Chris Addison returned to stand-up after a five year absence – older, wiser and with an iconic sitcom, directing experience and now a role as a porn mag editor to his name
Chris Addison likens his naked physique to a collage of Twiglets. Watching his live DVD, I’m drawn to comparisons with Pepperami Man. But what I notice first, finding him tucked into the corner banquette of a London café, are large hands capped by beautifully manicured – and surprisingly long – nails. It almost, but not quite, distracts from his wafer-thin frame and boyish mien.
You have a pianist’s fingers, I point out, when he insists – running down all the “lacks” that encouraged him to try stand up – that he lacks the patience and talent to learn to play a musical instrument. “I do. And indeed I have a piano, but the fact that I have both of those things and yet don’t really play the piano merely serves to prove my point!”
I’d been asking how he became a comic, since his original dream was to direct in the theatre. “I did it because it’s a really simple creative outlet. I didn’t think stand-up was going to be easy but I did think it was going to be a relief, because in that year after university that nobody tells you about, when all the things you were able to take for granted – all of the opportunities, all of the like-minded folk with time on their hands – disappear.”
A bona fide comedy geek, he was the kid recording programmes off the telly, buying comedy albums, and memorising Rowan Atkinson routines. “My gran lived with us, and I remember sitting in her room watching Victoria Wood As Seen On TV, while the rest of the family were downstairs watching something else. I would listen to Radio 4, on a Sunday afternoon, when they would play classic shows. I got really into Round the Horne and I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again. Then a friend lent me some of his dad’s Goon Show LPs. Comedy was the thing that I discovered for myself. I would religiously listen to the 6:30pm comedy slot on a Monday. I would cook chips and listen to the News Quiz, and that’s when I first heard Armando Iannuci’s name.”
Iannuci, of course, gave Addison the role of a lifetime as Ollie Reeder, in The Thick of It, and now Addison’s come full circle, directing episodes of Veep, Iannuci’s American reworking of that concept, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Addison tells me that the impulse to direct came from seeing wonderful productions – some of the most memorable at the Royal Exchange, while growing up in Manchester – and thinking, “‘I wouldn’t have done it that way.’ Some people stop there, but for me, that’s the starting point for thinking, ‘What would I do instead? How?’”
A director works behind the scenes. What drew him in front of the footlights? He read English at university. Was it the inventive wordplay? “I like laughing. It sounds such a stupid thing to say. I like being in a room full of people who are killing themselves laughing. Wordplay isn’t of particular interest. Stupidity is of great interest. I love silliness. That’s why I did those [early] shows in Edinburgh [such as one focused on the Periodic Table of the Elements]. I love the bigness of the idea as against the stupidity of the joke. The bigger the distance between the alleged highfalutin concept and the idiocy of the joke, the funnier it is for me. Which is why I love Python, which was a huge influence on me as a kid. I used to save up and buy the videos.
“Another huge thing was watching Billy Connolly’s An Audience With, which he filmed in 1985. I taped it off the telly and watched it every day. My friend [and co-writer] Carl Cooper says it’s like when you see the deaf programming on telly: there’s the person doing sign language in the corner, and there’s the television programme behind them. When you’re watching Connolly it’s like he’s the little man in the corner and behind him you can see these extraordinary images that he’s painting. That is what appealed to me.”
Addison reiterates his points, ticking them off on those fingers: “Stupidity on the one hand, and drawing people into a world, and there’s a real togetherness aspect, which I absolutely love. Whether it’s you and your mates in a room screaming, or a whole bunch of people in an arena laughing because Michael McIntyre is telling them something they all recognise. It’s one of the things that I always loved about the Goon Show: the feeling that comes right through the radio that all the people in that room are in the same gang for a couple of hours. So those are the things that appeal to me, stupidity, painting worlds and togetherness.”
Yet he took a five year break from stand-up, to concentrate on radio and television – including filming The Thick of It, and its movie spin-off, In the Loop. On returning, he discovered his approach had changed. He felt much more comfortable talking about himself, and attributes this to becoming a father. He now has two children. “When I started out, at 23, I was talking, as all young comics do, about whimsical stuff. About dolphins being adopted and their real parents turning up, and what it would be like if real football was like Subbuteo, and all this whimsy, whimsy, whimsy.
“Then you get a bit of life behind you. You stop caring about what other people think and start to care about what a very limited number of the population think about you, and those people are small and relatively dependent on you. When I went back to doing stand-up I was approaching 40, the point in your life when you should have stopped worrying so much about those things anyway. So it was part of a natural process.”
I’d have thought that protective paternal instincts would make you more self-consciousness about what, and how much, to reveal. “To an extent. I very rarely make jokes about my family. My family, whom I love, didn’t ask for me to become a comedian. There’s no justification for my holding them up as subjects for ridicule. And there’s certainly no justification for my bringing people into the world and then doing that to them. It’s not a moral judgement, it just makes me feel uneasy. I’ve told a couple of stories about them. And my godchildren. But nothing bad. I limit it.”
In any event he’s reluctant to dwell too much on parenthood, funny as it is, because it’s a far from universal experience, and his audience demographic is so varied. “I get kids who are 12, 13; people who are in their late 80s. My audience comes from an astonishing range of places and I love that. At the centre is this core of people who’ve known me for years from Radio 4. Then the Thick of It bunch, the Mock the Week bunch, the Skins bunch, and then there are the people who just turn up to whatever is on at the theatre.”
If you don’t snag a seat for one of the Scottish dates on this extension of Addison’s The Time is Now, Again tour, you can always head to the cinema, where he’s one of the featured performers in Michael Winterbottom’s film, The Look of Love. Starring Steve Coogan, it’s the story of Paul Raymond, the man behind the Raymond Revuebar and Men Only magazine. He owned most of Soho, but along the way to becoming one of Britain’s richest men, he lost the three women he loved most in the world.
Addison plays Tony Power, the editor of Men Only, and it’s a tribute to his acting chops that this affable gentleman before me transforms into a despicable slime ball on screen. His scenes are mostly set in the 1970s, so he sports a giant mop of hair and big juicy beard.
“What was extraordinary about The Look of Love was the speed of the days. We’d shoot lots of pages, there was no break for lunch, it was just start and sprint all day. They would bring little boxes of food in for the cast and crew to keep everybody going.”
In his case, that food was in liquid form, because of the prosthetic beard, which had a tendency to dislodge when he ate or smiled. “They had to make it for me specially. They put clingfilm over your face and Sellotape over the clingfilm. Then they’ve got this very fragile second skin that they send away to a lady whose job it is to make a beard that’s shaped to your face. It takes about an hour and a half to get on, because it has to be glued exactly. I would have happily grown a beard for the role, which would have saved a lot of time, but we were filming The Thick of It at the same time, which is why Ollie’s hair is crazy in the last series. I had to leave it quite long to get the extensions in for Tony Power.”
For all its nudity, the film’s not prurient, and I remark that I was impressed by the casting of its burlesque performers – heavier in scenes set in the Fifties, rather flat-chested during the Sixties, and super skinny with pneumatic breasts in the Nineties, reflecting the fleshy fashions of each era. “It’s funny, because Raymond had very specific views on what he thought the women in his Revue shows should look like. So the production ended up...” Addison laughs. “They said, ‘We’re having to judge women in a way that we think is abhorrent to judge women to get it right.’ No, you’re the wrong shape. Sorry, you’re not realistic for the era. And they had to create pubic wigs for some of them. If you’re using adult models now, they don’t have pubic hair, so they had to have specially created wigs.”
Merkins? “Yeah. They had to make them out of two upside-down sideburns sewn together.”
Everyone smokes non-stop throughout, and there are prodigious amounts of drugs. Addison has me in stitches describing how this was achieved. “I had to do an astonishing amount of stage cocaine. Before we started filming I bumped into the art director, who went, ‘I’m glad I’ve seen you. I’ve got you all this stuff,’ and he took out all these pipes and proper professional cocaine-taking equipment. Mirrors and razor blades and period credit cards – remember, the Visa logo used to be the whole card, and there were no holograms?
“Then he took out a small plastic bag and said, ‘This is stage coke. It’s 100 per cent scientifically safe.’ I went, great, what’s in it? And he said, ‘I have no idea.’ And yes, you really have to snort it. I didn’t get nose bleeds but I did get headaches. I snorted a ridiculous amount of that stuff. I had to be taught how to do it because I am a pathetic innocent and really don’t fit the showbiz template in any way.”
It’s a bittersweet film, full of longing and loss, but set against a backdrop of crass carnality. Nodding, Addison recalls, “For Tony’s last scene, I was with Steve [Coogan], James Lance, who plays Raymond’s lawyer, and the director. We were in the screening room, and I was doing stage coke off a film can. We were quite a long way into the shoot by this point, and Steve said, ‘It’s been very interesting. I’ve enjoyed visiting this world with you gentlemen, but I’m looking forward to leaving.’ We all felt this should be an advert for the Temperance Society. The world that we are depicting is full of drugs, full of booze, full of naked women – all of the things that are shorthand for hedonistic good times – and in fact, it’s the bleakest, most depressive world, as it turns out. There are jokes, but the story is quite dark.”
Addison knows how lucky he is. Because comedy wasn’t his first career inspiration, he had few concrete goals about what he’d achieve, when. “I was just doing it to have a bit of fun and be creative. It means that every time something comes along I don’t feel I’m being distracted from a specific goal; I feel like, ‘Oh, that sounds interesting.’ I’ve come on this circuitous route, at the place where I intended to be before I got distracted. And being able to do all the different things keeps you interested in each of them. Things never grow old if you don’t allow them to.
“I always think comedy is where I’m from. I have done it for 18 years and everything else has come from it. It has advantages over the other things – the degree of immediacy and creative control and all of those things. Comedy is the most direct form of communication and it’s fantastic.”
Still, it’s hard slog and requires a strong work ethic, a fact that I’m convinced a lot of people overlook. Cracking up your mates at the pub is nothing at all like writing an act and performing it on stage. “You’re absolutely right about the work ethic. Every time I have to sit down and write a show I watch the Jerry Seinfeld film, Comedian, first. It reminds me that it’s the universal position of comedians that the writing is hell. People who don’t write say, ‘Shut up, you’re not down a mine,’ but the very nature of writing stand-up involves humiliation. You absolutely have to humiliate yourself in order to get it right. There is no short cut. You can read all the books and go on courses, but there’s only one way to train and one way to write, and that is right in front of an audience.”
The Time is Now, Again tour, is in Scotland on the following dates: 27 March, at the Glasgow Comedy Festival; 7 April at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre; 8 April at Inverness’s Eden Court; and 9 April at Stirling’s Macrobert Arts Centre. For tickets or information, visit www.chrisaddison.com; The Look of Love is out on general release from 26 April.