Dave Spikey, comedian, writer and actor chats with Kevin Cooper about raising over £5 million pounds for Comic Relief, his friendship with Peter Kay, the art of comedy, and his current Punchlines UK Tour.
Dave Spikey is an English comedian, actor, writer and film producer, who spent his early career working as a biomedical scientist in the haematology laboratory at Bolton General Hospital. It was during this period in the 1980s that Spikey scripted and performed in a number of amateur pantomimes with a group of like-minded health workers called the Bolton Health Performers.
In 1997 he won the Best Newcomer award at the British Comedy Awards, and then went on to co-write and star in Phoenix Nights; a hit comedy series on Channel Four in which he played Jerry St. Clair.
In 2003, he released his first DVD, The Overnight Success Tour. Towards the end of 2004, he wrote the ITV comedy-drama Dead Man Weds, in which he also co-starred with Johnny Vegas. In 2005, Spikey became one of the regular team captains on the comedy panel game, 8 Out of 10 Cats. That year also saw the release of his second live DVD, Living the Dream. He presented the darts gameshow Bullseye on Challenge for two series in 2006, before returning to stand up and live shows again.
Taking time out from his busy touring schedule to have a chat with Kevin Cooper, this is what he had to say.
Kevin how are you?
Hi Dave I’m fine thank you how are you?
I’m alright mate thank you.
I have to say thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
It’s not a problem Kevin, it’s my pleasure.
So how is life treating you?
I’m very well, thanks for asking. It’s been a busy year so far with one thing and another as you might know (laughter). Sometimes you get a quiet year like I did last year but this year everything has gone a bit mad (laughter). It’s been one of those years where the phone hasn’t stopped ringing which is great but it is always a worry that you are going to take too much on and not do it justice. So as you can imagine I am planning the year very carefully at the moment.
Before we go any further, can I just say congratulations on the amount of money that you raised for Comic Relief with Phoenix Nights on stage.
Thanks Kevin and I have to tell you that we were all thrilled with that. We had started out seriously thinking that we would just do a couple of nights but then when we all got together we actually thought that we might get away with doing a week, but then it ended up being sixteen shows (laughter). It was just phenomenal really the money that we made.
It is thirteen years since the last episode of Phoenix Nights was shown on TV here in the UK. After all of that time, did you still enjoy performing it?
Yes Kevin we all did. There was a bit of selfishness involved as we all really did want to get back together. And before you ask, yes, we all had as much fun off the stage as we did on it (laughter). We are all very good mates anyway.
And do you have a final total of the money that you raised. The last thing that I heard was £5.8 million.
The last thing that I heard Kevin was that it was well over £5 million and that it was the biggest individual amount that an independent charity has ever made. We are all very proud of that. What did surprise us was the amount of support that we got after all this time. As you say it is thirteen years since the show was on the TV and we were still filling an arena with fourteen thousand people every night. It doesn’t bare thinking about really. In a way it is quite humbling.
So just how did the audience react when you went out onto the stage as Jerry St. Clair?
Well I don’t go on as Jerry until the second half because Peter (Kay) is playing Brian Potter throughout the first half and then I go on in the second half. When I walked out onto the stage in front of all of those people, they were all standing up and cheering; it was a wonderful moment but totally mad (laughter). We filmed the audience as we wanted them to be a part of the show so we had big screens up rather like we did in the Phoenix Club because we wanted them to be an integral part of the show.
Did it surprise you just how warmly the nation has embraced the show?
That was the thing Kevin. I would walk on to do my little spot, and the whole arena would be standing up cheering. I know that it is a cliché but the love in the room as they say, was amazing. The audiences spent all that money coming from all four corners of the UK and some even came from abroad, spending money on overnight accommodation, and the tickets weren’t cheap, so that sort of support is absolutely phenomenal. We were all really stunned Kevin. The feeling was genuine because they really do love those characters don’t they. It really was a wonderful thing.
When I was putting the interview together, I have sat howling with laughter just remembering pieces of the show.
(Hysterical laughter) that’s memories for you Kevin. I had to go out and buy the DVD box set because I haven’t got a set. I couldn’t get one because you just can’t get it anymore (laughter). I had to get one off eBay and I paid forty-odd quid for it (laughter). I had signed all of my copies and given them all away, as you do.
Having had such a good time with it, are there any thoughts on a new series?
No, there was never any mention of that. The plan was that we would all get together for one big blast and that it would be an exclusive for Comic Relief. We decide not to film it and not to tour with it. I think that was one of the things that appealed to everyone, that this was going to be their only chance to see it because it probably won’t happen again. At least that was the idea as far as I understand it, and that is on the basis of why we did it. Putting it out on DVD would have raised a lot more money which we all appreciated, but the production team had the idea that they wanted to retain that exclusivity of people actually coming to see the show and experiencing the show in aid of Comic Relief.
That’s nice Dave as a lot of people would simply have had the punters pants down and flooded the market and so it is nice to keep it that way.
You are right Kevin, I think so too. We did the same with the TV series because it is never repeated and you can’t get it on DVD anymore. And, although I don’t know what cult status means, the show does retain that cult status and it has got that affection that people share in it (laughter). Every time that you turn the telly on you can’t find the show on any channel. Even the great classics like Black Adder, Faulty Towers and Father Ted, you can easily find on some channel or another but we are not there and I think that helps a great deal.
I’m like you Dave. I saw Led Zeppelin’s last tour back in 1979 and I was gutted when they got back together because that allowed people to invade my party.
(Hysterical laughter) oh no Kevin, did they do it just to spite you (laughter). You have put it dead right there that is exactly what it is. People love discovering stuff and having the ‘ownership’ in inverted comas don’t they Kevin. They have been and gone and done it. I know exactly what you mean Kevin.
So moving on to your latest project, Punchlines, how did you come up with the idea?
Well things happen Kevin don’t they? Whatever part of this creative arts business you find yourself in, your brain is always in tune to what is going on around you. I think that my mind runs like a virus scan runs on a computer (laughter) it keeps coming on all of the time. This is my fifth tour and I was looking for an idea. I realised that I was noticing more than usual that when I am out at night; in a pub, a restaurant, a café or any sort of social situation, all of the groups of people who are out for a night out, sooner or later they all start laughing a lot all night. And so I began to think why that was and what they are basically doing is they are writing comedy routines.
Somebody provides the story, whether it be something that happened at work, on the market, which they have read in the paper, or something that they had seen on the telly. This then escalates and people start adding bits to it from their memories and then they try to be funny. So when you get a group of people doing it you get a competition going on, and this is not a sexist thing but this tends to happen with blokes a lot. When you get all the lads together who are out for a few drinks, you find that somebody has got to win; somebody has got to top everybody else. And after a while I realised that what they were doing is, they were writing punchlines. They were providing naturally occurring punchlines.
So that was the first tiny little inkling and then I was in the pub talking about this to my mates and, this is how a lot of stuff usually happens, I asked them if they thought that I could just do punchlines and if they thought that people would laugh without the jokes. So we tried it and we really did laugh a lot just at the recognition of the joke, and some classic punchlines like ‘alright but don’t push me past my mothers’ and things like ‘Bob, whose Bob’ (laughter). But then again it came back to that exclusivity thing because some people knew the joke whilst some didn’t. You tend to laugh even more when you know the joke and find people looking at you both baffled and amazed.
After that, I read in a magazine about how the brain is a pattern making machine. It wasn’t anything to do with comedy really, it stated that the brain recognises a story, so you have the set-up for the story, such as, I was working on the market today, and I bumped into Joe who had a donkey and lived in Rosamond Street, well he has had a car accident and has broken his leg. It was really bad and he has had to have it pinned blah, blah, blah and so you have the story. Once that pattern has been made your brain recognises it, it is there then, and no surprise is going to happen. If someone else came up to you and started to tell you about Joe, you would know straight away what they were going to tell you.
Then there was an aside which said that this is the reason why we don’t laugh at jokes twice, because the conclusion has been arrived at; the pattern has been made and it is no surprise because the punchline should be a punch, it should be a surprise. Well Kevin, this is a very long answer to a short question isn’t it (hysterical laughter). So I began wondering if I could challenge that. I wondered what would happen if I gave the audience a set of punchlines at the start of the show, and then promised them that in the second half of the show I would tell them the stories or jokes that went with those punchlines, and they would still laugh.
Then I began wondering just how I was going to do this, through ambiguities of language, through misdirection’s, through exaggeration, and try to divert the audience along the way so that when we arrive at the punchline, it is still a surprise; it is still a punch. And I have to tell you Kevin that it works wonderfully. I project the punchlines up on a screen before the show starts, I then project them again at the interval, I bombard the audience with eight punchlines, and then I come on in the second half, and during the second half, bang, I do them, and the audience laughs long and hard. Some of them get the joke half way through and you get a small ripple of laughter and that ‘I know it and you don’t’ kind of thing. And then bang, the punchline comes and they still laugh.
The tour is currently ongoing, how has it been received?
It has been brilliant Kevin. You know when sometimes you have an idea and you think that it will work and then it exceeds your expectations, well people have really warmed to it and they have bought into what I am trying to do. They say that it is very clever; it’s not clever at all really, it’s just me doing it in a non-scientific, non-analytical way (laughter). I just do it in conversation and some of the jokes are now getting tattier than your backside (hysterical laughter) so it can’t be that intellectual or challenging Kevin, but I do think that people like the angle I am coming at. It just makes it feel a little different I think. It’s not like Q.I. or anything like that (laughter).
I have to ask you, are there any subjects which are taboo and that you wouldn’t tackle?
To be honest with you Kevin, I don’t like the bullying aspect of comedy where you target personalities, for example I wouldn’t target politicians, members of the Royal Family, or other celebrities; I think that is really cheap, and easy and they don’t have any right of reply. I don’t really know them so how can I comment on somebody who I don’t know. I know that a lot of people do and they call it The Age of Satire but it’s not for me. I just enjoy talking about everyday life; I don’t swear very much anymore, and I have grown with my audience and I’ve realised that you don’t really need it, especially if your story is strong enough, and accessible enough to your audience. I still think of myself as being Joe Public, and I feel that because of that I am in line with my audience. I think that I have enough material without having to swear all the way through the show.
I don’t do any swearing, I don’t do any smut and I don’t even do any blue jokes Kevin. I do touch on relationships, of course I do, but in no way do I get explicit. You would probably call me safe Kevin. I don’t mean to be safe, that is just me (laughter) I am just being me.
Who has inspired you?
My dad was a brilliant man, but that is a different story for a different day. He had no academic qualifications, because he left school too early and he became a painter and decorator. But he was really bright, really clever and he had educated himself. Because I was the eldest I got taken along with him. We would go to art galleries and to listen to classical music, and stuff like that when we could afford it or when it was free; he would always be listening to radio comedy. We didn’t have a telly until I was twelve years old, and it is that theatre of the mind Kevin. I think that is why I was always good at English Composition at school, because we used to listen to comedy and then talk about it and dissect the comedy.
But in answer to your question Kevin, I would have to say that Billy Connolly was a massive influence on me in the early days. He was probably the very best, together with Max Boyce. I would have to say that they were probably the two main influences on my career early on.
What were you listening to on the radio?
Well Kevin I have to tell you that Round The Horn is one of my all-time favourite radio shows, together with The Clitheroe Kid, The Navy Lark and Hilda Baker, all those types of radio shows.
And then what happened when you got a television?
One of my fondest memories is sliding off the couch laughing so hard that I couldn’t breathe, with my dad watching Morecambe and Wise (laughter). Eric Morecombe was my first real hero, and then I started watching Phil Silvers in Bilko. It was only then that I realised that Phil Silvers was the precursor to Eric Morecambe. If you look at the two of them I think that they have a lot in common. After that I started watching the working men’s clubs comedians who were on The Comedians; Bernard Manning and all the rest of them, and then you suddenly had Ben Elton and Saturday Night Live, Alexi Sale and all that.
But there was also this middle bit, a period what I like to call Folk Club comedians, every region had one but the king of them all was Billy Connolly (laughter). I was just in awe of Billy from the very first time that I saw him. Wales had Max Boyce, the Midlands had Jasper Carrott and Fred Wedlock, whilst round here we had Mike Harding and Bob Williamson. These guys had all started off as folk singers and then they had the funny chat between the songs, about what had happened to them that day, and then the chat slowly took over. The music aspect became less and less while the stories became longer, longer and longer. I just looked at these guys and thought that was what I wanted to do. I wouldn’t do gag, gag, gag, I would want to talk about my life and life in general.
Didn’t you work with Max Boyce in the early days?
That’s right Kevin. In the really early days I got very, very lucky. I fell into it really, I got given a job with an agent and yes you are right, I got to support Max Boyce on three of his tours. Max was one of my dad’s heroes, and so getting to work with him was a really big eye opener (laughter).
Putting you on the spot, do you have a favourite joke?
Jokes are of their time, of the moment so I suppose that it would be one that I am doing at the moment. The one that I do at the moment which I laugh at myself, it’s a groaner I have to say but I do love it. I talk about my first wife being a bit OCD and all of the problems that I had with that because I am a man and I can’t pick stuff up because men are not genetically wired to do that (laughter). So the line that I say is, ‘she turned to me in a peak of temper and said that I was the obsessive one in the relationship’ and I told her that I didn’t agree with that and she said ‘yes you are, you are obsessed with the 1960’s pop group The Monkeys’. I thought to myself that she was having a laugh, but then I saw her face, (laughter) and now I believe her (hysterical laughter). It is just a great two-liner Kevin and that is my favourite at the moment.
So what was the eureka moment that made you decide to give up your very successful job and become a comedian?
There was a moment I suppose, but I had worked so hard, and I was doing so well at work. At the time I was the chief biomedical scientist in the haematology laboratory at Bolton General Hospital and at the same time I had managed to get into the stand-up. I had been working around the stand-up for ten years with no real great ambition to replace the day job. But then you find yourself in a situation where you look in your diary and one week I am going down to London to St. Thomas’s hospital to attend a very advanced course on genetic abnormalities on haemoglobin, and in my social diary for that night I am on at The Buzz Club in Manchester supporting Jack Dee on the Thursday, Lee Evans on the Saturday and then Eddie Izzard the following week (laughter) and I am thinking just how has it come to this.
So I was looking at my diary and the week after that, I was comparing the 1996/97 North West Comedian Of The Year Awards, because I had won it a few years earlier and it was a bit of a tradition that you compared one. Peter Kay was on it who I had heard of because he was from Bolton, and people had told me that he was very much like me, and Johnny Vegas so that was going to be a good final. Johnny was the clear favourite to win the final but Peter came on last and just blew everybody away. You just knew straight away that Peter was a very special talent. For his age he was absolutely phenomenal. And strangely we just hit it off really, really well.
We started writing straight away; we pooled or resources and we soon found out that we had a lot of the same influences, Woody Allen and Mel Brookes in America and Ronnie Barker over here. I had written a lot of material that had never been used and so had Peter, and we got commissioned straight away by Granada TV for a little known road-trip type of TV show called Mad For The A6. We went up the A6 in a camper van and we improvised that (laughter) and then out of that came The Services, and out of that came That Peter Kay Thing, which he enrolled me and Neil Fitzmaurice to write for, and I was still at work at this point in the late 90’s (laughter).
Of course That Peter Kay Thing really took off and Peter said that he needed one thing to come out of it and he picked Phoenix Nights which started life as a mockumentary which we had written called In The Club. And that was it really, I had taken all of my leave to be able to write That Peter Kay Thing. In those days I used to get four weeks holiday per year and I had taken it all in half days (laughter) which didn’t really go down well. I realised that I couldn’t do that again and so I took a sabbatical, and because I had worked there for over thirty years I was allowed to take a year off. Because I was on sabbatical they had to keep my job open for me, so confident was I of the success of Phoenix Nights (laughter). And I never went back Kevin. So the eureka moment would have been when Phoenix Nights had been commissioned.
Live stand-up or TV?
That’s easy Kevin, live stand-up all of the time. You are in control; you can see the audience, it is all your own work, and you live and die by that, and just seeing people laugh, I know this is very clichéd and twee but seeing people sitting there just laughing and enjoying themselves at material that you have written and presented, I can’t think that there is anything better.
On that note Dave I will once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
It was great Kevin, thanks very much. See you later. Bye for now.