Frank Skinner is one of the country’s best known comedians. He talks to Chris Bond about his love of stand-up and why he likes to challenge himself.
IF you talk to most stand-up comics they will tell you the hardest part of their job isn’t going out on stage in front of hundreds of people and making them laugh, it’s staring at a blank page and trying to come up with new material that’s as good, if not better, as what they’ve done before.
Yet even some of the most seasoned stand-ups would baulk at the idea of walking out in front of a packed crowd without a script of some kind – which is what Frank Skinner did a while back in a series of improvised hour-long gigs. “When it worked, and it probably worked five times out of six, it was absolutely exhilarating,” he says, in his unmistakable Brummie lilt.
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Even so he decided against doing it as a full blown tour. “With a totally improvised show you are going to get those nights when it’s not as good and I didn’t want to go to somewhere like Scarborough with people having booked a babysitter and found somewhere to park and for it to be one of the bad nights,” he says.
“I love being up on stage, but you don’t know if you’ve written a good gag until you’re up there. I’ve been wrong many times thinking ‘I can’t wait to try this, it’s going to bring the house down’ and then get nothing from the audience. It’s often the gag you’re not sure about that storms it.”
Skinner embarks on his latest UK tour, his first in four years, next week and between now and the end of the year he’ll be making several appearances in Yorkshire.
He is, of course, far more than just a comic. As a TV presenter he’s hosted BBC’s Room 101 and Sky’s Portrait of the Artist, had his own TV show – The Frank Skinner Show – and indulged his love of football (he’s an avid West Brom fan) along with David Baddiel in Fantasy Football League back in the 90s.
He’s even been feted as a pop star, co-writing (and co-performing) the anthemic Three Lions, which became a hit single and the soundtrack to Euro 96.
Stand-up, though, remains his true calling. “I think of myself as a stand-up who does other things,” he says. “I once went about ten years without doing a tour and I wouldn’t want to do that again. I like all the paraphernalia of touring.
"If you interview bands like Pink Floyd they’ll say ‘well, I like doing the shows but I couldn’t cope with the hotels and the travel’, but I love all that. I like the touring life.”
Though he concedes that since becoming a father he’s not on the road as much as he once was. “I used to go on tour for three or four months and if I had a night off I wouldn’t go home.
Now, the tour is structured so I do three or four shows and then go home for a couple of nights. It’s based on the fact that I pine for my family a bit after a few days.”
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Unlike many stand-ups these days who like to riff on a single theme or idea, Skinner keeps it fairly simple. “What I like to do is to be up there talking as if I’ve met the audience individually in a pub and I’m just telling them about some things that have happened to me. It’s more conversational and less performance based – I’m really happy just to be the funny bloke in the pub.”
It sounds easy but it belies the kind of skill and confidence that only comes with experience. Yet as a working class youngster growing up in the Midlands, a career in comedy wasn’t exactly on the cards. “I didn’t know anyone who did anything other than work in a factory.
"I only knew one person who’d been overseas and that was one of my sister’s boyfriends who’d done National Service and he’d been to Burma – so to be an entertainer seemed a million miles away for me.”
As a child, though, he’d shown an innate ability to make people laugh. “I remember when I was about eight the teacher went out the class and she turned to me and said, ‘can you go to the front and make them laugh for a bit, I’ll be back in five minutes.’ So she gave me a gig.”
Skinner later studied English at university and went on to teach English to A-Level students at a college in Birmingham, while at night he moonlighted as a comic.
“I think most people spend a large chunk of their life trying to work out what they should be doing and most people never find out. I never really found a career so I didn’t have any big decision about giving up my day job, because I was a part-time lecturer so I wasn’t walking away from that much.”
His stand-up career started properly in 1987 when he spent £400 of his last £435 booking a room at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. “Edinburgh was where I first saw people doing alternative comedy. I went to see some of these shows and I thought, ‘this is what I want to do.’”
Four years later he returned to the city and beat fellow nominees Jack Dee and Eddie Izzard to take home comedy’s most prestigious prize, the much coveted Perrier Award. “In those days that award was life changing.
There used to be a party afterwards where you were officially given the award and I remember I had someone from the BBC, someone from Channel 4 and someone from ITV all approach me and invite me in for a meeting. So I went from being a club comedian to being wooed by all the main broadcasters. It happened that quickly – I’d only won it an hour earlier.”
He quickly became a familiar face on our TV screens, though he says he pigeon-holed himself initially. “When I first started doing comedy, people probably saw me as a working class bloke and a bit of a lad who was into football and then I wrote my autobiography and in that I opened up about all my other interests and then I started get different offers,” he says.
“I think people like you to be a graspable character and not too contradictory. But you can like Shakespeare, West Bromwich Albion and Elizabeth Hurley. It’s possible to see the beauty in all those things.”
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Skinner is now 62 and last year wrote his first play, adding another string to his bow. “One of the reasons I like what I do is that I don’t know what the next phone call is going to be.”
He also won a radio award for his interview with former US vice-president turned environmentalist Al Gore.
“I knew he had been a personal friend of Johnny Cash so instantly I was on his side because I’m a big Johnny Cash fan, so I asked him about that before we went on air. I liked him and I kind of believed in him. I had wondered if, because he hadn’t become president, whether he was scratching around for something else to hang his hat on and found climate change, but he was more passionate than that.”
For all Skinner’s versatility, he always comes back to the stand-up. “I love doing the chat shows and the TV presenting but I wouldn’t say I was proud to tell people that I was a panel show host. It’s enjoyable but it has no nobility for me, whereas there’s something about being a stand-up that I still see as quite heroic… it’s what I enjoy most.”
Frank Skinner plays Hull City Hall (Sept 18), Sheffield City Hall (Sept 19), York Grand Opera House (Sept 22), the Grand Halls, Scarborough (Oct 2), Leeds Playhouse (Oct 24) and Cast, Doncaster (Nov 2).