Dissecting the Franken: Will Franken interview (part 1)
One of the stand-out acts at this year’s Fringe, at least in terms of heavyweight reviews, is San Francisco-based character comedian and one-man sketch troupe Will Franken. We discussed Python, politics, and other disappointingly non-alliterative topics.
Donnchadh: To start with a boring question, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into comedy?
Will: That’s always a hard question. I was a very lonely child, and somehow I picked up the ability to do voices. I had a cassette recorder, and I loved to talk to myself. When I was really young, the SNL episodes would come on, with Chevvy Chase and John Belushi, and I thought those guys were such rock stars and I wanted to do that. Then when I saw Python, years later, I thought that was the coolest format I’d ever seen. My first actual show was at sixteen - we did a three-person sketch revue up at this coffee shop in a university town about a hundred miles away. We did a Hindu version of It’s a Wonderful Life, concepts I wouldn’t do now. I’ve never done the traditional stand-up form, I’ve always been more in love with sketch. I love the idea of a face, a voice, a setting, working with the writing to be able to accomplish a joke.
Donnchadh: Did you carry on in university?
Will: No. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I thought I’m just going to go to school and get a Masters. I actually started teaching at that time, as an adjunct professor. I was one of those fun professors, which I hate - when I took classes I preferred the dry boring guys that everybody else hates, because I’m there to learn. But I was the kind of fun guy who spent about fifty minutes three times a week trying to make everybody laugh. So I learned improv through teaching, as well as flirting with the students, but that was college so they were legal.
Donnchadh: I was going to ask you, was your background an improv one?
Will: Improv? I starting riffing about three years ago, I started putting riffs into my act, but I’ve always been more into scripting stuff.
Donnchadh: That was the question I was going to ask, because while I was watching your show I got the feeling that, while it was obviously very tightly scripted, the characters seemed to be coming from the characterisation. It seemed to me that you were starting from the vocal or the physical characterisation and spinning it out from there. Would that be the way you develop your ideas?
Will: I never write anything down. Ninety-eight per cent of the time, I will just start talking, I’ll start with the voice or face, work with that until I’ve got something of an idea. I won’t even attempt to write anything down until it’s locked in my head first.
Donnchadh: The other striking technical feature of your show was the way that your sketches tended to segue quite seamlessly. You didn’t have any blackouts, you didn’t have any music between scenes, so it tended to move from one sketch into the other. Is that a deliberate choice on your part?
Will: That was Monty Python. One of the coolest things about those Flying Circus episodes was… they called them links, and sometimes just referencing the fact that they didn’t have a link was a link in and of itself. Or James Joyce even farther back, the whole idea of a stream of consciousness. I remember Terry Jones in an interview from a couple of years ago, he said they loved a show that Spike Milligan was in, but what killed it for them was the punchlines. They’d be doing these crazy things, and all of a sudden they’d end with a punchline. And he said, we wanted to do what they were doing but never end it, and have it go in and out…