Brilliant but, er, bonkers - there's nothing simple about Simon Munnery
Maverick misfit Simon Munnery is a hard man to define, as Chris Jones discovers ahead of his Belfast Comedy Festival show this month
Simon Munnery is pondering. "You know how in a bathroom you have a toilet and a sink next to each other? The waste pipe from the sink should fill up the toilet cistern, rather than using fresh water. There's no need to use fresh water to flush the toilet."
He's absolutely right, of course. It has been said that an hour of Simon Munnery's comedy contains more brilliant ideas than most other comics will manage in a lifetime. It's clear that this brilliance extends to other parts of his brain too. The 47-year-old comic is a restless interviewee, prone to leaving one thought hanging before picking up another, or to wrapping up one sentence in a flurry of hurried words before moving to the next, as if his mouth is having trouble keeping pace with his brain.
Given his reputation for eccentric brilliance, that's probably exactly what is going on. Although Munnery has never been – and is never likely to be – a household name, he is a revered figure in alternative comedy, a friend and peer of Steve Coogan and Stewart Lee, and a man who has made a decent living out of saying and doing some very unusual, albeit reliably funny things.
Take his three most recent projects, for example. The most straightforward is his recent Edinburgh show, Simon Munnery Sings Soren Kierkegaard. In Munnery's words, "that was an hour of straightforward stand-up that was based on trying to find funny things about Soren Kierkegaard". Then La Concepta, "an exclusive non-dining restaurant experience" which aims to replicate fine dining without the actual food. Finally, there is Fylm Makker and the updated version simply entitled Fylm, which he'll be bringing to the Belfast Comedy Festival this month, and which sees him seated in the middle of his audience, hunched over a sheet of card, some small props and a camera, with everything, including his face, projected onto a big screen.
"It's something I stumbled across 12 years ago and abandoned – I thought I'd come back to it," he explains. "I speak through a camera, my theory being that the camera amplifies the face in the same way that the microphone amplifies the voice, and it's an instrument that should be used by live performers."
The show has been running in various forms for about three years, and although Munnery rather defiantly insists that "it works – nothing can convince me that it doesn't work!", it hasn't been without its occasional difficulties. "I did it at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival the April before last and it took me a week to realise that half the audience couldn't see half the screen," he laughs. "I couldn't see the screen (either), but I was so busy doing the show I hadn't noticed!"
A mixture of live animation, surrealist humour, pastiche and plain weirdness, it's an unusual show for sure, and Munnery has no problem with his oddness being pointed out, or words like 'maverick', 'eccentric' and even 'misfit' being applied to him. "Oh yeah, anything as long as it's not 'normal'. Don't call me normal!" he says. "I tend to ignore all descriptions of myself. Just in life – I don't like being described! I think it's rude. So day to day I don't think about it. I can understand why people call me eccentric because I'm a bit different. If you want to call me that, it's no skin off my nose."
At the other end of the scale, he is equally no stranger to the word 'genius'. Interestingly, he doesn't completely reject it. "I'd say that stumbling across using a camera is a stroke of genius, but then comes the 99% perspiration aspect of making it work and learning very slowly from mistakes," he says. "I don't think it makes me a genius. It's just something that by dint of circumstance I stumbled across. So that might be a stroke of genius, but am I a genius? Ah ... not really. But, you know, whatever!"
Like so many before him, from members of Monty Python to Peep Show duo Mitchell and Webb, Munnery is a product of Cambridge University and its Footlights club, where he says he "drifted into" comedy. "I went there because my parents had never been to university, and I was encouraged throughout school to work hard," he recalls. "I joined all the clubs to meet girls and auditioned to be in every play that was on, and didn't get into anything except for Footlights. You go along and perform something you've written in front of two people and if they like it, the next day you do it in front of an audience. It's a bit like being a gambler – if you're unlucky enough to walk into a casino and win a hundred quid, you'll be back."
Comedy took over from his scientific studies, and before long he was doing "gigs and gigs and gigs", working with contemporaries like Steve Coogan, Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. "I didn't have a plan, I just kept doing it," he says. "After a while, five or 10 years, that's what you do. I never thought about a career."
What did his parents make of him becoming a professional comedian? "Well, I think they've accepted it now," he jokes. "From their point of view, they probably think, 'What a waste – all that effort and education and he tells jokes!'. My dad actually did a stand-up comedy course a few years ago and did a few gigs. He supported me at one. I suppose that's acceptance, isn't it? Copying, I call it!"
Despite regular TV and radio appearances down the years and plenty of critical acclaim, Munnery has never achieved the commercial success of some of his peers. But he makes a point of insisting that he has never actively avoided it. "As a general rule, if someone rings me up and says, 'Do you want to do this?', unless I've got a good reason not to, I say yes," he says. "But I don't actively pursue things. I don't particularly want to waste my time going to meetings. It's not that I spurn the mainstream or anything like that, it's just that I do what comes in, and those sort of offers don't come to me. I'd be more than happy to give it a go, whatever it was. To try it once and if I hated it not do it again."
Then again, his work has never been designed to appeal to a mass audience. He says that he simply does the material that makes him laugh, and that he wants to share with other people. "It's a natural thing about laughter – you share a laugh and do your crying in the rain, to quote a song," he says.
And when he's not writing jokes or coming up with bizarre new ways to make people laugh, he spends time with his wife and kids in rural Bedfordshire, chopping down trees, as he was doing before our interview, inventing ways to save water in the bathroom and building boats. "I like building things," he says. "I love being outside. I'm a boatbuilder, I've built three boats. They all sank.
"The last one took two years to sink – some girls took it out and rammed it into a rock. I gave it a farewell. I thought building a boat would cure me of the urge to build a boat, but it hasn't. I want to build another."
Simon Munnery, a strange and wonderful man.
Simon Munnery will be playing the Black Box, Belfast, on Tuesday, September 30, as part of this year's Belfast Comedy Festival. For details, visit www.belfastcomedyfestival.com