No. 139: The Isolation Conversations: Glenn Wool is Out of Order
Remember audio cassettes? The old C90s. They may have compacted your sound and spooled tape over your spindles, but you knew where you were with a TDK. They'd certainly never play stuff in the wrong order.
Now the great globetrotting gag warrior Glenn Wool has a new album/special out, Viva Forever which Circuit Training eagerly downloaded, only for an errant smartphone app to play it on shuffle. And it still rocked, even with the callbacks the wrong way round. A good sign, that.
Recorded in Glasgow in 2018, the almost operatic Viva Forever is a show about jokes, in a way, and how people respond to them. The real-world foundations are the Canadian comic's own changed circumstances in recent times, from rootless jester to family man. Indeed, you did wonder how Wool the wanderer would cope with the whole concept of lockdown.
In truth, we thought we'd finished these Isolation Conversations, but lockdown life is making more comebacks than an addled '70s heavy-rocker. This Zoom chat did show us Wool's historic ceiling, though, plus we got a dramatic real-world interruption from a sinister figure, just in time for Halloween.
I like your backdrop there Glenn. Nice wooden beams.
It was one of Cromwell's former generals, he built this house.
How do you find the stare-at-yourself problem with Zoom? Presumably you're more used to seeing yourself on screen.
Yeah, I don't mind staring at myself, but I think everyone's doing it, or fighting the urge. My one problem, I've taken to these now [raises glasses] just for reading. But because of sunglasses, I've had 45 years of having it ingrained in my head, 'you can't see my eyes if I'm wearing these.' So I've realised a lot of times I'm looking at stuff thinking nobody can tell I'm looking. AND they make my eyes bigger. I'm doing googly-eyes at people.
There's some interesting stuff in your special about causing offence onstage, crossing lines - I wonder if that line has shifted again since you recorded it.
I think it has, but the problem hecklers are running into is that they are no longer in their vacuum. No longer in their bubble. You shouldn't be having discourse in a comedy club, even if you don't like the comic. But a lot of these people have been raised on the internet, so they think that if they don't say something, that they're complicit.
I've often hovered over a provocative tweet then thought 'why don't I just not send this?' It's strange, that need to be involved.
I'm reading a fantastic book by Peter Hook from New Order, about the Hacienda. And every time I get engaged in something on Twitter or Facebook, I just think 'I could be reading that book I really enjoy.' I've never put down a book and thought 'I feel icky..' but you spend two hours on social media and you don't feel good when you're done.
You've had a productive lockdown though...
I brought life into this world! Well, my wife helped, but I did the hard part.
Congratulations! I was thinking you don't seem like a Zoom/Skype guy, but travelling a lot, with a young kid and a baby on the way, you probably had to.
Well, I bought a super-computer midway through lockdown. And it's not working - I've currently got my iPad on top of this very expensive thing. It's so unwieldly, I fear it. I've taken on projects saying 'well, I bought the computer, I can do it.' But then just opening it means I have to learn stuff. So now I'm rarely in this office, because a poor purchase is mocking me.
So tell us about that room you're in?
It's the house that my wife grew up in, it's from like the 1600s, there's an antique shop downstairs. Her parents moved to France right before lockdown. We were supposed to still be in Canada, but we had to rush back - some heavy stuff happened. Ever since we first went on a date, her life since then, it's just been very strange.
You talk on the album about how her best friend passed away - although your wife has a sensational joke on there about it too.
Ha! Yeah, she did say that...
I heard the album in the wrong order first, so I was quite impressed how avant-garde it was, you explaining things ages after the joke.
It sounds like something someone would do in an Edinburgh show: 'I told all the punchlines first, and all the set-ups last...'
John-Luke Roberts pretty much did that at the last Fringe - which seems a long time ago now. So your lockdown has been eventful then?
Yeah, really, really strange. Like, a lot of the time, within the first month, 'I was just where am I?' How did I get here?'
Wasn't that your life anyway? You had no home at all, last time we spoke.
I once flew around the world three times in a two-week period, just for different gigs and occasions - I had to shoot in LA, finish an Asian tour, I'd been in Dubai - just been everywhere. And I woke up in a hotel room. And I really didn't know where I was.
It's really freaky when that happens.
I started tracing back through the airports I'd been in, but they'd all been connector flights. So I looked on the desk at the stationary, to see where the hotel was. And it was one of those chains, it had like 'Berlin, Tokyo...'
So I looked out the window and as it's on a bay, I tried to read the ships, but it was all international freighters. I couldn't figure it out. I finally called the front desk and just said, 'Where am I?' And she said 'Room 312, sir.'
I'd kind of assumed you were just born to wander - you talk in the show about your Irish roots, and there's Estonian in there too. Did you find full-on lockdown difficult?
No, I started looking at it, like, 'I've sowed my oats'. It'd be tough if I had just booked my first international festival, but I'd had a bellyful of traveling. By the time I settled down a few years ago, I didn't care if I went to another country ever again.
You'd got it out of your system?
Yeah - I wasn't working smart, I was just working hard. So I've enjoyed lockdown on that level, too. And there are still gigs. You know, they're just little ones. You can keep sharp, you can't make really much money, but that's okay. You know, I'll just ride it out.
I mean, I know a lot of comedians, they're very frightened right now. But they're not real comedians. A real comic, this is just like the way it was when it started - you'll have to hustle. If you don't have any background in that, then yeah, it's a terrifying time.
I mean, some of the comedians, it's got so bad apparently, they've had to ask their parents for money again. That's four times in one year. And that's not easy.
How do you reckon the live comedy landscape will look after all this?
It'll come back. It'll come back because it didn't dry up like, say, the Northern Soul clubs did; one out-of-work miner spinning around on a dancefloor and they're like, 'okay, well, maybe we'll switch to punk or something.'
Most comedians are very used to a socially distanced room.
Oh yeah, I was doing Covid-secure long before it was fashionable. Nobody ever caught a virus at my shows... well, not from the crowd.
One thing I noticed... Woah, hang on, someone in a weird gas mask outfit just turned up outside. No, it's ok, I think I know who that is.
Right - I thought I was going to hear a window shatter and a sniper bullet.
I'll take a photo...
Man! I still wouldn't open the package that he put through the slot.
Anyway, I noticed that the new show felt quite theatrical, almost operatic, the way you perform now.
It started by playing bigger gigs. If you're in a theatre, it sort of fits. I remember I opened for Reg Hunter's tour, we were in Derry and the old sound crew were all smoking in the exit, I walked past and they're like 'you didn't use the microphone once in there' - they were really impressed. But with a good theatre you don't even really need a mic, it's designed to carry.
Does it keep the material interesting, having those rhythmic highs and lows?
I've been doing more with it, especially in club gigs, that crowd interaction. It's almost freakier to them because, you know, how do you respond to somebody booming at you?
A full-on opera breaks out; it's like West Side Story in there...
Ha! It's not hard to do that, if that's all you're doing, but there was a lot that came with the touring life: smoking cigarettes, partying, yelling all night in loud bars. You can't do it all.
The worst thing for the voice must be loud pubs after gigs.
It's so weird. If you go to comedy festivals, and they have a performers bar, just trying to tell a bar manager to turn his music down: 'mate we all we all have to talk tomorrow!' And he's got The Vengaboys on. Nobody likes this music, it's too loud, we can't hear each other - we get to see each other maybe once a year, you know?
They're so focused on 'no, bars have music!' I dunno, maybe it stops fights.
Yeah, no-one can hear the insults - especially with masks now too...
I can't hear a goddamn thing anymore! And mumbling has been a problem with this generation: the Millennials are mumblers, and I don't care who knows it. You can say I'm a grumpy old man, but annunciation was a very big problem long before masks came along. And now they're just... I think they're gonna have to speak with emoticons, just hold their phone up: sad face, happy face, because I can't understand a goddamn thing they're saying.
You mention in the show about certain material that's offended people over the years.
The swan bit caused a woman to not only walk out, but she wouldn't even stay for Reg. She wrote a long letter of complaint to me, that I giggled at. The swan bit, you're an imbecile if you're offended by it: 'People say swans mate for life. It's not true. They fly away as soon as you let them go...' I obviously have not fucked a swan. It's just a funny visual.
You don't even say anything explicit...
Well, I go on! But that whole premise, if you take it seriously, then you have to take everything seriously. And at the heart of it, what you're saying is you cannot suspend your disbelief. You have a real problem. You shouldn't be in a comedy show if you don't have that ability.
Have you had bodies coming at you? Not, like, dead bodies, but organisations, complaining on behalf of people they represent?
I get letters of complaint, but it's never from organisations. With all my stuff, I've never gone out just to say the grossest thing I can, there's always a reasoning behind it - you'll tend to annoy nutters more than organisations.
Priorities. And comedy raises interesting points - I've often come out of gigs thinking 'that's something I'd never have bothered thinking about in my own time.'
Right! But that used to be the point of comedy, you were paying these vagabonds to sit around and think about stuff you didn't want to think about, then they'd put it in a little package and you'd go 'Oh ok cool!'
Now it's become very antiseptic and people are afraid to say what they like. I don't think comedy the way it is now will attract the right people to keep it moving forward. There's a lot of careerists, it's seen as a job, a real pathway to stability. You're going to cut off the lifeblood.
You made the special in 2018, does anything feel weird, listening to it now?
I would've preferred to have the album come out a little sooner - one of the jokes is about Theresa May. But it also says 'she's lucky they're no longer making Spitting Image' - they are! I kinda had to put my foot down on the release because things were happening.
That Michael Schumacher bit is quite a finale... I bet you were monitoring his condition as much as the fans...
I've heard sections of a crowd go really mad at that punchline, but that joke is about people acting like they know him: just because you know who somebody is, you don't know them, you can't claim their pain as your own. You're the sad one in that situation: it's time to grow up.
It's like Twitter after a celeb dies - 'I saw him through a window once' - they're not really helping the overall discourse.
No - I've got famous friends so I've seen this happen, people go 'you got me through a really tough time, I was gonna kill myself but then I didn't because of you, you own me, everything I do from here on in is your fault, because you released that song...'
Have you done much Zoom stuff then, gigs?
I did a little bit, but I don't like it.
You've got that nice backdrop though...
Yeah, but that's from the blood of the Irish, Cromwell. A lot of pain in Ireland, but it made a nice house.
You played the long game on that one, with your Irish roots - it's like the Iraqis storming Saddam's palace.
Exactly. This was all part of the templars' plan.