I managed to catch up with comedian Joel Dommett on a little stone staircase outside the Pleasance Courtyard. He needed to remain close by as he had just finished a press launch and needed to go back in to collect his confetti cannon at some point! During our short time together, we talked about his creative process and Edinburgh shows to date, whilst also reflecting upon what succeeding as a comedian these days involves. During the interview, several of his peers passed by and Joel was quick to give them supportive praise for their work that morning. I quickly got the feeling I was in the company of one of the ‘nice guys’ of this generation’s comedians.
What struck me the most about Dommett is his commitment to his craft. Having started as one of the MTV crowd, he has worked extremely hard to emerge from that stereotype and succeed as a stand-up comedian in his own right. He seems eager to experiment, take risks and learn. His early career choices have perhaps fuelled this sense of ambition. Acting credits in the likes of Skins, and hilarious stints on Impractical Jokers and more recently, Bring The Noise, might have been both a blessing and a curse. “I don't regret any of the early stuff I did, but I think everyone immediately pigeon-holed me into like ‘the presenting guy’ and that was fine, it got me a leg up into the business; of people knowing who I am, but I think it's taken until now for people to know I can write a good show, you know, that I'm a good stand up comedian.” Aside from the mainstream comedy-specific shows he's done, such as Russell Howard’s Good News, when he first came on the scene, most of the shows Joel has been a part of could be labelled ‘edgy’ and ‘cool’. He jokes, “Everything I do gets cancelled after one series, so that becomes edgy! Bring The Noise was amazing, cancelled… Reality Bites, everyone really enjoyed, cancelled. TV is really hard, so I made a conscious decision to focus on what I really love, and that's stand-up. Now when stuff does get cancelled, I don't really care as much, you’re just onto the next thing. I just make a show every year for Edinburgh, and concentrate on that even though it's really stressful for not a lot of pay off. I just really love it. I get to create a new show every year, and feel like ‘Yes, this works’”.
As he reaches the end of his previews here in Edinburgh, Joel is performing his 4th solo show “Pretending To Smoke With A Breadstick”, a show which proved challenging during preview season. “It's been very up and down this show, a really hard show to preview because it's very tech heavy. There are lots of props and big set pieces, so it's been quite hard because there was a lot of “and this is going to happen, and then that is going to happen”, so the first two days were really insane, trying to get everything together. I was so stressed but got it together and it's fun, a really fun show. I'm really glad I put in the effort.” The show is exactly as Joel depicts, and when discussing his preview process, it was easy to see, having now seen the show, why this year must have been especially tricky. He explains of his process, “I tend to really throw shit at a wall, I don't hold back. I think you should be as shit as possible in previews, and since I've taken that stance I think my shows have been way better. A lot of people play it safe in previews I think, and that's not what they are for for me. You've got to put big ideas in that you have no idea if they're going to work and just think ‘maybe this'll be shit but here we go’”. A lot of the ‘big’ ideas he references from this year’s show involve multimedia or props, so the development process must have progressed most rapidly once he arrived at his Edinburgh base for the month, the Pleasance Upstairs. “I think, when you get to Edinburgh, [your show has] got to be completely malleable, and you have to be prepared for it to change into a different beast throughout the month. I didn't really have an ending when I got here, now it's got a bit of an ending, it's getting there. There's a few little bits and bobs that need a bit of changing but it'll be alright in the end.”
This flexible approach to creating a show, and brave approach to previews had me wondering whether the element of risk was something Dommett thrives on? “Absolutely, [I like] taking silly risks instead of just talking, which is something a lot of people can do really well. This year I really wanted [to do] something that would make the show a bit more interesting, less of a narrative driven show, which last year was. I try and change my show every year, make it a different album every time. I think people don't do that enough, some just do the same sort of thing but with different words. I like to try and mix it up as much as I can.” As Joel talks about mixing up his styles and content, it gets me thinking about the weird and wonderful titles his shows have had, this year being no exception. Previous years have seen gems such as ‘Nunchuck Silver Medallist 2002’ on a poster, and I asked what comes first, the title or its content? “It's changed each time really. When I did ‘Finding Emo’, I had a year off the year before so I knew very much what the show was going to be about. Nowadays, because I try and do a show every year, it's quite hard to know what it's about by April. Last year I committed to a title and then it completely changed what the show was about and that was a mistake I think, so this year I thought I'd give it the weirdest title I could possibly think of, and I really like it. I think I'm gonna make it a thing that I just describe whatever I'm doing on the poster, and that may be a really cool thing, or something that's really stupid; but I want that to become a thing.”
This passion for experimenting and building on experience rings true in almost everything Joel talks about. We spent some time reflecting on where he feels most confident in his work. “What I’m learning to do is trust my instincts more because what usually happens is I think of an idea, go off in a completely different direction because I don't trust myself, and then I come back to the original idea later. So I'm trying to trust my instincts. What's happening now, with this show more than any other show which I really like, is committing to an idea. I think that's my thing, that I commit to an idea where other people would not bother.” Joel also recognises the yearly milestone of the festival. “Edinburgh is amazing, it just keeps the river flowing. It's so difficult, but it's such a good thing to do. I get so much better every year because I do Edinburgh. If I didn't do it for the last 2 years, I would just be where I was 2 years ago, and I want to be better at this, you know. It's important to be very critical of yourself, but important not to be too critical that you put yourself down, and understand that you've done good work.”
Throughout our interview, Dommett continually demonstrates a very thoughtful approach to his work, and expresses a genuine need to grow and improve. Whilst continuing to talk about how he creates his shows, we come to a collaborative relationship which he clearly values a great deal, and a method for generating material which Joel has used for a long time. He and close friend, Steve Dunne (with whom he also collaborates on The Comedy Score podcast) have a constant dialogue running via messages on their phones, the aim of which is to have a form of sounding board. Joel says, “We do it all the time, it's so good. In the same way someone would write a note down, I don't write it as a note. I write it as a message, send it to him and he'll say something back, adding to it. When you write a note in your phone, you don't really know what someone thinks of it. I get quite excited sending Steve a message I'm like, ‘Oh, he's going to love this’, then it develops and it's just a really fun way to make a show.” Being a regular listener of ‘The Comedy Score’ myself, it's clear that the friendship Joel has with Steve is the perfect counterbalance to the determination and maturity he adopts towards his career. The podcast and their creative document both allow for a sense of play and fun, which is another aspect of Edinburgh that Joel believes is extremely important. “The main thing when you're in Edinburgh is to try and have fun, to really have fun with it. Sometimes people forget that, so this year I'm trying to really enjoy myself, and I have so far. We'll see how that turns out.”
Talking about how great being at the fringe is can be an fascinating topic, especially when the people involved are there for different purposes. From Joel's perspective, it's that combination of massive exposure surrounded both by friends and critics; a challenging combination. “I really love Edinburgh because you're with all your friends and it's really fun, but it's also really stressful because you're getting your show together and you just about manage to, and you're flying by the seat of your pants. The only thing I don't like about it here is that it makes you feel competitive.” I mention something I've noticed seeing the comedian's interacting with each other around the city and in the audience of each other's shows. That refreshingly there seems to be a lot of love and support between them, rather than eyeing up the competition so to speak, and it seems from his response that the sense of camaraderie is very strong. “It's always nice to see other people’s shows, everyone's so good you know, everyone's SO good now, and everyone puts so much effort into their shows. It's so lovely to watch, and I feel like everyone's just really pushing the medium forwards and it's a really exciting time. I think we're a really exciting generation of comedians, we just put in so much effort. There's so much pressure to not just be ‘fine’ you have to be excellent up at Edinburgh.” This, to me, seems like a really healthy attitude to have. The artists support each other's work, and are humble enough to learn from each other, whilst recognising the pressure to be the best they can be. “You've got to write good shows, like really interesting good shows, and that's really hard! It's really difficult.”
Having reflected upon his feelings about performing at Edinburgh, Joel goes on to mention his fondness for the Melbourne Comedy Festival which happens in the April/May following the Edinburgh show. “With Melbourne you know your show, it's settled. You've had 6 months or so to tighten it, to actually think about what actually isn't good in it and go ‘Oh yeah, that was completely…I didn't need that. Cut that out, blah blah blah.’ So Melbourne is just like a fun, fun festival where you're with really good people, in nicer weather! I really loved it last year. It's run by a really good bunch of people, and I would really love to keep going back to it. That's my focus now. That, and if I can go across to New Zealand, I really like that festival too, and keep doing that, and just keep making shows.”
Touching again on “Pretending To Smoke With A Breadstick”, Joel acknowledges that he is proud of the show, and has learnt a great deal which he has applied to writing this show. “I think it’s full of observations, compared to 2012, when I did Pleasance Courtyard The Attic. I think back to that and think ‘Oh my God’, my shows are so much more packed with observations and stories now. Back then I used to just tell stories and put them all together and they were good shows but I just feel like now, I've just learnt to pack it with loads more fun stuff and different types of comedy. There's observations in there, there's jokey jokes in there and lots of colour in it. It's good. This show is definitely sillier and weirder than any of my other shows, and I really like it.”
As we come to the end of our time, we touch once more upon the ongoing process of becoming truly great at your vocation. Dommett refers back to the start of our interview in that a lot of his early learning was done with something of a light on it, which acts with no previous exposure may not have had on them. From what he says, it does seem like the start of his stand-up career had its ups and downs. “I think It takes a long time to learn, and sometimes people can learn in the shadows and come out and people are like ‘That guy’s great.’ Whereas I got thrust into stuff early on so I think a lot of people were like ‘He doesn't deserve to be here because he's not good enough yet’, and I probably wasn't. So now, for me, it's just about making sure everyone knows that I've really improved and I'm way better now than I was five years ago. Some people don't want to be better, some people want to be famous or some people want to be a presenter, I just want to be better at this. I want people to know that I want to be better at this, and sometimes it's quite hard to communicate that to people.”
I would say the combination of energy, enthusiasm and crazy information he puts into his stand-up goes a long way to communicating that...and the show is terrific!
Pretending To Smoke With A Breadstick is playing at Pleasance Courtyard until 27th August.