Only a few people get a movie made about their life, and James Mullinger is now part of this select group. The Comedian's Guide To Survival, based on his life story, focuses on an embittered journalist aspiring to become a successful stand-up comedian. Originally from the UK, James now lives in Canada. Let's find out more...
Hi James. How did you get into comedy?
I had always been fascinated by stand-up comedy. I grew up listening to Comic Relief tapes and watching Frank Skinner, Alan Davies and Eddie Izzard videos. I studied them, watching them over and over, laughed like a drain. I wondered how these people could amble on stage, act so natural and be so skilled at making two thousand people laugh, when I was too shy to talk to another kid in my class.
In my early twenties I first started thinking about doing stand-up and began to really hate myself for not trying. One night, on New Year Eve 2004, I was on holiday in Saint John [in Canada] with my wife visiting her family, and we sat watching a dinner theatre production. These performers had us all laughing and dancing and singing and I was half entertained and half overcome with profound jealousy that these performers were living out their dreams.
No matter what they did during the day, or what their home lives were like, at night they were stars, in that they were actually doing it. I was jealous and became very angry with myself for not even trying. So I made a pact that night that 2005 would be the year I tried stand-up comedy.
It still took me five months but in May, thanks to Logan Murray and Hils Jago's comedy course, I finally found the confidence to do it. I owe it all to them. People that are disparaging of comedy courses don't realise that they aren't trying or claiming to be able to make you funny. You can't do that. They are giving you the confidence to get on stage that first time... then it's up to you to go and do every gig you can. And that's what I did. And that's what The Comedian's Guide To Survival is about - those years when you have a day job but you are performing on stage every night. A lot of what Logan taught me I still use as mantras in my head eleven years later, most notably when I played a sold out show in a stadium arena in Canada earlier this year.
Why did you move to Canada?
For a better life. I didn't like living in London any more. But I didn't want to commute in to London every day. And I certainly didn't like the negativity and bigotry I felt was become a real problem across England. Nor, obviously, the cost of living.
My wife is from the East Coast of Canada and it is the most beautiful, most friendly place in the world. There's no traffic, there's barely any crime - the day I arrived the local newspaper ran a cover story about a recent "crime wave"... in which fifty chickens were stolen from someone's yard. When I lived in South London stabbings sometimes wouldn't even make the front page.
It's also the cheapest place to live. You can buy a waterfront mansion for less than what a bedsit in Burnley costs. I like to call what we have here 'discreet luxury'. We have time and space and beauty and, the big surprise for me, they have everything I thought I would miss from England, Paris, New York. So while I miss people in England a lot, I miss nothing about the place itself. Put it this way: when Syrian refugees arrive at my local airport in Saint John - politicians, journalists and locals line up to welcome them and offer them work, homewares and friendships. It's a different world. It's paradise.
Is the Canadian comedy scene much different from the UK one?
Very different. There isn't a star system here. Which is both a good and a bad thing. The good news is that the biggest and best comedy festivals in the world are here. The biggest comedy club chain is here. And stand-up comedy has been a regular fixture on primetime TV here for much longer than it has been in Britain.
When I first visited Canada I couldn't believe I could watch legendary comics like Adam Bloom or Sean Meo on the main CBC channel on Christmas Day. Comics that don't get the attention they deserve in England. This was before Live At The Apollo or Comedy Roadshow existed.
But, like I say, there's no star system in Canada to make comedians or actors properly successful in their homeland. The upside of that is that no-one gets in to comedy for the money here. Or for the fame. There is a real passion in the circuit here. There's no panel shows, no-one is getting rich here. The only people doing comedy in Canada are the people that really love comedy.
You have comedians who everyone knows like Nikki Payne, Derek Seguin, Pete Zedlacher and they are heroes and icons to comedy fans everywhere but they won't become millionaires or head up a primetime sitcom unless they move to England or America. But they don't do that, and neither will I. We love what we do, we work hard and we have made a career out of it. And this was always my dream.
James' experiences on the Canadian comedy circuit were documented for a primetime CBC documentary that captured his sold out arena show. You can watch it on YouTube:
What does it feel like to be the subject of a movie?
Odd obviously, given I am a nobody. I'm not Muhammed Ali. But then this movie isn't really about me. It's based on my experiences. I spent about eight years gigging most nights while doing a fairly high pressure day job and this film is about that dichotomy. Where you have a job that you like and that just about pays the bills, but you have an overwhelming passion to do something else. It's about what we go through to get good as comedians and what it takes to get there.
How did the project come about?
The writer and director of the film, Mark Murphy, is one of my oldest school friends. We worked together on numerous projects in England over the years - small web series for Comedy Central, a TV show called Movie Kingdom. And he always thought it was hilarious that I spent my days interviewing my heroes like Jerry Seinfeld or Amy Schumer (either for GQ or for our shows) and then ran to catch a train to Burnley to do a gig to five people.
Every time I would see him I had some terrible story to tell. Either that I had slept on a train platform the previous night because I had missed the last train home after the gig overran or I had been booed off stage. He suggested we write a script about it, which we did. Nothing happened with it, a few years went by, I moved to Canada, he became a respected film director and after the success of his last film (Awaiting) he was asked what he wanted to make next. He dusted off the script, polished it up, flew to Saint John where we added my stand-up and more recent experiences to the script and then in July and August last year we shot it in Montreal and England over six weeks.
Has the truth been embellished or changed in places?
All of the stand-up in the film is old material of mine. Most of the things that happen to him at gigs happened to me. Although I never pissed my pants on stage.
If anything, we had to tone down the truth. Quite a lot of the awful things that happened to me at gigs were deemed too depressing by the producer and director for a comedy film.
Well, he wisely chose to make the character his own and not mimic my mannerisms or anything like that. But he has beautifully captured my desperation, despair and my overwhelming desire to be a comedian. There is one incredible one-take shot in which he delivers a three-minute speech and it brings tears to my eyes.
We talked about this a lot; he and I are similar in many ways. Both happily married with two young sons. We both wanted to be comedians (me stand-up, him acting) and fought very, very hard to get there. We now both feel like we are living out our dreams, although he is obviously far more successful than I am.
An interesting fact for you that I don't think I've shared with anyone else: Back in 2005 when I first started doing stand-up I entered Jimmy Carr's Comedy Idol competition. It was just like X Factor and suchlike in that we all had to audition in front of a panel of three judges in a soulless room. It was incredibly nerve wracking. The judges were Jimmy Carr, Karen Taylor and Iain Morris.
I did a few jokes and they laughed. I felt amazing. They put me through to the live final which was filmed at The Comedy Store in London. You can actually see this all on Jimmy Carr's 2005 DVD...
Jimmy and Iain were really kind and kept it touch with all the contestants, helping us with our material. Guiding us. Shortly after the final, later in 2005, I was in Iain's production company offices - Bwark - and he told me about a script he had written with Damon Beesley called Baggy Trousers, about his school experiences. Obviously this would be renamed The Inbetweeners.
He was in the process of casting the show. That night he came to the comedy club I ran in Mayfair, Upstairs At The Masons, because Jimmy Carr was coming down to test some new material. An unknown up-and-coming comic named Michael McIntyre was MC-ing. And Greg Davies was headlining.
Iain came to the show - with the role of his headmaster still uncast - saw Greg's act and the rest is history. I have always been pretty proud that my small club played a small part in one of the great British comedies. And now the fact that the star of that show is playing me in a feature film is something else.
The film's central message is very much "don't stop chasing your dream": is that just a nice media narrative, or something you do recommend in real life?
Almost everyone told me to quit. I told myself to quit almost every day. I cried myself to sleep. So, yes, I do recommend not giving up. Unless of course your dream is adversely affecting those around you. In which case find a way to chase the dream but also be responsible. This is such a boring answer but it's the truth.
I despise people who aren't taking care of their family because they have a dream they are chasing. And like the character in the film I came very close to quitting because I never saw my wife and kids. And because the constant knockbacks were making me very unhappy. But I found a way to still serve my apprenticeship on the circuit and am now in a place where I turn down 80% of what I get offered and try to, for the most part, only do shows that don't require me being away from home for long stretches of time. In other words, living the dream.
How are things going for you now? What's next in your career?
Good. Everything I hoped would happen to me, but never really expected to, has happened to me in Canada. I live a good happy life, perform as much or as little as I want to, and can never imagine living anywhere else than New Brunswick.
I never wanted to be famous, I just wanted to perform stand up. I wouldn't change a thing. If I had one wish it would be that things stay exactly as they are now. Which in itself is hard because you have to work extremely hard to maintain where you are at.
I can't ever imagine living in the UK again. For all of the obvious reasons you see in the news every day. I do love to visit England but the East Coast of Canada is paradise. It's everything I ever wanted.
I will definitely do shows in the UK again, but probably one nighters at my favourite venues where I used to have the most fun. Norden Farm in Maidenhead has a very special place in my heart. As do the Etcetera Theatre in Camden, Dead Parrot Society in Teddington and Outside The Box in Kingston. So when I come back to England those will the places I play. I miss them.
The Comedian's Guide To Survival is released across the UK on 28th October. Pre-order the DVD from Amazon