ThreeWeeks’ Chris Cooke chats to Editors’ Award winning storyteller and stand-up Eric.
As baptisms of fire go, it’s about as fiery as you can get. Former submariner and 2009 Editors’ Award winner Eric never set out to be a stand-up, but one night he happened to be sitting in the front row at Greenwich’s Up The Creek comedy club, compered by the late great Malcolm Hardee.
“I was in the front row because I’d arrived late and it was the only empty seat”, Eric explains. “Malcolm picked on me, so I, of course, responded. Then, after the interval, he returned to the stage and announced that the next act hadn’t turned up. Then he pointed at me and said, ‘So you’ve got to get up and do it’. My natural reaction was, of course, to remain firmly seated. But then I thought to myself ‘I’ve been coming to comedy for years and no one has ever offered me the opportunity to do it myself – and if I don’t do it now, I’ll I spend the rest of my life regretting it?’ So, being a few beers into the evening, I rose to Malcolm’s challenge”.
And that’s how the former Navy man found himself on the stand-up circuit, though it was a while before he thought about tapping into his former life as a source of material for his comedy shows. “It was actually Andrew O’Neill who set ‘Eric’s Tales Of The Sea’ into motion”, Eric recalls. “Comedians often get together after a gig and have a chat and a few beers, and naturally we tell each other about our experiences, both in comedy and in life in general. The other comedians were always fascinated to hear my stories about life on a submarine, so much so, one time Andrew said to me ‘Why aren’t you telling these stories to your audience?’”
But Eric feared that most of his submarine-based stories required too much set up and background to work on the stand-up circuit where, even if you get a 20 minute slot, your audience is demanding a laugh in the first minute. “But Andrew persisted, and gave me a slot at his regular London Club, The Troy”. Because the club had a regular crowd, the audience learned the background to Eric’s Navy life as the weeks went by, and began to appreciate that those stories with a longer set up would still deliver a laugh at the end. And so ‘Eric’s Tales Of The Sea’ were born. And from the slot at O’Neill’s club grew the full length show, where Eric definitely had the time he needed to give some proper background to his life under the sea. Though even then, he is ever concious of the need to make his audience laugh.
I ask him whether he’s worked out how long he can go without an actual gag, to which he jokes “No, why, have you timed it?” But then he adds: “The first ever review had just one negative remark, and said ‘Eric should have more confidence in his own material – he doesn’t need to worry about the fact that the audience are not laughing out loud at the ‘non-comedy’ section. It reminded me that an audience doesn’t ‘need’ gags continuously; if the story is essentially funny, then they don’t mind waiting for the pay off. And the more I did the show, the more obvious it becomes that audiences are genuinely interested in what life is like onboard a submarine – if only because it’s another world they wouldn’t usually have any sort of access to. So much so, the show was extended for the tour so there’s time for a question and answer session at the end”.
“But I think the essence of your question” he adds “is really not about jokes, it is about comedy which mixes jokes with real life, and real life isn’t always a laugh a minute, we all have highs and lows in our lives, and – if you will excuse the pun – it’s just that the highs and lows for a submariner are a bit more extreme than they are for most people. My material doesn’t pull its punches, I am telling it how it is… So, to sum up, if something is funny it’s funny, if it is not it’s not, I don’t throw jokes in, every 30 seconds say, just to hit a laugh per minute ratio, if the jokes are there it’s because they belong there”.
This year, as well as performing his Tales Of The Sea once again, Eric also has a new land-based show, which was inspired by his regular slot on weekly London show ‘Comedy Manifesto’. He explains: “My new show is called Eric’s ‘Laws Of The Land’, and just like ‘Tales’ it was not my idea, but the brainwave of another comedian; I am a panellist on ‘Comedy Manifesto’, a topical weekly panel show in Islington. The show is really fun to do because it is different every week, there are questions about that week’s news and also a round where the panellists have to introduce a new law, and I was lucky in that my laws seemed to go down well with the audience every week”.
And so, as Andrew O’Neill had inspired Eric to put together his tales of the sea, so ‘Comedy Manifesto’ host Kate Smurthwaite encouraged him to put together his laws. Eric goes on: “She said to me after one show that the subject of my next show was obvious. ‘Is it?’ I asked, hoping she would tell me more. ‘It’s got to be your laws’ Kate went on, ‘they’re great’. I hadn’t even thought about it, but she was of course right; it seems my friends know what I should do better than I do”.
Any similarities with the two shows would appear to end there: “‘Laws’ is completely different and gets back to my stand-up roots. It’s about laws that don’t presently exist, but should, as they will make the world a better place for us all”. Guests and audience members will also be able to contribute into this legal debate, and Eric plans to present the most successful proposed law to that Cameron bloke via the Number 10 website. “You never know”, Eric concluded, “it could soon be law that… every game that the England football team plays from now on is played on a No Win No Fee Basis…”
Eric’s shows ‘Tales Of The Sea’ and ‘Laws Of The Land’ were performed at Just The Tonic at The Caves during Fringe 2010.