(a conversation to music)
by Tom George Hammond
In this feature, we invite creatives to speak about an album of their choosing – it can be recent work, a new discovery, or a long-standing favourite – and see where the conversation takes us.
Will Hall is a comedian, writer and surfing enthusiast. As seen on BBC Three and Channel 4, Will Hall is a fast-rising stand-up. A finalist in The Met New Act 2019, Bath Comedy Award 2019 and the Max Turner Prize 2019, and semi-finalist in Amused Moose 2019 and Laughing Horse 2019, he’s been described as “electrically witty” (Broadway Baby) with a “natural persona on stage” (The List). He has recently performed at the Soho Theatre as part of “Soho Rising Presents…”
We met to talk about surfing, positive heckling, and the trials of starting out in the world of standup comedy. His album of choice was The Beach Boy’s “The Platinum Collection (Sounds of Summer Edition)”.
So this album was the first that you ever bought?
Yes, I was about 9, I think, and I’d been given some holiday money from my Grandma – €10, which when you’re 9 is an insane amount of money – and we went to Greece, and there was so much we wanted to buy – the choice ruined it for me, it was a nightmare. From my memory of that holiday, all I did was go to souvenir shops and I wrote down long lists of things; did I want the lighthouse themed windchime or did I want the fridge magnet in the shape of Kefalonia? I ended up not buying anything and leaving the holiday with the €10. So my dad had to give me the money in pounds, which meant that I’d made a net profit. But I’d heard, on holiday, “Surfin’ USA”, they used to play it a lot in this bar – and I didn’t know anything about it, I didn’t know who it was by – but there would sometimes be dancing, in the evenings, and in those days I couldn’t dance…
But you could surf?
The waves were my second home… No, but do you remember that really popular t-shirt that everyone seemed to have? The one that said; “Rather a bad day on the water than a good day at school”? Everyone seemed to have it, surfing was the cool thing. No one could surf – this was rural Berkshire – but I liked the sound of this band that sung about surfing. I listened to a lot of my parents’ music – my early taste was basically my parents’ taste in music. There is no-one born in 1996 with a better knowledge of Rod Stewart than me. My dad was also quite into The Beautiful South…
I went to see them live with my family. We went to a field in Kent when I was 8.
A live gig at 8! You had very liberal parents.
Well we left before the encore. The drummer kept swearing.
I have a really clear memory – there’s a very famous song of theirs called “Don’t Marry Her”, and when I listened to it with my dad, they would sing “Don’t marry her, have me”, but I found out that the actual lyric is “Don’t marry her, fuck me”…
Yes, in the concert when they sung that I was also very confused. I thought the crowd were simply mistaken.
I remember when I first got an iPod – it was an iPod Mini – I went on the iTunes store to listen to thirty-second snippets of songs, which back then was quite enough, and the rude songs would have “Explicit” next to them, which is how I found out about the real lyrics of “Don’t Marry Her”.
Back to The Beach Boys…
So I bought the album for £9.99 – it was a three-disc collection called The Platinum Collection: Sounds of Summer. I loved it. For a long time it as the only album I owned, so I’d just listen to the same songs every day; “Surf’s Up”, “Surfin’ USA”, “Surfin’ Safari”
You were very into the idea of surfing?
I specifically became obsessed with California. I had no idea where or what it was, but I wanted to move there, and preferably marry someone called Barbara Ann. I had this weirdly specific knowledge of places in California like Monterey Bay and Ventura County. I remember once a teacher asking us where we’d most like to go on holiday. Everyone else was like “Australia!” or “New York!” I was like “Redondo Beach, Greater Los Angeles!” I think in my head I was a surfer, but the waves hadn’t found me yet.
That’s a good slogan for a t-shirt; “I am a surfer, I just haven’t found the waves”.
And it works because of radio waves!
I think you imagine, in the UK, that when you hit the waves you’ll be on a beach with your hair flowing back, in some blue trunks… But you’re actually in a wetsuit in Dorset.
The first time I ever surfed was in Devon, in August, and it was very grey. I think it rained at one point. I was deeply saddened, having done all the leg work of listening to The Beach Boys for three years. I thought I’d be catching big waves. It transpired it’s harder than Brian Wilson made out. I could not stand up on the board. There is a photo of me standing up on the board, but just out of shot is my dad’s hand keeping the board still. But in my head I was a lil’ surfer dude. But I really like the music. It was a good first album to buy.
How did your music taste evolve as a teen?
I used to listen to Capital Radio. I was once on Johnny and Lisa’s breakfast show. I phoned in. I used to wake up at six, every morning, when their show started, so I could listen to it for an hour before school. I really loved that show. My dad filmed the radio with a camcorder when I was on it, so I still have the footage somewhere.
What was it like being on the show?
It was a dream come true. I used to text in, on the reg, and it would all go to this producer called Saskia, and she must have finally cracked. She called up my mum to ask if I could come on the radio, and they just had a chat with me, and I got to choose a song. Let’s say for the interview that I picked “Lady Lynda”, or some other lesser known B-side from the album. I think it was actually “Bleeding Love” by Leona Lewis. I like to think Johnny and Lisa have dined out on this story as much as I have. I’m sure it’s all they talk about.
Did you ever go to the Jingle Bell Ball?
No, but my sister went, I was so jealous.
Shut up. Was it a vintage year?
The headliner was the Black-Eyed Peas. Cee Lo Green pulled out on the night; he was supposed to be performing “Forget You”.
Another song that had a radio edit that really betrayed the original. That was a real dilemma – I remember buying it with one of my iTunes vouchers, and all of my friends bought “Fuck You”, and I bought “Forget You”. In the end, I went for the clean version as I was terrified of swearing. I genuinely did not swear until I was 16. I was deprived of it.
Is your act particularly sweary?
No, not really. Not for any particular reason, although sometimes you can lose an audience, and my persona on stage isn’t very sweary in the first place. I once had an audience member come up to me in Edinburgh — he was an old guy, really sweet, very polite — and he said he liked my set but he wasn’t so keen on the swearing. I thought it was interesting to hear and that it bothered him. I don’t consciously exclude it, though. I’m not super clean, but I’m not super blue either.
I’m fascinated by that moment in which a comedian decides, for the first time, that they are going to try and be funny onstage. I’ve met so many people who have talked about trying to be a comedian, but they phrase it in the way people say they’re thinking about going to the gym or becoming vegetarian.
It is genuinely easier to do stand-up than it is to go to the gym. Although I get more laughs at the gym.
Did you know growing up that this was what you wanted to do?
I knew, yeah. I always loved comedy. But I always think it sounds so arrogant to say you want to be a comedian. It’s like being a professional walker – what makes you think you’re so good at it? But jokes make me happy – that’s a trite thing to say – but I love joke and I used to try and write jokes, not that I told them to anyone, and then at Uni I just decided I’d give it a go. I did my first ever gig and it didn’t go terribly. The audience were very warm.
Were you egged on or was it an off the bat decision?
I told no one about it. I did not even want to tell the people organising the gig, but that would have proved logistically tricky. I did not want anyone to know I was considering it. So I kept it hidden from my friends, but some of them were in anyway because they’d seen it advertised. And they were really nice and encouraged me to keep doing it.
Where was your first gig outside of Uni?
It was a pub in South Kensington. It was in the basement, I think there were about 9 people in the audience, including a drunk 50-something called Clive who kept trying to heckle by singing “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba. You know what, fair play — it’s an absolute banger.
Did you manage to shut Clive up?
On the contrary. We are due to marry in the Spring.
People are terrified of doing comedy not because of heckling, I don’t think, but the idea of navigating silence. Have you faced that situation where people aren’t being rude, but they’re just not laughing?
Yes! Audiences tend to be very polite, sometimes they just don’t like what you’re doing, and that’s fine. Silence is worse than hecklers, on balance. People always ask about hecklers — you do get them, although not so much in some venues as others. I tend to find the worst ones aren’t actually the ones who are being horrible. If they’re telling you you’re shit, but the rest of the crowd is enjoying you, the audience tends to tell them to be quiet. It’s when they’re being enthusiastic or just want to drunkenly join in that it becomes awkward.
Right! One time I was compering in Edinburgh to quite a rowdy, late-night crowd, and I’d told the audience if they wanted to get involved they could heckle me but not the acts. Anyway, I’d just done a joke about my appearance, and this very glamorous-looking woman in her 70s started shouting from the back. She was shouting — and this is going to sound like a humblebrag, but I promise it’s not — that she thought I was, in fact, very handsome and she didn’t like that joke. Which was very flattering, and I had a bit of a chat with her and then we moved on. A few minutes later she started shouting again, this time quite aggressively, saying again that she thought I was handsome. By this time, the audience — who were technically on my side! — had started to loudly disagree with her. Couldn’t she see? The joke was funny, look how ugly he is, now stop interrupting. She seemed furious that my apparent beauty was only visible to her. For a moment I wondered: is this what life is like every day for hot people? Are they always being angrily complimented by the ghost of Mrs Astor? In the end, I was worried a fight was going to break out over the size of my nose. She was derailing the gig so much, I had to tell her to shut up. It got a cheer, but I felt awful. She was my the only one who believed in me! Plus, she could have been my pension plan. It was so bizarre.
Do hecklers just want to join in sometimes?
Yeah, quite often they have their own joke they want to throw out. I think those ones are sometimes frustrated comics. And of course then there’s people like Clive — baritones who can no longer be silenced.
I’ve been to a few open mic nights and I’ve seen comperes use that line of; “if you want to talk, talk to me”. They seemed to confident saying it, but presumably it’s quite a galling thing to say.
It’s not a rigid thing, but if you’re a compere you sort of have to talk to the audience. Once you’re doing that, the boundaries are down. As a compere, you tend to be more fluid with time, but if you’re an act, you have five minutes, and it has to be kept to time. Some people have maybe just seen it on TV or some 40-minute compilation video called; “comedian destroys heckler” and wants to give it a go.
Something I noticed at the Edinburgh Fringe last year was there was a smaller amount of overtly ‘Political’ stand-up comedy. It felt like there was a shift away from that, and a return to more confessional stand-up.
I think there’s always some degree of trends with stand-up, but there will always be political comedy, there are always going to be clowns, narrative storytellers, one-liners. There’s room for everyone – if you want to do a fiercely political show, then great – there is an audience – but if you want to do puns, then also great, there’s an audience for that as well.
So you’ve just done a show at the Soho Theatre – how did it go?
It was so much fun! I was on with three other comics, all good friends of mine. I really enjoyed it. I spend a lot of time in that Theatre, and I love it, and it’s got so many cool shows on, and I just remember thinking, “I’ll still come here, if it goes badly, I’ll just feel sad!”. The main thing I wanted to do was enjoy it, and I had a really lovely time.
Are there any other up-and-coming comedians you’re particularly excited about?
“Excited about”. That makes me sound like an old guy with a cigar. I saw Rose Matafeo’s show – I mean she’s very much already up-and-come – and it was amazing. I love Glenn Moore. I love a friend of mine, Janine Harouni, she’s one of my favourite comedians. She’s phenomenal. Her show at Edinburgh was wonderful. It was a really beautiful, hilarious show.
To return to music once more, if you were to listen to one song to satiate you, or put you in the right frame of mind before a gig, what would it be?
Last Edinburgh for some reason I got into the habit of listening to “Satellite of Love” by Lou Reed before every show. I’d walk down Cowgate and it always got me ready for the show just before I went on. Now whenever I hear that song, doesn’t matter where I am, I freak out that I’m due on stage in seconds.