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Joke Thieves - Interview with creator Will Mars

Joke Thieves

Joke Thieves is one of the best live shows we've seen - laughs are guaranteed by this simple yet clever format. For those that haven't heard about this relatively new concept yet, it involves four comedians taking to the stage to perform stand-up in the first half... so far, very standard.

However, in the second half, the comedians must repeat the set of one of the other acts. This is never a straight copy though - rather, things tend to head off in interesting directions as the acts subvert the material of their peers. Knowing the task is coming up makes the first half more fun than a standard show too, as you can spot acts trying to set traps for their fellow performers.

In summary: it's ace! Joke Thieves is now preparing to head off on a World Tour, so we caught up with creator Will Mars to find out more...

Hi Will. How did the format first come about?

I used to work in sales. I'd get very set-in-their-ways sales staff and brand new sales staff working together, and get them to swap their sales pitches just to reinvigorate them. That was the seed of the idea.

Years later, I started stand-up and thought of doing it as a show with a few friends, as my first thing at the Fringe. It never happened, but one day I was talking about it with a friend and the name 'Joke Thieves' suddenly came to me - as soon as it came into my head I thought, 'I think I have to do this now'.

Will Mars

It then just all came together. I launched it in London in June 2013, at the King's Head in Crouch End, and then took it to Edinburgh...

The format is kind of genius - as you get the normal laughs from stand-up, but with a layer of comedy added on top with the improv.

The weird thing is nobody has ever failed taking part in the show, which I think is unheard of in improvisation. It's perhaps because everyone performs as themselves first, so they win the audience over. It kind of means they're then given the freedom to do some improv.

The fact we know a set is going to be subverted means it doesn't matter when the initial stand-up set doesn't hit?

Sometimes you can get a slightly subdued first half because the audience are enjoying the show but they're also thinking 'oh, how is this going to happen in part two', so some of the best nights are when the stand-up section is a little more low key.

We love it when the acts try and make things difficult in the first half, knowing someone else has to try and 'repeat' that in the second half.

At our very first show, Jessica Fostekew did, what seemed to be, 35 accents in 5 minutes. I often refer to that when explaining the format to audiences. They always laugh about that because they think "oh the comics are being cruel to each other", but in reality those 35 accents are actually 35 chances to get laughs in the second half.

Joke Thieves. Image shows from L to R: Joey Page, Ivo Graham, Will Mars, Lou Sanders

Sometimes, in the second half, an act will deconstruct what they perceive to be a weak set. A highlight for the audience, but has there ever been tension after the show in the dressing room?

If you know each other, it is easier to know where each other's buttons are so you can play off them correctly. There has been one or two times where acts that have not known each other very well prior to playing the game have had to chat and reassure each other after, but there hasn't been any full-on arguments as a result of playing the show.

It's not normally a problem though. The sort of acts I normally pick play Edinburgh - if you play the festival you are regularly doing new material, thus regularly used to being exposed on stage, and maybe even failing on stage. So, if you've got that in your make-up, then you aren't going to be offended by a cheeky line or deconstruction or whatever.

Joke Thieves is being developed for TV, with Hal Cruttenden having fronted a pilot for BBC Two earlier in the year. How do you feel about the shows development into a broadcast format?

As a kid I loved Whose Line Is It Anyway?, because of its improvised nature. And I realised, after the very first performance [of Joke Thieves] when the first review came in and the phone started to ring from the various other publications, 'oh, this could be a TV show like that', and I've not yet had a reason to doubt that thought.

I'm developing the show with The Comedy Unit, based in Glasgow, and we've done a few run thrus behind closed doors and recorded a pilot with BBC Two in August this year. The pilot went very well and I'm excited to see where it goes from here, although it is still early days.

18 months ago the format had never been performed, so to be here now is delightful...

Joke Thieves World Tour 2015

Would the TV show feature star names?

In terms of the run-throughs it was a mixture of new and established acts. I've been massively surprised by the willingness of broadcasters and the production company to include some relatively unknown names in the process. TV hasn't done enough of that, as of yet.

I understand the need for the TV network to have some star names involved to draw in the audience, but Joke Thieves works best if two of the guests are, for want of a better way of putting this, 'unknown'. With four massive names it's less exciting, as you may know every joke they've said, but newer acts add something to the mix. I think it can't be one or the other [stars or unknowns], but needs to be a bit of both.

So Joke Thieves is now off around the world?

We have a whole bunch of dates across the UK, they start in late January and run through until June. In amongst those dates we are heading off to Australia a couple of times as well as taking runs out to Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines.

Regulars on the tour will be Stephen Carlin, Jessica Fostekew, Joe Rowntree, Danny Ward and Will Franken. And guests will be appearing on all of the shows from every corner of the globe and every level of the comedy industry. You really never know who you might see take on the show.

Nearer the time, our website will list the comics appearing on the bill of each show. So once you have your tickets you'll get a sneak preview of who's playing ahead of time.

Sounds great. We'll certainly be in the audience again. Thanks for your time Will.

To find out more about Joke Thieves and the tour, visit

Published: Wednesday 10th December 2014

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