Caro Meets Comedy Interview

Will Franken: Things He Did Before Reality

By | Published on Wednesday 27 February 2013

Will Franken

US character comedian Will Franken made something of a splash at last summer’s Edinburgh Festival, garnering great reviews for ‘Things We Did Before Reality’, not least from our own reviewer, who thought he was “fucking awesome”. We were therefore pleased to hear that he was headed London-wards with that very same show, and there’s an added bonus – it looks like he’s here to stay. With some help from Wikipedia, we set him some questions…

CM: According to Wikipedia (which obviously tells the truth at all times) you began your career as an actor. What made you switch to comedy?
WF: I actually wanted to be a comedian first. I had done a few scattered gigs and one-man type comedy shows in various comedy clubs and book stores in small towns in Missouri.

But when I moved to New York to pursue it further, I got so frustrated with the ridiculously long lines at open mics (sometimes not going up until 2 am on a Sunday) or the “bringer” shows (bring five people who pay five dollars to watch you do five minutes on a night the booker isn’t even there) that I fell into acting almost out of frustration. At least with an audition I knew I was going to get up for a chance to do something, either a cold reading or a monologue.

I found that I got cast frequently thanks to a growing repertoire of voices/characters. I miss it often. There’s a comfort in interpreting someone else’s lines sometimes; the onus of writing is subtracted from the equation and it can be quite relaxing.

CM: Wikipedia also says you used to be a teacher. What was that like?
WF: Well, I’ve had stints teaching at the college level and at the junior high school level (sixth, seventh, and eighth grades in America). Teaching college was fun. It’s the kind of job you get when you don’t want to work, show off how smart you are, and flirt with eighteen to nineteen year old chicks in a meaningful way.

That being said, I was the kind of teacher I hated to have. A fun teacher. The professors I admired were the ones that stuck to the subject matter, never showed a sense of humour, and wore tweed jackets. A bit like the lead character in ‘The Browning Version’ or Houseman in ‘The Paper Chase’. The students liked me. I got great reviews at the end of semester – save for the random Mormon chick who took umbrage at my rampant profanity. I taught beginning English, so I could justify anything under that rubric. If I felt like playing The Who’s ‘Live At Leeds’, I’d get a boom box from the AV department and talk about Pete Townsend’s use of “inner dialogue”. If I felt like watching ‘Taxi Driver’, I’d bring in a TV and ask the students to look for “themes”. Mostly it was fifty minutes three times a week for me to hone my improvisational comedy skills.

I taught junior high for one year (1999-2000) in inner-city Harlem and I was so traumatised by the abuse from the children and the negligence of the administration, I vowed I would never work a regular job again in my life. And I haven’t. I was so egotistical, I thought I would approach the first day like Robin Williams in ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ and transform their lives from ghetto ignorance into Blakean mysticism. By day two, it was “SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!”

CM: Final Wikipedia question: it also says that you have a masters in English. Who is your favourite 18thC literary figure?
WF: Jonathan Swift, undoubtedly. The godfather of smart asses. All satire flows from his ever-percolating streams.

CM: You took ‘Things We Did Before Reality’ to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012. How did you enjoy the festival and do you plan to return at any point?
WF: I enjoyed the festival immensely. I underwent a beautiful type of ego death and I think as a result I was rewarded with a very enriching experience and some wonderful reviews. I do plan on returning next year. It depressed me to no end when it was over.

CM: What made you decide to bring the show to London this spring? Has it changed much since you performed it in Edinburgh?
WF: I never wanted to leave the UK. I only came back to the States because my agent told me I had to. I’ve been an Anglophile since I was a very little child and it took going to Edinburgh and receiving the accolades there to make me realise that I’ve been wasting time in the US for too long.

Those nearly six months between last year’s Edinburgh and this year’s Soho run were the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my career. It’s a wasteland out there for character comics like myself who’ve drawn their inspiration from the Brits. Americans think and trade in the lowest common denominator as if it’s gold bullion.

Sorry, let me catch me breath. What was the other question? Ah, yes. The show has largely been left intact since Edinburgh, although there will be some new sketches thrown in as well. A series of public service announcements from David Bowie on arthritis, a professional eavesdropper from Glasgow named Jack Rabbit. And others, including my favourite new impression: “The Front Page of Every Third Issue Of The New York Times”.

CM: It sounds like your material has something in common with the oeuvre of Monty Python. In what ways is it similar? Is Monty Python an inspiration for you?
WF: Very much so. The Flying Circus episodes more than then movies, because structurally the transitions are so key to their framework. That made such an impression on me as a youngster — seeing how they could convey a comedic idea as having no beginning and no end, a perpetual fluidity. Their ability to unleash the innate pyrotechnics of the human subconscious (“The Election Night Special” as just one example with the name of a candidate that takes John Cleese nearly two minutes to finish saying). And their breaking of the fourth wall was also very inspiring for me as well. Anything they could do to avoid asking what so many stand-ups to this day ask under the pretence of moving the show along: “what else”? Monty Python didn’t have to ask “what else” because they were the what else.

CM: Have any other comedy acts inspired you?
WF: Oh, yeah. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in their Derek & Clive personas. I was a big fan of Steve Martin’s early albums as well as the huge body of Richard Pryor’s work. Lenny Bruce before he became obsessed with his own importance was a pretty gifted multi-character storyteller, as in his fifteen minute ode to bad comedians “The Palladium”. Though I discovered him too late in life to consider him an influence, I’m also a huge admirer of the work of Chris Morris.

Mostly, though, I’m influenced by character actors. Icons like Peter Sellers who only really came to life when they were immersed in a role. I’ve always found that level of intensity fascinating and something which to aspire.

CM: What sort of comedy characters appear in your act?
WF: All sorts. I have a redneck woman who thinks the sun is a UFO. I’ve got black prostitutes as well as Victorian-era English prostitutes. I can do George Formby, David Bowie, Stephen Hawking, Jodie Foster. I’ve got military leaders, drug counsellors, marriage counsellors, histrionic women, sanctimonious multicultural types, Muslim interfaith panel discussions. Sometimes I’ll even try to write a sketch simply because it allows me an opportunity to do a character I haven’t done yet. Most of my characters are born and die in a three-minute span, but some have been known to go on as long as eight. It all depends. I can guarantee,however, that each hour-long show will have a minimum of forty characters.

CM: Are you looking forward to being in London? Are you planning to go sightseeing? if so, what will you visit?
WF: I’m looking forward to living in London. I’m finished with America. I probably won’t do too much sightseeing here in London, but in other places across the UK. I got out most of my sightseeing the first time I came here in ’07; with my favourite location being the Imperial War Museum. Last year when I was in London, I fine-tuned my sightseeing to focus on rock trivia. The Battersea Power Station from Pink Floyd’s ‘Animals’, my second hajj to Abbey Road. I even took the tube out to Willesden Green just because of that Kinks’ song of the same title. I think now I’m just going to stay busy gigging and hopefully pull a few birds. Can’t be bad.

Will Franken appears in ‘Things We Did Before Reality’ at Soho Theatre from 28 Feb – 9 Mar.

LINKS: | |