By Hannah Clapham-Clark
In 2011, Adam Riches took the Edinburgh Fringe by storm with his versatile and combative style of comedy which combined madcap characters with inspired examples of audience participation, an effort which won him the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award that year. He talks to us about his influences, thoughts of quitting and whether Britain really is funnier than America…
Your comedy is very distinct and physical, how did you discover that this was your particular style? Have you tried for conventional stand-up in the past?
I’ve never tried stand-up, it’s not really a form that interests me. As for the distinct and physical, I’m not sure that it really is necessarily my particular style, more just a particular style that I have been using in the live arena and having some success with at the moment. I’ve done smaller, quieter, less bombastic pieces too over the years and enjoyed them just as much. It all depends on what the material and the character demands really. I just like to see a performer commit to what they do onstage, whether it be energetic or not or whether it even be working or not! That belief in their own voice is what attracts me.
How do you go about creating characters for a show? Do you have a particular favourite?
It’s a combination of things that can form something for me. Sometimes I’ll see something in a film, play or on TV that will strike a chord. Sometimes I’ll hear a sound or a voice when I’m out and about. Sometimes it’ll be a face that I might accidentally pull in the mirror in the morning! Whatever sticks around in my head and doesn’t fade away too easily is generally what forms the kernel of my ideas.
I don’t really have a favourite though. I like MasterMind as I get to sit down whilst playing him! Some feel fresher than others obviously the less you do them. New ones are exciting as you can form them as you perform them. Older ones are fun as you know them inside out and can relax and play them for real, away from the material if need be. the next one is always my favourite!
Whereas comedians such as Bo Burnham are becoming famous as teenagers, it was a long time before the critics became a fan of your work, what made you stick with comedy through the years? Did you ever consider quitting?
Frequently, I still do! I have a love-hate relationship with my career and always have had. The highs are fantastically addictive, the lows are depressingly common! But writing and performing (not necessarily comedy) is all I’ve ever wanted to do. I love creating stories, I love finding the right moment and I love perfecting a skill. That’s probably what has kept me going and driven me over the years, getting good at something.
Absolutely it’s had an impact. Had an impact on my life. It was never something I’d particularly harboured any real ambition for. You’re obviously aware of it when you’re up there but it’s a competition you seem to be entered into without actually applying! My mindset in going to Edinburgh was always about improving on my last show. I don’t really look to compete with anyone else other than myself, not too sure sideways is a healthy direction to aim your head in as it always seems to give me a migraine when I travel that way with someone on the train and have to talk to them! But in saying that, as soon as I knew it was a possibility I couldn’t help but get drawn in and think about it a lot more. Losing wouldn’t have meant I’d had an unsuccessful Festival, but winning certainly made it a unique one.
Your shows centre around audience participation which is a big fear for lots of people, can it be difficult to gain the trust of an audience? Why did you decide to approach your shows this way?
I think whatever style of performance you do, you have to gain their trust as soon as possible. All of that comes back to the faith and belief you have in your own voice and material. If you believe in it, they’ll listen. So with the 2011 show I knew very clearly how I wanted them to feel right from the start, so at lights up I just hit them with it and didn’t let go until lights down. That was a definite stylistic choice.
Good audience participation is solely based on trust. You can encourage people to do anything if they believe in you, even if that belief is rooted in fear! It’s a trick, a gimmick but should only ever be used if it is justified by the scene and the character you have presented to the room. I think too often it’s used as a get-out clause for scenes that don’t know where to go. The relationship between audience and performer is complex at the best of times, so when you’re asking for the roles to be reversed it has to be for good reason and has to take the relationship to the next level.
I first started playing with the notion of it through boredom. Boredom with having to do the same material day in, day out, boredom with not having another ‘cast member’ to play my character off. Pushing what I could do with them was connected to that, but also connected to the Festival environment. I produced and directed all of my own shows and both of those roles told me that in lieu of having a promoter, if I wanted to have a show that people would talk about…the best form of currency at the Fringe…I would have to have some truly five star moments onstage. Moments that could kill the show dead if they flopped or send the show over the top if they worked.
What’s been the best/strangest experience you’ve had with an audience member? Has it ever backfired?
Most experiences with an audience member have been strange! I’ve been punched, felt up, out-thought, made people cry and been thoroughly chastised by an over-protective Mother! I always find it so interesting to see them find themselves or lose themselves in the moment. You can almost hear their minds work overtime to try to second guess where you’re going to go with them, or see their eyes glaze over as you feel them utterly give in to your demands! It’s pretty fascinating and it’s that human reaction and unpredictability that I am drawn to.
But I wouldn’t say it has ever backfired. It’s almost as compelling to see it go wrong sometimes, isn’t it? Just not always as funny, so that was where I looked at improving and covering myself. Pick the right kind of character for the right kind of scene with the right kind of approach and then make sure I knew all the angles. Write the lines, ad lib on top, then muddy the water so no-one can see the join. Then put the hours in to make it all look easy. Good audience work is an art and as with all art, you need to be very bad at it before you can be a little good!
Last year saw the broadcast of The Guns of Adam Riches, what were the main challenges when trying to convey your style of comedy on the radio? Did you enjoy the process?
I did and I didn’t. (There’s that love-hate again!) I didn’t really listen to a lot of radio, (bar Howard Stern and Radio 4 certainly didn’t want any of that!) beforehand. I listen to a lot more now. Also, I wouldn’t really cite any of my major influences from their radio work and as with the Comedy Award, never really saw it as part of my career. But as with the Comedy Award, as soon as it became a possibility I found myself getting interested and so listened to a fair amount to help prepare.
A problem with the way I write is that often I won’t know what I’m writing until I find it on the page. From that point on a lot of what I do is backwards engineering. So I guess with the first series I was seeing what wouldn’t work as much as I was discovering what would! Not always a wholly enjoyable experience for audience or performer! With the second series I think I might look to hone a certain format and style that works better for the people at home whilst still giving me the sense of experimentation I need to stay interested.
It seems you’re a big follower of American comedy, do you think this has influenced your work specifically and do you think it’s in better shape than British comedy?
I’m not sure about the US live comedy scene. There doesn’t seem to be much live character or sketch comedy over there. That seems to have found a more natural home on the internet I suppose. Stand-up and Improv are big hitters. Radio comedy is pretty non-existent, certainly nothing compared to what we have here with Radio 4. As for TV and film, then yeah, I’m afraid I’d have to personally betray my country and say I watch far more of their output than our own…mine included!
Most of my favourite shows over the years have been American. Cheers, Curb your Enthusiasm, Eastbound and Down, Saturday Night Live. I like the ambition of it, the scale of it, the wealth of writing and writers that go into it and the sense of adventure it creates for me both reading about it behind the scenes and experiencing it on the sofa.
But it won’t always be that way. I think our previous golden eras have influenced them to get to this point so there’s no reason at all to doubt that our future generations can’t return the compliment at some point in the next millennia!
You’ve mentioned in the past that you’d like to develop a British Saturday Night Live, why do you think this hasn’t happened yet? What is it about SNL that you like and who are your favourite performers?
Ah, the age old question! It’s a tough one. They’ve had thirty eight years to get it right and wrong and right again etc. You also have to look back at when SNL was first commissioned. TV, Comedy and the World in general was far different back then. It became an institution, whereas over here I feel we are constantly trying to fashion one. You need a Lorne Michaels, a powerhouse of a Producer and an absolute genius, a word bandied round far too much these days but for him is an undersell. You need an exceptionally talented group of writers and performers, all free from the individual designs of their Managers/Agents and Promoters, each hungry and bold enough to keep going past the point of no return and sell the weakest of sketches on air as hard as the strongest ones. Encourage a team ethic over solo stardom. You need a broadcaster single-minded enough to let the team he has assembled get on with it and learn from their mistakes not fear them. They need to be backed to the hilt come rain or shine, en route to hitting their highs.
You need to it be live, really live so that the creatives have an absolute deadline they must hit head-on but also so that the audience can be part of the experience and forgive the odd rough edge. An audience is crucial too. Not the whole audience, just AN audience that get it, love it and are rewarded onscreen for spreading the word about it. Don’t bother with trying to make something that appeals to everyone. Just make the show you want to make and let that audience find you. This is all both why I would love to make a British Saturday Night Live and why I also think it will never ever happen! But last year I got to sit in the actual Writer’s Room during a show live from New York, so either way I can die happy!
Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Will Ferrell and Bill Hader. Their worst beats my best hands down.
Finally, what are your comedy plans for the next year? Any chance of another Fringe show?
As of now, I’m writing a couple of TV scripts, getting ready for a play and fumbling round with a few other ideas that could have some legs. Second radio series records in January for a March/April release then I’m hopefully off to America to chance my arm there. After that I’m going to write a couple of plays that I’ve been meaning to put on and try to get some more live material together. That might not happen before next year’s Fringe so probably not heading up again in 2014, but one day….one day…