BCG, along with some other publications, headed along to a recording of 'Alan Davies: As Yet Untitled' and, before the cameras were switched on, asked the host about the format, his forthcoming Everest trip, and more...
What's it like not having pre-prepared questions to ask?
I do have a little note about each person. So I ask the producer, Lindsay, to forewarn me - they don't tell me what the stories are, but they say 'that's a good one... that's a good one'. So I have a little idea.
The last series I went to Julian Clary first and he had a very funny but quite shocking story about an incident in a gay club, and afterwards I thought that might not have been the one I'd have gone to first, had I known.
But I find they [the guests] talk to each other as well. They ask each other questions, so it's much more of a conversation. I don't really feel as if it's up to me particularly to crank it all up, although obviously if it starts to drop, that's on me probably. But we only have funny people on, so they all chat.
Do you find that people are very different backstage, versus on the show?
No, no. No I don't actually. I think it's the fact it's informal and relaxed, they're not required to plug anything, they're not on duty, they're not here as part of a press round. They're here because they want to be. And they get fairly well paid, I know that much, ha ha.
How much input do you have on who comes on the show?
Well there's a lot of conversations about that, and our main principle is to try and get as many new people as we can. That's what we really like. Because once you start making lists, the list really go on and on and on.
We've had great guests on, and we have had one or two back for a second appearance - people like Bob Mortimer - but generally there's so many people you'd like to talk to. I think initially we thought we'd find a few people we liked, and then mix them up, but now we've just had the fourth series commissioned, and so we're thinking "who should we ask next?"
Who would you like on the fourth series?
Oh I'd have Chris Rock or someone like that, obviously!
But I don't know, we'll have a conversation soon and they'll start asking. The casting - the actual putting together of everybody - that's [production company] Phil McIntyre and everyone who put that together, and they do a great job.
They try to have a big A-lister; like the first episode this series we've got Lee Mack and you know he's going to be funny because he's great. And then a younger one, and someone who's not a stand-up. So there's sort of a... a little bit of a pattern to it if you look through the cast list. But it's quite a skill I think, actually.
Is there anyone you've tried to get but couldn't?
I don't know because I don't do the asking. I know there's just some people it would be like a dream to have, like Paul Whitehouse and Kathy Burke. People you just love, those kind of people. Who knows, maybe one day we'll get? And I'm sure they'll keep ringing them and saying "will you come?" and they'll say "no, I'd rather be at home!"
There's plenty of names once you start thinking about it.
Have you had the opposite where people have asked to come on?
People have asked to come back because they have a really good time!
I saw [journalist and former guest] James Brown the other day, I played a bit of six-a-side football on a Monday morning with a bunch of other middle-aged men and he was playing. And he said "I wanna come back on!". And I said "Well... you can't. Wait your turn, you've only just been!" And he said to me "that show should be on every night" and I said "well, we can't make one every day..." - "Well you should!" So yeah, that's nice. He loved it.
Have you ever had anyone say afterwards 'oh God I was so relaxed, I shouldn't have told that story...'?
No... though obviously there is someone in the gallery from the legal department I think. I do remember getting a voice in my ear saying "I think we might have to tell that story again and leave that name out...". That's the only thing really. It is on television, it's not in private.
Is it filmed as live or do you stop-start?
It's filmed as live, and we do two halves, so we talk for about 45 minutes or something, go off for about ten minutes and then come back and do another 45 minutes. It's a dream job for me, I don't have to do any preparation... I have the same approach that I have for QI, in that the less I do, the better it is!
You've got your trip to Everest coming up, have you been preparing for that?
Yes! I have got a trip to Everest coming up. It seemed like a good idea at the time... and then I got my training programme through!
Mainly the training seems to be walking up hill. That seems to be the main advice. The say find a nearby hill, preferably with rough terrain, and walk up it. A lot!
Actually my publicist for all my stand-up stuff, Paul Sullivan, he's done it. And he said it was an effing slog, but that it was really amazing. It just came out the blue, and I just thought I've always wanted to go to the - [pauses] - I know not to say 'the Himalayas', because Himalaya means "the Himalayas" - I learnt that on QI!
Are you at all nervous?
Well I think I will be when we start. The thing I'm worried about is getting altitude sickness, because if you get altitude sickness you have to go back. And lots of people get it, you don't know who'll get it. They go very, very slowly, and take a day here and there to stop and acclimatise. I think I'll be the oldest one - I'll be 50 when I do it... so perhaps it's a mid-life crisis?
Have you got your 50th birthday coming up then?
In March, yeah.
How are you feeling about it?
Well I don't know how I feel about it... I relished my 40th, but I'd only just met Katie then, and we'd been together for a few months and were blissfully happy. Now we're exhausted, ha ha.
But yeah, I'll try and have a party or something. I'll probably be walking up hill that day!
So at Everest you're going to do a gig at base camp?
That's the plan... there's not theatre there as far as I'm aware, so everyone will just have to sit on their backpacks, or stand in the corner. I don't know if there'll be a PA, or lights. I don't know if there'll be a campfire, or what...
Will that be the weirdest gig you've ever done?
Yes! Without a doubt, yeah. I don't know what we'll talk about... we'll probably die on our arses.
So in Episode 1 of the new series there's an encounter with Captain Kirk?
I've got the order list here that they gave me because I can't remember who's been on when, but that is a really funny episode. Hysterically funny.
It was Nick Helm, who is just a joy of a person, and he met Captain Kirk. And there's photographic evidence of it, and it's really really funny. Everyone on that show was hilarious. And I think we're just lucky, we see the best of everybody. Katherine Jakeways is someone I've known for ten years and she's got great stories, much of it about being an actress trying to get work. And Lee Mack is a lovely guy. Olivia Lee's stuff on her grandmother giving her advice on underwear is hysterical - and again there's photographic evidence. But not of Olivia Lee in her underwear, in case any men reading are getting their hopes up now.
What's the most memorable story of Series 3?
Of this series... gosh, I don't know. Probably... probably that Katherine Jakeways story in the first one. If I try and tell it, it will just ruin it! But they all have funny stories, they all do.
John Thomson was like "Right, OK" and just started talking like we were in a pub, and his stories were hilarious. Matt Lucas! He was hysterically funny, and I've known Matt a very long time. One of the nice things is that a lot of the people who come on I've known a long time. I met Matt when he was a teenager starting in comedy twenty years ago, and seeing him go through all the things he's done, it's incredible really.
Would you have predicted when you first met him how successful he'd be?
You could see he was talented. I mean look at him, he's such an unusual looking character. He was doing Bernard Chumley at the time, and part of the act was he took his wig off to reveal his alopecia. The next thing he was being the giant baby on Shooting Stars, and he never looked back.
In the first series Bob Mortimer talked about his... His encounter with a goal post...
Ah yes, sliding down and snagging his scrotum!
Yes! Are there any other gross stories?
Well the thing with Bob is you never know if it's true or not. Bob's the best contestant they've ever had on Would I Lie To You? because you just never know if what he's saying is true or not. And he's got the cheekiest, twinkliest face, so it's lovely having him back on. But he doesn't snag his scrotum in Series 3!
You say you've tried to recapture the fun of a green room, are there any stories from your years of green rooms you could share?
Not really, no. I don't know... it's not quite that feeling really, it's much more like a pub. It's interesting because it's very unusual to sit for any length of time nowadays without people getting their phones out. I think that's the first thing you notice.
I did a comedy gig about a year or so ago, a couple of friends of mine who are in their twenties said they were doing a comedy night, and asked me to come and do it. I said OK, and met them - they're very good looking boys, these two, and one's a ballet dancer, so all their female friends are really good looking, and in their twenties. And I'm watching them all sitting around a table, thinking to myself "oh, youth"... And they're all looking and their phones! All eight of them, four boys and four girls! And I just want to go get the boys, smack their heads and say "look at what's in front of you! Get off your phone, she's three feet away, look!"
But on the show no one goes to the bar, no one goes to the loo, no one has their phone. You just sit, and talk, and it feels like going to the pub used to feel like, you know? The only thing missing is the overflowing ashtray with the brewery's name on it. So that's the sort of feel, like it's a social occasion, more than work.
There's a fair bit of talk - certainly when John Thomson was here - about gigs, and gigs in the old days... reminiscing about that sort of thing. But we don't talk too much about stand-up comedy, we talk about whatever. There's quite a lot about childhoods, so people dredge up things that happened to them as children and they're hysterical.
Do they tend to have a few drinks, or are they mostly sober?
They're sober really. There's drinks on the table, and there's drinks backstage, but no... in fact, today we're recording at 5 o'clock, and it doesn't seem to affect it. We wondered if recording in the afternoon would be a different vibe, but there isn't. The audience, well, they love it because it usually means they've bunked off work, ha ha.
Do you ever forget about the audience?
You do really. Not completely, but we're all facing one another. There was so much talk about the size of the table, the shape of the table, the kind of chairs... you'd be amazed. We've had a couple of people make the same séance gag. But in the first pilot there was a big table, with big chairs and we came together and it was like something out of a sci-fi film, you know? Like various leaders of the galaxies convening. So I think this is the optimum size table for five people to sit around.
Have you ever had someone who's a bit more quiet?
Denise Van Outen had a bit of a hangover, ha ha. You couldn't tell - she looked amazing, she's just so stunning, you know, and she was sat over there saying "I feel terrible" and I thought "Well you don't look it...". But that didn't stop her talking once she got going.
No. Everyone likes it, they like doing it. And - touch wood - that'll continue. I've said it all now, so this lot will come in this afternoon and hate it...!
How easy of a sell was it to get that initial pilot? It's quite like a podcast, but obviously you were saying you wanted it on TV.
It is like a podcast, and I think that's actually one of the reasons...
But Iain was involved in a football podcast, he's a big Liverpool fan, and the people who were making his podcast invited me to do one about Arsenal, and we subsequently set up by ourselves because we couldn't keep going into their offices. So we had to do it at home, and we've all got children. So he's very au fait with the podcast world, you know, and he knows about my doing that.
And the podcast of this show is hugely successful, which shoots to the top of the iTunes charts. And that's a whole avenue...
I've been doing my football podcast for six years now, we've had 8 million downloads and we've made no money from it at all. But each of us has had job opportunities come up because of it; because it's a sort of format you don't really... I don't suppose you could get this on TV without knowing that it would work in podcasting, you know?
I can't imagine you'd get this to fly on the BBC or ITV, they'd just be terrified... "What are you going to say?" "We don't know..." But he knew it'd be alright. He knew. He thought "This'll be fine" because we do this, this is what lots of people are doing. And he persuaded the people at Dave, and yeah, we're going into our fourth series next year. So who knew?
So what's next?
I'm touring in November, and more of the same really next year. Fingers crossed there'll be a Jonathan Creek episode. 'Fingers crossed', because it's about getting everybody in one place at the same time. That's the difficulty with that. Me, Sarah Alexander... they have to get the director they want... so it's not definite.
If you had a choice, as a comedian, would you prefer to go on QI or As Yet Untitled?
Oh that's a very difficult question... This is really... people really laugh on this. I mean we do, the guests laugh. There's more laughter on this, but you don't learn anything, except about each other. So I don't know - it's the toss of a coin really.
What's your favourite QI fact?
I don't remember any of them, and I get asked that a lot...
You remembered Himalaya.
I get asked that a lot, and the only one I remember is about the Vikings, when they went on longboats to explore the world, they obviously didn't know where land was, so they took ravens with them. You let the raven go and it flies up incredibly high, and you can see it because it's black. And then if it sees land, it goes towards the land, and then you follow it. If it can't see any land it'll come back to the boat, because it can't land on the water. And I thought that was genius! I don't know which Viking thought of that... "Let's take a raven! Well.... we'd better take a few"...
That, and there's more than one moon - but don't ask me about that! Ha ha.
Have you ever had any weird pre-gig rituals you've come across in your time?
Pre-gig rituals? Not really... most people, if they have a pre-gig thing, it'll be in the lavatory, ha ha.
That is actually one of the things about working in The Comedy Store, especially the new Comedy Store [in Leicester Square]. The old one, the dressing room was in the back corner of the room, but the new Comedy Store - well, I say new, it was 1991 or something it opened - you open the door and walk out onto the stage. So everyone will just be chatting like this, and then one of them will get up and go through the door, and appear on the screen, talk to 400 people for 20 minutes, then come back through the door and resume their conversation.
That's the reality of being a professional comedian. Provided you know what your set is, you don't bat an eyelid. They never seem to exhibit any nerves, they never show any euphoria. In fact if anyone came it and were like "Yes! I killed it!" everyone would be a bit like "...really?"
So it's slightly misleading to think of this as being like a backstage. Maybe that gives a sort of idea of it, and - touch wood - we'll continue getting more guests - that's the main thing. Johnny Vaughan would not shut up, ha ha, and at one point Charlie Higson did actually say to him "shut up, Johnny". But yeah, it's really funny.
Series 3 of 'Alan Davies: As Yet Untitled' is on Dave on Tuesdays at 10pm.