By Kat Mokrynski
“What we get really excited by is if you can get to a point where people are emotionally invested in the bollocks.”
In late January, I was having drinks with a friend when he recommended a show called Bagbeard by the comedy group Crybabies. My immediate reaction was confusion. Is this a parody of Blackbeard? Does someone actually have a bag for a beard? Why is the group called Crybabies? As luck would have it, there were a few tickets available for the performance that night, so he insisted that I go see it. I trusted his comedy recommendations but was still hesitant. What was I getting myself into?
Luckily, I had nothing to worry about, as Bagbeard is one of the funniest comedies that I have seen in years. Without giving too much away, no, it is not a parody of Blackbeard. Yes, someone actually does have a bag for a beard. As to why the group is called Crybabies, I had no idea. In fact, there were a few questions I had while leaving the Soho Theatre. Recently, I had the chance to talk with ⅔ of the Crybabies, Michael Clarke and James Gault, and was able to answer these questions. We discussed the effect of the pandemic on the creative process, the joy of absurdist comedy, and even the real-life inspiration for the character of Bagbeard!
So how did y’all first get involved in the world of comedy?
Michael: Well, it’s a very short and boring story!
Michael: University, we went to UEA in Norwich, which is a lovely, lovely uni. We did variations of drama and script writing courses, Drama and English, that sort of thing. The nice thing about that uni is that there’s lots of opportunities to do extracurricular shows and stuff. I think it was a new thing when we were there, where students would devise a show and take it up to Edinburgh Fringe. And the three of us, along with a lot of other people, got cast in that. It was the first time we worked together and wrote together. And we really enjoyed that and had a shared love of comedy and stuff, and then took that show up. For a student show, it did a lot better than it had any right to do, and then that gave us the bug. And we were like, “Oh, Edinburgh’s easy!” [Laughs]
James: We sold out and we’re students!
Michael: I don’t know what everyone’s complaining about! But then we were taught a lesson a year after that, once you graduate and enter the real world. But yeah, that’s how we first met. And then after uni, we went and did sort of separate things. You [Michael] went to clown school, I did a bit of stand-up, Ed [Jones] did some music and just various bits and bobs, and then around 2018, we went, “Let’s give this one last throw the dice or just become teachers!”
James: It was weird because we were like 25 and we were like, “Oh, this is it. If we don’t do it, we’ll never do it.
James: Oh god, imagine being 25? Easy! Loads of time!
Michael: But yeah, we then officially formed Crybabies in 2018 and put our first show up in 2019.
What inspired the name Crybabies?
Jame: Oh, yeah, that was strange! We were trying to find a group name that wasn’t like “The Silly Geese”. There was a lot of stuff going up around that time. It was just like, “Ooh, the ‘Quirky Fox’!” I always liked “Sheeps” or “Giants” and stuff like that. I had a big list and I would just throw them . . . Michael made quite a lot well. There was a while where we were going to be called like “Jeans”, like denim jeans, but then there was Double Denim so we couldn’t do that.
Michael: “Jeans.com” . . .
James: “Easy Jeans”, “Jeans.com” . . . Then it was “Scaredy Cats”, and then it was “Crybabies”. “Weaklings” I quite liked, also “Cowards” was a great name . . . So then I think “Crybabies”, that one stuck for a while. I like something of us being weak. Can’t think of any other names that didn’t make the list . . . We liked the idea of “Sad music”.
Michael: Oh, “Sad Music” – We’d quite like to change our names to that now, but it’s a bit too late! [Laughs] There’s a sound in our last show just called “Sad Music”.
James: “Welcome to the stage, ‘Sad Music’!”
Michael: I don’t think our agent would be very happy!
[Laughs] What is your creative process for shows like Bagbeard?
Michael: Yeah, it’s a weird one. Bagbeard was a weird one because it was disrupted by COVID. Usually, we just meet and then we find ideas, characters, things, jokes, and then the world it’s in. Our shows start off as parodies – They borrow stuff from existing films but then go off into their own little thing. And you start to be “Okay, let’s do a war thing, let’s do like a sci-fi thing . . .” And Bagbeard was a weird one because we had the Bagbeard character but then didn’t have much. And then over lockdown, we ended up writing a lot of sketches or standalone stuff, which is quite nice. And then we found that some of the ideas in the sketches lent themselves to a sci-fi world. So yeah, it’s a mix of just having stupid ideas and then starting to look at them all and be like, “Okay, how can we try and slowly build this cohesive narrative?”
James: In the first show, a World War II thing called Danger Brigade, we were trying to find out what was the silly thing, so then we had this whole idea that the big villain at the end would be a rat king, which is a bunch of rats. And then we built the show out of that. With the Bagbeard show, we wanted to do something 80s, and then we were like “Ooh, we do we do like a slasher, like a Friday the 13th thing?” Eh, it’s not funny. It just feels like there’s people getting killed. Then the idea was a Bigfoot and aliens sort of thing, and then the Bagbeard idea was something I used to do just to entertain. And we were like, “Oh, could you do a Bigfoot/E.T. thing?” And it just sprouted out from that idea? And then a lot of other characters and worlds fit into it.
Michael: The pandemic certainly hindered us in many ways, but looking back, I think that it [Bagbeard] was born out of putting it on the back shelf for a while and then just writing other stuff. Then when we came back to it, it was quite nice. We had this material written without the pressure of “Does this feel like it should be in the show or not?” We started again, really.
James: So we did our first show in 2019, where we got nominated and everything, and then it ended up like “Right, we need to go back, we need to write a second show.” That first show basically took about two years to write and then it was like, “Well, we have to do this one in a year whilst also still performing the old show.” We were writing the Bagbeard show and it was going okay . . . Well, looking back at the time it felt that was going okay, but now, it’s like “If we did that, that’d be awful!” Someone talks about putting a script away for a bit. You write it, put a script away, and then just come back and try and remember the best bits of it. We inadvertently got that opportunity with COVID.
What is it about absurdist comedy that you think makes it so entertaining?
Michael: I don’t know! It’s just what we’ve always been drawn to. I think there’s something quite nice about it as well . . . I mean, it can be really annoying, but when it’s done right, I think it’s got the ability for anyone to enjoy it. I feel it’s not necessary. Growing up watching The Simpsons and stuff like that, which goes to some really quite absurd places at times, and you can be any age and enjoy that. It’s not necessarily “Oh, that’s a kid’s joke,” or “That’s an adult’s joke.” I think that’s what we like about it. And it’s informed by just the kind of stuff we watched.
James: I don’t know why! Silliness, when done right . . . People really gravitate towards it. The Mighty Boosh was a huge inspiration for us. What’s funny about that is when they commit to stuff and push it as far as they can and they play it deadly, deadly serious. It’s also like Airplane! and The Naked Gun with Leslie Nielsen in the way the delivers all his stuff. It’s not that much about winking to the audience or commenting on stuff, but they’re not too cool to do it either.
Do you have any lines in the show that you’re particularly proud of?
James: Probably, but I don’t think any of them are funny!
Michael: It’s the ones that took ages, the structural ones, that I’m proud of because hopefully, you don’t even realize what that line is doing. It’s setting something up for later, but it’s not the funny stuff. I guess the Bagbeard dialogue and the way we use that. I’m quite proud of how that comes back and how even though he just says for words, we get a lot of comedy and then a nice bit of pathos at the end within that limited dialogue.
James: There’s a line we were talking about where he [Michael] is the mayor at the start and he goes “This will be a festival to remember!” and me and Michael love that line, it just sets up the whole show, but no audience member likes it!
Michael: There’s the old adage “Show don’t tell”. We try and do quite cinematic stuff, so obviously, a lot harder to show and not tell in theatre because you can’t just do a zoom-in, you can’t steer the viewer’s eye towards an item like “This is going to be important!” It’s just lines. “Hey, remember this everyone?” I know that’s not funny-
James: It could be funny later on!
You’ll get it later, just remember it!
James: Some of the burger stuff I find very funny. Like, “Burgers have sauce” . . . That means nothing if you haven’t seen the show!
Michael: Or Ed says that line at the end, “Jokes are funny,” and that never gets a laugh and I think it’s funny! [Laughs]
What do you hope audiences take away from Bagbeard?
Michael: I hope they have a really nice time, that’s genuinely it. Just a nice hour of escapist fun. I hope it does have a sense of joyfulness as well, at the end – We were keen to have that. We do some sketch night stuff and you can just “Silly, silly, silly”, but for an hour. I think that can wear thin. What’s this? What’s that? What’s at stake here if it’s just all silly bollocks and doesn’t mean anything? What we get really excited by is if you can get to a point where people are emotionally invested in the bollocks and then it becomes funnier that people are that emotionally invested in a guy with a bag on his face and all this stuff. If people can get a real sense of joy afterward, that’s fun. We’re happy.
James: Yeah, just for people to enjoy it and tell people about it!
Michael: [Laughs] Follow Ed Jones on Instagram!
What is a question you’ve always wanted to be asked about Bagbeard and how would you answer it?
James: How many TV shows would you like?
James: What was the hardest bit to do? There’s a bit where I only say four words and we have this whole bit of dialogue where I’m able to have a full-on conversation with the characters just saying these four words over and over again and people are like, “How long did that take you to write?” That took us like an hour. What took us so long was, “Why does this character help this character?” Things like that. We spent agonizing days trying to figure it out.
Michael: It’s so boring! You only notice it when it doesn’t work. You don’t notice that sort of stuff when it does work.
James: But you need to have it, all the same. Maybe, “How did the Bagbeard character come about?” When I was in uni, we were doing a play. We were rehearsing it in our old university, but we’d all graduated. We went back to Norwich, but I live in Northern Ireland. So I came over on a flight and I had nowhere to stay, but I didn’t want to pay for the B&B service at the university because I was just like, “No, I’ve got mates, they’ll let me stay!” And they wouldn’t let me stay. But then a friend did offer me a tent. So then I ended up staying in the woods of my old university in a tent and I would put the bag on my face. Then, when we were all staying in nice accommodation, we were like, “Don’t go into Bagbeard’s Woods! There’s a guy there!”
Michael: It was funny when we were rehearsing, they were doing uni tours for prospective new students, it’s like, “Here’s some ex-students of ours rehearsing a play!” “I live in the woods. Don’t go here!”
James: And they’re like, “Oh, wow, this university is great!” and I’d go “Yeah, I thought the same thing!” And then I’d put the bag on and head off into the woods. [Laughs]
Michael: Bit terrifying!
James: Yeah, absolutely terrifying. I stayed there two nights. One night, a friend stayed with me, and that was actually kind of fun – Felt a bit like Frodo and Sam. Second night was me by myself and I don’t think I got over twenty minutes of sleep. Any noise just terrified me. I was really into True Detective and I’d remember that and would lose my mind. But it’s all worked out! [Laughs]
Finally, how would you describe Bagbeard in one word?
Michael: Joyful. Still-on-sale. That’s hyphenated!
Bagbeard will be playing at the Soho Theatre from 7 to 11 March. Tickets can be purchased here.