An Interview With Dan Antopolski

An Interview With Dan Antopolski

Dan Antopolski sat down with The 730 Review during his run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe performing his hit show Return of the Dan Antopolski. He talked to Ronan Hatfull about his first show for seven years, his development as a performer and his past as a children’s televion and a cult sci-fi sitcom star.

I thought I’d begin this interview by saying that the first time I saw you live was nine years ago. I would be very surprised if you remember this because you’re a busy man but you had an excellent joke in your show that year.

Nine years ago makes it… Dan Antopolski’s Penetrating Gaze at Cowgate.

Yes, well you had this joke where you asked ‘can you handle a hot topic’ and then you picked a Hot Topic bar out of your blazer and threw it to an audience member and I was that audience member!

Well, yes, you’re most welcome for that warm Hot Topic! 

Thank you, I’ve treasured it ever since! So, the big question to ask to begin with is what’s changed since you’ve been away, in terms of your comedy and style?

Well, I was sort of hoping people would notice in some part of myself that I’d been extending a sense of man child playfulness to an age where it was getting to be a stretch. (Laughs) And it’s still there: a desire for absurd, upside down-ness, but I definitely have had real things happen to me. And what I found is that I’ve started admiring more comedy in other peoples’ comedy that is emotionally resonant and it’s just making me laugh much harder, like people say that bleak thing about the things like divorce or death. So, Louis C.K. everyone knows about him now, I was quite an early adopter and I love that kind of savagery about everyday life that we’re all living in hells of our own making and so on. It just feels like what life can be, not everyday, but it can be. Predicaments. So that’s what I’m trying to do.

Do you think comedians feel that audiences want something with a little bit more seriousness or gravitas and weight to it at the moment?

I think they might do. I read Steve Martin say he followed, with his crazy props and silliness, he followed a rather earnest and political phase in comedy of what was in vogue and he thought, as a prediction, that the next ‘thing’ is going to be silly and to be avant-garde with that. I certainly feel there are vogues at this festival, not on ITV at 8.30 but in this festival. So, when I started, it was in 1997, a long time ago, and we were reacting against what we thought was really stodgy observational comedy about men and women… so we wanted to do silly things. I spent a lot of years trying to find new ways of making jokes, so anything that could be identified as a formula joke, a pull-back and reveal, I would, after a couple of years, start rejecting those even if I thought they were quite funny, because I thought the way was part of the surprise. So that would be a thing and I still want that also. But, it’s funny you should mention Lucy and Reg because we were all new acts together, so we’re exactly of a wave, and we’re all – I don’t think Reg has a family but Lucy does – we’re all in our mid-forties and I mean, there must be natural processes involved in that kind of change. Having been quite snooty about a certain kind of comedy, I think someone like Ray Romano, I heard his stand-up and he’s talking about his kids and he’s such a cosy persona and I would never have been attracted to such a ‘normy’ kind of figure but I was really laughing. Y’know, I just thought what’s being communicated here is just bigger than the package. So, I guess that would be an influence, opening my mind, and also when you get older you don’t care about your identity anymore. In a way your identity is more the sum of unchosen experiences than it is chosen features that you want to lean towards. I think that what happens through life is what you say you are, it’s no longer who you are: it’s what you do, what you’ve done, what your life is.

“I wrote this one much more at my desk than I have before”

Is the blend of one-liners and surrealism still important to you?

Well, look, if I think of a funny line, it goes in. What’s been interesting in this show is I wrote this one much more at my desk than I have before, so it was written rather than improvised onstage and then kept in new material and things like that. There was a bit of that, but there was a lot that wasn’t, so I ended up having a lot more material than I needed and having to make very painful cuts and I had to seek help with that. So, I had some friends of mine, my girlfriend who works with scripts, tell me to kill my babies and I found that very difficult. And it’s a funny thing, I was confessing yesterday, previews are really hard: they’re these draughty, church halls with six people, compared to the festival where everyone is excited about seeing things. So, if I did a line and it got a laugh from one person who had a sympathetic face, I just thought; that is a person who gets the vibe, then I would keep it in bloody mindedly. Even thought it didn’t get [more] laughs it would stay in the show and start, structurally, taking away and it would be harder to lose. So, I had to be forced to cut those things. It’s very difficult for a comedian that if something gets a laugh, a one-liner, a funny image or whatever it is, we find it very difficult to cut, but with this show, it eventually acquired a kind of shape. It goes, ‘funny funny’, then ‘separation’, then ‘my new girlfriend’, then ‘my Mum’ and it was like a movie. I’ve never, ever tried to make a journey for the audience in that way before, so that definitely took over as a prime concern and certain things had to go that maybe I’ll put in another show.

That’s really interesting about it being a journey. Is that influenced at all by your work with your sketch group or just you changing as a comedian?

With Jigsaw we had a very fast, cutting format, so it was like one-liner comedy for sketches. We wouldn’t be actors inhabiting moustaches. We’d get to the gag and lights down. We did practically a sketch a minute for an hour and you would think that would just be kind of random but, actually, we hand friend who directed us a bit and we made shapes that made little themes come. I’m terrible at that and need help with it, so if arises in my work, it is by accident! And then someone else will feed back that they’ve spotted it and I’ll go ‘oh!’ And then we bolster it.

Do you consider stand-up as a dramatic monologue or an extended exchange with the audience?

At its best it’s interactive, yeah, even if they’re only laughing. That timing and quality of the laughter is full of information. Always. So, in this show, last night, I had a very lively interactive show, the night before it was rather more of a monologue. I much prefer it when it’s interactive: I feel like I’ve done my job as a stand-up, otherwise an actor could do it. It’s interesting that Fleabag, which you’ll have seen, a fantastic TV show, came from a live show which I didn’t see and now someone else is doing that. I guess she’s an actress, not a comedian, but to me it’s a funny idea to have someone else play a part that was so characterful and on the TV show looks inevitably for that person. That’s weird to me. So, you write for your own voice as a stand-up. You are a writer but you then cast yourself in it and then you direct yourself in it, as it were. So, I think whatever your question was I have now talked about it!

Do you draw on any other forms of performance to influence your stand-up? So, I was thinking about more old-fashioned forms of the monologue like a Shakespearean style or… I’m basically calling you the modern day Shakespeare!

Yeah, well now that you’ve said it, I’ve got that and it’s going on the poster.

It’s a bit of a random question.

No, that’s okay. The only other form of spoken word that I have any experience of is acting, really. And I definitely feel like it is a lower form than stand-up. I’m sorry, I do. Like, for me, if an actor is a really good actor then I’ll go ‘oh you’ve got some magic skills, I don’t know how you do that’. Like, a Mark Rylance or something, I definitely admire them as much as anyone else admires them. But, in terms of, like, regular acting, I feel like my own thing sinks. I’m trying to forgive acting in that way, and do some bigger gestures and let some phrases hang in the air, and even deliver them with a bit of baritone that would make them musical. My thoughts are fuzzy on this but I feel as though a stand-up show is best when it feels as though its bubbling like water, all be it through a pre-determined river bed, but it’s bubbling unpredictably over the pebbles. And sometimes it feels as though it’s going ‘woosh’ and sometimes it’s just ‘paddle, paddle’. You can still enjoy, whatever the metaphor is, the river, but it’s just not as live and you’re not as present onstage in the moment. There’s a lot of books written about presence for actors. I don’t know much about it theoretically but I definitely feel very differently onstage when I’m the pebble guy from when I’m the paddle guy.

“when it’s interactive, I feel like I’ve done my job as a stand-up”

Is there a very deliberate poeticism to your work? The thing that jumped out at me was your ability to have a joke and make the moment lodge in someone’s mind, like ‘penis point’.

That would be alliteration.

Yes it would! That joke specifically, that gag, where did that come from and is that a typical example, would you say, of using language to bookmark it in the audience’s mind?

I mean, maybe. There’s a bit, later in the show, where I talk about a stale relationship and I talk about one’s partner ‘kissing me like a sphincter pushing off a poo’, which is obviously funny because it’s bums. But, also, it does articulate a feeling and, I don’t know, yeah, I think probably I’m still learning to do those things in the knowledge that the particularity of that phrase will imprint, as if it were a surprise, so that is not a joke, it’s just a simile. It’s not a ‘haha’ moment, but there’s something about talking about a subject matter so base in what feels like a highfalutin style. And that’s just a comic contrast. So, whenever you have a clash of styles or tonal register or anything, that’s just a joke. Same as a man falling over. He was standing up, now he’s falling over, you are talking about poo, but you’re talking highfalutin things opposite that. That is how gags are made, in any pairing.

How nervous were you about the show’s final act in taking it to an emotional place and a place where, on the night I saw it, there wasn’t a lot of laughter, in a good way? How nervous were you about doing that?

I think, again, I had to be encouraged to drop some of the laughs. I had some feedback on some of those bits where they reassured me that it was fine to do that. So, maybe in the future I’ll feel more confident that that kind of thing can stand after you’ve been jokey for a period. I mean what’s interesting about that bit is, some nights, I become affected emotionally by the subject and some nights I’m paddling and I don’t. It’s a kind of marker, not the fact of itself, but a litmus of how I’ve connected with the audience on that evening is whether or not I’ve become emotional. So, if we’ve connected through the comedy and I feel like we’re feeling the ‘light feelings’ then I also feel like there’s an empathy in room, which is quite nice. But, I dunno, I do like doing it because it feels like a very truthful thing to do and, again, this sort of pebbles-paddling distinction is really about truth and fiction. Like, the acting bit is not fiction but it is fiction in the sense of your feelings in the moment. It’s like, I’m not currently feeling this, or I’m not currently feeling reviling the irritability of a shit relationship or whatever it is, and sometimes, you are. Those true moments, I feel, are good, they’re the point of live performance, whatever it is. I don’t know about dance or other forms but, I bet, there are equivalencies where people come onstage and felt like that really happened today, for me and the people in the room, all participating in the construction of a moment. I was doing most of the active work but they were doing all the inference and also active in their minds and that is definitely something I never want to drop from my comedy: I never want a very passive audience, I always want to feel like they are engaged as one might be with a book. The notion of reading is a very active process. You’re interpreting as you go, you’re using your own experience to relate to those things.

Would you say stand-up is going to more serious places because improv and sketch work isn’t?

I don’t know. You would be much better placed as a person going to see lots of shows. One of the things individual performers can’t do so well is spot trends. It’s always interesting that, one year we’re talking about monkeys, the next year rape jokes are somehow charming, or whatever the thing is. There are these vogues in Edinburgh and they get pointed out by journalists and I think everyone is just… it’s like baby names, they come in waves. You pick your kid’s name and you think you’re being original and then there’s three in that class. And that is a phenomenon. I mean, why would we all call our sons Dylan this year, but people do, it’s very weird! I think people are just subtly influencing each other by watching each other at gigs.

It’s interesting that I saw you and Lucy [Porter] back-to-back and you both talked about similar things, which was fascinating and brought about by chance.

Chance in some ways but also, of course, we’re the same age and these things typically start happening, y’know, first kid comedy, second kid, two kids, bereavement, these are beats you hit in your life. So, maybe it’s that.

“I frontloaded the impressions and silly things that are obviously inconsequential and then it’s nice to drop a gear and talk about something real”

Do you think you’d keep, now that you’d done it this first time, that switch in gear in future shows?

I would like to, yes. I mean, I did an early preview and a friend of mine said there’s no gear change in the show. That was interesting and I thought, ‘oh, I really want to have a gear change’. Then I frontloaded the impressions and silly things that are obviously inconsequential and then it’s nice to drop a gear and talk about something real and I think that’s quite effective for pacing out something which is quite a long time to sit in a dark room. One does want to feel continuity and I never used to offer that to the audience. It was always just ‘here’s the best idea that I can think of about a horse and here’s the best rap I can write’. Doing my best but definitely not trying to construct a show and just thinking, ‘well this is my sense of humour, it’s my aesthetic, as it were’. You wouldn’t ask, I dunno, and this is still admiring surrealists, you wouldn’t ask a weird film-maker to make a thread but somehow there is a thread because I’m the thread, because all these things came from the same person, not that I’m so important, but that they’re all the same taste, so however they manifest must be connected. And I now think that’s insufficient. It’s insufficient for me as a watcher, a listener and, so, I feel like those gear changes are important, and I map it out. I think it makes the audience relax and you want an audience that’s alert, you don’t want them tense. And one of the things I think an audience can be tense about is whether their time is being wasted. That doesn’t mean it’s not funny. So, I mean, Tim Vine does one-liners, you know the deal, there’s no problem. But for anyone who does anything that flirts with narrative, I think there is just a cognitive problem with having to reset the premise an infinite number of times. You just get fucking bored. It’s like watching a bill on benefit gigs, where you have twenty people doing five minutes. I find, when I’ve done my bit, and I go to the audience, it’s like ‘oh another new face, oh another, so he’s a man, so he’s thirty, so he’s… it gets boring’. That’s the same within a stand-up show of new routines, so I think I think it is really good for it, of course, that it get deeper, rather than shallow, so it’s just a natural sort of shape for a thing, for a book, for anything. 

Yes, and I think it makes your show richer for the audience.

Well, I hope so and that’s nice to hear.

My final question is a complete gear change. I’m going to ask you about something that I don’t know how many people have spoken to you about in subsequent years but is something that I think is shame not to have had a legacy. Something from your past, of which me and my Dad were enormous fans, which is Hyperdrive [mid-00s BBC sci-fi sitcom, in which Antopolski played the character Jeffers].

Oh right, yeah! It wasn’t widely watched… Well that’s why it’s not around anymore!

Which, I think is a shame. Will that show have a legacy, do you think it’ll return as a cult show in future years for people?

One never knows when things get retro. I mean, it was an expensive show to make. They built a proper spaceship, set in a hanger, and they did that for two years and it needed to be the new Red Dwarf [80s BBC sci-fi comedy, to which Hyperdrive is often compared] to be justifiable and it was not. Some people liked it and watched it but it was just the wrong scale of budget for a show with a niche viewership. But you couldn’t assemble those people again now anyway, because Miranda [Hart] went stellar a year after that and Nick Frost went and did movies.

Was it an experience you enjoyed at the time?

Yeah, I mean it was this sort of novelty, and it was okay. Film and television production, the big secret is that it’s mainly boring. Like, you’re waiting around for a man with bum cleavage to set up a light and watching movies on your laptop. Just beetling around. Being in showbiz. You know, people get into not just performance but production jobs because they feel it’s got a buzz about it and you can see the ‘oh I’m doing an admin job’ that happens to be to do with TV or whatever it is.

So, you’d do something like that again?

Yeah, I mean if the script doesn’t stink I’m interested in getting some money to pay my gas bill! I’m just not precious about it. Like, I don’t mind doing it, so I said yes to a kid’s show [The Dare Devil] that turned out to be enormous fun. I would never have aspired to do it, they asked me and then ended up really enjoying it and having great buddies with the crew because we were a small screw, so you never know what experiences are going to be nice. But, I don’t think it’s important. Whereas, I care that, if I sell all my tickets, it’s still two or some thousand people in total will see the show, but it’s incredibly small numbers. But I care much more about this because I think there’s a sacred thing about people feeling connected with the show which happens in that room. I look back at shows and those are very good memories I’ve got of nice audiences and I can still recall individual faces. The joy of feeling that you’re – it’s not it’s a commodity that ‘I, the great Dan am handing down’ – but that we are playing together and we are participating in laughter, which is an essential, social connection between people. It’s a love thing.

And on that note…

Seems like a good place to end. And say hello to your Dad from Jeffers.

The Return of Dan Antopolski runs at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe until August 27th, in Assembly George Square Studios at 21:15. 

You can read our 4/5 review in full here

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