Wil Anderson Wants You To Fail, Fail Again, And Learn

Sep 28, 2020

Wil Anderson is a familiar face to Australians: renowned comedian, writer, and broadcaster, with a unexpected background in journalism (he says when he first ventured into stand-up comedy, it felt like "running away to join the circus"). While his love for stand-up is still there, Wil is working hard on hit TV show Gruen, as well as his podcast TOFOP with Australian actor Charlie Clausen. With such a diverse and successful comedic background, we knew he'd have many words of wisdom to share with our Comedy cohort for an exclusive Collarts guest lecture.

You're accomplished across a range of comedy mediums. Do you still have that love for live comedy?

More so! When I started, you view it as something that might lead to other opportunities. Whereas an adult, the only thing that's important to me is doing stand-up. Television and radio are just ways to get people to come and see me do stand-up.

I love it more than anything else on the planet. I love it in the way that people love surfing, in that I find it an incredibly challenging, exciting, and invigorating thing to do. It also hurts me more than anything else I do in my life because when I let myself or the audience down on stage, that lives with me in a way that other things like TV and radio don't. In some ways, stand-up is like going for a run. I like that it's making your brain and body work, and it connects you with an audience in a way that all those other things can't do.

 
What's your advice for aspiring stand-up comedians?

Find somebody that you absolutely love. Maybe their style of comedy is similar to the sort of style of comedy that you might want to do yourself, learn a routine that you love by heart. Then write it down. In doing that, you'll be able to learn how that person's structured that routine.

What you'll tend to find is that they're using a whole bunch of different techniques. There'll be callbacks in there, rules of stray, jokes that have a topper, maybe a throwaway topper. But they didn't sit down and go, "I'm going to structure it with a rule of three, a callback and a topper". They came up with this routine and then put those structures in place.

How did your writing process change when you started writing for The Breakfast Show on Triple J, Good News Week, etc?

Radio doesn't reward depth because people aren't listening to the radio as a full story. If I'm doing a stage show, I have their full attention, and I can say something at the start that will come back at the end. Whereas if you're on the radio, somebody's just jumped in, or they're driving so they're half listening. On the radio, it's often the first joke you think of, so that it feels more satisfying and surprising.

 

"If you've thought about it enough, naturally the conversation will get to the point where that [prepared] joke is suddenly a brilliant piece of improv."

 

My attitude to Good News Week was very simple, because they wouldn't tell you what the stories were on that show, and I'd always been a big preparer. I applied myself in the way that I applied myself to journalism. On Good News Week, I would always have a whole bunch of jokes, before realising early on that the trick was to have them as your backup.

The jokes were there to break glass in case something funny didn't come up on the spot. It's rare that I get to the end of the show and I wish I'd gone with my pre-prepared joke, rather than the one that I came up with on the spot. I still do this with Gruen too. If you've thought about it enough, naturally the conversation will get to the point where that joke is suddenly a brilliant piece of improv.

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What kind of preparation do you do, besides writing?

Preparation can take many forms. I never try to wedge anything into those improvisational shows. But that's not to say that I'm not constantly reading and thinking about whether they're funny or not. The preparation for those shows is in me being in the right head space and mood to do them.

I need to be well-rested. I need to eat at the right time of the day. I need to have my mind clear. I need to not look at my phone for two hours before the show, so I can go back to long form thinking. There are so many things that I would consider to be preparation, that aren't necessarily sitting down with a pad and pen, and writing jokes.

You've got to constantly fill up your bucket too to have things to talk about. The worst times you are as a stand-up are the times that you're constantly touring and all your stories become about hotels, aeroplanes and mini bars/ They can be funny stories, but if you're not actually doing anything new and interesting with the life, then you're not filling up your bucket so that you can take things out of it.

 
What's some general advice you have for budding young comedians? 

Try to be a kind and good person to those around you, and make the industry a better place than the one that you find. You have the opportunity to create a scene or to be part of one that is welcoming and open to everyone and everyone's experience. Take a moment to realise that you're part of something with a whole group of other people. And it's a workplace, so treat it like one.

Secondly, don't be afraid to fail. Failure is key. The more you fail, the better you'll get. Particularly as a young performer or writer, try different things. Don't let anybody tell you what you can't do. No one's watching, no one cares. Try to get as good as you can, as quick as you can. And don't rush to be discovered. Because there's nothing worse than getting discovered before you're ready. It's not getting discovered that's important, it's being ready to be discovered that is.

 
How do you go about overcoming failures?

You don't want to feel so bad that it puts you off attempting to keep doing something. So when I'm doing my improv shows, I always walk out there knowing there is a possibility that something is going to screw up. And when it screws up, then the funny comes out in an audience getting to watch me dig my way out of the hole that I created. Embrace it, run towards it, and every time you fail, go "Oh, great! What can I learn from what just happened?" Then your immediate thought after a failure isn't to start picking apart the failure and making yourself feel worse.

You are going through a process that every single comedian—good, bad and indifferent—has ever gone through. So remember that, and that no one can stop you from doing it other than you. 

This interview was transcribed from a student lecture for the Comedy course.

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