That sounds like Stephen King, On Writing.
He was great. He said, “Read a lot, write a lot,” and then it will all come to you. There’s a lot of basic fundamental rules. You can go to a comedy course to find those out or if you’ve got half a brain, you will learn them quickly enough. Don’t tell the audience they’re stupid. Don’t tell the audience they should be enjoying themselves more. I still sometimes make that mistake.
You tell the audience you’re stupid?
That’s the thing is that you want them to be laughing at you and/or with you, but if you’re laughing at them, that’s bullying.
I am surprised how often comedians blame the audience when they’re not being funny.
We know. We say the lighting was wrong and the sound wasn’t quite right, but we know.
I’ve apologized to my students. I come in and I say, “On Monday, I wasn’t very good. I’m sorry for that.”
On a few occasions, I’ve offered money back into the entire audience. I don’t think you’d do that in a twenty-minute gig unless you’re headlining. There is that thing that I’m a liability right now. I’m walking because then hopefully, the rest of the acts can turn it around and people have a good night. If you’re headlining or if it’s a solo show, then you do have the responsibility to somehow take it home. Or If they’re being weasels, if they’re all drunk and boisterous, which can happen, it happen less and less, as you get better, the gigs get better, but you can sometimes go, “This is going so badly,” then he flip the switch and you go, “I’m going to make them hate me so much that it’s at least a cathartic experience.” That’s quite fun to do and great fun to watch.
Bill Burr has a famous thing in Philadelphia where he just starts insulting the audience. He’s like nine more minutes to go and he just goes on and on.
There’s a gig I used to MC called Leighton Live at the Edinburgh Fringe festival, which started at 1:00 AM. That was often a gladiatorial affair. Comedians go, “What we’re going to do? Are we going to do comedy, or are we just going to fight?” If you want to, they will give you abuse for twenty minutes, you throw it back, and everyone walks away. It’s like they’ve not been to the comedy. They’ve been to a dog fight.
It’s like a boxing match. Gordon, this was a lot of fun.
Brilliant, thank you for having me.
I appreciate it.
About Gordon Southern
Gordon Southern is the international word clown. A stand up favourite across Europe and Australasia, he’s performed in over 30 countries. He is also one of most critically acclaimed comedians at the Edinburgh Fringe, having performed over a dozen solo shows there.
He is a regular at many top clubs including the famous London Comedy Store.
A talented actor and award winning writer with critical acclaim for numerous projects that he has worked on, Southern has written for some of the most memorable comedy shows of the last decade.