by Sean Keane
Matt Kirshen already had an impressive reputation on the UK comedy circuit when Last Comic Standing brought his act to American audiences. He headlines this week at the Punchline Comedy Club (November 14th-17th), with Louis Katz and Sheng Wang.
Is this your first extended American tour right now?
Yeah. This is the first time I’ve really gigged in America at all. As well as getting me a profile in the States, Last Comic Standing also got me a 2 year visa. The only other gigs I’d done were a couple when I was on vacation last year. So I’ve landed on my feet really. I’ve not had to do any of the really crappy road gigs in the US. I’ve gone straight in as a headliner. That’s not to say I didn’t do my fair share of terrible rooms and long drives for no money back in the UK.
How did you get started back in England?
I was a student and I’d known I wanted to do stand-up – I was a big comedy nerd – but I didn’t actually get up. I nearly did an open spot when I was 18 but never made the phone call (read: chickened-out). Then I started writing for and then editing our college paper (Clareification), which was mostly a comedy paper. Then James, my successor as editor, said he was going to do a gig at the student comedy night. In the end it came down to lame macho pride – if James can do standup, then so can I.
What college was this?
I was at Cambridge. My first gig was run by the Footlights people. It’s an old comedy society – half the Pythons, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and Douglas Adams all were part of it and loads of others. It’s mainly sketch comedy that they do, but they have produced quite a few stand-ups too, particularly in recent years.
Was your inclination always toward standup, in terms of performing, or were you into sketch stuff as well?
No. I enjoy watching good sketch stuff and have done a little of it, but it was always stand-up that I was into, both as a fan, and as a performer.
What comics did you like back then?
Around ‘95, when I was 15, the Paramount Comedy Channel and Channel 5 both started up, and they both showed a lot of stand-up shows. So at the same time as I was getting into people like Eddie Izzard, who was just making it big, some excellent club comedians were getting 5-10 minute spots on tv. I guess if I was 15 now, I’d spend my whole time on YouTube – it’s taken over from those shows.
What do you think it is about Footlights that has led to so many great comedians coming out of there? Is it the opportunity, or is it more a matter of Cambridge attracting talented people to begin with?
I think most places or societies have had a succession of very good people – it’s just more noticeable when they’re all tied under one banner. There was certainly a time when the BBC was run by the same people who were in those societies, so there was a fast track onto the screen. That doesn’t really exist now.
The equivalent would be the Harvard Lampoon here in America.
Exactly that. You’ve got smart people, an organization that ties them together and a mechanism in place to get them work afterwards. It still exists to an extent, but TV is more egalitarian now.
You started back in college. At what point did you start to have success as a performer?
I got quite lucky quite quickly. I had some decent early gigs and that Christmas went back to London and started doing the open mics. That’s not to say I never died – I had some shockers – but I did pretty well and London is the best place in the world right now to start in comedy, I think. There’s a lot of gigs, and when you get good enough they pay you, and pay you well. It’s like New York with money.
So you were a working comic fairly early on.
I don’t know the point I could call myself a working comic, because I graduated that year and went back to my parents. So for at least the first couple of years, I was just a slacker with an occasionally profitable hobby.
For Last Comic Standing, was trying out for the show a conscious effort to cross over to American venues?
Nope. None of it was a conscious effort. I didn’t really have a clue how many people even watched the show. I knew they were auditioning in London and I was in town that day so I went for it.
How was the transition to American audiences? Is there material that just doesn’t translate?
Initially yes. I don’t really cover much pop culture or specific references. Most things I talk about are either personal, true stories or larger more general topics so they don’t need as much translation. Still, I ran everything by American friends before I said them on TV. Even now I’ve been in the country for 4 months but I occasionally slip. People are generally smart enough to know what I mean from the context, but it can sometimes screw the timing of a joke.
Do you have an example?
The one the other day was “fancy dress” meaning a costume party. That’s just what we call it. We go to the fancy dress shop to pick up a costume. That prompted about 10 minutes of “Ooh! Fancy dress! Are you going to the fancy dress party, Timothy? Better dress fancy!”
Yeah, people are definitely going to think “transvestite”, not “Halloween enthusiast”.
Though “Halloween enthusiast” is a nice euphemism for transvestite.
Was LCS a good learning experience?
I don’t know about learning experience. It was a crash course in being on television.
Yeah, you might not be picking up actual performance chops in trying to make a nun laugh.
The challenges were my least favorite part of it. The heckling particularly. My view of that kind of heckling is that if you’re driving with some people and then a guy throws some concrete off a bridge and at the last minute you swerve to avoid him, they’ll think you’re a better driver than they previously did. You might even enjoy the rest of the drive more because you know you could have died and didn’t. But that doesn’t make the guy any less of a dick.
I wish there was more actual stand-up in the broadcasts. It’s as if the producers want to model the show after Survivor, so they need an immunity gimmick.
I would have liked to have just done a 4-5 minute set each week and had the people vote, but that’s my view as a comic. When I speak to people after gigs or on the street who saw the show, they nearly always mention the challenges rather than the performances, and they normally enjoyed them.
Now that you’re headlining clubs all over America, what’s the next step? Are we going to see a Matt Kirshen sitcom?
Nothing like that in the cards yet. At the moment I’m happy touring. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I did a fair bit of writing back in the UK and I’d like to maybe get into that in the States too – though I couldn’t have picked a worse time for that. I don’t know enough about the situation to really comment, but I do know I’m not going to start writing for anyone until it’s over.
Who was on it? Anyone good? Who do I need to kill?
You would be welcomed with open arms should they ever decide to do Baby Faces 2: The Revenge.
By the time you know I’m on, it’ll be too late.
Watch Matt perform on NBC’s Last Comic Standing: