Ally Houston is a Scottish stand-up comedian. He’s been described as “A fantastic line in dry Chic Murray-esque idiocy. This boy deserves to go very far” by Sanjeev Kohli and “Inventive” by Chortle. He has appeared on BBC Radio Scotland, as well as reaching the finals of the Scottish Comedian of the Year 2013. I interviewed him recently, here is that interview…
I saw your first solo show “Shandy” at the Glasgow Comedy Festival this year. It’s a mix between stand-up and a musical about your abusive relationship with your pet clown. Why did you decide on the idea of having a pet clown?
I was thinking about the idea of having a pet for a long time and clowns I find… upsetting. I’ve no idea where it came from, but the two ideas just sort of came together. I thought ‘pet clown’. The name Shandy came as an idea for a pet name, and then I had an idea to have a pet clown and I thought yeah, Shandy would be a good name for a pet clown. And then I would tweet disturbing facts about Shandy and me. And it became obvious that, in my mind, I was sort of abusive towards Shandy, that was the natural order in the relationship. I did it a few times on stage, but where do you shoehorn that in? I would try it when messing around at first doing music in the background. I would change the tune and introduce it as like dark poetry. I would say ‘Here’s some poetry’ and then I would just say these lines about Shandy. Then I thought there’s more to it than this.
Me and my friend Gary used write semi-serious songs together just to see what they came out like cause we like music. More often than not, they’d come out as parodies or something ridiculous. It would make us laugh. I said to him I want to make this into a musical because I’ve got some songs about Shandy already. So we did the music together, all the songs were jointly written. He wrote a few, I wrote a few and we wrote some together. All of them we wrote with each other when we’d heard the others. So the music was collaborative and we realised pretty fast that it was like a musical. I thought the really good thing about the musical idea was that you don’t have to be as serious as a play and you don’t have to be as aggressive as stand-up. It’s a really nice middle ground. Like, when you watch The Book of Mormon – where you just give it time. You know? You want to hear the story. Also what informed doing Shandy was last year at the Ed Fringe, the shows I really liked most the were shows that were theatrical. Maybe something musical. Like, Sam Simmons show last year “Death of the Sails-Man” – I really liked that.
Oh yeah, Sam’s show was really good! Your show starts with you walking up the mic and being a little sick, brilliant opening by the way! Can you tell me about why you put that in?
There’s a promo photo of me with water dribbling out of my mouth. People kept saying you should show the audience somehow that you’re going to be that weird. Cause you go on stage looking Harry Styles and your material is like god knows what. You know, so you should tell them. And I was like ah nah. So I had the idea to replicate the photo shoot dribbling, but as my opening gag. I realised only afterwards that that does what they were saying. I’m eh… weird. When I did it, I’d forgotten to get a cup of water and it was where I’d dabbed the make-up sponge for Shandy. So it like was filled with white make-up and water.
I think it was the Southern ground hornbill?
Correct! Are you playing the Ed Fringe this year?
I am, yeah! I’m doing Shandy for the whole run at the Just the Tonic – The Mash House just off Cowgate – 9:20pm. I didn’t want to commit until I had done Shandy as I was dead wary of doing something too quickly. There are people who have been going less time than me who are opening shows regularly and doing 20 minutes confidently. I’ve always been much slower, I open shows now, but to do an hour I thought, to book it in for Edinburgh, that’s insanity without having tried it. In the end, because of it being the first time I’d done it, Shandy still ran for an hour and 15 minutes, so I thought that’s plenty to take to Edinburgh. That’s the first hour I’ve done.
Is it hard to get your first hour of material? Or is it harder to remember it in order?
Bit of both, the material in terms of the stand-up, I more or less did my favourite 10 minutes at the top. And that, I do quite happily now. So I thought, well I think that’s my strongest so I’ll just do that. And the rest of the show is more scripted bits and songs. You get slagged a bit for doing music in stand-up.
You reference that in the show, don’t you? there’s a bit where you pick up the guitar and say…
…I’m switching from lazy prop comedy to lazy musical comedy. Yeah you definitely get ‘this is stand-up, not sing-up’. Or ‘you can’t heckle a guitar’ that’s another one. It’s fair enough. It’s different from what a person on a mic does. It’s a bit of a fake slagging because with a song, you’ve got a free round of applause at the end, unless you do something awful. Which is so much harder to get if you just do stand-up. You’re also able to stretch out an idea longer if it’s a good idea, you maybe get longer from a song. The audience is more like ‘Ok, you’re going to do two verses and two choruses, that’s fine’.
Where does the deadpan voice you sometimes do come from? I think it sounds a bit like Robert Carlyle.
People have said different things, I’ve never heard Robert Carlyle. It seems to be like an archetype or something. People are always like oh that’s that person or that’s that person. They do it all the time, I’ve had quite a few different people say it. The voice is mine, I’m not consciously imitating anyone. But the deadpan style came from when I had a run of five minutes booked in at The Stand comedy clubs. The order was Edinburgh, Glasgow, Edinburgh. The first one in Edinburgh just doing 5 minutes, I haven’t been going that long. I was trying out different ways of doing it and I was acting like a cheeky chappy. It was five minutes to absolute silence. The room was packed and it was savage. It was fucking awful.
When that happens, do you just try and not show that this is the worst experience of my life?
Yeah I think you’ve got to front it out and keep going until the end. Just say well ‘that was my fault’. I accepted the Glasgow one and thought I’m not doing that again. So I’d changed my material but wasn’t happy with it and pulled out right at the last minute, which I hate doing and felt terrible about it. Then still had the second Edinburgh one booked in, I turned up to that and aw, I felt awful. I was all set to just not do it anymore and I thought ‘Och, I’ll just do this gig’. I’ll write my jokes down and I’ll look at my hand and I’ll do that. And I’ll talk slowly so I don’t get flustered. What came out was this monotone voice, it was because I was so nervous and wanted to be so careful – it was the best gig I’d ever had by a million miles! People really liked it and it was exactly the same patter. Exactly the same jokes that got silence. Unbelievable. So I thought right that’s the style I’m doing.
There’s a section where you change into all black so you are sort of invisible like in the theatre. Can you talk about how you thought of that? I love how silly it is.
There’s only so much you can bring on someone else to clear up the stage if you’re having to change things about. My friend Gary and I were always thinking about how to change from scene to scene with a joke. Changing into black like in the theatre was Gary’s idea, doing the commentary on it was my idea.
There’s a few videos in the show, with accompanying music played by you live. My favourite line is from your karaoke-style song below is “Na na na na na na na dead in the bin”. Did you make the videos yourself?
I bought a camera and a green screen and did it all myself. For the karaoke-style, I partly wanted people to be able to read the words just so they could catch all the jokes. And also, it gives people something else to look at. I really enjoyed doing the videos and I’m keen to do more, and sketches too.
The facial expressions you pull as Shandy in the video close-ups are hilarious. Did you want the audience to feel as much sympathy for Shandy as possible without actually speaking?
Definitely. Shandy is definitely the victim and I think ultimately, the hero. My character is meant to be horrible and I think that comes across. Hopefully it comes across fine.
Yeah it was good. Ok, last question about Shandy. One part of the story has Shandy in an alleyway in a big wheelie bin. You manage to push the bin over whilst you’re inside. Did that hurt?
Nah, the first couple times I practiced, I thought I could break my arm or something. It’s remarkably simple, it just sort of falls over. The show at the Fringe will have a smaller stage than the one you saw, but it’s big enough. It’s all measured out, it’s compact and just the right amount to do all the stuff you saw. I have to do it like 20 times because I’ll be doing it every day.
That’s nice. Last year, you performed “Afterbirth” at the Glasgow Comedy Festival and also a brief run at the Ed Fringe with stand-up comedians Paul McDaniel and Sandy Bouttell. Can you tell me about that show?
It was really a chance for us to try the Fringe out and do 20 minutes each as part of the showcase. Sandy opened, then it was Paul then me at the end. The show title “Afterbirth” had nothing to do with anything we were talking about. It was sort of an unpleasant confrontational name for a show and it was at The Three Sisters upstairs which seats about 20 people. So most nights it was nearly full because there’s always people in that courtyard that you can get in, regardless of your show being called “Afterbirth” or not. It was really interesting, I’m so glad I did it. It was the first time I’d more than just guest spots around the place and it gives you insight into what the different types of venues there are, different Fringes you’ve got now. The Free Fringe, that was with Laughing Horse and the feeling of being in Edinburgh at that time. Paul McDaniel and Sandy Bouttell are part of Chunks and are very funny guys.
How do you manage to study for a PhD in Physics and stand-up comedy?
Eh, I’m not sure 100% sure I’m doing it effectively, so if I throw myself into one and then the other one has less attention on it. So I’m trying to keep both healthy because it would be extremely presumptuous to think that I could just be a success at stand-up. The odds are long for anyone, as far as I can tell. I worked in bars after school for a few years, then went back to uni and got a degree in Physics and then I worked in a laser factory for a few years and it was imposing itself too much on my life….
…Too many lasers?
Too many lasers, you know what that’s like. The stand-up was not getting as much as I was wanting to give it. The PhD is more flexible, it’s up you to do it. But it also was a good idea if I wanted to stay in physics as I will be more qualified. It is interesting but it is hard work, when I throw myself into one, the other suffers and vice versa. I’ve done 18 months, so I’m about half way through.
I really liked it, I missed it at the Fringe, I was dead chuffed she was coming round with it. This is another thing, apart from Sam Simmons last year being theatrical, the best shows that I saw were heartfelt. You’ve got to be pretty brave to really make your show heartfelt – I think Josie’s was definitely heartfelt and I thought Sam’s show was somewhat heartfelt, more surreal and Daniel Kitson‘s show was definitely heartfelt. I definitely wanted to put that into Shandy a little bit, I wanted people to feel something, real feelings about Shandy the pet clown – even though it’s ridiculous.
Recently, you said “I think comedy is playing jazz with language and feelings“, which is a very nice quote. Can you elaborate on what you meant?
Thanks. I guess it’s the unexpected that makes you laugh, you think something is going one way and it goes another way. It could be that it’s just a play on words or it makes you feel a certain way. So I think that’s what it means.
You play Tiger Woods PGA Tour, do you play any other video games?
I used to play a lot more. Total War: Rome sort of took over my life. One more, just one more turn – then the sun would be coming up… Know what I mean? That’s the only reason I never upgraded my PC because I knew I’d get a Total War game and ruin my life!