The January Interview: Stuart Goldsmith

Press shot Photograph: Mat Ricardo

It’s mid-morning and having inhaled a bowl of Shreddies, Stuart Goldsmith is ready to talk about his route into comedy, his shows and his role as host of ‘The Comedian’s Comedian Podcast’; an insightful glimpse into the careers and processes of some of the world’s industry greats.  Presenting his first solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2010, Stu was not thrust into the public eye through numerous TV appearances, and on reflection he thinks perhaps there ought to have been someone there dragging the right people to see his show as it might have launched his career with more commercial impact. Seven years later however, Goldsmith has several shows under his belt, is touring regularly and produces his own podcast, so the reputation he has now has been thoroughly earned through his own hard graft and commitment.

Stu’s first solo Edinburgh show, ‘The Reasonable Man’ in 2010 was “a story about street performing, going to fetish clubs and leading quite a weird life, but always feeling like the most ordinary bloke there.” He adds, “In that sentence I summed it up far better than I did at the time!” It’s clear from the content of that debut show that on the road to comedy, there have been a number of colourful stops along the way, so to map out the ‘Goldsmith’ route; we must turn the clock back to his formative years. “When I was 16 I threw together a couple of street shows with my best mate in Stratford upon Avon. We enjoyed that, and went ‘Hang on! People will give us money in return for cocking about. It wasn’t a very original street show. It was mostly ripped off from The Dangerous Brothers (Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson). We tried to steal 100% of their vim and 30% of their jokes, and we made a bit of money. There was genuinely a moment where we rode the bus home looking at our bowler hat with 30 quid in it going, ‘This changes everything’. It was a really magical feeling.”

Just recounting moments from his teens, there’s a sense that Goldsmith gets excited about life, and treasures the experiences he has on the way. This continues to be reflected in the content of his later shows, which have tended to explore significant landmarks in his life, or aspects of himself that he is dealing with. More on that later, but before we delve into his prominence on the comedy circuit, and hugely successful podcast, we begin with this young lad who, following the street performances in his summer holidays, embarked on a year at circus school where, along the way, there was a module on street performing. “The plan was ‘go to a busy street with your mates and some juggling stuff, and make a show happen’. It was a very international course and I had the best English in my group, so they were like ‘well, you do the talking’. It transpired somehow that I could talk to strangers in the street, make them stand there and laugh, and make them pay attention for a bit. That was another little moment of going ‘Oh, hang on a minute, this is a thing I can do’”. So back as far as 1996, a sense of stage presence was already manifesting itself in the work he was committing to. Stu went on to explain that street performance really took a hold on him when he went to Edinburgh and saw so many people actually doing it properly. “I got really addicted and was like ‘I’m not running away with the circus, I’m running away with this.’”  

Live shot Photograph: Rex Shutterstock/Anthony Upton

Ultimately deciding what he really wanted was to be a ‘proper’ actor, Goldsmith went on to do a 3 year Arts/Theatre degree and a post-graduate course at Welsh College of Music and Drama, which eventually led to an important realisation. “I really enjoyed the training, but came out of it and realised that I didn’t want to be a proper actor. I wasn’t addicted enough to the idea of doing it. All the successful actors I know are the people who cannot do anything else, and you need to have that much commitment. I like it but I’m not going to sit by the phone and wait for it to happen.” It was around this time that the call of the comic came returned, and the character which captured audiences on the street back at circus school. “Before I did stand-up there were a lot of versions of ‘maybe this is my thing’, so I’d throw myself incredibly hard at it and then go, ‘No, that’s not it, try something else.’ My friend Hutch, used to joke with me that the only thing left was ventriloquism. When I started doing stand-up, I felt like I’d found my thing.”

Somewhere between circus school and acting training, we found ourselves discussing the comedic style of ‘clowning’ and how, in a number of ways, it relates to stand-up comedy. Clowning is often taught in Drama school as it encourages the performer to explore the comedy within any given situation. In my own experience, ‘clowning’ was taught in a very serious, almost sacred fashion, but there is also a case for too much structure and ‘depth’ inhibiting the creative process. It is here that we found the parallel with stand-up: contemporary clowns. Goldsmith reflects, “There is a certain depth to the idea of being alone and with nothing, loving failure and those kinds of ideas, and I suppose the roots of clowning are quite serious, but I mean, my favourite contemporary clowns are Fraser Hooper, Dr Brown and Spencer Jones and I don’t think they’re very deep”. Stu mentioned being able to spot a professionally circus trained street performer from one who isn’t, because their performance will be so full of skill that they won’t necessarily be funny. Later on an example of this came into my mind. It’s hard to think of the work of the contemporary clowns he had mentioned alongside the melancholy clowns from the Cirque du Soleil. They are trying to achieve completely different things and can’t even be compared.

Returning to stand-up, Stu went on to consider how deconstructing/analysing elements of a performance can both inform or limit the art form. “It’s a bit like when you start as a stand up, you feel like you should buy the 50 or so books that are available on how to be a comedian. Every comic I know bought them, got into the first chapter and was like ‘Oh, this is rubbish’, they’re not the same thing as doing or being a stand-up comic. When you’re on stage and in front of people, what is really happening is a wonderful, vibrant burst of laughter, the audience getting on board, and you riding this wave of what was your own fear and is now elation, and that’s what clowning is too really. In my podcast, there’s a lot of pontificating and soul searching, and that has an audience too, but again, it isn’t the same as stand-up comedy.” Once again, that sense of relish that’s so present in his performance comes through in the passionate manner in which he describes the experience of different types of comedy.

Moving to focus on his creative process, Stu reflected on the difference between his first two solo Edinburgh shows, and what they taught him in terms of developing his writing. “I think for a lot of people, their first Edinburgh hour is something they’ve been thinking about for the last five or six years. You want it to be your opening statement to say ‘This is who I am’. I remember writing the show out long-hand and highlighting all of the bits where people laughed, then trying, as an exercise, to reduce the spaces between them. It was a very essay style show that one,  I did a lot of typing, a lot of cutting, pasting and moving things around because there was a story that I really wanted to tell.” It sounds as though ‘The Reasonable Man’ came together through a great deal of trying out and experimentation which, as our conversation continued, seems to be the form of exploration which most motivates him. The following year Stu presented ‘Another Lovely Crisis’, which immediately sounded like it was a more challenging, exploratory process from beginning to end. [The show] “was very fraught. It was a show about anxiety, so a lot of time was spent trying to investigate my own insecurity and anxiety. The premise was that I am good in a crisis but not at any other time. It’s a funny premise, but meant an awful lot of time sitting alone in a room, trying to write notes about what a terrible human being I was! It wasn’t very healthy. I wasted a lot of the time on pursuits that weren’t very creative, but the reason I mention it is because I realised that I can’t just sit and write it all out long-hand anymore because that isn’t productive. It started to feel a bit stagey, like I was making material that would only work if I said it in the exact way that I’d written it down. It took me so long to realise I’m funniest when the idea itself is funny and I have confidence in it, then I can just say it in any order. It doesn’t matter what the words are because the idea is funny.”

Having seen Stu in action before Christmas during ‘Hell Week’, a recent three day event in which he aimed to write and perform a special over 3 nights, it’s clear he has developed a very different approach to the creative process in the years since his early Edinburgh shows. He read ‘The Four Hour Work Week’, and was encouraged to experiment with a more focused style of working. “It was definitely in part, because I have no time, but also I overwrite on everything because I’m terrified of under-performing. I’m also terrified of under-working so I do far more than I need to, which is not as productive as doing a small amount of better, more focused stuff. So rather than spend every single day going, ‘Right I’ve got to get up and write for three hours or there won’t be enough stuff and I won’t have a show,’ maybe I can trust myself and go ‘No, why don’t I blitz it for a week, and just focus purely on the show’. So the plan was to perform every night, record it, listen back to it and rewrite it, and actually turn the writing process from a year into a month spread out over a year. To be honest, we have yet to see if it made for a successful process!” There’s no denying an entertainer who takes the sort of risk this event entails must like a challenge and, as most of us know, it’s the stretching and experimenting that leads to great work. Personally I can think of nothing more terrifying than going on stage with little more than a couple of cue cards and a microphone to get you through a gig. As a performer, it affects Stu a different way. “I think I thrive from the pressure of being on stage in front of people, just going ‘Oh God, there’s people looking at me I’d better think of something.’ The kind of ‘super-brain’ that gets switched on in that situation is so much more flexible and productive, and efficient and funny than sitting in a room trying to come up with ideas. If I do a ten minute slot somewhere with new material, I’m not saying I’m amazing at it, but it doesn’t stretch me enough. I’m not scared enough of it because I know I can blag it for 10 minutes and get away with it. I need to put myself in an ‘unblagable’ situation and then it works. It was scary absolutely, but it went well, so at the end I immediately forgot all the fear.”

In drawing together where he feels his process is at now, Goldsmith combines what he has learnt through experimenting, with where he finds himself each year. “I think that is a good method of me writing now, and how my process might have changed is, rather than trying to concept stuff for the sake of having something to say, it’s so much more productive and good for my soul to think ‘what have I got a problem with at the moment? I’m learning to answer that question more honestly. For example at the moment I’ve got this relationship where I love my baby so much, but he’s ruining my life! That’s genuinely what I’m always thinking about because I love him and I want to be with him all the time, but I want independence, and there’s no independence anymore.” Of course, when you hear the material Stu has written about his baby, it’s all about the love and far less about the independence!

Having seen his last two Edinburgh shows (the latter being the one he is about to tour), what I have noticed is the way Goldsmith’s audiences seem instantly comfortable and ‘on board’ very quickly. Back in August, in the Liquid Room Annexe, a warm and enthusiastic crowd greeted him from the moment he walked on stage. “People say one of my comedy superpowers is giving an effect when I walk on stage that makes you think ‘Ah, this is going to be fine’. There’s something about the confidence with which I hold myself, even when I’m not in a great mood, if I’m backstage and I’m like ‘I’m not up for this’, I try and remind myself that it should be like sitting in a warm bath, I walk on and go, ‘Ah, it’s alright, it’s only people’ and they can smell that. Generally people don’t talk about their positive attributes, but the thing is I care about people. I care about the people in the room. I’ve got a good nose for when something isn’t right and I’m quite good at noticing ‘Well, we’re all enjoying this, apart from that guy’, and rather than attack him, I’ll try and help him enjoy it and I think that’s basically because I’m nice. I want everyone to be happy and enjoy it”. To be honest, I’m rather glad Stu decided to mention his positive attributes as I think most people who have had the pleasure of seeing him live or listening to his podcast, would agree that his empathy with his audience is abundantly clear from where we are sitting. Being part of a Goldsmith audience there is a definite sense of freedom; that it’s not against the rules to share a little, but that most people know the line between banter and interruption. There’s something more human about this approach as rather than being an invisible person in a dark room, the audience member is very present within the scenario. It seems there is a mutual sense of comfort. “I can’t imagine doing a gig and not speaking to the audience. There are some comics who never improvise. I am not one of them! The person I was when I was street performing and the times when I didn’t have anything to say and started riffing, yes, that definitely informs what I currently do on stage. I’ve got stuff to say and sometimes the fun bits are when I know I have enough stuff to say so I can relax and improvise and muck about, and I love mucking about.”  

At this point Stu recounts a recent moment during a recent warm-up he did for a TV show. Whilst bantering with his audience, he discovered an audience member who didn’t have a mobile phone. His response was that of a little harmless mockery asking if the person typed messages on a wax tablet, which resulted in the whole audience saying ‘wax tablet’ collectively because it was a fun thing to say. “I can allow myself indulgences because sometimes they’re funny and if they’re not, I’m capable enough that I can go ‘Ok, you didn’t like that one’ and back we go. So there’s definitely a lot of back and forth with the audience.” Although Goldsmith mentions a tendency to overcomplicate his material at times, one feels as an audience member that his chosen subject matter and observations are universally relatable. He mentions that a certain amount of his youth still informs the decisions he now makes during the creation of his stand-up. “I’m always trying to be less clever. It’s so deeply engrained in me to try to be clever and win people over by being clever enough. With all of my shows I want them to be ‘Inception’; at the end I want everyone to go ‘that’s what it meant all along’. WHY?! It’s not a f***ing film Stu, it’s a comedy hour. Just do funny things! I keep spotting myself doing the same thing and I go ‘No, don’t be clever, be stupid, be stupid, be honest, say what’s actually on your mind’. I think it’s something I learnt at school, to try and cover up my own opinion in the hope of fitting in. Now, I’m a stand-up comedian, the opposite of a schoolboy so I don’t need to fit in, it doesn’t matter and I’m the powerful one, but I’m still living those engrained traits from school.”  Perhaps the influence of schooldays past is what makes his material so accessible. Surely we are all partially influenced by those moments growing up where we felt the need to fit in or conform, so maybe that’s why everyone is on board so quickly at a Stuart Goldsmith show.

As we head towards the conclusion of our interview, we come to the Comedian’s Comedian Podcast, and the upcoming tour. The Podcast began in 2012 with a debut interview with Rob Deering, and since then Stu has allowed us to hear from everyone from Sarah Millican, Jimmy Carr and Josh Widdicombe, to Greg Proops, Dara O’Briain, Russell Howard and many, many more. Each episode gives a fascinating insight into each comedian’s process and Goldsmith says the whole process has given him confidence. “It’s changed my attitude a lot; the main way being I realised that loads of us feel like we’re not ‘proper’ and it wasn’t just me! Loads of us feel like we’re blagging it, like we’re going to get found out any moment, like we’re imposters. When you hear Russell Howard talking about coming off stage at Wembley and going ‘Was that good enough?’ That is really nourishing.”

Podcast shot

Goldsmith explains that the podcast came about as a form of learning process to get better at writing jokes and become a better comedian. “I’d done all this training in acting and circus, but I’d never done any stand-up training. So five or six years in I just thought, ‘This is my thing now. I’ve committed to this and I’m going to do it for the rest of my life.’ I felt like I was fumbling in the dark, like there’s a way it should be done and no-one had told me that way, so I’ll ask everyone what their way is. That was the origin of the show and over time it changed and morphed into what it is now.” What the Comedian’s Comedian Podcast is now, over four years later, is a show mentioned alongside the likes of Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast as one of the most successful in the comedy genre. As I write, the 193rd episode has just been published and several live episodes are lined up to be recorded at the Soho Theatre over the next few months. When asked if he expected it to take off in the way that it has, Stu reflects; “No. I didn’t think it would become this thing that has arguably defined my career. You can’t really talk about me as a stand-up without mentioning the podcast and I had no idea it would get to that stage. I’ve got loads of favourite episodes. I love confronting people. I love talking to my heroes as much as I love talking to my friends so I can’t choose a best episode.” There have certainly been some interesting debates on the podcast, most notably a recent encounter which led to some startling backlash online, but sometimes debate and difference of opinion makes the nature of conversing with others exciting. A fair few comedians are currently exploring the issues around Brexit, Goldsmith amongst them, and although the country is in a difficult place right now, what he sees is a current need to “encourage the audience to stop treating people with different views as dickheads, to try to see things from each other’s point of view. We may disagree with what each other says, but we should take the time to understand why we think it, and are there any sensible grounds on which we think it. We should delve under the surface debate and think about the views and reasons underneath.” Although we briefly touch on the current state of the country, it is no way what one would call a political discussion and, having seen the infant stages of Stu’s Brexit material, it’s clear he knows the difference between material that is prevalent enough in our lives to be touched upon, without being preachy in any way. It’s all about healthy debate, not ‘teaching’ people how to feel with any kind of authoritative attitude. That simply would not be ‘classic Goldsmith’!

>Tour dates

At last we come to the imminent tour of Stu’s most recent Edinburgh show, ‘Compared To What’, which begins on 3rd February in Southend and culminates in a week at the Soho Theatre; with a visit to Melbourne somewhere in the middle! Whilst performing the show for a month in Edinburgh, Goldsmith talks of how, over the course of the month, it became its own beast. “You’re howling through it every night and discovering things and by the end, you’re finished. That show is now “That Show”. When you then take it to wildly different environments, the audience are completely different, they’re totally different people. There might be ‘randoms’ taking a chance on you, so it definitely does change. I actually had a nightmare last night that I had to do the show, in a country club and I couldn’t remember the words! So now I’m really looking forward to launching the tour and going “Oh! This! I remember this!” I had so much fun being in Edinburgh and fortunately I recorded several versions of it and I can listen to all them and get it back in my spine, and get out and do it. It’s the longest tour I’ve ever done!” If you’ve already bought your tickets for the tour, “you can expect a funny man being hilarious!” (I’m happy to vouch for this initial statement!) “If you’ve got kids, if you’ve got young children then some of it will resonate with you, and if you’ve recently lost your friends to parenthood, some of it will also resonate with you. If you can’t stand babies then there’s a lot in there for you as well! The show is not completely focused on babies, it’s about tricking oneself into compromise, and being wrenched away from the city and forced to live in the countryside by a cunning girl. Basically about having to bloody grow up, and it’s just jammed full of jokes.” Having reviewed the show in Edinburgh, I can highly recommend it, both for its warm-hearted sincerity and its sharp wit and clever word-play. It is very easy to see why Goldsmith has a healthy fan-base despite not being on the list of acts constantly on our screens via the numerous comedy channels available. Once you’ve been amongst the empathy, nostalgia and warmth you find at a gig, you’re likely to return for more. 

For tickets to Stu's tour, see links underneath this interview.