Seann Walsh interview – Brighton bad boy turns eagle-eyed comic
Ahead of his two big shows at Leicester Square Theatre, hairy observationalist Seann Walsh gives London is Funny a candid and combative interview, in which he defends his style of comedy, recalls how Lee Evans made him cry, and reveals how he was a menace to Brighton until he was transformed by a trip to Komedia club
Tell us about the Leicester Square shows
"It's called Seann Walsh Live, so it's not just Seann To be Wild [his most recent show], I never got to do my last one there [called Ying and Yonger], I was going to do it there but it was cancelled because of the sitcom pilot [more on that later – teaser Ed]. So these ones will be … a mesh of everything I've ever thought that I now think is any good. Does that even make sense? I could have just said: 'They're the best bits.'"
You're three shows into your career now, do you feel like you've learned a lot since the first one?"
"Absolutely, with I'd Happily Punch Myself In the Face [his first show in 2010], I think it was too early for me, I really regret doing it and didn't enjoy it. In hindsight I did a few things too early, like that show and some TV that I won't mention specifically.
There was a lot of expectation on you with that first show
"I didn't know what I was doing [cue shrieking Ricky Gervais-style laugh]! I don't know why there was so much expectation. I didn't know how to say anything I hadn't scripted, but nobody knew that! I could've been having a great gig but if anyone had ... I dunno, coughed, I wouldn't have known what to do.
"Also looking back, it was in a very small room, and the clubs I'd been doing were much bigger, Glee [in Birmingham] is 400 or so. I wasn't doing the [Comedy] Store at that point. Yeah I've always had better gigs in big rooms – the more people there, the better I'm gonna be. That's all I ever wanted to do. I hated doing small rooms even when I'd only just started – I know this sound ridiculous but when I was new, I'd do the whole set looking up as if I was looking out at the Apollo or Glee, even if there were only 50 people there, because that's what I'd seen Jack Dee and Lee Evans doing on their videos. It's ridiculous but that's what I did."
So what happened with the second one, and then this year's show?
"The 2011 one was quite rushed. I wrote it quite late on, but by the end of the previews [late July] the show was going down incredibly well and I was in a good place in my life at that point. Then I got to Edinburgh, I had one bad gig and it really got to me and I kind of crashed. So I really hated that Edinburgh as well!
"So I was dreading Edinburgh this year, but it went really well. We went for a bigger room, which was a gamble, but they loved the show, and I really liked it – I can say that about this one – the Friday and Saturday night shows were fantastic. I had a few bad ones but instead of going "oh I'm useless I'm terrible Edinburgh's not for me", I knew the next day or the day after that I'd have another good one – you don't understand that when you're newer.
"I think it's an honest show. I don't read reviews but I'm aware roughly of what people think, that it's observational and therefore cheap and easy and I get a bit defensive about that, but actually, I think the show is an honest one. It's about a bloke who, when I'm not doing stand-up, is drinking. What am I gonna write about? All I'm doing it working and getting smashed; this is unfortunately who I am."
How would you defend observational comedy?
"Well I didn't even know I was doing observational comedy. All I was doing was saying was what I thought was funny. I've mentioned this in other interviews, it sounds stupid like something for my book or something, but me and my old best friend Dave, I'd wait for him in detention and he'd wait for me in detention, and we'd walk home and just do observational comedy, point out these things, and things we thought about the world, little things that don't matter. It's what we loved the most. I'd be doing Lee Evans impressions [he does a nifty Lee Evans impression at this point].
"It was amazing to have stand-up comedy then as when you're a teenager you think that you are so different to everyone else. That's when I was most interested in stand-up – early teenager, 11, 12, 13. Later on I was most interested in getting into trouble, but at that point to have these comedians doing these jokes and observations, and going: that happens to me! This weird freak understands me! That's all I ever wanted to do, to go up and go "oh you know when this happens?"
Does it take the joy out of it to be conscious that you're an observational comic now
"It absolutely takes the joy out of it, 100%. I get a bit afraid that I'm gonna say something and someone in their heads they're going, 'there he goes again, pointing something out' [weary voice]. And I always thought that's what was funny.
"I feel attacked and scared off doing bills with other comics, I'd think, oh they're not gonna like me as I find repetition of human behaviour funny, I get quite intimidated."
It's often said that observational comedy is "easy" comedy
"Well that is bollocks. Maybe someone else is finding it easy, but I don't. My whole living room is covered in Post-it notes trying to find the observation no one else has said. For me it's about finding a moment or capturing an image that no one has ever spoken about but which we all do.
"I feel its my job to take find something that's at the back of out head and bring it to the front. That's really fun. Finding thing that binds everyone in the room … I find it amazing, none of us have met before, but there's a thing, a weird thing that we all know or do, I think it's hilarious."
You've said you were very different before you took up stand-up – what were you like?
"I was very naughty. I got suspended 12 times from my school, I was running away from the police all the time, I robbed a weapon shop! I got some daggers like from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."
What were you suspended for?
"Egging someone, trying to start a 'fuck off' chant in my English class [long, long laugh], smoking cannabis under an exam hall [that he was supposed to be in] and blowing smoke through the holes in the ceiling. I was what some people would call a 'chav'. Nike TNs – yes please! I had the short hair, tramlines, bleached mohawk thing. My hair got long for the first time because cannabis got the better of me. Me and my friend Dave would just get stoned after school, it was all I was doing. So I was never gonna go and got my hair cut."
When did things change?
"I started hanging out with middle class friends, basically. But I'd say that my life changed when my mum and her friends took us to the Komedia [comedy club]. I'd seen Jack Dee and Lee Evans and Jeff Green at the Brighton Dome, some comedy festival, and that was incredible, but it felt extraordinary, far from reality. I didn't really know about comedy clubs then but the Komedia blew my mind.
"I started going every week; if my friends couldn't go then I'd go on my own. I went so much I stopped having to buy a ticket, they'd just go yeah in you go, weirdo. It was all within reach – these people weren't stars but they were fucking hilarious. I thought, maybe I could do this.
"So I did the Jill Edwards comedy course in Brighton, she did Jimmy Carr and Hal Cruttenden, my first gig was a 50-seater above a lesbian pub, then my second was the Komedia."
What was it like to sign to the same agency as your childhood heroes Jack Dee and Lee Evans?
"It was amazing. I worked with Lee Evans doing the Glee club when he was warming up for his Roadrunner tour and he actually made me cry. He gave me a pep talk, a bit of advice, and when he was doing it he had his hands on my shoulders, then suddenly I remembered how I would finish watching Lee Evans the Ultimate Experience, rewind it and watch it again – I couldn't just watch it once. So I was stood there and I saw myself dissolve, like a cheap 80s dissolve, over his face, with me rewinding the video and pressing play. I could feel my eyes watering so I said, thank you I'm just going to the toilet, went into the toilet and balled my eyes out.
"Dylan Moran was another big influence on me – when Monster came out after Black Books, I watched it so much, I couldn't get to sleep without Monster on. When it comes to comedy influences … I think some people think I know what I'm doing, like I'm pretending to be like someone cynically – I'm really not. I grew up watching all these videos, it rubs off on you. It's not contrived, it's real, I feel my friends would vouch for that.
Tell us about your Comedy Central projects
"There's a sitcom which is filming mid-November, called Big Bad World. I think it's about a young man who's gone back home after uni and re-fallen in love with his ex, and wants to get her back. I play a friend, and his group of friends is giving him bits of advice, pulling him in different directions. I say 'I think' because there are seven episodes to be written.
"I'm not sure what my ambitions are, I don't know, there so many brilliant comedians around, even if what they're doing isn't to my tastes, I sort of have to go 'why would anyone see me over that?'
"I'm not into celebrity and shit like that, being crap on Twitter, I've tried it and don't know what I'm doing. I stay away from all that celebrity stuff which is a good thing, I think.
"If could go back and tell my 11-year-old me that I've been on telly would be amazing. But being a celebrity? Being a celebrity and being on TV are different thing basically. You don't see Jack Dee stumbling out of clubs and stuff like that. I'm not really interested either. So if you see me in Hello! magazine something's gone seriously wrong."