Q&A: Funz and Gamez creator Phil Ellis

The Edinburgh Comedy award-winning children's show comes to Glasgow International Comedy Festival

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Q&A: Funz and Gamez creator Phil Ellis

Jim Elf, Phil and Bonzo the Dog

As the Edinburgh Comedy Award-winning Funz and Gamez comes to the Glasgow International Comedy Festival, creator Phil Ellis chats (at length) about the genesis of his adult-friendly kids show, how it felt to be an award-winner, and what to do when an after-show chat goes wrong.

In one interview you said that you took more creative risks now than perhaps you had done earlier in your comedy career: is this what led to Funz And Gamez?
When I started out as an open spot back in 2005, I had a very different approach. I was still finding my way and figuring out what sort of style and content best suited me as a performer. The comedians that made me want to do comedy were Rik Mayall and Vic ’n’ Bob. It was hard for me to translate what I wanted to do into a ten-minute set, so I became that unbearable act who puts two random things together into a routine and calls it surrealism.

After a couple of years I began to feel more confident with audience interaction and eventually became an MC on the circuit. I try and just make it up as I go along, which is risky in some respects but a lot less risky than subjecting an audience to my ill-thought-out stand-up routines. Basically, I had no option but to take risks as whenever I sit down to write stand-up, I get bored and end up writing a load of guff. That’s not to say that I don't have anything planned when I get up on stage. I have a train of thought that all revolves around my ex-girlfriend Leanne and that filters into various set-pieces or spontaneous actions that occur during the set. God, I’m waffling now. What was the question again?

In one interview you said that you took more creative risks now than perhaps you had done earlier in your comedy career: is this what led to Funz And Gamez?
Ah yes, so basically I did an Edinburgh Fringe show in 2013 called Unplanned Orphan, the premise being that I was an idiot trying to blag his way to an award by pretending that he’d been adopted and only discovered this at the age of 30. My press releases were very serious and gave no hints that this was a lie. During the run I used notes every day, had a fire alarm go off during a poignant part of the show causing us to all evacuate the venue and continue for a short time in the adjoining beer garden. The show's climax was video footage of me meeting my birth father for the first time, but this was interrupted by a rapping bear as I had got my timings confused and should have finished my show ten minutes earlier.

I used to pay someone to dress as a bear and flyer The Bear Show so that some people would actually think that this was a genuine error on my part. That show was pretty risky and my first three reviews were all two-stars from people who just didn’t realise that it was an act. My favourite being the idiot from Broadway Baby who wrote, ‘Paul Ellis’ show was a series of errors … ’ But that was the point – I wanted some people not to get it. Sadly not enough reviewers got on board early enough and I ended up losing close to £8k.

Anyway, about midway through the run I noticed that there were loads of posters for kids shows and the majority of them looked bloody awful. Just some young actors in colourful jumpers blowing a kazoo and wearing a sock puppet, desperately trying to get on CBeebies. I thought: wouldn’t it be funny if the same idiot who’d brought up Unplanned Orphan did a kids show in an obvious attempt to fast-track himself to stardom? I spoke to a few people about the idea and no one seemed convinced. I was told that people were way too precious about their children and that I couldn’t mess around with that format.

I’m a stubborn sod, though, so that made me want to do it more. By the time February came, I’d had to leave my management as they refused to take the show up. No PR company or production team would take the project on so I just decided to take it up myself. I was shitting my pants in all honesty but genuinely excited about the show, and I knew that if I could just get the balance right and push it as far as it could go, it would be a fun show.

So, basically, I’ve always liked taking risks with my comedy, but it became more extreme over time as I became older and cared less about what other people thought. Plus I worked in factories and on shop floors for years before becoming a comedian, and the whole point of doing this job is to be free and creative: you no longer have anyone telling you what to do. I don’t think I’ve even answered the question, have I? Oh well …

Did you ever consider calling it Funs and Games? What made you go with the Zs?
It was always going to be Funz and Gamez. The only reason being that it looked like someone desperately trying to inject some ‘zany’ into a pretty by-the-numbers show title.

Is Funz and Gamez a kids show that adults can enjoy or is it grown-up comedy for kids? Or something in-between? Or something entirely different?
Well, it started out as a much darker show, with child actors as plants in the audience. Some would go missing after ill-advised challenges that sent them to the bar to buy me a pint and there were going to be hired protestors outside each day. The more I wrote and worked on the show, the more I realised that I didn’t have to go that far to make it edgy. I actually really like kids and I didn’t want to exploit their good nature to look like a daring comic – I wanted them to be having as much fun as their parents but for different reasons. So I made some drastic changes to the structure and tone. I’d say it’s somewhere in between an adult and kid show: ‘a kidult show’. Oh wait, that's a film, isn’t it? Have I just breached a copyright?

How would you describe Funz and Gamez to someone who knew little of the worlds of either stage comedy or kids’ entertainment?
It’s a right laugh.

There was a steady buzz zipping through Edinburgh about the show last August: was it something you were aware of?
Around the two-week mark, it started to hit me that we had something special. I genuinely didn’t expect anything like the kind of attention the show got. I had no agent, no PR, couldn’t even afford a flyerer, so me and Will Duggan (Bonzo the Dog) would traipse around the Royal Mile in character for two hours every day giving away free tickets to families to make sure we actually had kids in each day. The first week was a real struggle: we had to cancel the first show but thanks to word-of-mouth from fellow comics, numbers started to increase. It was all very humbling.

What did winning the Panel Prize in Edinburgh mean to you?
I still don’t think it’s sunk in properly. I’ve been gigging for almost ten years now and given up a lot for a career in comedy. I was literally at rock bottom (well, probably not literally) before the run. As all comedians will know, it’s very hard balancing a healthy home or social life with this job due to its awkward hours and having to be away or at work every weekend. I’d resigned myself to just being a skint comedian with a huge debt, working every night he could to pay his bills. Now, hopefully, I can explore different areas such as TV, touring and eventually becoming a massive pop sensation in Iceland. It’s completely changed my life for the better. When it was announced and I heard the room cheer with genuine warmth for us, I nearly started crying. But I didn’t cos I’m a man and I’m well hard.

How has the show developed since last August?
It’s grown in certain places. The cast are all relaxed into who their characters are now, so they can play around with them more comfortably and we just make sure we have as much fun as possible. It’s just meant to be a fun job, and working with your friends and making a room full of people laugh is one of the most rewarding experiences you can, erm, experience.

Has any child reacted memorably badly to any of your Funz and Gamez japes on stage (or after the show)?
Well, there was actually an incident recently that made me laugh. A friend of mine came to the show with her toddler. Afterwards, we were having a chat in the bar and she excused herself as her son needed to go the toilet. When she returned she was pale. She explained that her son had done his poo-poo, then reached into the toilet and grabbed it and tried to eat it. She managed to stop him in time and told him that he shouldn’t do that. ‘But the funny man ate his poo,’ he replied. Generally though, the kids just leave after having a good time; only a handful of them eat their own shit as a result and I think they’re pretty good odds.

Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Sat 21 Mar

Funz and Gamez

Daft wee comedy show from Phil Ellis, whose buddies Jim Elf and Bonzo the Dog provide family fun that appeals to all ages.

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