Image by Malinda Mukama

MARKUS BIRDMAN – Veteran comedian unveils new stage of his career

“My favourite kind of art is that ‘opening of the chest’. Where a real person talks about their real life,” Markus Birdman tells me. “They’re not showing off, trying to get one over on you or be clever.  I’m quite good at being funny, and I’ve an interesting story to tell.”

The past three years have been eventful for the critically acclaimed stand-up. He’s gone from suffering a stroke, stormed into the semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent and is now setting off on an extended live tour. “I’ve lost half my eyesight and a good deal of my marbles. The show is really about my recovery. Something like that is an extreme situation, and you find yourself doing weird things and having weird procedures done to you in hospital. But extraordinary stories come out of extraordinary experiences. It’s been helpful to talk about it and take some form of ownership. But… it IS a funny show, and I do play it for laughs.”

Heading to Brighton’s Komedia on Sun 10 Sept, Platinum weaves together some sublime gags with some frank and hilarious real-life situations.

Birdman suggests his comedy has always concentrated on the anecdotal, admittedly with the occasional flourish of poetic licence. “But everything I saw is kind of true, whether I’m talking about being a father, or my own father being a vicar.” It’s not been such an overwhelming leap to talk about his experiences, although he’s reluctant to cast himself as a poster boy for stroke survival. “It has been an unusual challenge. People will laugh, and hopefully think a little.

Image by Simon Fowler

“That said, some of my favourite comedy is absolute nonsense… I very much enjoy seeing a grown adult titting about. There’s something profoundly beautiful in that kind of joy.” In comes a handy musical analogy to put everything into context. He points out that hip-hop is brilliant as a creative form. You want to go and dance to it, and it’s got a solid beat. “But most of the lyrics are absolute twaddle. But, if you get someone like Public Enemy, or anybody who’s a bit conscious with something to say, then it adds another dimension.”

Suffering sight loss has inarguably impacted his craft in several ways. He can’t drive to gigs and isn’t keen on walking around on his own. As a result, his partner goes everywhere with him. “The positive of that is we spend lots of time together, which is brilliant. I now sit down at gigs because my balance is poor. It was a bit of a challenge to get onstage. I also had no idea if I would remember anything. “

“My memory is a bit shite these days. That might be the pot smoking I did in my youth as much as the stroke, to be honest.”

Birdman started off in music; but found himself devoting a bit too much time to between-song repartee for his bandmates’ liking. He suggests they probably thought he was better at doing that anyway. “My daughter’s mother had a friend who was a comedy producer and said I should try stand-up.” He found himself entered into a competition, which took him up to Edinburgh Festival. Now, 15 Fringe shows on, his style has become slightly less bombastic and more considered. “Some say sitting down slowed everything down. I’d hate to say ‘stately’ or ‘wise’, but other people have said that and I’m happy to take it,” he says with a laugh. “I like that position. And I get to be sat down. I’m not going to see a band and get in the mosh pit.”

After a solid two decades of performances around the world, Birdman finally accepted the advances of the Britain’s Got Talent bookers.

While it’s arguably alien territory for him, he reasons that all the previous gigging adds up to just a fraction of the ITV reality show’s audience. “I do wish it hadn’t been as controlling and mainstream. A lot of it made sense. You can’t do some scurrilous joke about the Catholic Church or the Royal Family. They’d been asking me to do it for years, like lots of comics. Post-Covid and stroke, I wanted to reach a lot of people. My creative life is fragile, for obvious reasons, so it was good to say ‘yes’ to everything. I’m really pleased for all the coverage.”

Despite the proliferation of comedy on social media platforms and streaming services, Birdman suggests there’s fewer opportunities on mainstream media for ‘straight’ stand-up. There might be lots of comedians on TV, but it’s often in a panel-show or more dramatic setting. Obviously, being successful in comedy doesn’t always reflect talent either. History is littered with astonishing talents who didn’t enjoy wider fame because of their reluctance or inability to grasp the public’s attention. 

“That’s the beauty of it… If you showed my teenage daughter Duke Ellington or Metallica, she’d probably run a mile. That doesn’t mean they’re not brilliant. It is subjective. Especially with comedy, you either love Danial Kitson or you think he’s a wanker. “

“All good comedy has that Marmite effect on people. Maybe that’s exactly what it should be. There should be that reaction.”

It’s also peculiar amongst the performing arts in that few people have qualms about being exposed to unknown talents. “Nobody says: ‘Lets go and see music’. You very much define what you want to hear. If you go to a comedy night, you’ll see a wide range of talents. And nobody can love it all. That doesn’t mean it’s not brilliant. It also doesn’t mean it’s not shite.”

Truly understanding comedy is much like dissecting a frog. First, you have to kill it. “It’s very plural, and so it should be. Comedy is always being reinvented and expanded upon. That’s the exciting bit of it. I guess it’s like doing pop music. You have to meet the audience halfway. Some do refuse to, but they’ve also maintained an audience, so they don’t have to do 9 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown.”

There’s also a slightly ephemeral aesthetic to comedy. Once you’ve heard the joke it doesn’t bear repeating. With the Rolling Stones, you don’t really want to hear the new material, you’re interested only in the classics. “With comedy, you don’t want the old bangers. That said, I would play my Bill Hicks and Richard Pryor albums over and over again.

“I think part of the problem is that some comics don’t try and be as artistic as they can be. They just go for a laugh and not a truth.

Image by Malinda Mukama

“My God… that sounded incredibly pretentious. But you can do both!” He says he certainly tries and, as we’ve already established, he’s unafraid of the odd smutty joke. Almost everybody loves those, and they can offer a gentle lubricant for more weighty material. 

“There’s a really great Kurt Vonnegut quote that I read the other day. He said: ‘Comedians aren’t funny, the really good ones are heartbreakers.’ I love that. It would be very inglorious of me to suggest that’s what I do, but I do try. It’s something to aspire to.”

His own inspirations are a little less colourful and obscure than I would have expected. Birdman admits he was never a comedy scholar as a youngster.

Peter Sellers and The Goons, along with The Two Ronnies, get an honourable mention, but much of his early tastes were aligned with his parents. This is where he found a love of punning and slightly risqué gags. “Then I remember people like Hicks, Eddie Murphy. Steve Martin and Billy Connolly.” Birdman attributes these performers for prompting his love of being playful with tempo, metre and rhythm. Which both loops us neatly back to his background of playing bass and drums in bands, along with advice he gives out at comedy classes.

“I say to my students: ‘Think about it like a rapper doing his lyrics.’ You’ve got this narrative, which has to hit the beat. You can’t just waffle on. You change a five-syllable word to a four syllable one to make it fit. Subconsciously an audience picks up on it. It’s like the tempo at a club. They notice if the vinyl gets messed up, but if you keep them on a beat, it’s very compelling.”

From attending art school, joining bands and smashing out slam poetry, comedy has finally given Birdman the perfect creative outlet. By his own admission, the creative arts are often a matter of luck or following the path of least resistance. “If my fairy godmother had asked me what I wanted to be, I probably would have been a rock star… I’ve always wanted that creative lifestyle and always enjoyed writing. And now I get to do that. The slight flipside is that I’ve got to occasionally shout at drunk strangers!”

Markus Birdman’s Platinum comes to Brighton’s Komedia on Sun 10 Sept. 

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