Work-shy codger’ wasn’t the term I had in mind for describing Stewart Francis. Considering his hectic schedule as one of Britain’s highest profile comedians: with an international arena tour supporting Ricky Gervais; a number of successful appearances on The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Mock the Week, 8 out of 10 Cats and Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow; his own headlining UK Tour; previous work as host of Canadian gameshow You Bet Your Ass and writing credits for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno under his belt, I was a little taken aback by his disarming self-deprecation.
Charming and humble, what comes across immediately in conversation with Stewart is his bewilderment at his own, gratefully and graciously acknowledged, success. Francis tells me ‘I ended up involved with comedy because I’m pretty funny… And I’ve never wanted to work. I guess I had to do something with my life after getting out of prison.’ Francis jokes, of course, but it is difficult to make the distinction between his wry sense of humour and actual experience. He relishes the word ‘codger’, having applied it to himself as he recounts ‘breaking into comedy in my thirties… I just signed up for an open mic night and here I am.’ Francis asks me in earnest, as a Briton, if ‘codger’ is a deserved adjective, revealing his love for the British sense of humour.
Having grown up off and on in the UK and Canada, Francis confides in me that ‘Britain is my favourite place in the world – that’s why I’m here. I have to be here, professionally.’ From his first performance at the Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh, Francis has felt at home. ‘Comedy is such a part of the British DNA’ he gushes in his Canadian twang, ‘it’s part of who the British are. The characters comedians love to use are all already there in the pub.’ Engaging with my reciprocal laugh, Francis gleefully has me agree: ‘See!’ he exclaims. ‘Through comedy is how the British communicate. In every aspect of British life humour comes in.’
I ask Francis how he feels, as a neutral Canadian, about American comedy in comparison to his beloved British humour. ‘Hmmm… There are funny Americans’ Francis sighs, ‘and, pound for pound, Canadians do well, too… American comedy is very influential’ he eventually hazards to compromise, ‘I liked American sitcoms like Police Squad, Greenacres, Get Smart… I guess they’ve had an effect on my comedy. They’ve seeped into my comedic brain.’ Francis attributes his own comic style, celebrated for his deadpan one-liners, ‘to an amalgamation of my British ancestry, with the influence of the American comedy I grew up with.’
Francis’ distinctive style ‘evolved naturally’, he muses: ‘comedians do whatever it takes in trying to make people laugh. With me, with my style, it’s just BANG BANG BANG, joke joke joke… I think the richer you make your set, the more you keep to the point of being funny, the more the audience enjoy their money’s worth. Yes, the more gags the better!’ The hardest, and most important, part he tells me is to ‘make ’em laugh. The audience doesn’t need to be educated. There’s nothing better than laughter, and comedy should be pure entertainment – it’s the best form of live entertainment. I want to ENTERTAIN. And to do that, I need to make ’em LAUGH.’
I ask Francis if he watches a lot of comedy, and what he thinks of his fellow inhabitants in the British comedy scene. He doesn’t watch a lot of comedy, but ‘did buy a Steve Martin video back in the 70s… It’s not something I’ve consciously noticed, but I don’t want to be distracted by other people.’
His style makes a change from the popularity of observational comedy, although he is quick to observe its success. ‘I think there are too many self indulgent storytellers’ he offers, ‘they care about dominating people’s lives, for an hour or however long, and lose sight of the importance, as a comedian, of just being funny all of the time.’
He recognises the prominence of comedy in popular culture today, and praises the diversity of styles it has bred. Francis reckons an individual comedian’s own personality determines their comedic style, and it’s much harder to maintain a complete showbiz facade than the public can be lead to believe. ‘I have a short interest span, so I need to make quick jokes. I like to chop and change between jokes and themes and characters to keep the audience entertained, and to keep things fresh.
Francis admires his fellow Mock the Week panellist Frankie Boyle’s rock-solid, self-assured persona, a tough sell in comedy. ‘My comedic persona isn’t deliberate’, he explains, ‘it evolves. The characters I play don’t necessarily reveal any aspects of my actual personality, but the stage persona created is an amalgamation of themes and characters I fall into.’
Regaling me with a story he once heard about the young Jim Carey pulling faces in front of the mirror as a child, Francis admits that his onstage expressions are natural, ‘I enhance my comedy with my cartoonish voice, it’s a great tool to be changed up and offer variance, like facial expressions are for other comedians.’
Having toured around the world with Ricky Gervais, Francis is ‘glad to have ticked the box of supporting, but I wouldn’t like to do it again. It showed me a different aspect of showbusiness, and of life. A public life, like Ricky Gervais’, is a life I wouldn’t want to live – I like that my performances aren’t too accessible for the public.’
Performing in arenas is a million miles away from his origins at the open mic night I add, and he agrees: ‘I’m grateful for the experience, but I don’t think, as a comedian, I got that true sense of an audience relationship that you get in smaller venues. And also, as a support act I was performing for people who weren’t my fans. I think my opinion would’ve been changed if they were my fans, who knew what they wanted, and didn’t need any breaking in.’ His rapid-fire delivery of one-liners and puns is certainly very different to Gervais’ rambling style. Just where do all of those jokes come from, I wonder?
‘I keep a book with me to write down jokes as thoughts occur. Often, new jokes come from a tour, while I’m running a set over my mind. I talk to myself. I developed a lot of jokes, on the long drives home from gigs in Canada, talking to himself. I am my own audience – I have a good batting average towards my jokes’ success ratio, I can edit myself well, and think I’m a good gauge of what’s going to work.’
Francis has gauged well – his DVD, Stewart Francis Live: Tour De Francis is released on 22nd of November, and in the same month, he’ll be hitting Oxford’s New Theatre live. ‘Oxford is a good town for comedy,’ he tells me, ‘I had a blast here before, and this time I’ll be hitting the ground running for fans who already know me, instead of having to win the audience over. I already laid the groundwork’ Francis jokes contentedly, ‘now I can bask.’