Frank Skinner brings Showbiz to Portsmouth Guildhall: 'The thrill of making people laugh has never worn off’
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe plays a vital part in the career of Frank Skinner.
This summer he took his new show, Showbiz, there for a month-long sold-out run.
In fact, on the day we speak, Frank tells The Guide his half-packed bag is on the floor in front of him. He was due to head north from his north London home the following morning.
‘It’s been the place for a lot of quite big milestones in my career,’ says Frank.
But it’s a far cry from his festival debut back in 1987, when he was appearing in a play, where ‘unbelievably, I was playing a hard-bitten Cockney copper.’
As he explains: ‘Obviously when you're up there doing something that only lasts an hour and a half, you've got quite a lot of time to kick around. So I went to see my first ever, what was being called alternative comedy at the time, at a show that started at midnight. And within 10 minutes or so, I thought: “This is what I want to do.”
‘When I got home from that I booked an hour at the next year's festival before I'd even done any comedy at all.
‘I wanted to make sure I got my slot!’
And so began Frank’s adventures in stand-up. While he didn’t immediately set the comedy firmament alight, he adds: ‘I got a couple of reviews that sort of said this bloke doesn’t know what he's doing, but there is something there, there is hope.’
When he was there in 1991, he won The Perrier Award, beating fellow nominees Eddie Izzard and Jack Dee.
‘In those days it was a massive thing. There’d be a party where it was announced and there would be people from all of the main broadcasters taking you to one side and saying: “Come and do a series with us”. It was quite a transformation.’
There was also another significant life event which took place at the festival, but as Frank points out, and we agree, it’s probably not suitable for a family publication...
It’s been a while since Frank took a fully scripted show on the road – the last one was Man In a Suit five years ago.
But even now he can’t leave it alone once it’s up and running.
‘I'm perpetually tinkering with it. In the old days I would get a show that worked – basically every joke would get a laugh and then I would leave it alone because it was job done.
‘But my boredom threshold isn't what it was, so I constantly mess about with it and try new stuff and change change things round. It will be a version of the same show by the time you see it, let’s put it that way.’
And don’t go expecting any fancy gimmicks or overarching narrative.
‘No, there's no PowerPoint for me, I'm not one of the PowerPoint comedians.
‘I like jokes and I like funny stories and stuff like that – I suppose the theme, if anything, is “me”.’
So we shouldn’t expect anything like his old friend David Baddiel’s analytical dives into his own family.
‘Dave’s things nowadays, they’re sort of one man theatre shows rather than stand-up, but I still love stand-up pure and simple.
‘My overriding aim is to get laughs. I'm not that interested in changing anyone's life, there are other people in that business. I suppose you could say that really laughing could change someone’s laugh...
‘The thrill of doing that, making people laugh, has never even slightly worn off, so that's what I'm sticking with. Stick with that you know!’
While Showbiz is his first scripted show since 2014, that’s not to say he hasn't been on stage in the interim – he’s regularly wheeled out his improvisational night.
‘That was literally me walking on stage with nothing. It was called Man With No Show for obvious reasons.
‘When I first started doing it I thought I'll have a numbered list of topics in my pocket, and I can always ask people to call a number out and go to that topic and talk about it as a safety net.
‘I’d been doing it for about a week, and I tried that once, and I didn’t like it at all. To me, it felt like I was cheating a bit. I found that the funniest shows were the ones when I literally didn't know what the first sentence was going to be when I walked on stage.
‘I also thought that in doing those shows, I would get lots of stand-up, which would sort of be written on stage, if you like, and then I'd be able to bring that into the written stand-up show.
‘But the truth is, the better the show, the less stuff there was that was usable, because it was all so interconnected with what someone had said 10 minutes earlier, what some bloke did for a living and what had happened to someone else's garden. So you couldn't take anything out of it, they were absolutely one-off shows.
‘The other thing was that I charged a fiver a ticket for that show, so if not everything worked, I felt less guilty about it.
‘I enjoyed doing them but I started getting the urge to start showing people that I'd done my homework.’
For several years, Frank has been the host of BBC1’s Room 101. The show was actually given the axe last year, but you’d be forgiven for not realising, seeing as it is still a staple on the evening schedule.
‘Seven series is a pretty good run. I'm not mad about that.
And it's also regularly repeated, it’s on quite a lot. I think it was on three consecutive bank holiday Mondays on prime-time BBC1. It's like people, when they dump someone and then every now and again they phone them up to see if they want to meet up again for the evening.’
And he can afford to be laissez-faire about it. Besides the stand-up, he still has his regular Saturday morning show on Absolute Radio, and there’s the occasional dabble in TV acting and audio plays, he’s not wanting for work.
Last year he got to play one of his musical heroes in an episode of Sky Arts’ Urban Myths – Johnny Cash.
‘I think I can safely say that there isn't a casting director in the world who would have cast me as Johnny Cash.
So I thought the only way I can make it happen is if I write it. This show Urban Myths talks about showbiz stories that may or may not be true.
And this was a completely true story that Johnny Cash became addicted to painkillers having been attacked by his own ostrich.
‘I was happy with playing Johnny Cash, I was more worried about how we did the ostrich. I honestly thought we'd get a real ostrich in for it. They are classed, incredibly, in the same category as lions and things like that, as extremely dangerous animals.
‘So we had to make an ostrich, and I had to respond to that. But I loved playing Johnny Cash. It really was a dream job.’
Frank Skinner’s Showbiz is at Portsmouth Guildhall on Friday, November 29. Tickets cost £29.50. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk.