This interview was conducted and written by Chris Bowman.
The U.K. team for this month’s episode of International Waters is composed of Helen Zaltzman and Michael Smiley. Helen Zaltzman hosts an award-winning podcast with Olly Mann called Answer Me This! It’s a funny and insightful show that is definitely worth your time. She is also a writer and maker of things which are available for your perusal at helenzatlzman.com. Michael Smiley is a stand up comedian and award-winning actor. Some may recognize him as Tyres O’Flaherty from the geek-friendly sitcom Spaced. His role as Gal in the Ben Wheatley film Kill List garnered him the award for Best Supporting Actor from the 2011 British Independent Film Awards and should not be missed. It’s twisted and graphic, but man, is it good. The common thread here is that they are both lovely people. Not to mention funny.
International Waters: Helen, you’re a writer and podcaster, what comes more naturally to you: writing or talking?
Helen Zaltzman: Well, talking takes much less time, so I’d say that.
IW: How often do you hear back about the advice you give to listeners who write in?
HZ: Oh, they’re quite vocal. Some of them are quite grateful, I think others are a little bit hurt. But we’ve probably saved many lives in our podcasting career.
IW: Do you have a particularly memorable bit of feedback?
HZ: We had this 17-year-old guy who wrote to us a few years ago and said, “I’m thinking of having an affair with my 43 year old neighbor who’s my mum’s friend. She sent me some sexy texts so I know she’s up for it”. We said, “She’s your neighbor and she’s married as well. Don’t shit where you eat, basically. And she’s your mum’s friend so they might talk about your sexual performance. Very traumatizing.” He wrote back and said, “Actually I did decide not to do it because she sent me some photos of herself undressed and I decided I didn’t fancy her and also her husband is really frightening.”
IW: Oh God.
HZ: So, I think that was probably wise.
IW: I had an Answer Me This moment myself recently where I asked “Is it possible to listen to 221 episodes of Answer Me This in a few days”?
HZ: Oh, no. That’s terrible for you. I would not advise that.
IW: I found out that it couldn’t be done. I started at the most recent and worked my way back.
HZ: Okay, so getting worse (laughs).
IW: Well, I was trying to find out the reason for the reverb on Martin the sound man’s voice. What is the explanation for that?
HZ: (In a hushed tone) We don’t talk about that. Many have asked. I can’t disclose.
IW: I think it’s hilarious that the sound man has sound trouble.
HZ: A lot of people just don’t understand that we know about it. They’ll write to us and say, “There’s something wrong with his voice. I don’t know if you’ve noticed.” After five and a half years, we have clocked.
IW: I didn’t know if it was a mistake. I thought it was a chorus of people. He laughed and it sounded like a room full of people.
HZ: We like to keep a roomful of people laughing. It keeps us modest.
IW: Michael! Courier, DJ, comedian, actor. Any other interesting career moves in your past?
Michael Smiley: Lover, child maker, impregnator in an international and socially gravitating way.
MS: Um, it has its ups and downs (laughs).
IW: How does your career as a stand up inform your acting?
MS: I think it helps with improv if you’re coming off the script. You can think on your feet. You can listen. There are a lot of good actors but they don’t really come off the page and they work on the character a lot more. I think with stand-up you’ve got to be constantly thinking. As you’re talking to me I’m processing the character, you know, and trying to find a way around it and find where I’d be in the scheme of things.
IW: You describe becoming a comedian as a “beautiful mistake”. Can you expand on that?
MS: Well, I had no idea to be a stand-up comedian. I never thought of it. I’m a working class Belfast lad. I never thought it was for the likes of me. You don’t make the quantum leap in your head that because I know every word of the “Billy Connolly Bites Your Bum” video or the Richard Pryor video – I never thought, “I could do that or I should do that”. It was only when friends pushed me into it. I had a friend named Stuart who was really instrumental saying,“You’ve got to do this” and went out of his way to get me in to it. The brilliant mistake was that I went to a comedy club one night called The VD Clinic. Stuart talked me in to going along just to see what it was like, to get a feel for it. I mentioned to the owner that I had called the week before and they’d had no open spots. And he came up to me later on and said, “Someone’s just dropped out. You’re up first after the break”. That was pretty much my introduction to it.
IW: Were you prepared at that point?
MS: Not at all. I didn’t think I was going to be gigging that night. I didn’t have my head around it at all. I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t go down there with the idea I was going to be on stage, certainly not.
IW: You had material though? You just weren’t ready for that night?
MS: I had a few little things. What I was learning was that the stuff that I’d used to make people laugh when we were in the pub having a drink could be chiseled and edited down. It was workable stuff. So I had a few little one-liners and I just got those together. I had three minutes of material. I said something when I got on stage that had just come off the top of my head and that sort opens the head up. That’s the acceptance, then I was off and running. I spent the next six months down on me arse and having mediocre performances and then good performances. Just being persistent.
IW: These next few questions are for both of you – so just jump in at any time. How do you explain the near total collapse of proper grammar?
MS: Ye wha?
HZ: Language is very fluid. I think it probably started in the late 60’s when society was crumbling and now there are a couple of generations brought up by people whose grammar was crumbled deliberately to stick it to the man.
MS: I think language and grammar are changing all the time.
HZ: You just have to accept it, don’t you?
MS: Yeah, especially in this city. I’m reading a book at the moment called The Hooligan Nights it was written in 1895 or something like that. It’s an interview a hooligan, a young street kid from Lambeth. It’s written in the way that he would speak. It’s very similar to the way kids talk now but it’s also very different. I think it comes from youth. It doesn’t come from the old ones. Grammar equals school which equals being told what to do. When you’re amongst your own it frees you up. If you make your mates laugh and you paint pictures in their heads then that becomes a catch phrase or a word that’ll be used. It becomes part of your personal vernacular and it’ll spread and I think that’s great. Fuck grammar.
IW: (Laughs). Ok. This being an international podcast, I wanted to find some unusual words or terms. A pinafore dress is known as a jumper in the U.S. A jumper in the U.K. is a sweater. So. What is a pinafore dress exactly?
HZ: Well it would be a dress with straps that button in the manner of dungarees. Overalls, to translate for the Americans, I guess. But I’m not an expert on pinafore dresses.
MS: Yeah, it’s a strappy thing with a bib on the front and the dress sort of comes out from the waist, and a pleat. It probably just goes out over the knee and then it billows out very nicely and if you’ve got a lovely turned ankle it’s perfect for that. I would wear it with a lime green sling back.
IW: What is your favorite U.K./U.S. word difference that would mean the same thing? And fanny pack is already taken.
HZ: What about just fanny? Fanny is pretty filthy over here but over there people bandy it around as if it’s fine.
IW: Well it’s the backside over there.
HZ: Yeah, it’s front side over here.
MS: (Laughs) Yes it is. Yes it is front side. Yeah, I don’t know because I’m still struggling with the Northern Irish to English.
IW: OK. How about that?
MS: You know how you were saying about grammar and vernacular? Well, I just love the fact that we, the Northern Irish, have little words that don’t mean anything. Like, “you’re a ganch”. Or glipe. The Eskimos have so many words for snow. Well we’ve got so many words for idiot or dickhead. A glipe is someone who talks a lot but doesn’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. Pretty much what I’m doing now. Then you’ve got a ganch who’s an older man who puts a wee bit more gravitas on it. He’ll dominate maybe a nice drink in a bar. He might lean in to your company and give you a wee bit of advice. So those
expressions don’t have any reference point. They’re nearly onomatopoeic.
HZ: A Northern Irish friend of mine says “bin lid” as well as a synonym for those. Is that normal?
MS: Aye. Yer man’s a bin lid. Wire to the moon. Head full of marleys (marbles). The lights are on but it looks like burglars. Stuff like that.
HZ: That’s beautiful.
IW: A couple more. Go on.
MS: What’s up with ya, is the skin on yer head tight? (Laughs). If yer lookin’ for sympathy it’s in the dictionary between shit and syphilis.