Avid comedy fans and locals amongst you might recognise young stand up James Dunn as the comic who once frequented the back rooms, attics and Student Unions of Liverpool, peddling whimsical flights of fancy and begging to be told how to make an omelette, sometimes wearing a cape. Endearingly confused and intermittently wise, Dunn’s bumbling approach to observation now charms the audiences of South Wales, were he runs Caterpillar Comedy in Cardiff. We asked him some questions, and learnt a new Welsh word…
How would you describe your act?
I never know how to answer this question! It surprises me how some acts can be so sure of what their act is whilst I fumble around for some words. I suppose I’m a storyteller. Stuff happens to me and I decide to tell it on stage in a vain attempt to make me look more charming than hopelessly clueless. I’d wager I fail in doing so eight times out of ten.
How did you get into comedy?
I really like making people laugh. I’ve been thinking of a way of saying that without making it sound like I was given some divine power to do so (as some people sound, when they talk about their pre-comedy life) but I remember being young and being interested in when people laughed at what I did or said.
Also, I ‘thank’ Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand for the reason why I’m here. At the time I was getting into stand up, they left a message on Andrew Sachs’ answerphone, which led to them being banned from everything. The BBC replaced Ross’ show with Live at the Apollo – which at the time was something you caught at like eleven o’clock at night. It allowed me easier access to watching more acts. I know a few acts my age who came up through this time because of that. So yeah, Andrew Sachs’ granddaughter. Allegedly.
Would you say that your onstage persona is different from you in real life?
The parallels between me and onstage me are blurred so much. Very much onstage me is offstage me. Yeah, onstage me is probably a bit more confident as offstage me would panic in situations where a group of people intently stared at him – but we are one and the same.
I used to be really different. I fell into the trap, designed specifically for the unsuspecting open mic comic, of trying to be Stewart Lee (who the fuck did Stewart Lee try to be when he was an open mic comic?). This then transformed into being some weird version of myself that, to be honest, I didn’t quite like. It showed in my performances and I struggled as a result. Comics would often comment on this difference and it would drive me berserk.
It was when I was in Liverpool that I started to just become more of myself on stage. There was a gig in Maguire’s where I had poorly prepared my material and hit a wall on stage. I then talked about the struggle I had that day with making an omelette and found that my genuine confusions would get better responses than most of the material I was writing, for this version of me that didn’t exist.
What’s the best or most memorable bit of stand up you’ve ever seen?
In the Welsh Unsigned Stand Up Award one year a comedian was performing his set to a lukewarm response. After a particularly prolonged period of silence he stopped mid set, sighed and turned to face someone on the front row (this was after struggling for so long to even make eye contact with anyone due to nerves) and said the immortal line: “I don’t care what anyone thinks – my mum still loves me”. I think I’ve been trying to recreate whatever that man made that night in every one of my gigs since.
Who are your comedy influences?
There’s loads of people who I take great influence from. To round it down I think my main five are Josie Long, Johnny Vegas, Ron Funches, Dara O’Briain and Rhod Gilbert.
O’Briain and Gilbert are two of my earliest major influences from the Apollo days and were my first two experiences of watching live comedy. For me Long, Vegas and Funches are a mixture of that energy and personality that I strive to put in my act to this day.
Someone who has been a major influence on my career though comically wise is Matt Price. As a storyteller he’s one of the best I’ve seen. I saw his two shows in Edinburgh (‘Turkeygate’ and ’The Maryhill Dinosaur’). The man creates such a warm presence and has a way of delivery that sucks you into his world. He’s the first person I saw live and came out going “I’m actually inspired by that”. Someone said at a gig that what I do is ‘Matt Price-esque’ and I was genuinely chuffed.
Plus, there’s people outside of comedy that offer great help. People like Scott Fitzgerald who ran comedy workshops to a lot of the younger comedians back in the day that were not designed to be exploitative, like so many are, but where genuinely so helpful. My friends Liam Bird, Ali Miah and Dal Black are just as useful. They have been so helpful in spurring me on, offering me advice and, most importantly, company. Especially on those long, dark drives from deepest West Wales. It’s crucial to have people who can give you an honest and, sometimes, blunt opinion on your act. They need to make you aware when you’ve done well but also when you’ve done shit. I’ll always be grateful for that.
I love the gigs that are unapologetic and have no sense of pompous about them. A warm environment is created in which there’s a balance of trust from the audience that they are in for a good time, and confidence in the acts to experiment and enjoy themselves. This is going to seem like I’m trying to gain favour with the curator of this blog – but I do miss Another Comedy Night in Liverpool (a.n. Although we might have a hand in the current incarnation of the night, we adopted it from another sterling comic / promoter, and can take no credit for the beautiful carnage that occured in Dunn’s day – the audiences are still boss though). I think I learnt a lot about myself up there. Especially about omelettes. Mainly about omelettes. Always about omelettes.
Tell me about your own gigs?
I run Caterpillar Comedy in Gwdihw* bar, Cardiff. It was set up originally by Jordan Brookes off the back of the night he run previously called Vagabond. It was set up to be somewhere where new acts could gain experience and older acts could try new material in a stress free environment. I took over the night from him nearly a year ago now and have tried my best to continue it in the same ethos as Brookes set it up as. I get so much out of running it and I look forward to it every month.
*This means owl in Welsh, for all those curious!
James Dunn, how do you make an omelette?
You know what? I still don’t fucking know.
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