Of course he was my first choice to talk to about ‘directors’ in comedy. He is the comedy director’s comedy director with some stand up power of his own. He is intelligent, articulate and has pretty much finessed the funny for more impressive names than you could shake a Comedy Award at. Also, he is happy to talk to me.
Much to my surprise, it transpires that John Gordillo is not particularly in thrall to the nipping and tucking. Forty-Minute-Moment obsessed, three act, laughter-lipo-sculpted creature, that ‘stand up’ has become in it’s quest for television career stardom and global media acclaim.
“I think the stand up shows I value most aren’t the narrative, directed ones. They are just people being funny and they are the story.”
Mr Gordillo, you had me at “just people being funny”. Like Michael MacIntyre … whose name, Google informs me, is on the list of comics whose narrative arcs have been articulated and whose tens have been tightened by Gordillo.
You directed MICHAEL MACINTYRE??
“All he needed was hand-holding. He needed an eye across the material he was building for a series but even though we talked a lot about it, he went his own way usually. I wrote a lot of stuff for him which he genuinely loved and then couldn’t perform because he hadn’t thought of it. He is the real deal, the best I’ve worked with, a pure comedian.”
Directing or Inspiring?
To be brutally honest, I had rather started this conversation with a deeply negative attitude to the mere suggestion of people “directing” stand up. I might have been a little premature in my “come the NEXT comedy revolution. ‘Directors’ will be the first with their backs against the wall” stance, if he is representative. Meanwhile, Gordillo is doubling down on his insight and open minded thoughts on stand up and it’s use of ‘directors’. We are still discussing MacIntyre btw.
“His genius is as an MC or in-progress sets cause he doesn’t know 100% yet and even though he brings it very formed, it feels like it comes out of direct experience and more intimate ad lateral. He relates it more purely. For my money, he drills it too much in the final process and doesn’t quite let the slightly more /open/looser part of him in.”
In 2003, it was Reginald D Hunter (theatre trained and, while by no means a baby comic, still toddling) who pulled you into directing stand up comedy ?
“ It was Reg’s idea, to collaborate with someone, and what was interesting about Reg was that he wanted a serious collaborator, he didn’t want help with the jokes, it was more the eye, the perspective. I have always thought I’d be a great director – it comes out of liking people and liking the collaborative process. I like building things from nothing and assembling bits and finding the connections between them and it forces you to be very positive and find the good things rather than worry about what you haven’t done. Clearly Reg is someone with amazing presence and who was going to do very well but I found him frustratingly incoherent as a performer because I didn’t think he paid off what he promised. I think a lot of stand up comedy directing is about finding a coherent iteration of a performer and I think that the really coherent performers just don’t need one.”
“I am just really interested in the stories and the emotions and the serious bits, and if it is funny that is …
The pause here is pregnant with possibility … but John leaves the thought dangling like a knock on a comedy door where no one asks “who’s there?”. Instead …
“The questions I ask are always serious questions … and I think that makes it funnier -if I have asked the right questions – and it makes it less predictable. And then it is to do with the performer, with how full on and how lively they are. How integrated they are being, how deep and intelligent they are. Things like that. And how much fun they are. And these things aren’t really in the scope of a director, are they ?”
There is another pause. Which I decline to use as an invitation to a rant, enticing as it is.
Perfecting what is already there
“You either have that or you don’t. A director can help you shape, formulate and excise certain things, but you either have that thing or you don’t.”
So, certainly for John Gordillo, directing stand up is not all about rehearsing a library of eyebrow lifts and tricks of the comedy trade.
“It is about helping them find a place from which they can flow. It is about finding that place where the emotions and the intellect are all in harmony – and that isn’t a trick”
So why is it still an Edinburgh comic’s dirty little secret. Like Spanx. Or pectoral implants?
It is interesting, comedy, because you are the brand. A particular weight on the shoulders of a solo performer. They are the show more than anyone else. If you have even co-written it and you’re performing it, it is yours, it has to be yours. Directors get Woefully under-credited and it is a weird thing because the kind of direction that you are doing is really construction, it is building, it is script editing. There is very little stage direction. You will direct beats, or emotion. Moments that get you out of one bit and into another. How to play a moment for a certain sort of impact, I suppose, but you are not blocking out a scene. You don’t have a lot of plastic elements to play with. If you are any good, you are meant to be invisible. Traditionally, it is seen as a one person thing and the lone editorial voice. The image of the lonely stand up who is calling truth to power. That image has become sort of … broken a bit, once you realise that, a lot of these things are collaborations.
The whole point of it is, that it appears artless. The whole idea of a stand up performance has a different place in people’s minds, it has a different claim on individual, authorial power. But I think a lot of -performers just don’t want to give credit. They think it is a stressful life, they’ve done all the work, they’re the boss, and there is the worry that an audience might feel – oh you are not saying this because you thought of it, you’re basically like a hired actor. So some people feel that it weakens their claim to be authentic. Others are just narcissists. But it is not a directors’ medium – if you wanna direct, don’t direct stand up.