The co-writer and subject of next year’s biggest British comedy movie biopic tells all on how his new movie starring James Buckley, Kevin Eldon, Gilbert Gottfried and Jimmy Carr came to be.
When my school friend Mark Murphy and I began writing a screenplay four years ago about my early years as a stand up comic, neither of us could have imagined it would become a £3.5m feature film starring some of the comedians we watched and loved as children (such as Kevin “Weak lemon drink” Eldon and Paul “Dennis Pennis” Kaye). At school Mark and I bonded over our love of movies and British comedy shows. Conan The Barbarian was our favourite. True Romance and Groundhog Day were watched so frequently that it was like, well Groundhog Day. When we left school in 1997 we lost touch but reunited a decade later in a pub in Knightsbridge. He had become a filmmaker, I had become a magazine journalist writing film reviews and doing stand up at night. We wanted to combine our collective interests (I am loathe to call them talents at this point!) and work on a project together. This became the world’s first funny film review show – Movie Kingdom. Months of seven-day weeks and twenty-hour days went into producing this labour of love for very little, if any, money. The show was very low budget and we pumped the pennies we made from it back into it to fulfil our vision. While it looked cheap I am still enormously proud of the show because we did well with what we had and most importantly it was funny. Funny enough that the likes of Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Terry Gilliam and Daniel Craig appeared in it. It also caught the attention of the head of commissioning at Comedy Central, Sarah Farrell. (See highlights of the show below)
She liked what we saw and commissioned us to make a web series for Comedy Central that consisted of me interviewing my favourite comedians which was obviously a dream come true. Jerry Seinfeld, Amy Schumer, Jim Jefferies, Greg Davies and many more all appeared in the show. But Mark always thought it was hilarious that after a day of chatting with Jackie Mason or Judd Apatow about the secrets of stand up that I would jump in my car and drive for three hours to die on stage in front of five people. So he conceived the script idea that became The Comedian’s Guide To Survival about James Mullinger, a magazine journalist who is struggling to balance his day job and his wife and children with his desire to become a successful stand up comedian. An underdog story about following your dreams, over a month ago we finished shooting the movie and it has surpassed our own wildest dreams.
James Buckley signed on to play the lead character after reading the script. He loved it and related somewhat to the character – a man who wants the best for his family but is equally devoted to the art of comedy even though he is obviously already the star of the biggest comedy film in England of all time. Buckley and I didn’t meet until the first day of shooting in Montreal. We shot a scene together (I have a small part in the film as a character named Brad Macey who is a British stand up gone to Hollywood and become a bit of a dick. No it’s not based on Russell Brand. Much.) and then James did a scene with Jimmy Carr who plays himself in the film. Buckley wisely chose not to try and emulate me or any of my mannerisms. At the risk of sounding like Simon Cowell, he has made the character his own. And good thing too because obviously the character needs to be likeable and I don’t think my real life paranoia, insecurities or nervousness would play well on screen.
Watching Buckley work is a joy. Obviously, like most people, I was a fan of “The Inbetweeners” but this character is nothing like Jay. Although I must admit I was a bit like Jay as a teenager. Buckley’s last film before Comedian’s Guide was with Judd Apatow, Sarah Silverman and Andy Samberg in Hollywood so his improvisation skills are spectacular right now. I have never laughed so much as when he was shooting scenes of the character interviewing the best comedians in the world – Omid Djalili, Pete Zedlacher, Mike Ward, Brendon Burns, Mike Wilmot, Derek Seguin, Gina Yashere. With their riffing skills honed on the stand up circuit over decades and Buckley’s from film sets with Apatow, these scenes are some of the funniest in the film. This was especially surreal for me because we shot these scenes in the same hotel in Montreal that Mark (the writer and director) and I did the real interviews with these comedians four years ago. So to see an actor I greatly admire sit in the same chair I was in four years ago, ask the same stupid questions I was asking felt like I was in an alternative universe.
After filming in Montreal for a week we shot in England for almost five weeks. I live in Canada now (in real life I followed my dream and gave up the day job and became a full time comedian – as to whether that happens for the character, well, you will have to watch the film) so I flew over to watch this huge production unfold pinching myself every few minutes. The scope and scale of the script was large in that the character goes on a journey across the world to discover the secret to survival in stand up so it was great that Alan Latham of GSP Studios was able to secure such a good budget so that none of the travel or high concept comedic set pieces had to be compromised. It also helped us secure an all-star cast including MyAnna Buring, Paul Kaye (who plays James’ Editor), Mark Heap, Gilbert Gottfried, Tim McInnerny as well as comedians we loved over as kids including Norman Pace and Kevin Eldon and my personal favourite stand comedian on the British circuit right now – Carly Smallman.
Another surreal and beautiful moment was watching a scene about the beloved comedian’s car share. The long drive to and from gigs is when friendships are made and lost. Probably my favourite scene in the film re-enacts a car journey and alongside Buckley are three of my favourite comedians to work with – Luisa Omielan, Maff Brown and Richard Sandling. We all started out around the same time and have bonded over many a long car journey. Seeing them all together in a car bickering, bonding and munching on scotch eggs was magical.
The most bizarre thing for me was watching Buckley perform my stand up. All of his live performances in the film use my real material. Of course it’s hard to watch your own act being used for scenes in which the character dies on stage and gets booed off but that’s the reality of stand up and we wanted this film to be real. Of course it is a movie and is supposed to be fun but we were determined to make it authentic. I want comedians to watch it and recognise what is happening on screen. Too often when films are set in a particular environment, they don’t resemble what it’s really like to work in that profession. I would like to think that – with a bit of artistic licence – for the most part this is the reality of life for a stand up on the bottom rung of the ladder. Worryingly I think he delivers some of the gags better than I do.
All of the awful things that happen to the character at corporate gigs happened to me. Almost word for word. Such as the time I arrived to do a Christmas gig for an insurance company in Burnley and was told that there was no free bar because the boss decided to spend the money on the comedian instead. They quite rightly hated me. I hated me. I was the reason there was no free booze. That is unforgiveable. It was such a horrible night I could barely bear to watch the scene being filmed.
Ultimately it has been the most fulfilling experience of my career. Of course there is a downside and that is that the synopsis for the film that is all over the Internet begins with the words “Failed comic James Mullinger…”. That is going to make it very tricky to get work from now on if people decide to Google my name before booking me. That is the downside of having a biopic made of yourself when you aren’t a household name. The beauty of stand up though is that you get booked on how well you do on stage. It is a very honest profession in that sense. Not much else can harm you if you are delivering the laughs in the clubs. I have been already asked if there could be a sequel. Well, given I left London and moved to a beautifully and comparatively quiet place in Canada called Saint John, New Brunswick (which I adore and will never leave) and against all the odds my career took off there, quite possibly. That could easily be the plot for a second underdog story as the character starts all over again. As my wife often tells me in real life and in the film though; one thing at a time.
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We’ll leave you with a few more shots and videos to give you a taste of what’s in store (click on the images to enlarge):