Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Interview with Will Franken: comics need courage

Will Franken a comedian with a curious mind

QI's top elf speaks to Andy

It’s too limiting to call Franken a comedian. With his dark humour, sense of the absurd and an ability to point out the uncomfortable truths, he has made a real impact in this brutal business.

The young Franken was brought up in a small city of Sedalia, Missouri. A railway junction, it had the reputation as a hotspot of vice and prostitution in the last century, it is now known as the ‘Trailer capitol of the Midwest.’

Franken had a freewheeling mind that was recognised later in life when he was awarded ‘Best alternative to psychedelic drugs’ by a San Francisco newspaper shortly after taking up performing.
He’s also got a Masters in English, specialising in Restoration and 18th Century literature. But he’s not very happy with the state of comedy in the UK, his adopted home.

Why move to the UK? “Britain was the pinnacle. It was the great escape. Because what I saw from British television as a kid was just light years beyond what Americans were doing,” he says. Inspired by The Goons, Monty Python and the sitcoms, Franken headed to the UK.

“I was living in a hotel for three months and hadn’t had TV for quite a few years, so I was turning on the TV…” He pauses and looks exasperated. “I was just so depressed to see the height that it had fallen from in Britain,” he complains, saying that humour that was once groundbreaking is rarely seen.

While the Mother-in-Law obsessed comedians have largely gone as have those whose racial stereotyping seems as if it was a century ago, Franken feels that comedians should be allowed on the fringes, to be poking at the edges, something he sees too little of today. Why? “Laziness and fear,” says Franken, on both sides of the Atlantic. “When I was a kid David Letterman was the answer to Johnny Carson and he was very weird and he was doing weird stuff and had weird little sketches and now when I see Letterman I see a man that’s got to much money and so much status that he doesn’t want to rock the boat less he loses it.”

It’s not just fame and success that can dull the edge, “I think the political correctness has kind of encroached and has made people, comedians especially very afraid to talk about some subjects.”
He raises the musical about the Book of Mormon, put on by the creators of South Park, that became a Broadway hit, “By and large the Mormons are such a small population that they’re not going to rise up and revolt and that’s acceptable, but at the same time you can’t do a Jihadi musical so there’s all sorts of double standards at play.”

Franken is outspoken, but in a thoughtful way and he has a trace of the oldest traditions, that of the jester, who challenges by treading in uncomfortable areas, including how the comedy business works.
Like much of the entertainment business, life is tough on the lower rungs, with no pay, expenses for everything (At the Edinburgh Fringe some acts were actually charged for a glass of water whilst on stage, for example).

After a successful three night run at one leading alternative comedy club where he was expected to perform free, Franken passed round a hat and explained his plight.

As a result, “I was banned from the theater in LA and New York. Now they’re called, they’re the premiere alternative place so that’s your quote ‘alternative’ for you.”

This brings the comedian to another problem with comedy. “I said in one interview, you know the religious people killed Christ. If you think about who’s killing art? The artist, and that’s a sad thing to say,” he notes. He’s also noted that nascent performers have changed, “There used to be a Darwinian evolution to art, right? You got to a certain point. You tried you gave it a shot, and if it didn’t work, you’d go back to whatever job you did before.”

With anyone who thinks they are funny having the ability to make You Tube videos and publish, essentially for free on the internet, Franken argues that many people are continuing with ‘virtual’ careers but only produce work of low quality and value.

Not everybody should have a career in comedy just because they want one. He takes the view of if everyone is special, then nobody is. Franken is a working comedian, it’s a job, something he constantly works at.

A downbeat assessment of the business, but how can it be improved, especially at a time where it appears that comedians are doing more hard-hitting political comment than many broadcasters?
“The guys at the top are going to have to take risks,” he says. “You need somebody wise in the position of power to be able to say to be able to make decisions that aren’t based on fear and profit.”
“I’m a capitalist I love money but you need somebody to be able to make decisions that are based on artistic merit because to me at the end of the day that’s the only principle.”

From his experience in Britain, he says,  the cultural organisations “are doing the Shakespeare the Beethoven the classical stuff. We’re doing all that stuff. And I love all that stuff,” he adds.
“So the BBC and all of them, they’ve got to stop being afraid.

He continues, “I believe if you have enough freedom, the cream will rise to the top. But if you have those people on the top making those decision based on artistic merit rather than the legend books then you’ll start seeing good art again,” he pauses slightly, “I think.”

He says, “My point it’s on both sides. it’s not just TV people or Hollywood that’s keeping people out. It’s that bad are not being discouraged and bad artists are not being discouraged as well. So everybody is meeting in a real mushy middle. I either have really bad stuff or really good stuff. But that middle, it’s just a horrible place to be. No taste. “

Franken has performed not only in the big cities, but in many small towns and out of the way places and he often finds them to be more real, authentic and interesting than the more famous venues.

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