E4 has launched a new sketch show starring Dustin Demri-Burns (on the left in the main picture) and Seb Cardinal (picture, right) better known together as comedy circuit favourites Cardinal Burns. Here the duo reflect on their rise through the comedy ranks, their inspirations, and an awkward moment involving whispering penguins...
Hi guys. Did you start off in comedy together, or individually?
Seb: We started off together. We met at film school in Edinburgh, and Dustin was in the year below...
Dustin: A couple of years below, actually...
Seb: And we had mutual friends. And we were making short films - the lecturers were really looking for earnest short films, as they do in film school, and our films were a bit sillier, and we bonded on that. And then we both moved down to London, and started meeting up and writing comic short films.
Dustin: Because that's the medium we'd been working in, we thought that was the natural thing to do. And they were sort of becoming more like sketches. And we did that for a couple of years.
Seb: And then we just realised that there didn't seem to be any way of making a living from short films.
Dustin: We'd go to Scotland a lot - we were getting money from Scottish Screen and things like that, and they'd steer us towards making really gritty, earnest films all about heroin.
Seb: And we were always doing characters and writing through improvising, and we hooked up with another friend from University and became a live comedy trio called Fat Tongue. We went up to Edinburgh and did well the first year - we got nominated for the if.comedy award.
Dustin: It changed its name that year we got nominated, which was frustrating. What would have been 'Perrier nominee' became 'if.comedy nominee', and people would say "Oh, what's that, then?"
Seb: But that was great. The thing is, Edinburgh is such a bubble. There was quite a buzz about our show, and we thought "Wow, this is going to be our year". And then you go down to London and no-one knows who you are, and no-one gives a toss.
Dustin: It was really fun, though, doing fliers for your own show, starting to see it building up every night, and then selling out, and by the last few weeks you've got a fairly successful little show. It's really exciting.
We imagine at that stage it's a fairly hand-to-mouth existence... You're not making much money, and you don't know if you're going to succeed. Was that tough?
Seb: Yeah, but we were both doing jobs. And I think we had quite a lot of faith in ourselves.
Dustin: we were also given enough encouragement right early on that we had a chance. Two gigs in, The Independent were there, writing a piece about sketch comedy, and we were highlighted. And then after another couple of gigs, Ryan Taylor, from The Pleasance in Edinburgh, saw us do a weird sketch we called Jimmy Choo, and he booked us in to do The Pleasance at the Edinburgh Festival. And then the first Edinburgh we did we got nominated. So we kept thinking something must be right.
How does the writing process work? Do you always write together?
Dustin: We tend to get together most days and brainstorm. One of us will have an idea, and then between us we'll expand on it.
Seb: Mostly we'll write together. Occasionally separately. But the best stuff seems to be when one of us comes in with a strong idea, and then we improvise it with the characters and edit it as we go along. We'll play out a scene, and then sit down and edit it down on the laptop. It's not often that we'll sit down and write a sketch line by line. It never seems to work as well.
Dustin: You can spend days just staring at the wall, but normally there's something that sparks you off. We used to spend a lot of time just sitting in Soho having coffee, just eavesdropping on people.
Do you do that classic writers' thing of carrying a notebook with you and just noting down inspiration or snatches of dialogue when you come across them?
Seb: All the time. That's what triggers stuff.
Dustin: It's hard to get ideas just from sitting in your living room waiting for an idea to come.
Do you ever have creative differences in the writing process?
Seb: Yeah, we have done. Mostly not. But when we do, it always pushes things forward. But luckily we have the same sense of humour, so the same things make us laugh.
Do you bring different strengths to the partnership?
Dustin: It's sometimes hard to know exactly what each of us bring as individuals. We work quite organically together.
The series is a sketch show. What is it about sketches that appeals to you?
Seb: It's so much fun playing out all these different characters and genres. They're short little stories. It's so satisfying, playing so many different characters.
Dustin: We like telling stories, we like the narrative, so often our stuff is over-long, and we have to condense it. A lot of stuff gets left out.
Do you find it difficult to have to cut jokes out?
Seb: Yeah, the editing process is quite hard. You see a lot of the gags being cut down, to make the sketches more succinct. But left to our own devices, we'd probably end up with three or four sketches per show!
Is there an accepted maximum length for a sketch?
Dustin: If we had it our way, probably not!
Seb: You meet a lot of producers who think a sketch should be no longer than three minutes. But the stuff that we really like, like The League of Gentlemen, Human Giant and stuff, takes its time. It depends on the nature of the sketch - you can have one that runs for six minutes, as long as the ideas keep coming in.
Will you have returning characters who appear throughout the series?
Dustin: Yes, and each episode is going to be very different. So we've got a handful of returning characters, but each episode's got its own strand as well.
You've been doing live comedy for quite a while now. Did it feel quite odd doing sketches without being in front of a live audience - so not getting the laughter and the feedback?
Dustin: I suppose we were sort of using the crew as our live audience. But then it's not always accurate. Some of the stuff that made the crew really laugh on the day didn't make it into the final cut. It is hard, though, not getting that initial reaction. It felt quite wrong.
Seb: You might do the first take, and the crew would be sniggering, but after they've seen it once, they'll be terribly quiet - and then you're doing take 5, take 6, and no-one's laughing. You're playing to silence.
Have you tailored your material for the TV, or is it pretty similar to your live stuff?
Dustin: It's pretty different, really. You get away with different things when you're interacting with a live audience.
Have you ever died in front of a live audience?
Both: Oh yeah.
What's that experience like?
Dustin: Horrific. Once we were dressed as penguins - we'd spent about £90 on these penguin outfits, and we were doing this gig in Leicester Square. We went out and ticketed before, and we basically just got tourists in, and half of them couldn't understand what we were saying. It was a weird audience, and we had this weird Planet Earth sketch, and we just didn't really know what we were doing. I just remember turning around and seeing the fear in all of our eyes, and these stupid outfits, and just going up and whispering "Shall we just leg it?" And they were just watching panic-stricken penguins whispering to each other.
Seb: That's what's awful, seeing the fear. You all know, and you're trying not to show the audience, but you can see it.
Dustin: I had a little wobble at Latitudes recently, and you could just see Seb staring at me and winking at me. And he just looked weird, and that was off-putting too.
Was it stressful, filming a series on a tight schedule?
Seb: Not exactly stressful, but it is tiring. We were up at 5am and filming till 10pm. But it was such fun, and we had such a brilliant crew. You just walk in and see a prop person putting little pink wellies onto a miniature pig, and you can't believe that someone is doing that on the basis of what you wrote one afternoon.
Why do you think so many comedians are drawn to working in pairs?
Seb: you get a different dynamic as a pair, somehow.
Dustin: There's more variety of ideas, rather than just one voice.
Seb: It's that riffing thing that you don't get to do on your own. You bounce off each other and get a real buzz off it.
Are there any specific comedy duos or sketch shows that you guys have really enjoyed over the years?
There's one at the moment from America - Tim and Eric Awesome Show. It's really funny and very surreal. Human Giant we both like - that's an MTV sketch show. Their sketches just go off on mad tangents. League of Gentlemen are great. And Big Train is our favourite sketch show of the last however-many-years.
Give us an idea of some of the characters we can expect in the series.
Dustin: There's Switch, the privileged spoken word poet; Banksy (pictured), who's the artist, but a suburban swinger on the side, and incredibly boring; and Charlie, who prides himself on being the office flirt, and has been there for years, and then the new guy turns up, who's actually a temp only there for the week, and he changes Charlie's life. Seb: Then you've got Young Dreams, which is three of us, on a fashion internship. Dustin is a Japanese fashion student, and I'm a sloaney girl from Godalming, and we live in a flat together.