“Not everyone likes it and that’s okay” – An Interview With Cardinal Burns
Currently on a national tour off the back of the success of the second series of their hit sketch show . We caught up with Dustin Demri-Burns – one half of comedy duo Cardinal Burns – while he brushed his teeth.
So first of all, how’s the tour going so far?
Good we’ve done two weeks now so it’s quite spread out over a couple of months. We’ve had some good audiences. It’s just fun sort of taking it outside of London – outside of our comfort zone – going to places you’re quite surprised you can sell tickets. It’s really nice, it’s a good feeling. We’ve done a few smaller towns like Kidderminster was pretty small. But then we did Liverpool, Manchester and then Harrogate on Saturday which was great. You’ve got a home crowd sometimes. We started gigging and it was always in London so you get used to the kind of climate and apart from Edinburgh and the odd show in Brighton and Birmingham once we haven’t really gone from town to town.
Does it ever feel that now you’ve had a TV show with a budget and control over set and props that it’s frustrating to go back to the constraints of the stage?
Not really no. There are certain things that get lost when you’re playing to a bigger room – certain little details. When you’re filming it can be the smallest detail that gets you a laugh and you can be quite detailed in the humour. We adapt things for the live show, not everything’s huge and big, but we interact a bit and talk to the audience. It’s not just watching us perform sketches with blackouts. When we started it was much more “okay watch us perform for an hour”, but now it’s much more loose and live. It’s hard adapting characters that work on the TV show, because for many of them it’s about a whole world. Banksy for example, it’s about his world: how he fits, who he is and how he fits in that boring, suburban life. That’s the joke. It’s about the family and the ensemble as much as anything else. Live you can’t recreate all of that. You have to strip it down, so it’s sometimes a challenge.
It’s not just “Caridnal Burns the TV Show on stage” is it? There’s more to it than that?
Definitely not, it’s not just a conveyor belt of TV characters. There are some there because you don’t want a mutiny. We’ve got sketches from before the show, they’re getting new characters too. It’s a bit of a medley, a bit of a best of. There’ll be musical numbers. People may not expect it.
A lot’s been made of your trajectory since that breakthrough in 2009 at the Fringe but you meant nine years prior that. Was it ever a struggle?
The first few years straight out of college we were doing different things. We’d always meet and write. It wasn’t always 100% we need to do this, this and this. We had an idea that we were funny and we were writing funny scenarios but it was while we working on other things. As time went on we got more and more into it and we realised we can perform at sketch nights and the whole world opened up. We realised we could do this.
If you go into footlights or something you’re sort of on a trajectory right away. We didn’t follow that traditional route. We were working up in Scotland on films, trying to get funding. In between that we were doing all sorts of crappy jobs. When we started gigging, I was working in a restaurant and driving a van. It took a while but once we started gigging it happened quickly. It was probably useful having those years in the wilderness. It made you feel that you lived a little and realise what made you tick.
With two series under your belt does it feel like you’ve made it? Do you every worry someone might pull the rug out from under you?
A little bit. You’re only as good as your last or next idea, you can’t rest on your laurels. We don’t have an island we can retire to. It’s got us in and we have people wanting to read our scripts now.
You’ve worked with the likes of Steve Coogan and Sacha Baron Cohen recently. What was that experience like? Does it still feel like you can learn from other comics?
Yeah totally, you’re almost in awe of how they work: how they operate, how they collaborate with other writers, what their process is. What you realise with people like Steve Coogan and Sacha Baron Cohen is how hard they work – how determined they are. They work hard and they treat it seriously. As funny as it is, they really take their craft seriously. But also, they’re very open to collaborating and are generous with it.
You’re two series in and getting a lot of praise, a lot of people say you’ve rejuvenated the sketch show format. In your own words, how did you approach it?
We were taking a leaf out of the American style. There was a show called Human Giant on MTV that was very bold and fast-paced and cinematic. You don’t want to be disrespectful to the sketch shows around us. It’s not that they’re bad, we’re just different. Ours has a lot more movement, a lot more visual scale. We’re larger in scale and more cinematic, I’m sure a lot of that comes from us going to film school. A lot of the humour comes from parody of genre and style. It’s as much about that as it is about nuance and character. Sometimes with sketch shows you can see that people have done a stage show or you can see it’s heavily scripted. So when they film it it’s often static, you can see it’s in a studio. It’s well-written and it’s well performed. But we’ve got a lot more interest in flair, so long as it’s not style over substance. It’s fun and we knew what we didn’t want to do. It was more avoiding what we didn’t want it to be.
Most of the feedback you’ve received has been incredibly positive, but you have received criticism from the likes of The Daily Mail. As a comedian, how does it feel to take criticism? Is it something you can brush off or does it hit you harder than that?
It’s a Catch 22, you want to be praised and loved by everyone but if you’re doing comedy like we are you don’t want everyone to like it. That’s the nature of comedy. We’re commenting on certain tribes – certain types of people – and you probably don’t want the Daily Mail liking what you’re doing anyway.
You always try to not look at twitter and stuff when the show’s on. But when you do, out of the hundred good comments you always focus on the one negative one. You can’t help but be disappointed or hurt a little bit if someone doesn’t like it, but you just have to accept it. Not everyone likes it and that’s okay.
There are lots of brilliant mainstream shows which are great in their own right but what we’ve done is carve out more of a niche. It’s quite a particular brand of humour. It’s specific to us, it’s odd in places and it probably isn’t mainstream but that’s fine. You get upset when people misinterpret it and brand it, and label it which is inaccurate. Then you just have to say ‘Well you’ve missed the point’. You’re putting out there to be commented on so you have to just take it.
You say you don’t consider yourself mainstream comedians but the second series did move to Channel 4, was there a shift in mentality with that? Or did you keep doing what you were doing?
You have to do what makes you laugh. We don’t set out to do it for the audience. You can’t start thinking the demographic’s 18-30 so let’s keep it young. You’ve got to be true to what you want, what makes you laugh and what you find interesting and then it’s what the people we work with think is funny too and then it progresses. Essentially it remains what me and Seb want to make and that’s usually what the best art is. If people buy into it then great.
That’s why TV in America right now is really strong, because it’s led by the writer. When shows are led by the studios they’re always anticipating the business side of it. You know, what’s going to make us money? That’s when it becomes a bit soulless.
So when it comes to selling mugs with catchphrases on, that’s when to get out?
Yeah, although I think one or two of our characters have been quoted. There might be a couple of catchphrases which ring out. You don’t set out to write them. We’re not cynical enough to say “right that’s our catchphrase”.
I know you come to your characters with a lot of love, but you do receive criticism for characters such as Yumi, and Hashtag & Bukake who some people believe play on racial stereotypes.
What we say is we stereotype everyone. Nobody’s safe from us basically. Why is it okay to put on a wig and pretend you’re a posh Surrey girl? Why is that so much more offensive than pretending you’re a Japanese girl? You’re just commenting on a certain characteristic. We’re not saying that every girl from Surrey sounds like that and we’re not saying that every girl from Japan is shy and painfully polite.
I don’t worry because the core of the joke isn’t trying to insult anyone, it’s more about the situation than the character. It would be obvious if we were trying to insult people, then it would just be pure racism wouldn’t it? I think people just don’t know what the rules are so people say “You’re not allowed to do that, are you?”. Well why not? We do it with everyone – geeks in offices, blokes from the North coming down for the weekend. There’s a couple of Scottish guys we do on the show. Why does nobody ever call us out on that?
Dustin and Seb will be bringing Cardinal Burns to the City Varities, October 30th.