11 years ago, a little known Glaswegian comic won The Daily Telegraph Open Mic Award, a symbol of merit that marked Frankie Boyle out as one of Britain’s top new comedians. At the time, the likes of Frank Skinner, Stewart Lee and Lee Evans were superstars, graduating from the comedy circuit to TV and larger audiences. The stage was set for Frankie Boyle to take over the country in a big way. But he didn’t.
Instead, rather anonymously, Boyle slogged away out of the spotlight, doing countless gigs, writing jobs and small-time, late-night regional TV work. For a man of such talent, overnight success should have been assured, yet it was over a decade before he reached the crest of the British comedy hill.
Meeting Frankie Boyle for a photo-shoot the day after he had previewed his Fringe show, Moron’s, I Can Heal You, it immediately becomes clear why this is the case: he quite obviously hates doing press. After our introductory exchanging of pleasantries, he barely talks for the best part of ten minutes other than to give one word responses to our rather inane attempts at small talk.
More frustratingly, Boyle refuses to comply with nearly all the photographer’s ideas, claiming that they “were not really his thing”. Instead he prefers to sit glumly while the photographer tries – and fails – to get a good shot out of him. Although he warms after half an hour or so, he still seems a bit on edge, refusing to “do the usual shite comedian thing, where I’m pointing at the camera and pulling a stupid face.”
It is perhaps his unwillingness to prostitute himself to the media that has slowed his progress up the comic ladder, choosing, instead, the infinitely more admirable approach of using plain, old-fashioned talent.
His first break was on the Live Floor Show on BBC Scotland. After a relatively successful spell in Scotland, with Boyle frequently compering at The Stand in Edinburgh, the show went national, but Boyle wasn’t included among the line-up by producers.
It was at this point that Boyle had something of an epiphany: “When The Live Floor Show went onto British TV and I didn’t get onto it because the producers had gotten someone else, that really made me think: 'Wait a minute, I’m just as good as the people that are on here.'
“When you’re not working with most of those people, most of the time, you sorta think ‘Oh, so and so is doing really well, he must be better than me.’ But when you’re working with them you sort of think ‘hold on a minute, we’re all pretty much the same. Why am I not getting what these guys are getting?’ It was a real sorta moment like that, where I realised that the standard of British comedy isn’t as high as I always imagined it to be. Most of what I’d imagined it to be was stuff like Richard Pryor and Billy Connelly but then you realise that people at the top of our tree aren’t as good as Richard Pryor.”
He then laughs, “So after that, I went to London to do a lot of pilots and tryouts and that sort of thing.”
It was largely as a result of successful appearances on TV that Boyle finally became recognised, predominantly through the increasingly popular and ubiquitous “panel show” format. To date, Boyle has been a frequent guest on the likes of 8 Out of 10 Cats, News Knight with Trevor MacDonald and Would I Lie to You as well as being a regular on the very popular BBC 2 show, Mock the Week.
“Aye, I think it’s changed, man,” he says when I ask what effect TV has had on the way a comedian’s career progresses today. “It used to be that if you were a successful live comic, you would get on TV. I mean, if you think when Frank Skinner and Lee Evans started to get on TV it was because they were doing well in the clubs and getting noticed on their tours. Whereas now, you go onto TV and it makes you a draw as a live act.”
His thoughts on the format resemble something of a love-hate relationship. On the one hand, he is pleased not to have to tour relentlessly (although TV is “really, really fucking hard work, and a lot of comedians don’t really want to do it”), citing the travelling and the stag parties as aspects of the circuit he is particularly glad to have escaped. On the other hand, TV can be quite a limited medium, with producers and programme makers generally unwilling to take a chance on new types of comedy and audiences too conservative to reward any experimentation that does occur.
“It’s quite difficult to imagine now a satirical show where people go on and go: 'Well, you know, the most important thing going on in the world right now is obviously the fact that America’s thinking about invading Iran,' or whatever and then doing 5 minutes on that, which is clearly justified, whereas instead we’re approaching it sideways through a series of questions about David Beckham.
“The whole idea of a panel show is a rather baroque thing, isn’t it: the idea that you can talk about whatever’s happening that week, withdrawal from Iraq or whatever, but only if you’re pretending to answer a question or guess an odd one out. And that’s quite an odd thing, isn’t it?
He describes Mock the Week as a show which appeases the UK audience’s rabid hunger for TV panel shows but also to allow comedians to showcase their talents. “I think it’s the talent, in the end, that makes these shows so popular, there’s a lot of comedy talent, a lot of really good people. Y’know, if you’ve got someone like Sean Lock then you’re guaranteed a good show. That’s an underrated part of it. It’s a mediocre format, but there’s talent there and good comedy writers.”
Boyle is back on the Fringe this August, doing only his second solo stand-up performance despite having been performing for nearly 15 years. So how has it changed?
“Loads of stuff has changed. I think Red Bull has changed it a lot. It used to be if you were headlining, by the time you got on, all the drunks would be asleep but now when you go on they’re all going nuts. Quite a lot of it’s changed. It’s all gotten a bit more mainstream, bit more predictable, more button-pushing.”
And his show? “Basically I’m literally going to cure people of their stupidity. That’s my intention and it’s definitely going to work. And I’m going to do it with jokes, lots of jokes.”