Glasgow Comedy Festival Interview: Phil Differ

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Phil Differ has had a profound effect on Scottish comedy. Part of a golden age for writers, he started off with the anarchic collective behind Naked Radio, contributing to Not the Nine O’Clock News and Spitting Image before joining BBC Scotland’s Comedy Unit. This department was responsible producing the likes of Naked Video, Rab C Nesbitt, Scotch and Wry, City Lights and the show Phil is best known for, Only An Excuse?

After leaving the BBC to form an independent production company, The Comedy Unit then went on to chalk up even more success with Chewin’ the Fat, Still Game, The Karen Dunbar Show, Offside and Watson’s Wind Up.

In 2005, he fulfilled a life ambition and turned to stand up comedy. Phil is now a regular on the comedy circuit and will perform at the Glasgow International Comedy Festival. We called him up for a chat.

In terms of the way that you approach writing and the way that you approach stand up, is it different when you’re writing for yourself?

It’s a wee bit easier when you’re writing for yourself, because I’m the only person that I need to please really. And the way it is, when you’re writing for other performers or television programmes or whatever, there’s usually two or three people involved, and a committee idea approach to it, but when you’re sitting down to write for yourself, it’s just what amuses you, and that’s quite liberating.

I quite enjoy that, I have to admit. I like the other side, I like writing generally, but writing for yourself is a wee bit special.

I wonder, in terms of all the different things you have written for, what do you think is closest to your own comedy voice?

That’s an interesting question, that. There’s a bit of everything in there I think. My own comedy, should you call it that, has always been observational. I’d tend to say when I was writing stuff way back, you know Naked Radio and Naked Video, Scotch and Wry. I tended to write observational stuff and try and convince the actors that these observations were worth making.

I’d probably point to the very early days of Naked Radio. There hadn’t ever been a programme like that, a Scottish satire programme. We could do stuff about football, religion, politics, all from a Scottish perspective, which had never really been done before. And then that was quite liberating for a whole generation of writers, not just me.

That really was a breakthrough for creative comedy with a Scottish accent.

Aye, there was a whole bunch of us at that time, including Ian Pattison, who went on to write Rab C Nesbitt, and Bob Black who wrote City Lights.

A whole load of other guys as well, who then went on to write for Spitting Image, Not The 9 O’clock News. We basically had an outlet that we’d never had before, and we all found our voices, and it was a really good time.

It was a good time to be around, and a lot of credit has to go to BBC Scotland. Pat Chalmers, he was the controller and he had the guts to do that, and Colin Gilbert who brought it all together and brought us all together, he produced it. So, it was a good time that, it was good fun back in those days. And we were all a lot younger then, we didn’t care about who we offended, we just got wired in.

I suppose a young Scottish comedian today would be more likely to establish their own communication with an audience through YouTube, Twitter or other platforms where they can set their own editorial guidelines and get wired in.

No, that’s right. The gloves are off, sort of thing. I’ve kind of shied away from YouTube and everything like that. I just kind of like the idea of going to do a show, and it’s live, and my material hasn’t been done to death on YouTube or whatever.

I can retain that wee bit of … Chick Murray used to say that he didn’t like doing a lot of telly, because he said he was giving away all of his material. He liked to keep it for the live shows. So, there’s a bit of that philosophy I’m holding onto.

But, it certainly is vibrant at the moment, there’s so many young – well everybody’s young compared to me now – but young comedians are out there and there’s an avenue that they can take, there’s enough comedy clubs and gigs and venues that are giving them new opportunities, so it’s in a healthy state at the moment I would say.

When you were writing for radio or writing for television, did you spend a lot of time thinking about how the line should be delivered by the actor?

You know who you’re writing for, I think. For instance if I was writing for Ricky Fulton, I would hear his voice in my head as I was writing the thing, and I knew how he would deliver it, and I would say to him, not direct him, that’s too strong of a word to use, but I would tell him what I was imagining and we would discuss that.

But if you’re writing for certain people, you’ve got to write it in their style, you know, just the way they deliver it. So I would always hear in my head the performance and then the frustration of that sometimes, if they don’t like the joke and you cannot convince them, the joke would just be put in a drawer somewhere.

Or now, I can actually go and do it myself and prove I was right all along, whatever. And the thing is you’re never 100%, you can never be 100% right, and if an actor would say, “Oh, I really don’t fancy that joke.” you can’t put a gun to their head and say, “No, I think you should do it.” Because they’ve got to have confidence in it to be able to sell it. That’s the same for everybody, whether it’s your material or somebody else’s.

You had all the essential ingredients then, to make the leap and get up on a stage and do your thing. When did you realise you could actually be a stand-up as well as a writer?

Well, I was a judge. The Daily Record were running a competition to find Scotland’s best new comedian. And funnily enough Gary Little won it, who’s become a mate since then. So, I voted for Gary. But I was sitting there, I was a judge, and I was watching them go up and I felt really uncomfortable about it, because I’d never done it.

I didn’t know what it took to get up on stage and preform, and it’s easy to just say, “rubbish”, “crap” when you are judging but there was a bit of me that was envious of them, I’d rather have been being judged than judging.

So a couple of days later I met Fred MacAulay in the BBC canteen, and I said to him, “Look, I’ve got this hankering, I think I need to try stand-up. What do you think?” And he kind of called my bluff. He said, “I’ve got a show on at The Stand on Tuesday. Come over in five minutes and you’ll know then if you really want to do it or not, or if it’s just a folly.”

So I went up, my first gig at The Stand in Edinburgh, one of the best venues in the country. I went up there and I just loved it, I just really felt at home talking to the audience. There’s a nervousness about it all, obviously, because you think, “I’ve always had the hankering to try it, and now I’m going to find out in five minutes, which is not an awful lot of time, whether this is for me or not.”

And then that was it. It went okay, it wasn’t like I blew the roof off or anything like that, it was just okay, but in my head I though, “No, I enjoyed that. I loved of the challenge of that, and I loved the feedback of getting the laughs.” So, that was the start of it really. That was about 12 years ago. I think I was about 47 when I did my first gig and I’m 60 now, so I’ve been doing it all that time.

And the greatest thing about it is, every now and again you get a wee fright. You’re on a roll, and the gigs are going great and then every now and again you’ll do a line and it doesn’t get the response you’re expecting and you’re constantly learning, you can never be complacent about it. And that keeps you on your toes, I enjoy that part of it as well.

Do you sometimes find there’s a line that you didn’t expect to get a big laugh and that’s the one the audience responds to? I’ve had actors say that from when they’re opening a new play.

Aye, you just never know. You get it right most of the time, because you’re experienced or whatever, and your skills and abilities, but every now and again you just get a wee surprise, you think it’s going to get a big laugh and it just gets nothing. Or you think it’s going to get nothing and it gets a big laugh, and you’re on stage and you’re still performing and there’s a voice in your head saying, “What the hell happened there?”, you know? And you’re trying to make it look like everything’s cool and calm, but your fevered brain is asking you questions and trying to keep yourself on key, on the right track. But that’s all part of the fun of it, that’s all part of the excitement, taking on the audience and saying, “Right, I think this is funny. Do you agree with me?”

What’s the difference between what you bring to the comedy festival and what you would perform at a comedy club on a Tuesday or Thursday night?

It’s longer. If you’re doing a comedy, like The Stand, you’ll maybe do 15/20 minutes, and then when you do your own show it’s usually about an hour. But what I do, throughout the year I work up to it. I’m always writing new gags and build it up, build it up, bank it all, do a couple of gigs, you try it out at little low key venues, and see what works and what doesn’t, and just try and shape it into a form, and then learn it basically.

That’s the thing I hate the most, is having to learn the thing. It would be great if we just stood up there and it all came out our heads, but the rehearsal is very important as well, because having written it you then have to familiarise yourself with it so it doesn’t sounds like your reading it inside your head.

I’m looking forward to it, I’ve been writing pretty much solidly since January.

And do you particularly like performing in front of a home audience?

I’ve lived in Glasgow, on the west of Scotland all my life, so I tend to view the world from that perspective. I’ve gigged in Ireland and I’ve gigged in America as well, and to be honest, there’s similarities. Obviously there’s wee nuances of Glasgow life, there’s the wee edges that you can visit that you couldn’t visit other places, but I’m comfortable with that, I enjoy that sense that it’s a conversation I’m having with the audience rather than battering them with jokes. It’s like a communion thing, like me and them, and get them to think like you. And the more familiar they feel it is, the more they should connect.

Phil Differ
Self Portrait

Oran Mor
Saturday 18 March 8pm

Tickets £12.50

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