One of the utter delights of Edinburgh Fringe this year was Will Adamsdale’s comedy storytelling show, Borders (review here), a gentle, bizarre, captivating hour that’s like no other around at the moment. It has a run at the Invisible Dot in Kings Cross until November 22, and London is Funny spoke to Will about the six big influences on him as an artist. Read on …
1. Woody Allen
“I have a really close friend who used to be a stand-up years ago, Luke Ponte, it’s crazy that he stopped as he was brilliant. We were Woody nuts. When we were 19 and back from uni we would watch Woody films, we loved the crazy weird ones where it looked like it was done on a shoestring, like Love and Death. That was the one that really got us, because it looks like the whole thing’s falling apart, the moustaches are falling off … That was quite influential as it seems like they were having a really fun time doing it, but then you know that Woody Allen’s probably in fact really miserable.
“We got a lot out of how Woody Allen films are bittersweet and not necessarily all-out comedy. And we got into other things as a result – we went to see a WC Fields triple bill once at the Hampstead Theatre cinema, it was a really sunny day and it was odstrange that we were in there. We didn’t find it funny, but we found it funny that we didn’t find it funny.”
2. The public schools system
“Going to boarding school was a big influence I think; school in general is a breeding ground for laughs, because you’re told you can’t do certain things, then you find ways around it or to make it absurd, so maybe it was all turned up to 11 where I was [Eton], with the uniforms and having to staying there.
“Luke and I and friend, we would write sketches and things and [perform in] school assemblies. I think a lot of comic writers have come out of the public school system as it’s so silly and absurd and there are endlessly silly rules and bits of language. A lot of the time you’re just sitting around, and you and your friends make up a funny way to get through it. It’s a very institutionalised, English thing. It’s probably the same as how all those Goons guys came out of the war and institutions, I think they must have had lots of spare time sitting around and just finding the absurdity in it.
“When I went to [Manchester] Uni I found that aspect really difficult, as there wasn’t such a tight structure that you could poke fun at, so I was there still trying to forge meal tickets in the halls of residence and I finding it funny, but no one else noticed or cared; I was trying to create an authority that I could poke fun because there wasn’t one.”
“My dad’s a very good storyteller; he’s really got an ear for it, he’s quite economical and doesn’t use flowery language. He was in the army and he’d tell stories about the army that would be as much about the spaces as the words and just slightly physical comedy as well.
“There was one he told us about when we were on holiday, about having some business dinner where, somehow, some celery squirted into this guy’s eye, and my dad and his friend just clocked it and it was clearly a situation where they couldn’t laugh, which of course made it impossible not to. The way he told this story completely cracked us all up.
“I remember feeling that, it’s a great environment to be in, where someone is telling a story and everyone wants to listen, people aren’t wanting to chip in, everyone’s where they want to be. I remember enjoying that, wanted to be involved in that in some way, wanting to be the centre of attention and be the guy.
“I’m now feeling more comfortable with the idea that Borders is a funny storytelling show. In the first few shows I was standing up like a stand-up, it felt all wrong. I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do, so I stopped using the mic and sat in a chair, and it totally changes your relationship to the room.
4. Eric Bogosian and Richard Brautigan
“These are a couple of writers that have been important. A lot of my influences are American writers, I think the reason is finding that natural conversation tone within which you can go to some weird areas, so the audience is thinking ‘where are we now? I thought we were just having a nice chat, now we’re …’ Borders is in some ways the most conventional and accessible show I’ve done, but it’s also quite ‘out there’ because it doesn’t have any trappings of anything crazy but then it goes to some strange places.
“The first one is Eric Bogosian, I did a one-man show of his called Notes From Underground. It’s a diary of this guy in New York and it’s really funny but it’s really dark as well. He’s walking round town in this suit he’s really proud of, seeing how people treat him differently with his suit. But he’s also a loner, like a complete madman, and he kidnaps some children – it’s really not fun and you want to hate him but you’ve been drawn in to this guy’s world and his humanity. There was something about this guy’s humour and the way that you sort of end up relating to insanity.
“There’s also Richard Brautigan (left), he wrote short stories in the 60s, he’s sort of a hippy writer who’s gone out of fashion, but some people love him and I always go back to him. He just had this amazing way of looking sideways at things. There’s one line that I love, “The blackbirds sound like melancholy exclamation marks typed on the late afternoon.” You read it and your first instinct is, yeah, I get that, but if you think about it too literally it doesn’t work, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
“One of his books is called Trout Fishing In America, and the words “trout fishing” are variously used as a character, a sort of noun, the book itself, it’s lots of different things – it doesn’t make sense that it’s a person, how could that work? And how could the book be a person? Somehow throughout the whole book you don’t really question it, it’s funny that he pushes it to such an extreme. It’s so absurd, but the conversational way he writes makes it really easy to read. ”
5. Luke Ponte
“Luke was a really big influence on me; he’s a lawyer now but he was a really excellent stand-up and writer, and he got me into lots of things aside from Woody – like Wes Anderson early stuff. We were massive fans of Bottle Rocket, it’s a brilliant film not that well known. Owen Wilson plays this fantastic character that really cracked us up for years, a sort of Captain Mainwaring, who has control over everything but always ends up on his arse.
“He introduced me to things like Blue Velvet, La Strada, and 8½ – which has these strange, grotesque dream sequences in it from this childhood. Something we found really funny was how if you just keep on mining something, eventually it becomes horrifying. He really opened my eyes with this stuff.
“We wrote sketches and performed a few times together in our mid-20s, at the Pleasance Islington and also at this cabaret night that me and my friends set up in a pub in Clerkenwell. All the characters would end up a bit like the Jeremy Lion kids party entertainer show, with these awful, depraved scenes at the end of sketches, all drunk and taking their clothes off.”
6. John Wright
“John Wright is an amazing director who’s now in his 60s, I did a [drama] workshop with him 10 years ago and it’s been a big influence. He’s not as well known as he should be, partly because does so many shows around the world, I think he also hides his light under a bushel a bit.
“He has a really hard-earned knowledge of comedy and physical comedy but it is really accessible. It was the first workshop I really enjoyed, in that, it was really properly fun, and John brought out the best in the people there [check out John’s book Why Is That So Funny?].
“I remember we were doing improv, and he gets everybody really focusing on one person, and I was doing something to do with this stationery cupboard that was in the room. I don’t know why but my rule in drama was that I was a really scary dictator who thought he was a god. Through the medium of stationery I was explaining how my kingdom worked – this is my cupboard, and you’re all organised in the pencil case of my empire, and if you choose to step out of the pencil case I can’t be held accountable … And that could go on for quite a long time. Somehow out of that desperation came quite a fun character.
“And that feeling of desperation, not having prepared anything really, that stayed with me – it doesn’t matter, you can make anything out of the cupboard you’re next to, you can figure out a whole world. And then that can develop, it can become ambiguous or bittersweet. The wedging together of things that should be together, that was a big influence. He worked on The Summerhouse [in 2011] with me and it was a really interesting process.”