As any good peeler will know Dan Clark performed a short run of his new show These Songs May Contain Jokes from 2nd-5th May (2012) at the Soho Theatre in London. We were lucky enough to grab a cuppa and a slice of cake with Dan as he was starting rehearsals for the show. Velveteer Mog reports:
Dan Clark is the kind of bloke mothers wish their daughters would bring home: slightly dashing, well-spoken, a hint of tweedy academia – all neatly wrapped up in boyish charm. My Mum’s loss is Dan’s gain.
The day we meet he’s fizzing with excitement about his new live show, having embarked on rehearsals with his band the previous evening. “It was so good, so good!” he beams.
Dan explains why this show differs from previous ones: “The tour (in 2011) was 70% stand-up but this one is mainly music. I had a huge number of songs, some of which I’ve never done before, some that I did in the show last year and some from the TV show – but I needed to make them feel different. We’ve completely reworked them, so even though the lyrics and the jokes are the same they feel very different.”
For the new show the musical partnership of Dan and Ben Parker (“A master of melody and harmony”) has been extended to include bass player, Jimmy Sims (“He’s brilliant and he really gets comedy”) and drummer Johnny de’Ath (“An amazing professional musician who tours with loads of bands”).
I ask Dan how the writing process plays out now that he’s working with a full band. “They’re all my songs that I go in to play to them,” he explains, “With some of them I’ve got a clear idea of what I can hear at different points, and then at other times I’m like, ‘Here’s the song, what do you think?’ There was one last night that we ended up doing completely differently to how I’d imagined it, and it came to life. I was literally buzzing afterwards – I got to fulfil my rock star fantasies!” His enthusiasm for this project is palpable. He goes on to describe a song he wrote only last week, which will feature in the show: “Ben told me it was the best song I’d ever written so I was beaming with pride. Playing it last night was so much fun – there’s a guitar solo, a drum solo…it’s proper cheesy rock n roll!” Dan looks genuinely delighted.
The enthusiasm with which he talks about These Songs May Contain Jokes leads me to ask if he has plans to tour the show. He says that although he’d love to take it to other cities, sadly it’s not financially viable, and he doesn’t want to scale it down. “If you see the show you’ll see why. I think it feels special – it just has a really good vibe about it.” He says.
So who are the other music/comedy acts that Dan relates to? He cites Flight of the Concords and Tenacious D as examples of artists who strike a balance between being funny with being genuinely musical: “All of our songs are written as comedy but because of the nature of the melodies and chords they don’t sound like ‘comedy jazz hands’…they’re not wacky” Dan explains, waggling his elbows…wackily, by way of illustration. ”They’re all written like I was writing a serious pop song. If you can get a few belly laughs out of a song whilst you’re also caught up in the music it’s brilliant. I’ve got a handful of songs that have managed to achieve both!” He laughs.
As someone who combines music with stand-up, as well as comedy acting, I wonder how Dan decides the form that a particular joke will take. He pauses to think for a moment: “Sometimes I”ll come up with stand-up material but there isn’t quite enough for a whole routine – it’s an observation but it doesn’t really have gags – so I’ll turn it into a song. It’s wherever it feels funniest, whether you want people to think ‘Yeah, I’ve experienced that’ or whether you want people to experience it more conceptually.”
Throught our conversation Dan strikes me as someone who really thinks about his art – sometimes to the point of self-consciousness, and he has a point of view on most topics connected to comedy. We talk about the courage required to stand on stage and attempt to make an audience laugh. Dan agrees it can be tough, saying, “It’s one of the most brutal ways of finding out if something works or not. Even if you have the strongest twenty minutes of material and you decide to put on one minute of new material in the middle of it, just as you’re coming up to it you start getting really nervous. As human beings we can’t bear the idea of trying to be funny and not getting laughed at – it’s rejection.”
“But sometimes things aren’t funny, it’s not the end of the world; but it feels like it when you’re on stage.” Self-effacingly, Dan admits that sometimes the biggest laughs come from the joke you make about a previous one that hasn’t worked, “…And you almost want it to not work the next night!” He adds.
People’s reactions to comedy, especially TV comedy, continues to surprise him; indeed, he even has a theory about it: “For some reason comedy provokes the strongest reactions. The good thing about it is that if a show does well and finds its audience you get fans who are properly fanatical, like people who love bands. When you’ve made people laugh in a certain way they hold onto that subconsciously – we adore people that have make us laugh. The bad thing is that if you watch a show that you don’t think is funny, people actually feel offended.” Dan sighs with a hint of exasperation, “Comedy is so subjective, but for some reason the people who don’t find it funny think that they’re right and they represent everyone’s opinion.”
Although he discusses it with a smile on his face, it’s obviously something Dan feels strongly about: “If a drama show goes out on TV and it’s not that good no one kicks up a fuss, no one goes ‘Whoever commissioned this should be shot. I want my license fee back!’ I could easily say that a drama that doesn’t engage me in the first five minutes is the same as a comedy that doesn’t make me laugh, but people just don’t mind as much – they just accept that it’s not their cup of tea. But rarely do people accept that about comedy.” He pauses for a moment then adds, “I wonder if it’s because fundamentally every human thinks they’re funny or that they ultimately know what is funny? Everyone forgets it’s subjective – so before they start phoning up to complain they should think ‘Well maybe it’s just not for me.’”
We discuss how Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy (which featured Dan in convincing form as Miami Vice’s Don Johnson) provoked a strong audience reaction from the outset. “It’s a show that’s so out there it doesn’t surprise me that it divided people. But I love that Noel dared to make something that bold.” He says.
Although Dan has played cameos in other Booshniverse shows, he’s probably best known for his role as Don Danbury in three series and a Christmas Special of How Not To Live your Life - and he’s recently been in Los Angeles writing a US version of the cult show. This is the third time that inroads have been made into adapting HNTLYL for the US; the first time American writers for CBS failed to capture the spirit of the show: “They’d changed almost everything, it didn’t feel authentic. I didn’t mind the change but it didn’t bear any resemblance to the show.” He explains. A couple of years after that NBC passed on it because it felt “too edgy”. Dan reckons he’ll know whether the project will get the green light in the next month, so let’s hope it’s third time lucky!
Who would play Don in the American version of HNTLYL? No decisions have been made yet, and Dan explains that there are three options: an American actor, Dan as the Don we’ve seen in the UK series, and finally Dan playing Don as an American. He physically squirms at the latter option, “I’m not comfortable playing him American because we live in a much smaller world now so there’s a lot of people who will have seen the original who will also watch the remake and it’ll be like ‘That’s weird – that’s Don, but with an American accent.’” Another fleeting glimpse of self-consciousness.
But for now Dan’s focus is very much in the UK and the Soho Theatre in particular. “Yes, I’m finally in a band!” he grins, his enthisiasm for the project on full beam. “It’s going to be a fun show.”
Many thanks to Dan for taking the time to chat to The Velvet Onion.