The longest running panellist on BBC Scotland’s Breaking the News chats to Tristan about life on the Scottish comedy scene.
Ever since his successful debut at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe festival, Stuart Mitchell has been a consistent presence in the Scottish comedy scene. Alongside performing at gigs and being the longest-running panellist on BBC Radio Scotland’s Breaking the News, Stuart frequently writes material for other comedians. The Glasgow Guardian had the chance to have a chat with Stuart over a coffee before he performed a set at The Glee Club last Friday.
The Glasgow Guardian: One of your sketches is about your “Scottish mixed wedding” (a marriage between a Catholic and Protestant), tonight you are performing at the Glee Club, and in a few weeks your show, Is it Just Me?, is on at the Òran Mór – how do you feel Glasgow specific content influences your comedy?
Stuart Mitchell: Although I am from Lanarkshire, having come to Glasgow, and experiencing the Glasgow humour, I think a lot of my comedy is specifically for a Scottish audience. As a comedian, I’ve performed all over the world – in the Middle East and Australia – and I think as a professional comic you need to be able to play every room. You need to really understand your audience before you even start your set, in terms of what you are going to talk about. So, my show in Glasgow is a very Scottish based show. For instance, if someone from the Adelaide Comedy Festival came to the show, they would be sitting there wondering “What is this all about?” because it’s very Scottish specific. I think that the Catholic-Protestant sketch, which I’d say I’m known for after it went viral, took a lot of work to get right because, believe it or not, I got reviewed when testing that material and I got slaughtered. As you can imagine, it’s quite a touchy subject in Glasgow specifically. But because I really focused on the writing, it really paid off and people could reflect from both sides – Catholic and Protestant – and could enjoy it.
GG: You’ve mentioned that you’ve toured around the world – comics often say that Liverpool is one of the hardest places to gig. The thinking goes that every Scouser thinks they’re funny and are harder to impress. With so many comedians coming from Glasgow do you think it could be similar here? And if so, is it easier to perform elsewhere such as down south or abroad?
SM: I think it’s very interesting because when an English comedian comes up to Scotland they’ll always say, “you’ll do well up here because you’re Scottish and this your home crowd” and then when you go down to England they always say “you’ll do well here because you’ve got a different accent” – you can never win! But I am a big believer in “you’re either funny or you’re not”. If you are a professional comedian, you’ll be able to play any room. Sometimes when you go to some places in London, which are upper class and [for me], coming from a working class family and being middle class now, you do get people folding their arms as soon as you come on and the Scottish accent comes out. But you’ve just got to play the room and be up for that. I’ve played Liverpool lots of times and they are a great crowd. All I would say about Liverpool is that they are very much like Glaswegians: if they don’t like you, they will make it known or if you are not funny, they will make it known as well! Everyone is always interested in asking me “do you get heckled?” but normally you only get heckled when you’re not doing very well, like if your material is not tight enough, so it is a problem on your part as the comic.
GG: With the likes of Billy Connolly, Frankie Boyle, and Kevin Bridges, Glasgow has a rich comedic history, do you feel that the rising stars such as yourself and Susie McCabe, are under pressure to follow in their footsteps?
SM: No, I think you have just got to take your own path and [success] will come. It all comes down to what you consider success as. I wouldn’t say that I am a hugely well-known name, but I enjoy what I do, and I make a good living out of it, just like how there’s a lot of good singers out there that aren’t on the television or haven’t got a top album, but they are good singers, and they make a good living. And that’s what I do. There’s no pressure at all actually. I enjoy what I do, I just go out there to enjoy myself and if anything comes of it, that’s a bonus I’d say. I have done the Breaking the News series for 21 seasons – I am the longest-running panellist – and I cannot, for love or money, get a sniff of any other panel show outside Scotland. That maybe shows how Scotland can be overlooked by London executives. [Most comedians] are all based down there so it can be hard to get in front of them.
GG: Conversely, are you worried that Glasgow-related content might dry up?
SM: I don’t think Glasgow humour will ever be finished because it is world-renowned. Everyone loves Glasgow humour and Scottish humour in general. I feel very privileged, very honoured, and very pleased to be Scottish because when you go to Australia or the Middle East as soon as they hear the accent you sort of get a bit of an “in” already because the audience will even react to how you pronounce words. But again, when you’re playing in Glasgow, it doesn’t mean anything at all if you are Scottish, because, again, if you’re not funny, they will soon tell you.
GG: You write for shows like Mock the Week, Newsquiz, and The Now Show, as well as being a panellist on BBC Radio Scotland’s Breaking the News. Is the process of writing jokes for others different from when you write them for yourself?
SM: Yes. You’ve got to get in the mindset of their persona. You have to do a lot of research – go and see them live if you can but if they are [performing] down south, you might just have to watch a lot of video clips etc. You also need to be quite strong-minded because a lot of comedians you write for, don’t allow you to say you write for them. It is quite a secretive thing and I think it’s because they want their audiences to believe that they have written everything themselves which is fair enough. When you’re doing so many panel shows on a monthly basis, you’re never going to be able to churn out that amount of material so you do need support. You really need to get into their mind in terms of what you feel they would say on stage because something I would write for, let’s say, someone doing Live at the Apollo, wouldn’t fit with my style or what I would say on stage. So, you’ve got to really get yourself in their mindset first of all. And then, you need to get in the frame of mind when watching these shows, that someone else is delivering a piece of material that you have written because at the end of the day you are the one that’s not on that show, but your material is. So, yes, you need to be really strong-minded but as I say, it’s a great career. I wouldn’t say I have stepped away from performing but I have definitely diversified more. I’m writing a lot more for other people and maybe not doing as much of the crazy travelling that you [have to] do, driving up and down the UK, or flying to Australia or the Middle East.
GG: Through tailoring your writing for others and performing yourself, you have a broad skill set, is this something you have always had or was the pandemic influential by forcing you to be more versatile?
SM: I think I have become more versatile online. I have really grown my Facebook profile hugely since the start of the pandemic. I think I am at 15,000 followers and I was nowhere near that at the start. I guess what a lot of people don’t know about me, is that I have travelled a lot to learn the skill as well. I have spent some time in Los Angeles and Las Vegas attending comedy conferences and also working with comedy writers at workshops with late-night TV writers to really try and get my writing as crisp as it can be. I am quite a comedy geek, in terms of getting the setup, punchline and the joke, in general, as funny as it can be.
Stuart is performing his show Is it Just Me? at the Òran Mór, Friday 25 March and
Saturday 26 March, as part of the 2022 Glasgow International Comedy Festival: https://www.glasgowcomedyfestival.com/shows/2714