Liam Tulley | Official Website
LIAM TULLEY INTERVIEW
Liam Tulley is a rising star on the UK comedy circuit, with a host of competition wins and nominations. We investigate the motives of his workaholic approach to stand up, touching on the downsides, including a cycle of depression that gripped him in his less creative moments. In this candid interview he describes in depth the process by which he creates and structures his material, as well as exploring what drives a comic to be “always on”…He also talks about his earliest stand up routines, how his stage persona has changed and the one thing about comedy that breaks his heart…
SG: What made you want to get into comedy?
LT: I don't know if I'm honest, it's just something that's always drawn my attention. I used to go to Blackpool a lot when I was a kid and my Dad would always take us to clubs where there would be a comedian on, every afternoon, every night and it was packed. I was only young and probably didn't get most of the jokes but everyone was laughing and having a good time, the laughter was infectious and something that's always stuck with me. I think from the age of about ten I wanted to be a comedian. I'd never seen comedians on television, I'd only ever seen these comics in working men's clubs in Blackpool and that's what I wanted to be. I had no idea about the comedy circuit, I was ten, why would I? I just wanted to make people laugh. Looking back now I'd always done it, I was always making people laugh at school, practically from day one. I wasn't doing it consciously, it was just something I was able to do and when I saw these comedians on stage in Blackpool that's when I started to think, maybe I could do that, then I'd remember that I was ten and I'd have to wait years so for years I just continued doing it at school.
SG: As you grew older then I imagine that comedy stayed with you, so who was the fist professional comedian you saw?
LT: I remember finding a cassette of Bernard Manning at my Dad's house when I was about twelve and listening to that. He was probably the first proper professional comedian that I heard. Again, I was young so didn't get all the jokes but he was swearing a lot so that was funny to me. I used to listen to it every weekend at my Dad's, I'd remember the jokes word for word. Obviously I wasn't supposed to be listening to it and I'd always do it secretly, most lads would be wanking and hoping not to get caught, I was listening to Bernard Manning. One afternoon I went into the living room where my Dad and my eighty year old Grandma were and said to my Dad, who's bald "You've been using that Wash & Go shampoo on your head, you've washed it and it's fucking gone." How my Grandma lived another ten years after hearing that I'll never know, my Dad jumped up, he knew what I'd been up to, I got a bollocking and the cassette got hidden, but I found it under his mattress a week later. The first modern comedian I saw was Lee Evans, I can remember it like it was yesterday. It was Boxing Day 2000, so I was thirteen. I'd been to watch Leeds United away at Newcastle, I came home put the TV on and Lee Evans was on. I'd never heard of him and If you think about the working men's comedians I'd seen and hearing Bernard, his style was completely new to me. I remember watching him, thinking 'who the fuck is this lunatic'. I got a tape, VHS, that's how old I am, and recorded it. I watched it again and again and again. Same as I did with Bernard, I remembered the jokes word for word. As soon as I got back to school after the holidays I was repeating these Lee Evans jokes to my mates, and again realised that I wanted to be a comedian.
SG: How old were you when you performed your first gig?
LT: I was 25.
SG: So how come it took you that long to do it? If you'd known from such a young age, what held you back?
LT: Well, as I grew older and I'm talking eighteen now, in the back of my mind I still wanted to do it, but I didn't know how to. I still wanted to be a comedian in Blackpool doing the clubs, but by the time I was old enough it was dying on it's arse, clubs were closing all the time.
SG: But after seeing Lee Evans didn't you want to be like him, on television?
LT: Well, yeah but I had no idea how you did that because all I knew about were the club comics. You've got to remember too by this time I was watching comedians like Peter Kay, Jack Dee, Billy Connolly and I just assumed that these people were different from the rest and were picked out by TV producers, I had no idea that they'd worked their arses off in clubs for years before they got to a stage where they could perform on television or in a theatre, I just didn't have a clue. It was only when Live at the Apollo started and I was watching comedians who I'd never heard of when I thought maybe there's another way into it, and that's when I started looking on the internet at how to become a comedian.
SG: So 2013 what was it about that year where you thought; 'Right I'm going to do it, I'm going to get on stage'?
LT: For years I didn't have a clue how to become a comedian, then when I got to about twenty I found out about all these competitions and open spots and considered doing it, people would always say to me "you should be on stage", that's something I've had from school right up to drinking with my mates in the pub. So in 2010 I signed up for 'King Gong' but I lost my bottle and didn't go. I thought it's all well and good being funny in the pub making your mates laugh, but getting on a stage and trying to be funny to 200 people, that's just suicide. So, I left it and if I'm honest I'm glad I did, because I would have been useless, I would have failed and given up.
SG: What was the difference from 2010 to 2013?
LT: 2010 it was just a thought, a stupid dream I'd had from being a kid. I didn't have any material, I probably would have used jokes from other 'real' comedians, which obviously is an absolute no, so I just forgot about it and got a normal job. 2013 I got to a point where I thought it's now or never. I was in a relationship, happy and almost felt complete for the first time in my life, there was just one thing at the back of my mind, and that was the urge to perform stand up. I'd recently lost my job, I was on the dole, so had nothing to lose work wise, so I thought why not? A big factor was having a girlfriend, she gave me a lot of confidence, not to get on stage, but just in general, I felt confident having someone like that in my life.
SG: Where was your first gig?
LT: My first gig was at the Comedy Store in Manchester. It was a 'King Gong', so what happens is you get five minutes on stage, if you're shit the audience will boo you and you'll get 'gonged' off and if you're good you'll survive the full five minutes and become a world famous comedian...Well, that's what you think when you first sign up to it, but ultimately, it's bollocks. I survived the five minutes and went back to my hotel feeling like an absolute boss. It was like I'd just played Wembley, the adrenaline was running through me, but the next day I went home to my girlfriend and nothing had changed. I was back to sitting on the sofa watching Jeremy Kyle, no one phoned offering me another gig, no agents were getting in contact with me asking me to appear on Live at the Apollo. That's the thing people need to understand, it's not just get up tell a few jokes and you'll be a success, you've got to work hard. I didn't have a clue about how to become a comedian when I first signed up to 'King Gong', I had no idea that you had to do about a hundred gigs unpaid or for expenses before you're even considered for proper paid work. I just assumed that I'd get spotted and people would offer me gigs, I was naïve.
SG: How did you go on from that gig?
LT: I'd spoken to a few comedians at the comedy store who had been doing it a while and they pointed me in the right direction, they gave me websites and email addresses, so I contacted a few clubs and booked in for five minutes at various venues. As you know you do your five and if you're any good the promoter will say oh do you want to come back next month and do eight and then it goes up to ten. I just did this for a while and sort of progressed.
SG: What sort of material were you doing when you first started and which comedians influenced your comedy?
LT: Looking at some of my early material it was awful, I just picked the most stereotypical shite and talked about it, I was having a go at fat people, talking about Greggs and on one recording I mentioned Peter Sutcliffe being on Celebrity Big Brother raping the housemates it was just utter shit and quite honestly I don't know how I was getting away with it. When you first start you do try and be like the comedians you enjoy watching, so for a while I was trying to be like Ricky Gervais and failed, then I wanted to be like Peter Kay, then Michael McIntyre. Early on it's all about finding your own voice, finding what style of comedy suits you and every comedian goes through a phase where they're trying to emulate their favourite comedian and eventually you get to a point where it just hits you and you become who you are.
SG: You talk about finding your voice, how would you describe your style of comedy and who you are on stage?
LT: I don't really know how to describe it if I'm honest, I try and be observational and sometimes I'll try and throw a one-liner in if I can. I think the best thing is to be yourself or as close as you can be to yourself on stage. How I am on stage is not entirely how I am in real life, it's an exaggerated version of me, it's the me I'd maybe like to be in certain situations, and also on stage I can be the part of me that can say anything I want. There are things I say on stage that I wouldn't dream of saying in normal everyday situations because obviously I've got a social filter that stops me from saying it, because I'm not an arsehole, but on stage there is no filter. A lot of my material is self deprecating, so I try to make sure that at the end of most of the jokes I'm the victim. Early on, like I said I'd make fat jokes, but now I talk about me rather than them or if there's a joke I want to tell that might offend people I try to relate it back to me and how it affects me.
SG: Have you ever told a joke that has offended someone?
LT: Yeah, I mentioned abortion once and a woman came up to me after the gig and said "I laughed at everything you said right up to the abortion joke." The joke wasn't actually about abortion, it had the word abortion in it and obviously when people hear words like abortion or rape or paedophile they instantly go 'right I'm offended' because that's people's thought process these days, everyone is offended on someone else's behalf. Look at the Jimmy Carr joke about the injured soldiers, that was one joke out of about 200 in front of 3000 people who had paid to see Jimmy Carr and one person phoned the Daily Mail up to complain, and then the Daily Mail printed the joke and contacted families of injured troops for their opinion about the joke. That was irresponsible journalism, Jimmy Carr told that joke to people wanting to hear Jimmy Carr jokes, the Mail printed it out of context and repeated it to people who would obviously find it offensive. The joke I told was about me applying to go on Deal or No Deal and on the form I put If I won I'd spend the money on a prostitute, my application was rejected and I know how much they love a sob story on that show so I wrote to them to tell them the prostitute needed the money for an abortion...That was the joke, it's got the word abortion in it but I was actually talking about the lengths people go to to get on television, it was about the sob stories on shows like that and X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, but this woman had just heard the word abortion and was instantly offended.
SG: Do you think you have a responsibility to an audience?
LT: My responsibility is to make an audience laugh, that's it. People over complicate comedy by saying you should make an audience think, it's not just about jokes. Look up Comedian in a dictionary it says 'an entertainer whose act is designed to make an audience laugh.' It's that simple, I'm not getting paid to make an audience think, I'm not Stephen Hawking, I'm not a university lecturer, I'm a comedian, a jester, a fool, an idiot. It's not my job to make people think. If they're thinking, they're not laughing. For a comedian that's the worst heckle you can get, silence. In terms of the material, if I tell a joke about cancer, or abortion or paedophile jokes I will always try and relate it back to me. I don't want to offend anyone on stage and I'd never tell a joke where a cancer patient is the victim, that's not me, but I don't fear talking about taboo subjects on stage if I can say something funny about them and there's no real victim at the end of it.
SG: I want to talk more about how you've changed as a comedian and what transitions you've gone through to get to where you are today?
LT: Well, when I first started out it was just about getting five minutes material and basically winging it for a bit. I didn't have a style I was finding my voice and as I've said a lot of it was shit. I think over the last year I've developed more as a comedian because I've changed as a person, my outlook on life and how I see things has changed so much from when I first started.
SG: What's changed?
LT: Well, I split up from my girlfriend which was a huge turning point, I lost my house that we shared. I basically had a really comfortable stable lifestyle with someone who I absolutely adored and within the space of a week it was all turned on it's head to the point where I felt like I had nothing left.
SG: So has that changed your style on stage or how you see comedy?
LT: Both. I'll tell you what happened and then we'll get to how it's changed me. I was doing quite well getting spots at top clubs, the Comedy Store, Frog & Bucket. I'd been to the Edinburgh festival for the So You Think You're Funny Competition, I did quite well in that. I had other things lined up. I'd just moved into a new house with my girlfriend. This was in 2014 and I'd been going about a year, my material was getting slightly better and I could see that I was improving as a comedian and that I was becoming a bit mainstream.
SG: What do you mean by that?
LT: I was talking about things like being in a relationship, hairdryers going at six in the morning, hair clips everywhere in the house, Lee Evans, McIntyre sort of material. I was getting booked to do ten minutes here, there and everywhere. It was all good, not quite what I wanted to do but at the time I was just getting on with it. I was always writing, always thinking about comedy and then away performing when I could. I was caught up in it all and looking back now I realise that I was neglecting the one person who gave me the confidence to get up and do it in the first place. She was really supportive with it all in the beginning and as an outsider to it she probably didn't understand that this is how you build your way up in comedy. Try telling your girlfriend that you can't go out for a meal or a drink or spend time with her because you're doing ten minutes in Scunthorpe for no money. It sounds insane to someone who doesn't get it. I always tried to get home when I could, I remember doing gigs in Manchester for twenty quid, catching the last train home to Leeds at one in the morning, then paying sixty quid for a taxi to get home from Leeds. So I'd do gigs and be out of pocket just to get home and that wasn't enough. I think it was the other stuff too not just performing, but writing I was always on my laptop, on my phone, making notes. I think she couldn't see it as work because she was on the outside of it, she just saw it as me messing about on Facebook or ignoring her, which I wasn't, not intentionally anyway. Eventually we drifted apart, we lived together but it was more like two housemates rather than a relationship, someone else came into the equation and started showing her the attention that I wasn't. I admit now, having had a lot of time to reflect that I must have been an absolute nightmare to live with. I was paying stand up more attention than her, but only because I wanted to get to a level good enough to make our lives better, but I don't think she saw it like that. I could see she was getting attention elsewhere and I dealt with it like a typical man. I got drunk, I got angry, I said some stupid things and she just ended it and I don't think there was ever any going back after that. I tried and we continued to live together but it became unbearable for both of us. For me, knowing that someone else was involved made it ten times worse. It was like watching someone else live the life that I had. It was horrible and on reflection I think we both made mistakes and handled it completely wrong. The most ironic thing of it all is that she gave me the confidence to get up and do stand up and then my obsession with it made me neglect her, which does genuinely break my heart when I think about it.
SG: So once your relationship ended, how did that change your comedy?
LT: For a start I lost about twenty minutes material, because I couldn't talk about being in a relationship anymore. People said just lie and pretend you're still in one and talk about it, but it became too painful to even talk about. I did a gig in Sheffield and I was talking about my 'girlfriend' and how she annoys me with this and that and I got to a point where I could feel myself getting choked up so I ended my set early and went home and cried for about an hour. After that gig, I didn't perform stand up for about six months, I didn't write any material, I didn't think about comedy, I just completely shutdown. My relationship was over, I had to move in with my parents, as far as I was concerned that was it with stand up comedy because 1) I couldn't talk about being in a relationship anymore and 2) I didn't feel like talking to anyone anyway, so I just cut myself off from people. I didn't go out, I rarely left my bedroom. Things just gradually got on top of me to the point where I hardly ate, lost nearly three stone and ended up taking an overdose. I'd just had enough. The Doctor put me on antidepressants, which I didn't want, I didn't see myself as depressed, more just having my heart ripped out and kicked to fuck. Then they wanted me to speak to a therapist, they just didn't get that I didn't want to speak to anyone about anything I just wanted to disappear. The drugs they gave me didn't make me any happier, they just made me tired, so you couldn't think about things that upset you because all you wanted to do was sleep. So after about two months I decided to stop taking them. I started going out a bit more, speaking to my mates and family and I was gradually getting better. To be honest I'd completely forgotten about stand up, because my ex was the only person who knew that I was doing it, none of my friends and family knew at the time, so it never got mentioned. It felt like a lifetime ago or as if it was someone else. Then out of the blue I got a call from Jason Manford, I'd done ten minutes at one of his clubs a few months before and he wanted to know how I was getting on: "I don't do it anymore, mate. Sorry!" I explained to Jason what had happened and he told me to come to Manchester for a chat. I went down the next day and we spoke in his office, he was talking about how his marriage ended and how he coped with depression and all this other stuff, basically Jason Manford off the telly was now my counsellor. I went home that night and on Jason's advice started to write everything down that pissed me off, upset me and made angry about my relationship being over. He told me to write it all down, every thought, however horrible, nasty or upsetting. Write it down and then go through it and look for something funny. That's what I did, and by the end of it, I had five minutes new material, I'd not written anything for months, I'd not even thought about stand up, but there I was writing about my shit life, ripping it pieces, and laughing at it. Six months ago I'd taken an overdose thinking I couldn't cope, now I'm reading my material thinking 'This is fucking comedy'. I phoned the Frog & Bucket that afternoon and booked in for a five spot that night. I was nervous, because I'd not done it for so long and also because it was all new material so I didn't know if it would work. I went on stage and it was the best gig I'd ever had, the best I'd ever performed. I'd finally 'found my voice'. The feeling after that, coming off stage was better than any antidepressant.
SG: So after that, your stage persona completely changed?
LT: Everything changed, not in a drastic way, it had always been there, I was always me on stage, but a bit guarded. Now I was just telling the truth, speaking from the heart. I wasn't having to look deep for material and analyse everything, it was just there. Obviously the way I looked at life was different, I was a single man, living alone. At 27 I was discovering things that I never knew, like some 'ready' meals aren't 'suitable for a microwave', what's the point? That's not a ready meal is it, if I've got to fuck about stirring and peeling lids back for 40 minutes, that's not a ready meal, that's cooking.
SG: How did the change in your persona change your writing?
LT: Before, I was just noticing things that happened between me and my girlfriend and talking about it, I wouldn't really write anything down, other than a few notes, then I'd go out and perform. I think I became Lazy with it, I had the same ten minutes for months and I wasn't really working on it, I was just getting by with it. Now I work so much harder when it comes to writing.
SG: How do you write your material?
LT: Now, I've got three notebooks. One is where I write everything down, and I mean everything. I sleep with this book, well not sleep with it, I'm not a weirdo who fucks paper, but it's at the side of my bed every night. If I wake up at 3 in the morning thinking about something funny, I'll write it down in that book. If I'm away I'll write it on my phone and copy it into the book later, but that's the first book, everything gets put in there. There's some really random shit in it too, like the other night I woke up and half asleep I wrote 'condom too small - had to put it on using a shoehorn'. I have no idea where that came from or why but that's written down. Then in my second book, I'll take things out of the first book and try and write a routine around it, so for example in my first book there's a bit about buying condoms on Amazon and reading the reviews...that lead to me writing about 'People who bought this item also bought..." and then I wrote a bit about "People who bought these condoms also bought Pampers Nappies.' it's just stuff like that where I can turn notes or words from the first book into longer bits or one liners. Then the third book is where I write a full set, so If I'm booked for ten minutes I'll write a ten minute set using routines out of the second book. Then I'll record the gig, listen back to it and make notes in the third book about what can be improved or what order things should go in.
SG: So, I get the impression that with your first book, you're always 'on', always listening or looking for material, that the comic inside you never switches off. Would that be fair to say?
LT: Yeah, It's true I am always looking for new material or listening for lines that people say, I'll make a note of it in that book but I don't usually go back to it until I'm actually sitting down to write. So if I make a note, I don't instantly go 'right I've got to think of something funny now'. I'll just write it down and come back to it when I'm ready, sometimes I can go back to it, look at it for half an hour and not think of anything funny. Then I might be out shopping or whatever and suddenly the punchline or the funny thing about it will come into my head. So there's no rush from getting an idea, to turning it into a routine. I think If you force it, you'll probably end up writing something really shit, or just too obvious. Even as a performer though, I never switch off completely, I'm still that kid in school or that lad with his mates trying to make people laugh. That's what I was talking about earlier too, with people saying you've got to make your audience think. Most audiences I play to work hard and have paid good money to come out and have a good laugh, it's that simple and If I can make someone laugh, either on stage or just in everyday life, than I'm happy with that.
SG: Would you class yourself as a workaholic?
LT: Compared to other jobs, probably not. I'm not saving lives, I'm not doing a twelve hour shift hod carrying in the pissing rain. In terms of stand up comedy and compared to others in this industry, yes. I think I work more than most, or just as hard as the top comedians, and I don't just mean performing, I mean, writing, watching other comics and trying to improve as a comedian. I work harder now at this than I've ever worked at anything in my entire life. A couple of years ago I nearly gave up and lost stand up along with everything else. I've battled through some pretty shit times with the help of stand up, so I think I should treat it with the respect it deserves and I also think that I owe it to myself to make a success of it and live the life that I've always wanted. There are times, maybe after a bad gig or if I don't think I've written enough material when I do think, 'fuck it' but they're just bad days and you have to get over them, Everyone has a bad day, whatever job you do so for me, if I have a bad gig I give myself until 11am the next morning to moan about it and then I have to forget about it. Same with a good gig, I think how good it was and then I move on because the next gig is all that matters.
SG: What advice would you give to a new act starting out in comedy?
LT: First off I'd say, why do you want to be a comedian? If it's to be famous don't bother, become a serial killer you'll be on every news channel and on the front page of every newspaper within hours, becoming a famous stand up takes years, of hard work, believe me I've been at it three years and I'm nowhere near it. Secondly, don't do it for the money, it's shit, you can earn a living, but compared to other jobs that pay a salary, it's shit. If you're still interested after that, then all I can say is, gig as much as you possibly can and write jokes. Write, write, write and write. 90% of what you write might be complete and utter bollocks, but if you get that 10% and people laugh, then it's worth it.