In the first of a double bill, Declan Tan interviews struggling comic Dave Stordy about Bobby Davro, Sedgways and the bleaker side of stand-up
Dave Stordy is a comedian. So is Richard Herring, but we’ll get to him in a bit. Right now, Stordy is writing a bit revolving around our quite casual and uneventful meeting, as I sit there watching him. He suggests I use it, I tell him: yeah. So I use it:
Stordy: ‘So I was talking to this journalist the other day, right… true story, true story.’
As he types onto his laptop, he tells me that he is trying to be funny because, he says, “there is a massive difference between trying to be funny and actually being it”. As we sit on his faded 80s two-piece sofa suite, over hot teas and pink wafers, he says these words with undue stress, force-feeding non-existent wisdom into the cliché. His wild lisp helps him none.
“The last time I was on stage I had to take out my notes from my inside pocket. I just lost myself. For some performers, being on stage is a sort of transcendence from all the bullshit, you know, losing your ‘self’. But I just simply lost my place.” He has these bullets of eyebrows and shifts them up and down as he speaks, like air quotes that have landed on his head, somehow rendering his very face an irony.
“For some comics that might be an exciting innovation, to do that, you know, pull a small piece of paper from your inside pocket and start reading it, like Stewart Lee or someone. But for me it was kind of a nightmare. I forgot what I wanted to say and just panicked. That was five months ago, the night of Halloween. I’ve performed since, but that night has haunted me.”
Stordy: ‘So this journalist calls me up one day and comes round to my flat a few days later for an interview. He thought it might be a good idea… he saw me do a show at Halloween. Nightmare, it was.’
Stordy was right. I had called him up after tracking him down through an ‘open mic’ night based in Leytonstone, looking for a struggling comic that I might be able to speak with, someone who might help me get to grips with the bleaker side of a stand-up comedy career. And Leytonstone was indeed bleak. Especially for Stordy who, five months previous, had died at the hands of 40-odd fancy-dressed revellers, and unforgiving hecklers, in a pumpkin-lit pub just down the High Road.
I went to meet him at his flat in east London. During our chat his lisp occasionally faltered, making me think he was merely in character. It would be a committed stunt for a minor performer, but perhaps telling of his delusion. It was hard to decide on its authenticity. Anyway, we sat down for a talk during which he would occasionally hand me scraps of paper with his latest routine scribbled upon them, bits that his typing fingers were too slow to document.
Stordy: ‘So this journo comes round, drinking my tea, eating my biscuits, “objectively” documenting the gradual obliteration of modern civilised society whilst simultaneously and unwittingly enabling the rampant, murderous spread of Western imperialism and the eventual enslavement of all creatures via its coded language of even parts propaganda, fear and Public Relations misinformation, before begging me for more pink wafers…”
Dave Stordy embarked on his comedy career, he tells me, after having once been caught impersonating his headmaster behind his back, à la Bobby Davro, a man renowned for starting his career in much the same manner. But he detests the comparison; Davro happens to be his unsuspecting arch-nemesis.
Maybe getting detention wasn’t a good enough reason to go into stand-up comedy, I suggest to him, as he momentarily lowers the voice recorder I have introduced to the table. He looks wistfully out of the window, perhaps imagining Monsieur Davro’s uneasy smile reflected back at him.
“He got six beltings for what he done. Maybe that’s what made him take it further. Now, I don’t condone corporal punishment or even like being compared to Davro. In fact I hate him. Yeah, he’s an easy target. That’s why I hate him. Though I admit to feeling a certain affinity to him just because of our shared profession.”
Profession, I ask. So you’re paid for your work? I ask because we’re in an above-ground hole.
“Well, often not,” Dave tells me, turning away from the spectre of Davro, “I wasn’t paid for my last gig because I left the stage when they started throwing their plastic cups. I always told myself, I’d never leave the stage unless they threw glass. Like Malcolm Tracey said. In fact I’m not sure if they qualified but the cups seemed a close enough representation. Anyway, I have been paid before, I don’t like to discuss money. An artist shouldn’t have to. But yeah I make a bit of money off of it.”
And what of your influences, your inspirations?
I had angled a similar question at Richard Herring who I’d contacted after that first call to Stordy, as a relief from the grim failings of East End open mic performers. As a success of the business, Herring requires little introduction to connoisseurs of comedy, especially those lucky enough to have caught the Lee and Herring double act during its TV and radio prime in the 90s. Since then both Lee and Herring have fashioned formidable solo careers, producing original and innovative work alternately achieving cult and mainstream success in the 00s.
With a quietly considered response, Herring says: “I think you get influenced by everything, good and bad, and the list would be too long and complex to have any kind of meaning. As a child I was very impressed with Monty Python and Pete and Dud and The Young Ones. But if the influence was anything it was about the importance of being your own person and creating stuff that was yours. But throughout life you meet people, read books, see shows which shape you as a person.”
How about acts you respect, I asked: “I like any comedian who can surprise me. Originality is again the key. I tend to like the ones who have thought of something that I haven’t thought of, or expressed it more clearly, than the ones who tell me stuff I already know. But sometimes an observational comedian using the more basic comedic formulas can still be skilful enough to surprise me and in some ways I find that more impressive than some of the more avant-garde comics. A comedian has to keep moving and not get too predictable. Not many achieve that over a whole career.”
Not many achieve that at all, I think, as I return to Stordy and ask him the same question. He is still typing. He thinks about it.
Stordy: (Continue) ‘… not realizing as he picks at them from a cracked plate, that his pink wafers are a sickly metaphor for the present condition of his racket, the news media and journalism at large: pretty, yes, but effectively soiled, saturated by artificial flavours and colourings, unsuitable for those with nut allergies, layered meager layer upon meager layer, both wafer and cream being largely devoid of nutrition and unaware of their vain arrogance… yet he sups them up one by one, dipping them into his warm brew… yum yum yum yum yum…’
Stordy stops typing a moment and answers: “I read Michael McIntyre’s autobiography. I thought it was good. How the ghostwriter got his voice into the words and everything. I learnt a lot from that book. Mostly that ghostwriting for Michael McIntyre could hold a future for me. I’ve studied all of the comedian’s autobiographies, marking the comparisons with them and myself, with a blue pen in the margins. But when I’m not reading I’m usually writing. I’m preparing a website at the moment as well. D’ya wanna see?”
As I contain dubious excitement, I ask if he’s ever thought about quitting. As soon as I ask the question I feel as if I shouldn’t have, as if somehow I had accused him of being shit without having seen all the available evidence. The question interrupts his tapping of the laptop keys. He looks back for Davro.
“Yeah I did once or twice. I quit for about a year in 2005. That was a bad year. I felt like a dog with three legs.”
Ah, I say to myself, Herring may have some sonorous advice for you, Dave. I read him the transcript from my conversation with Herring, specifically the question: Has performing ever felt futile and fruitless?
“All the time, at regular intervals. It is quite futile in many ways and as a performer your mood is very much affected by your last gig, or how things are going right now.” Stordy certainly fell into this category.
Herring’s words may offer Dave some hope, I think quietly, so I continue to read them: “You just have to push on through it and luckily (and kind of sadly) a good gig can banish the blues immediately.”
I look at Dave, who looks at Davro. I go on, feeling like Stordy’s personal coach: “It’s a tough job in many ways and there is little security to it and one is always fearful that there might be better ways to fill one’s time or that one might have lost it. But the same is true of any job and life in general. You just have to keep on pushing on or lie down and die! Nothing we do has any real meaning in the long term and we’re just specks of dust on a rock hurtling through space. What keeps us going?”
“Specks of dust,” Dave repeats. “Cheers for that!”
Stordy: ‘…the wafers jettisoning useless pink specks of dried cream and wafery dust to the floor, castoff, useless and forgotten… I know what you’re thinking: a dick with Chomsky jokes…’’
Effectively disregarding the previous five minutes of conversation and enlightened advice, save for that last sentence, Dave swivels his laptop around and gives me a virtual tour of the website he is designing. It is self-consciously rubbish, filled with hand-drawn scribbles that make no sense and lead the visitor through a pointless labyrinth of links, displaying either doodles of oversized heads on jelly-like bodies, with speech bubbles coming out of them saying things like ‘I am a man’s head’, or crudely sketched pieces of toast saying: ‘Someone buttered my crust.’ An unintentional farce?
“Comedians’ websites are usually intolerable and sycophantic in their attempts to make you chuckle or buy their DVDs or go watch their shows or whatever. I try and take the piss out of that. Like making observations about observational comedy, which actually is a trick ‘cause it’s kinda the same deal but makes you feel superior.”
So, what made you go back to comedy after quitting?
“The inner voice. The one telling me that I had no other prospects. Just the idea of getting back on stage, writing, all of it, filled me with hope all over again. And when I got back up there I didn’t feel like that three-legged dog anymore, if anything I felt like a three-legged man. A maverick, an outsider, though perhaps over-equipped and possibly useless.”
What do you mean by over-equipped?
He has been clicking excitedly through the gallery of doodles and copyright images of Dixy chicken burgers. “I mean that most audiences only want to go to a show to laugh and drink and have a good time, to get away from the horrible shit in their lives. I want them to think. To question their values and their morals. To hold up a mirror to them and our decaying society, to analyse its workings. And then maybe during that, to laugh.” He makes one last click: “Have a look at this one.”
He points to a finely detailed drawing of a lone Griffin fighting a flock of Boobries. The caption reads: “Get your paws off my Boobries.”
It was all a little depressing. I felt like Mickey to Stordy’s Rocky. Trying to get to the core of it, if even just to understand Dave and his near masochistic self-sacrificing to his uninterested audience, I’d asked Herring what it was that he strived for in his shows.
“Mainly to make people laugh,” he says, “But along with that I suppose my main goal is doing so in an original way and hopefully also producing something that will make people think and maybe challenge their world view.”
So there’s some kind of ideology behind your routines, something that you’re consciously trying to get across?
“Sometimes. Other times not. Each show and routine tries to do different things. But I guess if there is a common theme it is challenging preconceptions and making people think about what they believe. If something is true I think you can question it and it will still hold up. If it’s not true then questioning it can help you realise that. By making people laugh you can get their guard down a little bit and discuss things that you might not be able to do or tackle subjects that might otherwise make people clam up.”
Dave had similar reasons, albeit from his cave of delusion where nationwide fame and critical acclaim were just around the corner, adding: “I find it interesting to explore whether the audience are laughing at a joke just because they get it, or because it’s actually funny.”
His principal jokes, he tells me, come to him when he is: a) lowering onto the toilet; or b) smoking a cigarette out of his window. “I get my inspiration mostly during the moments that I am pulling down my trousers to sit on the bog, or when I’ve just started a cigarette and can’t reach a pen, as I smoke by the window, so as not to offend my girlfriend’s health. These seem to be the moments where neither a pen nor a bit of paper are in sight. It is quite annoying. Since the time I hastily ran from the toilet midway through a poo, I have kept a notebook and a pen cellotaped to a piece of string dangling from the bathroom tiles. Since then I haven’t had any good ideas.”
“It’s a tough job and it’s not easy to get that many people to like you,” says Herring, having unquestionably taken the role of sage for the current conversation with Stordy, “It’s only lazy comedians who coast on a wave of success and don’t put the work in that annoy me. And there are plenty of those at all levels. And it is possible to do something that is populist and also worthy. Tim Minchin and Morecambe and Wise spring to mind. I don’t have a problem if an act becomes popular. That is not what they should be judged by and there is no shame in success if achieved on the right terms.” It felt that this was Stordy’s central conflict. He seemed desperate for fame and seemed to merely use comedy as a vehicle on the road to it, without showing any respect for the medium or its followers.
Stordy: (Introduce segue into final bit)
A natural conclusion to any interview, discussion of the future usually seems a befitting end point and possibly one offering hope. So Dave, any plans for the future?
“I’m looking to invest in a Segway to help smooth out my act. The rhythm’s a bit jarring and staccato at the moment. It might be able to help me refine the sudden shifts from one topic to the next. At the end of one bit I’d get the Segway and ride it across the stage, maybe through the audience, venue permitting, and jump off to start the next bit. It’s an expensive joke though. About £4000 expensive. But you can’t put a price on innovation. I am worried about the health and safety repercussions though. You can’t do nuffin’ no more. It’s political correctness gone mad.”
Despite the price, I tell him, it seems like a cheap joke. So if it isn’t elaborate visual gags, what is it that makes good comedy?
Stordy: (Ride Segway in)
“I used to think comedy was like blowing smoke into a long stream of speed-walkers’ faces,” Stordy tells me, “You know, annoying and confrontational. But the more I look at it, it seems more like blowing smoke into the faces of an oncoming pack of cyclists. Pretty futile, if not incidentally mildly amusing.”
Not the strongest point to end our time together. Richard, we’ll leave it to you:
“I think most good comedy is about truth and honesty,” says Herring, “But some of it is about lies. There are no rules.”
Stordy: (Ride Segway out)