Cal McCrystal is an actor and director renowned for physical comedy. He was the comedy director on the West Hit hit One Man, Two Guvnors (pictured), a consultant on Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator, and has worked with The Mighty Boosh, Cirque du Soleil and Giffords Circus. He tells Nione Meakin why performers must start on the streets...
Aside from acting and directing, you’re a physical comedy consultant – what does that involve?
Happily, it’s different every time. Sometimes there’s a script and the director will just want you to go in and realise it, sometimes they’ll say, “We want a really funny scene with lots of slapstick, what shall we do?” With The Dictator they had quite a detailed script and Sacha just wanted me to come in for extra jokes. With One Man, Two Guvnors, [director] Nick Hytner asked me to give the whole piece its comic vocabulary. Then it depends very much on the performers. I don’t think up funny ideas in my head beforehand – I invent them on the actors.
Where does physical comedy work best?
I think there’s always a place for it. I’ve got quite a short attention span and I’ve never been able to sit and watch people sitting on a sofa talking. I always want things to move around and I always want to make things funny. Even when I’ve done less funny things I always put physical stuff in. It means that my shows, which often go all over the world, get the same laughs in Mexico as they do in China or in London, as that physical language is so universal.
You were an actor for 17 years before you moved into directing – is it important to see the industry from different perspectives?
Yes. I think directors should really be able to do something else except direct. I don’t really understand those people who leave university and become directors – I don’t know what those people are bringing to the process. The best directors I know are the ones that have another string to their bow, that come to this from being a performer or a choreographer or something, rather than as someone who just wants to interpret someone else’s script. I feel strongly about that.
Who do you think does physical comedy best?
I’ve worked a lot with Spymonkey and I don’t think there’s a funnier clown company in the world than them. They’re good friends so what you see is people who absolutely love playing together, who know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and just play. More broadly, I love Mel Brooks, but not Monty Python. It infuriates me when I go abroad to see one of my shows and the theatre has slapped a “just like Monty Python” sticker on the posters; it’s nothing like Python! I tip my hat to Benny Hill more than I do John Cleese.
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing a career in physical comedy?
Because physical comedy is invented on the spot and devised, you do have to have a knack for it. And whether you want to perform or direct, I think you have to damn well get out there and do it. Go and do some street theatre because if the audience don’t like you, they’ll walk away. You quickly learn what works. I’d also advise anyone who’s interested in comedy or performance to go and work with [French clown master] Philippe Gaulier. He inspired me, Sacha Baron Cohen found his Borat character while at Philippe’s school and he’s been a huge influence on scores of very good actors. He’s the guru!
Giffords Circus is currently touring the UK. Find out more and visit Cal's website.
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