Tom Crowley interview: “All human beings want to be understood and appreciated”

Tom Crowley and some owls.

We are super excited to be having Tom Crowley perform at our show on Monday, so here’s a sneak preview of the interview we did with him for the fanzine. Can I call it a sneak preview when I’m publishing it in its entirety here? I’m unsure, but i hope you enjoy reading nonetheless.

Tickets for the show remain resolutely available here.

Hello! How poorly have we explained the remit of our own night to you?

I think it’s a concept gig where each comedian has to come up with a new marketable ‘athletic party game’ to compete with Twister and then pitch it to a panel of industry leaders, is that it?

How many years old were you when you decided comedy was for you, and how many years old were you when you realised it was something you could actually officially say you were doing to your own reflection? Or did comedy come after writing and acting in your holy trinity of creative things?

This is an interesting question, because I knew that I loved comedy at an incredibly early age (see Duckula answer, below) but throughout most of my childhood I was quite a shy, quiet little lad.

I don’t know if you, interviewer cartoon owl, or you, the reader, holding this now, have seen the Wells For Boys sketch that they did on SNL, but I’ve never related to anything so strongly in my life. That was me.

However, what made me begin to think that I could actually do writing and performing of funny stuff was my early experiments in making comedy with Jack Bernhardt and Tobi Wilson, my childhood pals who then became my sketch wives in the group Sad Faces (Ed Fringe appearances 2008-2013, 2015).

Tobi, Jack and I loved all the same comedy shows and made each other laugh constantly, so the idea of getting onstage or playing a recording to other people was the most logical thing in the world as long as they were there with me. What’s more, it seemed pretty clear to Tobi and me that Jack was, from a very young age, a bona fide comedy genius, and as long as we clung to his coattails, we’d be okay.

After that, we were incredibly lucky on the ‘saying it to our own reflections’ front because we came runner-up in a BBC new talent competition (when they used to do those, when new people were allowed a go) in 2007 and got our first ever paid job writing and performing comedy at the tender age of 19. That showed us that it’s possible to make money without actually doing work, and we’ve kept reaching for that sweet plum ever since.

Picture this. You’re a child again, wearing a sailor’s cap and licking an enormous lollipop. Who did you find most funny then, and do you still find them funny now?

What I didn’t find funny back then was the nautical-themed all-children music hall act I was forced to participate in.

When I donned that sailor’s cap and touched tongue to enormous lollipop, Little Tom Crowley went away and Cuddles McGinty the Amusingly Incompetent Child Botswain took over. Those days are a blur now.

As for things I did like, one of the first comedy shows I remember religiously watching was Duckula, the duck-vampire-based spin-off of Danger Mouse, produced by sadly departed British animation studio Cosgrove Hall.

“In the heart of Transylvania…”

It’s funny to think, looking back, that Cosgrove Hall was shut down in 2009. If they’d just hung on a few more years they could have been being wanked off with golden gloves by David Cameron and given tax breaks left, right and centre to stop them going to America like Aardman. But oh well.

Anyway, Duckula was brilliant then and still stands up incredibly well now, both in its visual aesthetic and its madcap writing. I also remember there being an episode that was a sort of duck-focused take on Phantom of the Opera, which went to some very strange and frightening places and had some very eerie quiet moments, quite bold for a CITV afternoon kids’ comedy cartoon.

Duckula’s brilliant. I’d be extremely interested in heading a reboot of it like they did with Danger Mouse, if the rights holders are reading this, which I’m certain they are.

If you don’t mind my saying, you have a very big ouvre. Is there anything in particular that you’ve done that ever makes you go “hey wow, I can’t believe I did that thing? Yikes.”

I have done one proper television acting job, on an American show made in Britain called The Royals. I was in its fourth and final series before the show’s creator was publicly outed as a workplace sex harasser and the show was cancelled.

Crowley in The Royals. P at

The series was set in an imagined alternate universe where the British royal family was made up of a number of incredibly sexy, tanned models with stunning muscle tone, rather than an assortment of lumpen grey tax cheats and paedophiles allegedly.

The Queen Mother was played by Joan Collins. That should give you the general idea.

Anyway, the Queen at the centre of all the action was played by Elizabeth Hurley and I was in a few scenes with her. That felt pretty big time. I made her laugh at one point between takes, which felt like a little accomplishment.

You helped a lot of us get through lockdown with Crowley Time. Remarkably you do all the voices yourself yet it never gets confusing. Is there a character you’re particularly proud of, and could we maybe get you on at some point doing various different characters, pretending it’s not all actually just you, in a callback to that Clive Anderson Talks Back episode with Peter Cook?

I’m always in favour of anything which might verge on the indulgent or self-aggrandising, so yes.

I really love making Crowley Time. I had a sort of milestone moment, early in the first lockdown of 2020, I think, when I realised that I had my own sketch show. That’s the sort of thing that you dream of when you’re starting out, putting Edinburgh shows together and such, and now I had one.

Admittedly, it’s one that I commissioned, produce, perform and distribute entirely by myself and I don’t make nearly as much money from it as I would if I’d been asked to make it by the BBC, but then I’d also probably only get to make four fifteen-minute episodes, rather than (at the present count) nineteen episodes of half an hour or more.

A surprising number of people even support the show on Patreon, so I do get paid a bit to make it. I find myself going on and off characters, not that I don’t like performing any of them, just that I so often find myself wanting to put in more new ideas, so recurring characters tend to get neglected.

It’s Crowley Time!

I find myself coming back to Sir Chuntley Buffingham (featured at this very comedy night where you, reader, picked up this zine) a lot, probably because his Drama Parlour segment lets me wallow in an aesthetic of Amicus movies, ghost stories and 1970s British telly, which I find inherently comforting.

Also the ‘funny horror stories’ mould is one that you can just pack full of stupid jokes because everybody gets the basic idea right away, so it’s easier to subvert the format and divebomb into the willy material.

Another character that I love and who has proven very popular is Wingnut, the five-year-old agony uncle, who gives the listeners advice on their problems from the perspective of a five-year-old boy. Wingnut is simultaneously pure and good and also slightly sinister, like children tend to be.

And nerd question, sorry: where do you get your music and FXs from, or do you put them together yourself? 

Unless otherwise stated, the music is all made in Garageband, so I’ve either played it on my Mac keyboard or cobbled it together from their bundled pack of boil-in-the-bag music loops.

The sound effects are a mix – my first route is to look for, let’s say, ‘nail driven through human foot sound effect’ on YouTube and, if the effect is copyright-free, download it with a YouTube-to-MP3 converter website. I don’t know if this practice, or indeed those websites, are strictly speaking legal.

They certainly seem to get shut down a lot, but invariably two more always spring up in their place, like the mighty Hydra. There are also lots of free sound effect libraries online, usually called something like Free Sound Effects Library, with information on whether the sounds are free to use or not.

I try to stay within the realms of fair play and not steal anyone else’s hard work if it hasn’t been donated to the masses voluntarily.

Myself and [co-producer] Maddi also write sketches for Next Level Sketch, a podcast / live sketch comedy night run by a collective which emerged from assorted Gemma Arrowsmith sketch courses. How do you rate the importance of sketch as a medium for developing one’s comedy, and do you get an inkling that it might be… back? Please tell us it’s back, we’ve already booked shows for another year.

Reports of sketch comedy being back are greatly exaggerated, at least based on what I’ve heard from my contacts inside the halls of the BBC, so don’t flood the commissioners with your sketch show pitches just yet.

But then, of course, Famalam was recently a big hit, and This Time with Alan Partridge has been going out in a prime time slot on BBCOne, and that’s sketch comedy, so who should you believe? I don’t know.

Famalam.

In my opinion, sketch comedy is an enormously helpful building block in developing your understanding of any sort of comedy writing for performance. There’s a reason that Jordan Peele went from sketch comedy to becoming one of the most important voices in American filmmaking of the last ten years.

The constraints of sketch give you all the education you could ever need in telling a story clearly and concisely, which then refines your ability to construct scenes which serve a longer narrative.

But then, I also just love sketch comedy as its own medium and don’t think it should be viewed as the training wheels for writing your BBCThree dramedy about your harrowing experiences with cystitis, or whatever.

The truth is, there’s more visible sketch comedy talent out there than ever, between YouTube, Twitter and TikTok, but nobody in television is prepared to commission a handful of them to do something with a proper budget and put it out on proper telly.

I suspect that if a savvy producer were allowed to make a show with that brief, harvesting the UK’s internet kids to produce whatever comedy show they wanted to make, you’d end up with something truly fresh and weird and brilliant, but nobody’s taking chances like that at the moment.

I also ardently disagree with the notion that since you can put sketches on TikTok, there’s no place for them in broadcasting any more. I Think You Should Leave on Netflix has been a smash, and wouldn’t work nearly as well if it were just a series of disconnected skits uploaded to YouTube.

You need time and space to establish an aesthetic and a tone, so the viewer gets to know the style of the show and come to love the performers and writers at the centre of it.

What are inherently more amusing, cowboys or pirates? And why is it pirates?

I actually think it’s cowboys, because they take everything very seriously and say lots of grand things about destiny and such through big moustaches, which is very funny.

A cowboy.

Can you think of something particularly factually inaccurate that you believed for a long time? I always thought far more people died due to Chernobyl, for example.

I don’t know if this counts, but I’m always absolutely amazed at how big Russia is. It’s huge. 

Are there projects in the pipeline you can or indeed want to tell us about? It’s fine, this is a safe space; we’re a fictional owl.

We recently finished recording Season Four of Wooden Overcoats, the podcast sitcom for which I write and perform. If you haven’t heard it, it’s about two rival undertakers on a Channel Island called Piffling, and while I’m biased, I think it’s probably one of the best radio sitcoms produced in the last ten years, thanks largely to the talent and creative guidance of head writer David K. Barnes, our wunderkind producers Andy Goddard and John Wakefield, and the rest of the astonishing cast that I am honoured to be surrounded by every time we do a run of recordings.

Wooden Ovetcoats and some drawings.

Season Four is the final series and will, I guarantee, be every bit the send-off the show deserves. It’s ten episodes long and will come out sometime in early 2022, so you’ve got time to catch up on the previous three seasons before then. So do that!

That’s it! Please end this by giving us an extremely wise piece of advice that will change our lives for the better. We asked Joz Norris this and he did actually say something that changed at least one (1) life for the better, so no pressure.

All human beings desperately want to be understood and appreciated, while simultaneously struggling to understand and appreciate the other human beings around them.

Published by jamesofwalsh

My past blogs haunt the internet like ghost ships on a digital sea.

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