18 Questions for Pierre Novellie

SOPHIE BAUER chats with the omnipresent Pierre Novellie about comedy, comedy, Footlights, comedy, Edinburgh, and women in comedy.

Fo'Show Footlights Now Phil Wang Pierre Novellie Smoker Sophie Bauer The Mexican Stand-off

Photo with Louise Long

It’s been a good couple of terms for you Mr Novellie- Fo’Show, The Mexican Stand-Off, Now, Now, the Corpus Smoker et al have been a great success…and the cherry on the cake: you’re now Footlights Vice President. As a wee lad scampering about South Africa and the Isle of Man, were you as involved in comedy?

I’d never actually done “proper” comedy before I came to Cambridge! I’d made my friends or family laugh and all that boring stuff, but my first gig was the Virgin Smoker in my first year – I was determined to at least give it a go. I suppose my motivation was to find out if I was at all funny or just had a very polite group of friends and family.

Given your rapid ascension up the comedy echelons, would you say you were you set on joining the Footlights as soon as your Cambridge offer was in the bag?

I was definitely interested in trying it out, sure, but I didn’t think about it as a realistic option – I was more than ready to just stick to other extra-curricular stuff in Cambridge if comedy didn’t work out.

You’ve proved yourself to be an adaptable writer and performer, working in radio as well as performing in sketches and stand-up. Which style have you enjoyed the most and suits you best?

That’s really difficult…I suppose they’re all enjoyable for different reasons. Sketches are great, because they’re comedy teamwork, you’ve got to work in sync with another comedian and that can be a lot of fun. I like stand up because it’s very personal and the adrenaline rush from a good gig is huge – and radio is great because it’s a bit more improvisational and forces you not to rely on any visual comedy aids. I suppose stand up suits me best as I find it the easiest to write for, and the rush is great.

You’ve also performed in the more ‘serious’ stuff’, such as Ionesco’s The Bald Primadonna as well as The Good Soul of Szechwan. Can we look forward to any more “straight” acting from you in the future or is your time and heart now utterly devoted to Footlights?

I suppose it depends! I’m afraid Footlights will always take priority, but if I had the chance to do some “straight” acting at the ADC I’d most likely do it – I’ve only ever really done “serious” acting at the Corpus Playrooms.

Has there ever been a moment on stage so excruciating that you’ve wanted to ground to swallow you up?

Yes! Though Cambridge audiences are generally so good there haven’t been too many of them, but once I leave this place and gig in the real world no doubt I can look forward to many, many more.

Having now written and performed in both Now, now and The Mexican Stand-Off, how would you say these two experiences differed?

Well Mexican was interesting because it was essentially three stand ups trying to do a sketch show, which made the whole process unusual – then again, I had already done Now, now by then, so I had a loose idea of what a sketch show should be. Because Now, now had more people involved it was less of a burden writing it, but we had to cut a lot of material. Plus it was a very new experience for everyone involved, so it was far scarier!

You brought to Cambridge the Corpus Smoker– how have you found the challenges of compering this? How do you select your comedians?

Compering is great fun – probably because it legitimises me messing around more than actually performing. I select the comedians fairly inconsistently – people who I’ve recently gigged with who I thought were very good and maybe needed a bigger slot, people who need to practise a set or maybe deserve a bit more experience.

Who would you say are the brightest stars of the Cambridge comedy scene and why?

Very difficult! The standard of student comedy in Cambridge is intimidating – I think it would be pretty safe to say that any of the outgoing Footlights should be watched very carefully over the next few years.

Anyone you’re dying to work with that you haven’t had the chance to yet?

Well being on the Footlights Committee I get to work with everyone else on there, but I missed out on working with the Footlights who left at the end of my first year, for example Lucien Young or James Moran – it would be great to do something with them someday.

Ladies in comedy….why, why, WHY do you think they’re in the minority when performers like Abi Tedder, Jenna Corderoy and Emma Sidi have proved that they shouldn’t be?

There is a lot of speculation about why there aren’t as many female comedians as male ones, and so far no conclusive answer. I would say that at its most basic level, fewer women try comedy out than men do, so even if 90% of women who give comedy a go succeed the numbers will still never match up. I also suspect a weird, sort of instinctive sexism on the part of the audience – I have seen female comedians with astounding material, really really strong stuff, get nothing from an audience who seconds before had been very generous to a male comedian with comparatively weak material. I find it very strange.

Tell us a bit about what your responsibilities will be as Footlights Vice-President

Well there are all the responsibilities that come with being a member of the Footlights Committee in general – running auditions, writing for the Smokers, processing and voting on applications and so on. I suppose I get to do a bit more admin and things, basically helping out Phil in his duties as President. I also get to send the rejection/acceptance emails for the Footlights Smoker auditions, which is alternately a horrible job or quite a nice one, depending on what I’m sending.

If you could have a pint with any professional comedian, who would it be?

I think having a pint or seven with Steve Coogan would be great, so I could ask him about his character creation process. I’d also love to meet Peter Sellers, but sadly he has been dead for years.

This is a dull question, but one that never ceases to fascinate me…How do you fit all the comedy in?

You’ve just got to work smart rather than working hard, sometimes. If I wanted my degree to take up all my time it easily could, but unfortunately I’ve just got to try and balance everything! It helps to be good at writing essays at speed.

How do you have so much energy to keep writing and performing?

It’s what I love! I enjoy nearly every second of writing and performing comedy, so even though it can be very hard sometimes it isn’t difficult to get motivated when you enjoy something that much.

When holiday time arrives are you still a comedy production machine?

Kind of – my stand up tends to be based on things that happen to me, and things keep happening to me in the holidays. I’ve just got to try and be conscientious and remember to write down

Next term is the dreaded exam term, when everything grinds to a frustrating halt. Will you keep us laughing through it or be darting off to the library to build your nest there like so many others?

Well, there are two Footlights Smokers to do, which will be nice! Hopefully there could be a couple of Corpus Smokers too, but nothing too big. Ideally I can finish this year with a grade that does not require meetings of any kind to take place.

Can we expect to see you at Edinburgh this summer?

Certainly! I’m in a play called To Have And To Hold, it was short-listed for the Harry Porter Prize and now it’s going to the Fringe. I will also be doing the Footlights free show – Bosnich – pretty much every day! So do come along to both all you people out there…

Complete this sentence: Six years from now I’d like to be….

a legitimate entertainer, who does not need any extra jobs on the side to make ends meet.