Later this week sees How Not To Live Your Life reach its conclusion with a one-off Christmas special, and at TVO we can’t think of a better time to grab some words from the man behind it all: Dan Clark. Velveteer Paulyne met with Dan to talk all things Don Danbury and beyond.
When Dan Clark first appeared on our television screens back in 1996 it was as a hooded mugger with barely two lines to rub together, on the classic cockney sitcom, Only Fools & Horses. Since then, Clark has taken his comedy career onto becoming the star and writer of his own hit BBC3 sitcom, How Not To Live Your Life, gaining a loyal cult fanbase. Along the way, he’s also appeared as the unforgettable Johnny Two Hats in The Mighty Boosh – starred in sitcom The Estate Agents, and even guested in an episode of French & Saunders.
Comedy has not always been at the forefront of Dan’s mind, however. He tells me that when he was young, he wanted to be an actor: “When I was younger I always found theatre a bit pompous. I was a bit intimidated by the literary side of it and the ‘thesps’ and actors. I love good plays and I love being in plays but it wasn’t for me at the time.”
As I sit with Clark there is an air of cultivated modesty about him – he certainly knows his comedy and his in-depth knowledge enabled him to find his ‘sound’ in stand-up, and at the same time combine a lot of comedy genres: “I’ve got surreal flourishes [in my stand-up] and some things go off in places. When I first met Noel and Julian I just thought ‘Wow that’s what I want to do’. I remember trying to do outright surreal stuff, and I was in a sketch trio called Electric Eel. We did about 3 or 4 Edinburgh’s and we were sort of a cross between the League Of Gentlemen and Little Britain.”
Once Dan had created a name for himself on the circuit, he was given the chance to make some shorts for Paramount Comedy with Gary Reich [Producer of both UnNatural Acts and How Not To Live Your Life]. These shorts saw the birth of Don Danbury. Though unnamed and undeveloped, the potential was seen in the character from the get-go, “Don Danbury is very confident but it’s totally misplaced confidence, he’s not who he thinks he is.”
One question always burning in people’s minds is where does Clark end and Danbury start? As a spectator, I can say that it’s hard to find the over-confident, cocky character we love to hate in the person sitting in front of me. While on the subject I suggest that Don could be a caricature of Dan, and ask if there are any elements of Don that he wishes he possessed: “Part of me does wish I could be like him – that I didn’t care what people thought of me. He lacks self awareness whereas I’m too aware.” He elaborates, “Some of the criticism after the pilot was that he was too unlikable and where Don wouldn’t care about that I was thinking, ‘Shit!'”
This brings us onto developing the character: “The good thing was when we got a second series, there were changes we couldn’t help,” he explains, hinting at the loss of Sinead Moynihan’s character Abby after her pregnancy – “But there were some things I wanted to change anyway. I looked back at what the fan forums were saying and the press… it was a horrible thing to go through. I looked on the internet after the first episode and there was bile. There were people saying I should be killed!”
“One thing I read that will never leave me was someone saying: ‘I can’t work out if this character is so unlikable or if he’s a terrible actor’. You can’t find anything in that sentence that you can work from!” Dan laughs in recollection: “Someone sent me a link to the same forum before the second series. At first I thought ‘Why are you doing this I thought we were friends!’, but he said to trust him so I went back, looked and I saw some really positive things! It was fascinating to see that about 80% had been completely won over!”
I had to ask whether he had taken on board any of the comments he’s read: “I just looked at what the character was and brought out some parts of his personality that people found more endearing. I don’t think he’s changed at all, but he’s developed a bit. I like the idea that he’s coming to the conclusion that he hasn’t lived his life properly – no pun intended”
Don then became a character that audiences grew to love. His simple and narcissistic outlook on life became enthralling, and as his fanbase grew Dan went back to his first love – stand-up. Earlier this year he travelled the length and breadth of the UK with a brand new live show – and he suggests he is keen to get back out there in the near future: “I’m missing doing live stuff, but I feel a bit embarrassed to be a stand-up at the moment. It used to be that you had to be a bit of a connoisseur to be into comedy – if you were into it you knew ones that were well-known on the scene but not on the television. It was sort of like being into indie music or art. There’s so many of them now. Some of them brilliant and some of them [are] not. It feels like you turn on the telly and there’s a conveyer belt of stand-up.”
With stand-up firmly entrenched in the mainstream once more, Clark has found it an obstacle to bring something new to his audiences. “I love doing it,” he explains, “But what am I offering them? You have to have something so unique… or do what everyone else is doing and make thousands and thousands of pounds!” Considering it for a moment more, he adds: “I’d love to do that, but I feel like the most important thing to me about stand-up comedy is that what you’re saying and doing is inventive in some kind of way – and that applies to whatever genre you do.”
Something we have overlooked at this point is Dan’s music, as his comedy songs have grown to become a large part of his performances. “When I started doing Clark’s – since 2005 now,” he tells me, “I used to do the odd song at the Albany, and we would always end in a sing song. The first one Noel [Fielding] headlined, and at the end we started pissing about on the guitar playing Eye Of The Tiger. We got everyone up and it became a thing we did after the show. At first it was very ironic and very tongue in cheek, but now when I do it people actually take it very matter of fact going: ‘I love this song!’ That’s how times have changed!”
The finales of the Clarks nights are personal favourites for TVO, and Dan’s original comedy songs are something that have been built and sculpted as serious song pieces about some of the funniest (and at the same time mundane) of subjects. Dan teases: “The songs we’ve done for the Christmas special are so good – even the ones I wrote! Then Ben [Parker] (HNTLYL music, The Chain) produced and recorded them, and added these melodies. The thing I wrote was good, but he makes it brilliant.”
College friend Parker toured with Clark, providing the music for the fully song-based, second half of his stand-up show. “I’d like to make an album with Ben of all my comedy songs – some are good but not funny enough to do live – in a Tenacious D kind of way… they are just hilarious to listen to.”
Many of you have probably been holding your breath in anticipation at the mere mention of Clark’s. The last one took place over a year ago, and Dan finally puts the question of more to rest in his own somewhat cryptic way: “I’ve been meaning to bring it back – so watch this space.” Not only is this exciting to hear, but his involvement in the comedy nights is something to be appreciated. “I love doing it so much,” he confesses, “but it takes a lot of work to organise it. I pick and book the acts, decide on the running order, book and pay for the venue, arrange the pre show music, the music in the show, the music in the interval, the lighting – everything. It’s pretty time-consuming. But that’s why I feel justified in calling it Clark’s.“
The last Clark’s saw Noel Fielding headlining, and throughout our chat it is clear that Dan holds the Boosh in high esteem for their enormous contribution to the world of surreal comedy. We touch on his latest involvement in the world of Booshdom – Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy, and whilst we dare not reveal too much about his character just yet, he is not alone in his eagerness to see the impact it has to the television schedules: “I think you can subvert from mainstream and that’s good. Don’t get me wrong… mainstream film and tv shows can be good but it’s got to be good quality. That’s why I’m really pleased Noel’s doing this show, because it’s possibly the weirdest thing that anyone’s seen in a long time. It will make the Boosh look like Porridge.”
Before that though, How Not To Live Your Life must come to an end. There is a tinge of sadness in the air as we prepare to say goodbye to our favourite characters, and TVO is not alone in feeling melancholic: “We found out about the special in February and at the time, I wasn’t upset. We had said that if we got a fourth series, then it would be the last. Then it became one of those situations where you want to break up with your girlfriend and she beats you to it! When I started writing it… it sort of wrote itself [because] I know those characters so well, and that’s when I got upset. The person I got particularly upset that I wouldn’t get to work with again was Leila [Hoffman] who play Mrs Treacher. She’s the star of the Christmas special. She’s amazing.”
We also see a familiar name from Booshdom in the special: “I’m so glad to get Julia [Davis] in. I don’t think people know how good an actress she is, but I genuinely don’t understand why she isn’t up there doing lots of amazing films as lots of quirky characters. She doesn’t play enough people that are close to her own personality.”
To end on a high note before we round off our afternoon chat, what can we expect from Don’s final hour?
“It’s a warm and fuzzy episode. Dan Clark does Richard Curtis. If you’re not a fan of happy endings then maybe don’t watch it.” We cannot disagree… warm and fuzzy is just how things should be!
It has been inspiring to find out from the the man behind the series, the time and heart that has gone into it. We have at the same time, been able to watch the characters grow whilst a group of comics and actors have grown to become a family. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling wholehearted gratitude for the television show that has been loved by men, women, children, parents and even grandparents!