An Interview with Comedian Ben Volchok19 March 2018
Ben Volchok Presents … sees Ben Volchok perform two episodes of original radio comedy live on stage. From silly voices to sound effects, Ben does it all armed only with a microphone (borrowed) and some arms (his). Also a computer (also his). We sat down to chat about the show.
I was looking at the last time we spoke—I asked you if you were ready for your show and you said, “No-one’s ever ready.” Do you think that’s still true, given that you’ve performed this show before?
That’s a good question. I think I’m definitely more ready than I would’ve been for that last show. I’m not ready in the sense that there’s still a lot of work to be done in the promotion [of it], I still need to tighten up the show, I still need to rehearse it, so in that sense, no, I’m not ready. What a grand sweeping statement—“No-one’s ever ready for a show!”
This is really selling the show, by the way.
(Laughs) I have done the show before, so in that sense I am primed to do it. I’m very confident in the material, which is why I’ve decided to stage it again.
You’d been doing Illustrious Fact Shows for—a year?
Probably about two and a half. From Fringe Festival 2015 to Comedy Festival 2017.
What made you change your mind to do the radio plays?
It was kind of a transition period. At the start of last year I’d been writing and recording some radio plays as a podcast and then I got more into it and decided to do it live, and that then overtook my infatuation with the other stuff.
What do you think is the appeal of the radio format?
To me, what I love about it is the density of words and the amount of writing you have to do to convey stuff. The fact that it’s so quick and vibrant and funny. I suppose also the fact that it’s just such a neat way of putting together a script, which, I guess is something I’ve been meaning to work on—narrative comedy—and the fact that you can do it and have the license to essentially put in so many gags. ‘Cos if you look at sitcoms there’s funny lines, but it’s not as gag heavy, whereas radio plays—at least the ones I listen to—they’re built on having more jokes.
Do you have a favourite play or series?
I love The Goon Show and that’s kind of inspired a lot of what I’ve written for this show. Hancock’s Half Hour is delightful. They’re both very similar but also very different in their writing styles—one’s a lot more manic, a lot more absurd, a lot more puns [The Goon Show], but then you have Hancock’s Half Hour, which is a lot more down-to-earth and a lot more cynical, but still has these flights of fancy, although it’s more situation-based … so I guess I’ve tried to marry the two concepts but with a style of my own.
Again, the last time we spoke, you said how comedy needs to be “written well” and how you “struggle a bit with visual comedy”. Is radio—of which you’ve done a lot—the perfect medium for your style?
For this particular show I looked at what I’m best at, which is making funny voices and making funny words, so I decided that I’d make a show that would emphasise and highlight those specific aspects.
Do you find switching between voices so quickly comes naturally?
Uh, I practice. Also, when I’m coming up with voices for the characters, I have to make sure that I do ones that are noticeably distinguishable, otherwise it’d just turn into a complete mish-mash. I think it is practice, though, even if I can do it fairly well now.
You have, obviously, a great appreciation for radio comedy, but it’s much less popular than it used to be, even if it’s seeing a resurgence with, say, podcasts.
Well, podcasts … there’s been this huge boom in either non-fiction podcasts or just chatting. But I think, also, because of the accessibility of podcasts, there’s a lot more room for people to discover radio comedy. And, I mean, it still happens. Especially on British radio, you know, it’s not stopped. I think it’s interesting that it’s not the first thing you think of when you think of people’s listening habits—you don’t think about radio series, but that’s what I primarily listen to. I mean, what’s the difference between a half-hour radio comedy and a half-hour recording of a group of people talking? It’s just that one’s called a podcast and one isn’t.
Do you think that audiences get on board with the format then?
Absolutely. I’ve kind of realised … it’s the type of show that people won’t reach out and go and see, but if they do see it, they love it. It’s very accessible, very simple—it’s just dialogue. And people are used to hearing dialogue … so it’s just a matter of being funny enough (laughs). If you set it up—“this is a comedy radio play, I’m doing all the voices”—that’s usually enough for people to be, like, “okay, I get what this is.”
When did you first listen to The Goon Show?
I was a late discoverer … from what I’ve heard a lot of people’s love of The Goon Show comes from when their parents played it to them as kids. My parents have no idea about comedy, so I guess I was already at university.
I used to be the sort of person who thought my influences would stay the same—who didn’t have much regard for changing tastes – but I’ve noticed that most of the people that I’d count as major influences on my creative work I’ve taken on board relatively recently.
A few well-regarded comedians have announced their retirement from live comedy—can you see yourself stopping?
Live comedy, sure. Probably. I’ve always been a writer, so I can see myself not doing live performance and just writing stories or scripts or whatever. That’s something I can very easily envisage. Nevertheless, I still love the feeling of being onstage and that … the live-ness of it is inimitable, really.
Would you ever put these plays on the radio then?
Yeah. I mean—the ones I did before the live show are still funny. But I have been thinking about getting recordings live and uploading them, because they’d have an audience recorded, which is interesting.
For you, what percentage of comedy is in the writing and what percentage is in the performance?
For me … I’m always trying to better my performance. But it’s probably 80/20. 80% of it is in the words, which are essentially fixed, but there’s this grey area because you’re writing for performance … and of course, you have to sell it when you’re on stage.
Ben Volchok Presents … is being performed 9-22 April at Tasma Terrace. Get tickets here.