Let’s Be Frank

Frank Skinner is embarking on his first stand-up tour since 2007 and we caught up with the acclaimed comedian to talk about honesty, filth, history and much more

If there is a finer live comedian than Frank Skinner currently at work in this country, then I have yet to see him (or her). So it is with great excitement that he’s back for his first major national tour in seven years. He is hitting the road this spring with a big tour of his coruscating new show, Man in a Suit. And he just can’t wait!

Frank has had an immensely successful broadcasting career ranging from The Frank Skinner Show and Fantasy Football League in the 1990s to today’s Room 101 (which is currently in its third series for BBC1), and his Sony Award-winning Absolute Radio show, which commands 600,000 listeners every week and has had more than 13 million downloads as a podcast.

However, it is as a stand-up comedian where he feels most at home. The live arena gives full rein to Frank’s spontaneous wit. It allows him two hours to demonstrate how he cannot help but be funny. He is one of Nature’s most effortlessly hilarious people.

The great thing is, Frank is equally funny in person. An hour-long interview with him is like being treated to a command performance – to an audience of one. It is a delightful experience spending time in his company and you emerge at the end of it feeling upbeat and uplifted.

Frank, who has over the years won numerous awards for his stand-up, including the prestigious Perrier Award in 1991, begins by underlining how much he is looking forward to returning to the stage. “It’s so different from other stuff. I like the sense that it’s not being recorded. Even when you come to record your DVD, no matter how much you fight it, you feel that you’re wearing a slightly smaller suit. It feels a lot more restrained.

“So much stuff is recorded these days. Small stand-up clubs will often have a camera at the back of the room and you never know where the footage will end up. In the end, memories will be completely closed down. YouTube has already totally killed the anecdote. It provides anecdotes for the illiterate: ‘Here’s a funny thing – look at this!’”

The other aspect about live comedy that Frank revels in is the terrific rapport that he enjoys with his audiences. “I love interacting with the audience,” affirms the comedian, the proud father of a one-year-old son called Buzz. “When it goes well, suddenly I feel like I’m part of the audience as well.

That’s very exhilarating. Last week a woman in the front row had an American accent, and I asked if she was from the US. She replied, ‘No, I’m from Iraq’. I’d made the wrong-est guess anyone’s ever made and my life flashed in front my eyes – but the audience laughed about it for at least a minute.

“Those moments are very precious because they’re not repeatable. They happen so quickly that you’re not even aware of the process. During my last tour, a guy came up to me and told me he had been doing comedy for eight months. He said, ‘You know when you come back to the audience really quickly – how do you do that?’ I replied, ‘I don’t know’. ‘Come on, it would really help me. What difference would it make to you?’ ‘I’m honestly not keeping anything from you. It just happens’. I don’t know how you could rehearse those exchanges – unless you practiced with your partner. But she doesn’t always appreciate my comebacks! Anyway, those moments on stage are very pleasurable indeed.”

What makes Frank’s live work so special is its unalloyed candour. As he ranges over such varied subjects as relationships, religion, rows with your partner, filth, salty popcorn, Prince Charles, long black leather coats, the yard of ale, giving to the homeless, the Tube and taste, he delivers his material with an admirable sense of honesty.

This makes sense from a comedian whose first autobiography was simply entitled Frank. “Honesty is vital,” reflects the comedian, whose Absolute Radio show was downloaded 2.8 million times last year, making it both Absolute and commercial radio’s most successful podcast.

“Everything I do is autobiographical. When I’ve strayed from that and tried to write a novel in the third person or sitcoms, they have not been great. I’m essentially an autobiographical writer. I once read a biography of Jack London. It revealed that he wrote by buying a story from someone and then developing that into a novel. His justification was that his gift lay in expression, not invention. I suspect I’m the same.”

So just how much of Frank’s material in Man in a Suit is lifted directly from his own life? “You’d be amazed! I embroider very little. I never completely invent anything. I think it would lack conviction if I did. It feels more real when it is true.”

One thing that has changed about Frank’s act over the years is that it now features far less blue material than it did in the past. The comedian, who also penned Frank Skinner on the Road, which chronicled his 2007 sell-out return to stand-up, explains that Man in a Suit is merely an account of who he now is.

“There’s a bit of filth, but not much. When I do Room 101 or my radio show, I’m very me. I don’t feel phoney. I’m very clean because it’s eight in the morning. David Baddiel said to me recently, ‘When I think of ‘your funny’ off stage, I don’t think of you doing knob jokes. I think of you talking about John Updike.’ That’s more who I am off stage these days.

“I’ve done a lot of knob jokes in my time, but maybe I’ve emptied my supply of them now. Your comedy should be a reflection of what’s in your head and I just don’t think of sex as much as I used to. When you get into a long relationship, sex is no longer the dominant thing.”

All the same, 57-year-old Frank adds, “I still have to do a bit of filth on stage. If I didn’t, that would be like Bernie Clifton not performing with his ostrich. So I go through a process of negotiation with my audience – ‘let me read you some haikus, and I’ll trade you that for some knob gags later on.’ I think that’s a fair deal. I’ll talk about Plato and I’ll then give you a knob gag. It’s like training a dog: you have to sit while I say my bit but then I’ll reward you with a chocolate biscuit afterwards.”

Frank, who had three number one hits alongside David Baddiel and The Lightning Seeds with their football anthem, “Three Lions”, continues that his current cleaner act mirrors the present state of comedy. “In the past, people would always laugh at the rude stuff because they were getting something they couldn’t get elsewhere. When I did my first tour in 1991, that was certainly true.

“But now 8 out of 10 Cats is much ruder than my stuff was in 1991. So people don’t have to go to live comedy to get that anymore. That means I’m able to do more stuff that I like. It’s great because it keeps my show fresh. When I’ve done the live show 40 times, I don’t feel, ‘Oh God, here we go again.’ Maybe that’s because I’m doing stuff that is not so much on the button anymore.”

Frank, who has recently published Dispatches from the Sofa, a collection of columns he wrote for The Times over a two-year period, muses that he is relishing the prospect of this tour so much because it is a very accurate portrait of who he is now.

“I’m enjoying this tour more than I did in 2007. Then I was still feeling a strong obligation to be who I was in 1997. I’m never good at playing a version myself. I like being me and reflecting where I am at that time.

“That’s why I don’t like greatest hits albums. I like to hear a particular slice of time and know where a band were when they recorded an album – ‘This is where The Kinks were when they brought out Village Green Preservation Society’. Man in a Suit is very much about where I am at the moment.”

Frank is also currently preparing to record The Rest is History, a tremendous new six-part Radio 4 comedy discussion show on the subject of history. The comedian, who recently also really enjoyed co-hosting with Joan Bakewell Sky Arts’ fascinating series, Portrait Artist of the Year, comments that, “I like the idea of doing a panel show on Radio 4 because I can say anything as far as cleverness is concerned.

“If people don’t know something, they’ll be angry with themselves, rather than me. On my Radio 4 comedy, Don’t Start, one section was largely based on Androcles and the Lion. That would’ve been harder to pull off on The One Show. In fact, the last time I was on The One Show, I did a CS Lewis joke and I said to them, ‘I bet that’s the first time you’ve had a CS Lewis joke’.

“I thought I’d like to do a panel show where I could talk about anything to do with history. I love history but I haven’t studied it. So I thought, ‘I’ve got two choices – Google or a radio show. Well, I might as well get paid for it!’ So the aim of the show is to teach me about history – you can listen too if you like! I’m hoping this will be one of those Radio 4 shows that lasts for 50 years and that my son Buzz will present it when I retire!”

Frank closes by returning to the subject of how much he is looking forward to performing live once more with Man in a Suit. “I’ve always had the showing off gene. I see it now in my son. The other day he did an impression of me doing the impression of Louis Armstrong, and I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder! So on stage I want to show off. If the audience are laughing, I want to make them laugh even more. Above all, I really care about the audience having a very good time indeed.”

And there is little doubt that that is exactly what they will have.

Frank Skinner will be performing Man In A Suit at the Brighton Centre on June 1st. For more information visit frankskinnerlive.com