Interview by Chris Bowman, edited by Chris Berube.
Nat Luurtsema is a busy stand up comedian with a penchant for extra curricular activities. Well, activity. Writing. She’s written a book Cuckoo In The Nest in which she recounts a time not that long ago when, at the age of 28 she had to move back in with her parents. There area lot of deep breaths involved with your parents hanging over your shoulder while you make tea, or banning microwave use because you set a bowl of Weetabix alight. She loves her parents but as you can imagine, there was a period of adjustment.
She’s just written a feature length screenplay called Lex Has Body Issues and an award winning short called Island Queen (in which she also starred). The film, directed by Ben Mallaby, is about a woman named Mim who has never left the island she calls home. She decides to do something drastic. She gets pregnant. What follows is funny, horrifying and sweet. Luurtsema claims she’s unaware of the workload until she stops to think about it. Which is understandable because she doesn’t seem to have enough time to stop.
International Waters: Your book Cuckoo In The Nest is about having to move back home. When did you realize that was the only option?
Nat Luurtsema: It was about 11 days before we had to vacate our flat, and I had spent 6 weeks saying “in a film everything happens at the last minute, so it'll be fine”. It was a flawed plan and when we hit 7 days before homelessness my boyfriend and I both agreed we'd have to go back home to our parents and try to find a flat from there. Given we'd struggled to find anywhere while we were in London I couldn’t see how relocating to Watford and Bath was going to improve our chances.
IW: Being a funny person did you see the potential for humour in the situation right away?
NL: It did seem ridiculous and I found the whole situation funny at first. Then after a month reality started to bite, I was a nocturnal person living with two people who got up at 7am and I was lonely and bored and couldn't see the situation improving any time soon. So I started blogging to smear my misery all over the internet.
IW: The sweet, affordable therapy that is blogging! Often our parents will treat us like the children we once were (and admittedly sometimes can still be). How did you get past that?
NL: I didn't! I just struggled against it for 6 months in an ultimately futile protest. That's why I took to blogging, because it's the only place I could ever get the last word. That's why I write. It's the only aspect of my life over which I can exercise any sliver of control.
IW: You wrote the screenplay for Island Queen. The story does really well to strike a balance between funny and touching. How did you come up with the idea?
NL: Thank you! That's so kind of you - Island Queen was the first short I've ever written and it taught me so much. I've just completed my first feature-length screenplay - it's a comedy thriller called "Lex Has Body Issues" and I can't wait to get it filmed. The story of Island Queen is really grotty and based on a story I read that said some very under-populated places in Iceland were having to temporarily shut their sperm banks… and I will say so more as I realize anything I say next is a big fat spoiler.
IW: You've written for the stage, a book, and now both short and feature length films. How difficult is it to switch from one style of writing to the other?
NL: I love it, it’s like a holiday from stand-up, where you have to present your whole self to an audience and hope they like you. That’s my biggest problem, I’m not an easily-likeable comic, so I love film and books because it’s just my writing I’m presenting to people and I feel safe to be bolder and nastier with my comedy.
IW: "Not an easily-likeable"? Why do you say that? Any stand-up stories?
NL: I was a very awkward, shy act when I started, and I think this was me at my funniest. Then I did 3 years of gigging around the country and trying to be one of those charming friendly acts (the bastards) and now I've realized I'm funnier just being uncharming me ;> As I say in my act, other comics can hop on stage and remark on how they look like a particular celebrity, I don't. I look like your ex's mate from work that you never warmed to. The laugh this gets makes me happy and sad.
IW: How would you describe your style of comedy?
NL: Argh. Gah. The hardest of all questions! I don’t know, I’ve never pinned it down - Really, I’ve written about 10 words here and deleted them - it just changes depending on what mood I’m in - the jokes are the same but I can be sweet or scathing or filthy or prim. Now that reads like a 'business card' in a Soho phone box! I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be difficult but I lack any objectivity and no one has ever kindly summed me up. That’s what I want for Christmas.
IW: Is stand-up something you still enjoy then?
NL: I love stand-up, it's the 'Thing' I always dreamed of doing and it's my main job. But it's funny how I get opportunities to do other things thanks to people liking my stand-up - things like writing, acting, voiceovers, and they are so much easier than stand-up. They're not easy, they're different challenges but stand-up is insane, it's like a constant fight with a prickly hedge. You're endlessly pulling your own personality apart to find and dissect your funniest bits, always working on new bits, and even the bits that always work can stop working without any warning and then you have to try to discover why. So "enjoy" is probably not quite the right word! But I'd be lost without it. Though if a boyfriend ever treated me this badly my mum would stage an intervention and an assassination.
IW: Loving something that doesn't love you back and pulling your personality apart sounds terrifying. It also sounds like something more people should do from time to time.
NL: Yes, it's like an emotional workout - it breaks your muscles to have them grow back stronger. Or leave you emotionally broken. I find I can enjoy it more when I have other things on which to prop my flimsy shriveled self-esteem. That’s where Jigsaw and my book and my films come in handy and make my stand-up much better. It’s like having a career harem.
IW: Chris Hardwick (@nerdist) has something he calls his confidence theory. Basically, he says that confidence comes from having options. In a strange way having a few projects on the go takes the pressure off.
NL: I agree completely! I get all my confidence from knowing when I step on stage that this gig cannot make or break me. I suppose I do a lot of things, it never seems so until I summarise it - but I write in a very focused, rapid way, my feature film reached a third draft within a fortnight, and I wrote a 70,000 word book in 5 months. If I enjoy writing something it comes together very quickly, which makes me want to abandon anything that happens more slowly, but I have to be disciplined as stand-up is so much slower to create, much more trial and error and fiddling with every single word. I also don't sleep very much, that might be the key to it. 1-4am are the most productive hours for me, then I sleep until 8am and that's enough for me.
IW: Those are some magical hours, the epiphany hours. What piece of advice have you been given that’s stuck?
NL: I think the most useful philosophy I've ever heard came from Sarah Millican, who said (and I'm sorry Sarah, I couldn't find the exact quote!) that you have 12 hours after a bad gig to brood about it, and then stop. And the same goes for gloating over a good gig. This is very useful if you often have to travel miles back from your gigs, you can do all your sulking/gloating in the privacy of your own car and emerge into decent society as a non-self-obsessed dickweed.
Interview conducted by Chris Bowman
Matthew Crosby is an all-around lovely guy. He’s one-third of the award-winning sketch group Pappy's. Their Edinburgh Fringe shows have achieved critical success over the years in the UK. They’ve got two podcasts: Pappy’s Bangers & Mash, which is based on conversation and riffing; and Pappy’s Flat Share Slamdown, which is a panel show. The group is currently wrapping up production on a new BBC 3 show called Badults coming out sometime in July. Crosby also performs as a solo stand-up act.
International Waters: Pappy's is a well-established comedy act here in the UK, but you also work as a solo comedian. Which came first: the desire to perform as part of a group or as a stand-up?
Matthew Crosby: I think the desire to be a comedian came first and performing alongside other people seemed like a good step towards making that happen. Most of my biggest comedic influences when I was growing up weren't straight stand up or straight sketch: Vic & Bob, Peter Cook & Dudley Moore, Monty Python, Spike Milligan. So, when I started performing comedy, it was always as part of a gang show with other people. Partly because that was the sort of comedy I enjoyed the most; partly because I was too scared to do it on my own.
IW: Two things I'm glad you mentioned, fear and Vic & Bob. I guess that's three. Let's talk about fear for a minute. It's a great motivator as they say, but it also prevents people from taking the first step or the next step.
MC: And I certainly experienced that when I first started. Although, if you'd asked me at the time, I wouldn't have put it down to fear. I'd probably have said that the open mic circuit just wasn't ready for my type of comedy. Which wouldn't have been true: the open mic circuit is always ready for people who aren't that good at comedy but think they're spearheading a comedy revolution.
IW: I’m not naive enough to think that I am going to revolutionize anything, and certainly not comedy. I'm just generally afraid. Vic & Bob, Peter Cook & Dudley Moore, and Monty Python. What was it about that off-kilter comedy that drew you in?
MC: I think when I was younger I was quite into "stuff my friends don't know about". Now I'm a lot more evangelical when I find things I like. But old TV shows, stuff that was on late-night channel 4, obscure indie bands; that was exactly the sort of stuff that fueled my feeling of superiority over my peers.
IW: It's nice to get past the "it's mine" feeling to the "have you seen this?" phase of your life, isn't it? I want to go back to fear for a minute. Pappy's has become an Edinburgh Fringe favourite and well received around the UK in general. There has to be a certain confidence that comes with critical acclaim. How much attention do you pay to that sort of thing?
MC: Well, we did our own PR this year (which is becoming increasingly and depressingly rare in Edinburgh) so we had to read our reviews. But as for how much attention we pay to them? They're undoubtedly useful for selling a show; but they are no indicator of how good a show is. If an audience is laughing and clearly enjoying themselves, you don't have to wait for tomorrow's papers to see if the show was good or not.
IW: What was the last thing that frightened you professionally?
MC: I suppose the scary thing with success is that you feel compelled to better yourself next time around. That's scary. But what we've been lucky enough to be able to do is constantly change medium. In 2010, we felt like we'd done all we could with Pappy's live shows, so we took a break and started podcasting. That introduced us to a whole new audience, gave us a new enthusiasm for working together, and helped us clearly define our dynamic. It also gave us a chance to miss doing live stuff so when we came to write the 2012 show, we were really excited about getting back to it. Then we had our television show commissioned, which was a whole new challenge; but at least it didn't feel like, "well, we've done a good live show; we have to immediately do another one..."
IW: The new BBC TV show is tentatively called Secret Dude Society. What are some of the challenges you faced in making the show?
MC: The first challenge was coming up with a new name for it. The pilot script has been around for a few years but when we came to write the next five episodes, we decided that the title didn't quite fit. So now it's called Badults.
I guess the biggest challenge comes from handing over responsibility to other people. In our live shows we write and perform everything ourselves; we make all our own props and costumes. In TV, you have to trust other people to help you realize your vision. Luckily, we had a superb team who all seemed to understand what we were aiming for.
Actually, the thing we had on our side, that perhaps a conventional stand-up might not have, was that, because there's three of us, we are already used to collaboration and compromise. If you're used to the total autonomy of stand-up, I imagine the step towards authoring your own TV show could be much harder.
IW: On the subject of compromise, how do you decide on when to fight for (or insist on) an idea and when to give in?
MC: If you completely believe in something, there's usually a rational way of explaining why you think it's a good idea. We're all pointing in the same direction- we want to make a brilliant show. Obviously, if it's for a live show, there's the "let's put it onstage and see who's right" test. If it's for the television show, we just have to go on instinct. If any of us really dislike an idea, then what we try and do is present an alternative. It's easier to deal with someone saying, "Instead of that, how about this?" rather than "I hate your idea but I have nothing of my own to bring to the table."
IW: Of course. That makes perfect sense. Basically just be a rational, decent person when dealing with people you respect. If you had to give a "best of” Pappy's sketches or bits to the uninitiated what would they be?
MC: And people you don't respect. Why not just be a rational, decent person? That's my revolutionary philosophy and the central tenet of my newly formed cult. Donations welcome via my PayPal page.
As for "best of" sketches for Pappy's, there's something a bit "bleurgh" about hearing sketches described; but, here goes: we do a version of the Wizard of Oz where we... No I can't do it. It'll sound embarrassing. Come and see us live. Or watch Badults when it comes on TV (probably July on BBC 3 in the UK).
IW: Say something funny.
MC: I thought of this joke today so I've got no idea of whether or not it's funny but here goes: my family are so middle class that when I was sick they gave me tiramiSudafed.
Matthew Crosby can be found on twitter at @matthewcrosby
This interview was conducted and submitted by our friend in London, Mr. Chris Bowman.
This month’s “International Waters” team for the UK features two great comedians. Maeve Higgins is an Irish comedian temporarily living in London. She was the creator of the show Fancy Vittles in which she costarred with her sister Lilly; and she’s recently become a popular author after releasing her book of essays called, “We Have A Good Time…Don’t We?”. Most exciting: she will be making a special US appearance this Spring at MaxFunCon2013! Our second comedian, Howard Read sports a ridiculously long list of credentials. He’s an award winning stand-up, a singer/songwriter, an animator, and a father of two. He’s the creator of Little Howard’s Big Questions and this very funny children’s lullaby. Maeve and Howard spent a little time with us before the match to answer some questions. Even though it wasn’t really a warm up, they nailed it. They got all the answers right.
International Waters: I think the obvious question is: Where do you find the time to be a comedian, a songwriter, an animator…
Maeve Higgins: …Meditate…
IW: (laughs)…Yeah! And all the other stuff that doesn’t involve creativity?
Howard Read: Well I, I don’t really! (Laughs) I’ve go no time for anything. The animation takes up the longest really. Yeah, I just don’t do anything else.
IW: Well, I guess you have to focus your attention on one thing at a time.
Special guest Julie Klam tells us about her new book Friendkeeping: A Field Guide to the People You Love, Hate and Can’t Live Without and is incredibly tolerant of Eliza’s latest comic character.
Engineered by Lindsay Pavlas and Chris Morris, written by Jordan Morris and Tom Neenan and produced by Colin Anderson.
Recorded live from the inaugural MaxFunConEast, International Waters 11 sees Canada and the USA finally face off against each other.
Thanks to Alex Adan, Brennan Bullock, Tina McElmoyl, Rebecca O’Malley Donna Vakalis and Kurt Andersen. Written by Sarah Morgan, Jordan Morris, Rob Lim and Colin Anderson. Hosted by Jesse Thorn.
And if you weren't at MaxFunCon East, register now for MaxFunCon West at Lake Arrowhead in May.
International Waters live at The San Francisco Comedy and Burrito Festival!
North and South California finally duke it out to find out which is the best.
Claudia O’Doherty combines forces with Robin Ince to create the British Commonwealth mega-team needed to take on America’s Greg Proops and Robin Thede.
There’s film geekery, a disco-ball crisis and the term PaparaPicazzo, plus special guest from new BBC America series “Copper”, Tom Weston-Jones. Written by Jordan Morris and Sarah Morgan.