ED2013 Comedy ED2013 Interviews ED2013 Week2 Edition

Will Franken: Edinburgh benefits

By | Published on Tuesday 13 August 2013

Will Franken

“Part character comedy, part one-man sketch show, Franken is an arresting and devastating stage presence” said our reviewer of this man after seeing his first Edinburgh show last August.
And there’s a plethora of new characters to enjoy in Will’s 2013 show ‘Concert To Benefit The Victims Of My Father’, many informed by his experiences as an American living in Britain. We managed to get a few moments with the real Franken though, to get an insight into his career, his new show, and his comedy heros.

CM: According to the ever reliable Wikipedia you began your career as an actor. What made you switch to comedy?
WF: I actually wanted to be a comedian first. I had done a few scattered gigs and one-man type comedy shows in various comedy clubs and book stores in small towns in Missouri.

But when I moved to New York to pursue it further, I got so frustrated with the ridiculously long lines at open mic nights – sometimes not going up until 2 am on a Sunday – and the “bringer” shows – bring five people who pay five dollars to watch you do five minutes on a night where the booker isn’t even there – that I fell into acting almost out of frustration.

At least with an audition I knew I was going to get up for a chance to do something, either a cold reading or a monologue. I found that I got cast frequently thanks to a growing repertoire of voices and characters. I miss it often. There’s a comfort in interpreting someone else’s lines sometimes; the onus of writing is subtracted from the equation and it can be quite relaxing.

CM: Wikipedia also says you used to be a teacher. What was that like?
WF: Well, I’ve had stints teaching at the college level and at the junior high school level (sixth, seventh, and eighth grades in America). Teaching college was fun. It’s the kind of job you get when you don’t want to work, you can show off how smart you are and flirt with eighteen to nineteen year old chicks in a meaningful way.

That being said, I was the kind of teacher I hated to have. A fun teacher. The professors I admired were the ones that stuck to the subject matter, never showed a sense of humour, and wore tweed jackets. A bit like the lead character in ‘The Browning Version’ or Houseman in ‘The Paper Chase’. The students liked me. I got great reviews at the end of semester — save for the random Mormon chick who took umbrage at my rampant profanity.

I taught beginning English, so I could justify anything under that rubric. If I felt like playing The Who’s ‘Live At Leeds’, I’d get a boom box from the AV department and talk about Pete Townsend’s use of “inner dialogue”. If I felt like watching ‘Taxi Driver’, I’d bring in a TV and ask the students to look for “themes”. Mostly it was fifty minutes three times a week for me to hone my improvisational comedy skills.

I taught junior high for one year – 1999-2000 – in inner-city Harlem and I was so traumatised by the abuse from the children and the negligence of the administration, I vowed I would never work a regular job again in my life. And I haven’t. I was so egotistical, I thought I would approach the first day like Robin Williams in ‘Dead Poets’ Society’ and transform their lives from ghetto ignorance into Blakean mysticism. By day two, it was “SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!”

CM: You made your Edinburgh debut last year with a show that certainly grabbed the attention of our reviewer. Did you enjoy your time here last year, and what made you decide to return? Do you see yourself coming back year after year?
WF: Well, first off, ThreeWeeks, let me say thanks again for the wonderful review from last year! I especially dig the Marmite reference, as I’ve become quite fond of Marmite myself – especially on toast with some pilchards. And I absolutely enjoyed my time up in Edinburgh last year. I suppose my return is based on the utilitarian purpose of being able to live and work in the UK, combined with the aesthetic impetus of unveiling a brand-new hour; with 60-70 percent of material and characters drawn from my experiences as an ex-pat living in England.

Not sure if I’ll return to Edinburgh year after year, though. Even when things are going well, the Festival can play merry hell on the nervous system. I suppose it also depends on the disposable income factor. What really seems to make sense to me these days, from talking with other performers, is the Free Fringe. Coming from a working class background as I do – small-town Missouri – there’s something that makes sense about an actual jar going around at the end of a show with actual money in it. I can dig that.

CM: That new show is called ‘Concert To Benefit The Victims Of My Father’. What’s it about? Are they all new characters?
WF: Well, as I say, what I really like about this current show is the proliferation of UK characters and anecdotes that I’ve built into it. There’s an extended piece concerning my first gig in Wales, coupled with a prolonged joke about my inability to master the accent, and a romantic country duet with me playing both myself and a Welsh female bartender. And there’s the racist gormless cabbie lecturing me about the lack of civility of the French and a very trippy HSBC advert with some extended vox-pops.

One thing that’s noticeably different about this particular show is that I’m playing myself as straight man more than I ever have before. At times, it’s almost like a picaresque narrative of an Anglophile’s rosy-eyed view of the UK, and a commentary on the pitfalls of placing things too high on a pedestal. There’s no repeat of any characters from last year as far as I can see – though I do have a sexual harassment seminar leader that’s somewhat of a mirror to last year’s celebate diversity seminar leader.

CM: It sounds like your material has something in common with the oeuvre of Monty Python. Is Monty Python an inspiration for you?
WF: Very much so. ‘The Flying Circus’ TV episodes more than the movies, because structurally the transitions are so key to their framework. That made such an impression on me as a youngster, seeing how they could convey a comedic idea as having no beginning and no end, a perpetual fluidity.

And their ability to unleash the innate pyrotechnics of the human subconscious; their ‘Election Night Special’ is just one example, with the name of a candidate that takes John Cleese nearly two minutes to finish saying. And their breaking of the fourth wall was also very inspiring for me as well. Anything they could do to avoid asking what so many stand-ups do to this day; asking, under the pretence of moving the show along, “what else”? Monty Python didn’t have to ask “what else” because they were the what else.

CM: Are there any other comedy acts who particularly inspired you?
WF: Oh yeah. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in their Derek & Clive personas. I was a big fan of Steve Martin’s early albums, as well as the huge body of Richard Pryor’s work. Lenny Bruce before he became obsessed with his own importance was a pretty gifted multi-character storyteller, as in his fifteen minute ode to bad comedians ‘The Palladium’. And though I discovered him too late in life to consider him an influence, I’m also a huge admirer of the work of Chris Morris. Mostly, though, I’m influenced by character actors. Icons like Peter Sellers who only really came to life when they were immersed in a role. I’ve always found that level of intensity fascinating and something which to aspire.

CM: Which other acts are on your must-see list at the Festival this year?
WF: Deffo my funny friends from Brighton, Casual Violence, who are also playing at the Pleasance, I believe. And hell, all the friends I’ve made since being out here, like Milo McCabe and Jessie Cave (I love the precocious little girl angle she has). If I get a chance I’ll also check out Jerry Sadowitz; I had the honour of opening up for him at the Leicester Square Theatre last year and was so impressed with his balls-out, say what the hell you want, anti-PC stances, that it felt like he just ripped the laughter straight out of me with his sheer audacity. So many friends, so many shows. Not sure where to start; but I’ll try to see as many as possible.

CM: Will there be time to take in any of Edinburgh’s many tourist attractions?
WF: Well, I think I hit pretty much all of them last year, with the exception of the Royal College Of Surgeons. That sounded pretty grisly and I wanted to check it out, but just didn’t have the chance. I even managed to climb Arthur’s Seat last year – despite being a two-pack a day smoker. So I’m not dead yet! I might revisit some of those magical places I took day trips to last year, like North Berwick and Queensferry. I love the smaller, less congested places. I’m a country boy at heart and I love the solitude of certain areas of Scotland. It’ll be good to return!

‘Will Franken: Concert to Benefit the Victims of My Father’ was performed at the Pleasance Dome at Edinburgh Festival 2013.

LINKS: www.willfranken.com

Photo: Kat Gollock