Ben Russell is multitalented, but finds his forte in comedy. Armed with experience from Chicago and its bustling improvisation scene as well as performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Ben combines his entire skill set to build Tokyo Hotel. His new show at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival is part sketch, part stand up, part storytelling. We questioned Ben about his many talents.
So you’re a writer, comedian, actor, and improviser. What got you into comedy?
I’d always wanted to be an actor and was pretty involved in the Perth theatre scene when I got out of school. I was always attracted to comedies more than drama and then one day a friend told me he’d signed me up for a 5 minute spot at Lazy Susan’s Comedy Den on a Friday so I wrote some pretty stupid bits and went down. That first laugh was pretty much it, the scene back in Perth was pretty small but there were a bunch of rooms so pretty soon I started getting paid spots which is ridiculous when I think about how green I was.
Then I started doing improv and that was kind of it for me.
When you’re writing a comedy show, like Tokyo Hotel, what’s your process?
At the beginning I just tried to focus on the overall formula. Why are we here? What’s the journey? That sort of stuff, then I just throw as many character ideas at the wall and see what I like the most. I wanted to put what I love doing into a show, so it was just what ideas were the most fun for me. I like twisted, bizarre comedy so I think the show as a whole is going to reflect that.
Then I write it all out like a play and get together with my sound designer to work out what I need. My venue doesn’t have much in the way of lighting or set to let the audience know where they are so I’m trying to explore that with sound and music. Then I completely rewrite the show again and get it all up on its feet. Then it’s just a matter of tightening it all up and making it good.
You lived in Chicago, studying and performing with Second City, Annoyance Theatre and iO Chicago. That’s pretty cool. Can you share some Illinois wisdom?
The Chicago comedy scene is all improv and sketch, unlike other cities, stand up seems to take a back seat in the landscape. Any night of the week there will be upwards of 20 odd shows that you can see, be it improv or sketch. The crazy thing is that despite it being unreasonably cold most of the year, people go see it all. It’s such a part of the culture there to go to see live comedy that you can really burn yourself out very quickly as a performer. When I first arrived I went bananas and got way too over stimulated with the buzz of the city.
How do you find the Melbourne improv scene in comparison to both Chicago and the Melbourne Open Mic scene?
The Melbourne comedy scene is one of the most supportive, wonderful things I have experienced. Shortly after moving to Melbourne I was amazed to find how easy it was to make friends. There is so many talented people that it really pushes you to work, a lot like Chicago was with it’s sketch and improv scene, Melbourne seems to be with it’s stand up. As for improv, I’ve found it a little hard to get into it here. There are some great improv companies here that perform regularly around town but not much in the way of open nights where you can get together with people, book a spot and try out sketches or do more experimental things.
Where’s the best place to go for Chicago style food and comedy in Melbourne?
There is a place on Gertrude St in Fitzroy called Catfish where you can get a pretty amazing cheesesteak or Italian beef. The beef is properly thin sliced and it’s amazingly decadent, its super authentic.
My favourite place at the moment in Melbourne is Crab Lab on a Wednesday. It’s consistently amazing and encourages artists to push themselves. Brendan also runs the Lucky Coq on Tuesdays in Prahran and while it may not be the best place for comedy, it’s a bear pit that tests what a comic is made of and I kind of love doing spots there.
I keep asking about Chicago, but Tokyo Hotel is set in LA. What drove you to write about run down hotels and LA?
I have always had a sick fascination with run down hotels. There were two in Chicago that I was obsessed with. One was the Abbott Hotel, it still advertised colour TV, had a cockatoo that lived in the window and that classic front desk with all the pigeon holes. I actually stayed in an ancient hotel called The Tokyo Hotel. It used to be in downtown Chicago and was like stepping on the set of Barton Fink.
I managed to find my way onto the roof and sat out there for hours amongst the giant, broad shouldered skyscrapers watching the fireworks from Navy Pier bounce around the buildings. It’s an image that has stayed with me and I always wanted to do something with it. I’m also fascinated with old Hollywood and it’s longing for that golden age long past so I just smashed two of my favourite things together and made a show.
What’s your worst hotel experience?
I had to share a room with comedian John Conway for a month during the Edinburgh Fringe. He’s one of my best friends but you have to understand he’s a giant, smelly man.
Did you know what you’re kind of difficult to Google? The internet really wanted to show me Russell Brand and Russell Howard instead of you. How do you feel about that? (Side question: if you could have a stage name, what would it be?)
Yeah, I know but it’s kind of nice to have an air of mystery about you. When I was a kid I wanted to change my first name to Maximillion and have black and white BMX bike. But I’m no good at solving crimes as I have too short an attention span. I would never change my name but if did I’d make it something cool. The only thing that comes to mind is The Duke, everyone would think it’s after John Wayne when really it’s after Isaac Hayes’ character in Escape from New York which has a totally kick ass soundtrack.
Which comedians inspire you? Are any of them playing at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival?
There are so many so I’ll stick to three doing shows this year. Xavier Micheledes is honestly one of the funniest comedians I have ever seen. I’ve seen that guy so many times and every time without fail he cracks me up. Anne Edmonds is also someone whose use of characters amaze me, they all have a taste of the familiar in them yet still totally unexpected and wonderful. The Fancy Boys are another; these misanthropes are my kind of stupid. They’re unapologetic and always trying to push themselves. Plus Cambo has a massive kiddie pool at his house, it started out great but I don’t think that water has been changed in a while and now I think he has malaria.
Ben Russell’s The Toyko Hotel runs at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival from Thursday 26 March to Sunday 19 March at the Imperial Hotel. Tickets start from $8 – you can get them at the MICF page, or for more information, check out Ben Russell’s website.