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Interview
Comedian Liam Williams

Jordan Harrison-Twist

The protagonist in comedian Liam Williams’s meta-web series 'Pls Like' (2016) is an incredulous cynic obliged to integrate himself into the pastel morass of YouTube vloggers. If successful in creating a channel of his own, he will win £10,000 in prize money; though the requirements of the medium routinely test him to breaking point, as he is cast as outré and old-fashioned by dietary agents of self-help, irreverent web-pranksters, and lordly grime artists. This avatar of the individual, adrift, is one perfected by Williams, and it is variously sensed through his comic stage persona, his travel-writing, and his comedy shorts.

In 2013, Williams was nominated for Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh comedy awards, and a year later for Best Show, earning dizzying accolades in the process as ‘the voice of a generation’1 and ‘the Philip Larkin of British comedy’. Williams is a modest man, and strikes me as one who would mistrust such grand labels, but Alice Jones of The Independent, who wrote the former review, has, in a way, been prescient.

Williams’s debut play 'Travesty' first ran at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016, and the manuscript has since published through Nick Hern Books. Praised for its sharp laconic wit and perceptiveness, the reviews have an unsurprising colour on the back of Williams’s fine stand-up; but an interesting criticism of the production was that it too often tripped over its own ‘self-conscious cleverness’. Williams’s writing is self-consciously clever, but in two related ways: it is deliberate, considered, and florid — yes — but more interestingly, it is sensitive, anxious even, of the self, and better suited to labels of doubt and cognitive dissonance than it is to bravado. The voice he adopts is actually these two voices in embattled dialogue: a split between assured performer with something to say, and self-doubter wondering whether he should say it. You will find a voiceover or internal monologue accompanies, underpins, tangles with much of Williams’s writing: it fills out a double-mode of story-telling wherein the character’s private thoughts become uncomfortably vocalised, not always tessellating with his actions, his utterances, his silences.

It is precisely this that I like about Williams’s writing; that makes it unique; that, to indulge the oft-repeated Alice Jones, makes him the voice(s) of a generation.

Naturally I met Liam Williams at The British Library — a location he was wary of, filled as it is with dilettantes pretending they are researching their novels. Against the fitting backdrop of the King’s Library Tower, home to the Magna Carta and original Beatles lyrics, we began by discussing the book which Williams references in the title of his travel blog: Patrick Lee Fermor’s 'A Time of Gifts', (his blog is entitled 'A Time of GIFs').

‘When I was in Greece’ said Williams, ‘I stayed in Athens for a couple of days, and I realised I had a day where I had nothing to do. It was forty-five degrees, and I suddenly got a bit overwhelmed and disorientated, so I went wandering into Athens until I got to this hallowed Athens museum, the Benaki, and there was a big poster outside for a Patrick Lee Fermor retrospective exhibition. I spent the whole day there.

I got [the book] when I broke my heels a couple of years ago. I was trying to climb into my bedroom window. I fell down and had to go into hospital for three weeks. My friend Johnny Sweet — a very good writer and comedian — brought it to me. He wrote something in it along the lines of "I realise only now that it might be an insensitive gesture to buy you a book about walking to Turkey when you’re in this condition". I did obviously walk again, and when I had the requisite leg-power and money to go travelling vaguely in the style of Lee Fermor I got round to it…’

¶ Why did you decide to blog about it and not do anything more formal with your travels? I hear you are writing a novel?

‘Yes. Long-term, ongoing effort to write a novel. But it’s on hold at the moment because I’m doing more TV-writing. Well, partly the idea of going travelling like that was to crack on with the novel. And I’d thought that maybe I would do a podcast about it. This was in my more forward-looking fantastical thinking, months in advance; and then when it came to the reality of making it… I don’t know where the impulse came from but the idea to do a blog could have been a feeling that I needed to get some attention while I was away. I could put my blog on Twitter and, to look at it more wholesomely, feel connected to people; or to put it less wholesomely, that I hadn’t been forgotten. By the standards of most social media self-promoters I’d say it wasn’t popular, but for me, it was the most traffic I’d ever had to my website. I spent far too long on it. And probably wasted a lot of time I should have been exploring — sitting ruminating about whether I’d seen enough’.

¶ Didn’t your appearance on [television show] 'Russell Howard’s Good News' result in a spike in popularity for you?

‘Yeah it probably did. I mean I do sometimes — and I try to do it less now but — in my more narcissistic moments I look at the stats on my website. I think a real high-point was when I got nominated for the Foster’s Comedy Award in 2014. I’ll try and render the graph for you with my finger, so you’ll have to remember. Or I could try and do it in terms of volume with my voice’.

There is something innately funny in the attempt to translate one’s success from graph to preposition. And Williams is well-practiced in deadpan self-effacement.

‘So in 2013 up to and around the Russell Howard performance I was about here’.

He points at the invisible mid-point of the graph.

‘Then I did the show in London which was about here’.

The finger rises, embodying his Best Show nomination.

‘Then it came back down, not as low as it was in 2013, but nowhere near those dizzy heights’.

He loops toward his cup of tea.

‘And with the blog, maybe back up here a little bit…

And now it’s down here’.

This isn’t true: Williams’s writing and acting is a mainstay on BBC radio: in 2017 producing a dystopian comic-drama 'Perimeter' with Josie Long, and the second series of 'Ladhood', a semi-autobiographical comic musing on his life in Leeds. He is also part of the writing team for 'Capital' — a translucently veiled satirical take on Brexit, in which Williams exhibits his improvisatory prowess as one of a cabal of diplomats discussing the popular vote for the re-introduction of capital punishment.

Radio, podcasts, shorts, sets. I wanted to know if Williams thought one could separate the pen and the stage: if stand-up is the obligatory first step for anyone interested in comedy-writing.

‘It’s not utterly necessary, but I think it is a pretty useful first step if you’ve got the willingness, and the resilience, and probably the aptitude to do it. I like doing stand-up. I’m not doing it at the moment, but I might do more in the future.

But I was aware, even at the outset, that I felt like more of a writer. Or someone who liked to try things out in different forms and media, rather than a bloody-minded pure stand-up act — which some people are. And that’s great. But I’m not like that’.

¶ Before I had seen your stand-up, it was much-mythologised, and I think misunderstood, that you broke your heels on-stage in a fit of rage.

‘Oh, I have broken my foot on-stage. I’ve had a lot of broken bones. Not for a while, but in a period of about three years where I had maybe four broken bones. They were always self-inflicted either through rage and/or stupidity. I think on the day of the Edinburgh Awards ceremony in 2014, when I found out I didn’t win — John Kearns won — I didn’t feel resentful about it at all at the time, but the nature of the Awards is that you are able, you are enabled, to start drinking champagne at 10 ’o’clock in the morning.

I guess I was slightly disappointed, a little deflated after that. So I just drank all day. I had Sheeps [the comedy trio of which Williams is a part] at 10 ’o’clock at night, and there was a scene in that show in which I had to burlesque a fit of rage. I had to pretend to kick a wall, and after a day’s drinking, I missed pretty badly and I really booted it. I didn’t feel it for a while because I was pretty drunk. Then I went off to do another gig, and had to hobble off the stage to go to hospital. I think I fractured a metatarsal — which is the bone that Wayne Rooney broke.

¶ It’s awfully romantic.

‘Yeah. I can’t even remember if I had a pot or anything for that. I think I just had crutches and instruction to rest. But the heels were much more serious. Clearly I have brittle bones, it turns out’.

¶ Is that, in accordance with some other interviews I have read, a metaphor?

‘No, only literally. Metaphorically, I have strong bones. Whatever that means’.

¶ So you are consciously moving away from performing on-stage as frequently, but last night you had a work-in-progress show with Sheeps — one of the more whimsical parts of your oeuvre. Is that something that is always ticking along?

‘We are good friends. I’ll probably have the same kind of chorus my entire life: always be trying to focus on something else more than what I am actually doing. I think that’s just my personality. We like working together, and we had a half-intention of doing something together for a couple of years. You sign up for these [new material shows] months in advance, and don’t really think through the reality of the situation. Then by the time you do think it through, it is too late to back out’.

¶ You have Sheeps on the one hand, and over the past few years I’ve noticed you have been working a lot with Tash and Jamie Demetriou, Ellie White, Tim Key — particularly on your web-series '2016: Year Friends' and 'Pls Like'.

‘Well, I think we consider ourselves part of — I think the word is — ‘group’. Loose group. And then we [excluding Tim Key] made 'People Time', which is a BBC sketch show. I can’t say much about this, but it looks like that may, may, have some future life’.

¶ Everything that group produces looks so effortless.

‘That’s an interesting way to interpret them, and to an extent you are right. They are really unique, and “effortless” kind of applies, but it is that cliché of the swan that is kicking underwater — the comedic equivalent of that. I mean I don’t want to slander them, but they are kind of deranged people, with good hearts. They care — a lot — about what they are doing, but their way of reacting to the world, dealing with the world, is really irreverent and silly. Definitely more-so than for me. I guess I’d be much more cautious, and slightly hamstrung by my own uncertainty, more questioning. There’s a bit more derring-do to their approach’.

¶ With regard to the derring-do approach, I wondered how that manifests itself in your sketch-writing, in shared ideas. There’s something I noticed in Monty Python’s sketches: the chaos of the scene existing outside of the scene, the sketch outside of the sketch: the between-shots and the lead-ins and the segues become the main event. Sheeps do something similar. You show the latticework of sketch-writing and the result is a sort of meta-sketch.

‘I remember one Al Roberts [of Sheeps] wrote in which there was this Dad who created a Frankenstein monster for his son. And really late on in the sketch there is this seemingly throwaway line that they live in a lighthouse. I didn’t write that sketch but I always enjoyed it. That sudden rendering of context. This world just comes to life unexpectedly. And in much the same way, when we were rehearsing this week, Johnno was playing a sort of nothing-character, we were improvising, and he just came up with some pointless detail about the private-life of the character — and that made us laugh: that suddenly this sketch became about this irrelevant guy’.

¶ And does the sketch materialise from improvising?

‘Not always, but often. Just picking up on a seemingly trivial detail and that becoming the thing. I remember in our first show, we did a piss-take about that thing at the end of all comedy shows: the arbitrary callbacks to everything you’ve already seen. You seem to just get a laugh by dint of memory. We did one where we called back to the most asinine, pointless moments of the performance. Just transition lines, or very boring exposition lines. I think we like having fun with what is supposed to be the focal point of a sketch. I think we also really like complex stories: the idea of a life beyond the frame of the story for its characters. Cowards, the sketch group, were very good at that. I remember one line on their radio show: a character just walks in and says: "I’ve just been down the project centre with Mr. Defreitas". And for me that is the funniest that comedy can ever be. There’s something so delightful about suddenly evoking something strange and intriguing and then abandoning it. It’s very different from just random wackiness'.

¶ How would that manifest in a more focused project such as 'Sheeps Skewer the News'?

‘It was fun to do that, but I don’t think we could quite find the tone for it. I think we were selling in the mode of something like 'The Now Show' or the John Oliver thing, as a regular commentary on ongoing events. But that didn’t really suit us, and the only way we could do it was facetiously (and also — much more cynically — the material would be out-of-date in a week). You’d come up with an hour or so which should theoretically last you a year or two and it would be gone in a month. It was a pretty unsustainable way to perform’.

¶ I did notice, and I hope you don’t mind me saying this, that so many commentators and interviewers seem to say about you and your work the same batch of adjectives — and I’m not confusing you with the rugby player Liam Williams…

‘There’s a boxer now’.

¶ Oh, you’ve no chance then.

‘My only solace, my only hope is that those two guys — far, far superior in their talents, as they are at the moment — are engaged in short careers. So I’d like to see where we’re at in fifteen years. Top of the search engine tree’.

¶ And you’ve already had your big injury and came out the other side of it.

‘Yeah, I’ve got strong bones’.

¶ Figuratively.

‘I’m not sure they do’.

¶ Sometimes your work is written about as if it is insular, one-dimensional, which is not what I get from it at all. I think this is because you bring up the guilt of the middle-class educated metropolitan man, but you use a kind of beauty in the linguistic style which might be seen as decorative or unexpected. Do you go out to surprise people?

‘Well, thanks. Any act of writing is a choice, I suppose. A combination of choice and instinct and for me, as I said, a kind of compulsion. To an extent you are responding to the way one thinks, quite spontaneously, in the way one renders words. The character of the language in my head is quite florid, and potentially quite pretentious — and comedy has always felt like quite a fun way to puncture that. I like the effect of flitting between different tones, and trying to take people by surprise. Doesn’t always work: some people get bored with anything highfalutin, any po-faced stuff, or find it kind of pseudy.

I read some of the blog out, live, the other night at a new material night, and it was interesting, because it was presented as a comedy night. I did as much as I could: it was in a bookshop and the blurb very much, hopefully, dampened people’s expectations about what kind of show it was going to be. It wasn’t going to be a spectacular, high-energy comedy show. But still, when you are in a live setting like that, and laughter becomes the currency of engagement, and you read a whole paragraph with no jokes in it, you can feel a tension in the room. Again it is this thing of not really being able to commit to anything. When I’ve been in a setting of pure Comedy, as much as that can exist, I feel slightly uncomfortable that there’s a dimension missing that might be more poetic, more thoughtful. And then when I’ve been, on rare occasions, even as an audience member or someone with creative input in a more serious setting, I miss the irreverence of a well-timed joke’.

¶ Even in a more populist setting, like in your Russell Howard performance, you cover a range of tones and timbres. From the long descriptive section that precedes your ‘comedy… but on a bus(!!!)’ satire of metropolitan living, to your Tim Vine-esque one-liner [So the universe implodes… No matter...]

‘I mean that’s so basic, but the strategy there was to show that I can do ‘a joke’, and then maybe they’d be more forgiving of ten minutes of… whatever that was…’

¶ Mocking of their lifestyles… My lifestyle… Our lifestyles…

‘Our lifestyles’.

How to write about, or how to write women is a contention with which Williams wrestles in his customary pensive mode. In his stand-up, (in a section later transcoded into a ‘Comedy Blap’ called 'Things'), he deals with the issue in self-deprecative shorthand: about underwhelming coital performance, unrealistic relationship expectations, and general immaturity — 'she’s abed, looking round the room, I guess just collecting data, to take away with her, and use to assess the extent to which she’s selling herself short in these transactions'. But his travel-writing contains more rueful self-criticisms, and perhaps an awareness of the legacy of the all-male comedy troupe from Footlights. ‘My point here, I think’, he writes in the Greece section of his blog, ‘is that perhaps I don’t have the requisite authority to be going around like the Grand High Male Feminist of Europe when the foundations of my own Sexual Wokeness are so fragile’.

Williams’s play 'Travesty' (2016) is a notable take on gender roles in heterosexual relationships, and how those roles are portrayed on-stage. In the mould of Shakespeare plays or pantomimes (two types of production in which Williams has experience in directing), the male and female lead characters in 'Travesty' are played by actors of the opposite sex. I asked him about its genesis, and how he thought it was received.

‘The play is a story about a couple in their early- to mid-twenties, who seem a little unmatched, but comically so. They are both middle-class, seemingly London, slightly hipster people. Then we focus into their identities, their personalities, and we try to see where the mismatch is in their relatively generic character-type.

I can’t remember if I had the idea [that the characters would be gender-swapped] first, or if I wanted to write something from my own experience of a relationship and a break-up; but I don’t know if the two things necessarily served each other as well as I imagined they would, or actually if in trying to write that kind of gender-swap play, I should have really tried to set my own experiences aside as much as possible.

Maybe it felt too particular and parochial to my experience to really use the full potential of that conceit to explore gender roles in heterosexual relationships in this day and age. I’d been reading a thread from Reddit about emotional labour in relationships and that maybe women feel they do a lot more of that work than their male partners: general upkeep and the boring labour that goes into maintaining a relationship. Do men do a lot less in general? Part of a bigger question obviously. So that is what I was trying to get stuck into as I was writing it, and I don’t know if I properly succeeded, but it was okay. It’s hard to know how to measure these things.

With regard to the writing of it, it was like writing to assuage a compulsion or a hankering, in that it was about a break-up, and I’d had a break-up not all that long before it. I definitely felt better about things after it. I don’t know, maybe that’s a bit of a trite or an indulgent way to see the purpose of writing: to air your grievances. People go to therapy for that — not write a play. But enough people seemed to like it, and my ex seemed to like it, at least, she didn’t hate me for it’.

¶ The second series of the BAFTA-nominated ‘Pls Like’ has just been commissioned by the BBC. Liam Williams’s comedy troupe Sheeps are performing at the Edinburgh Fringe in their show 'Live and Loud Selfie Sex Harry Potter' from 2–9, 12–27 August 2018.

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