Simon Munnery is a comedy writer and stand up comedian. Simon read natural sciences at Cambridge and then had a short lived career as a video game programmer before becoming a full time comedian. His stand up is often political, almost always surreal and sometimes involves guitars, props and harmonicas. He is also known by the stage names of Alan Parker: Urban Warrior and The League Against Tedium.
It’s quite hard to prove Pythagoras’ Theorem and keep it entertaining but I just wanted to set myself a challenge.
On working as a video game programmer
I got into computer programming when the ZX80 came out. It was advertised in the Sunday Times magazine, it was £100 and on a whim my dad, he wasn’t particularly rich, but he bought one because, according to the advert, it could run a nuclear power station. We didn’t have a nuclear power station but we had ambitions as a family. And, ah, so, we bought that and I taught myself how to programme BASIC and then Z80A machine code – and they say Latin’s a dead language – anyway, I went onto the ZX81 and the Sinclair Spectrum and I started writing games and I started selling them for, for a teenager, quite a lot of money. I had a car and I went skiing. And then I gave it up when I was 17. Pointless.
They [the games] were all awfu1! Jeff Minter, who I believe is a famous games programmer, – I’ve never heard of him, but anyway – he described my version of Asteroids as ‘a pile of wank’ which is, ah, you know, would require very low temperatures to do that. But apparently it was seeing how bad that was made him want to do it.
The one I was most pleased with was Omintron for the Sinclair Spectrum, which had what must be the fastest possible 3D graphics routine that I did. It was wireframe 3D graphics but basically it used a huge lookup table so most of the memory – of the 48K, that’s what we had, and that was a lot – was used up with pre-made calculations just to work out how to convert 3D dimensional co-ordinates into two dimensional. So basically you just sat in the middle of a grid and sort of shot things. Hmm. Yeah, I sort of made copies of arcade games but I went off it, yeah, about 16, 17.
On moving into comedy
It was a desperate desire to meet girls. Um, no, by accident. I drifted into it. I was at college; I joined all the clubs; I auditioned to be in every play that was on. I didn’t get into anything, except the thing where you go along, do a funny piece, and if they like it then you do it the next day. And I kept on doing that and, ah, went down and saw some stand up in London – Jerry Sadowitz and John Hegley and Malcolm Hardee – and thought, ‘Well, I’ll give that a go’ and I just kept doing it. And what happens is, you do something you love and then after a while the wind changes, you get stuck like it. You know, accountancy it can be the same. Very similar, I imagine. I’m not an accountant.
On experimenting with comedy
The show I did in Edinburgh this year , it was called Fylm, really it was like Fylm-Makker 2. Last year I investigated a new format which is to sit in the audience and talk through a camera that’s connected to a video projector. So, to use a camera, my theory being that a camera amplifies the face in the same way that the microphone amplifies the voice and that it’s an instrument that should be used by live performers. That was my theory. So I’m going to pursue that for a bit. And, um, yeah, it sort of works. But I’m still learning how to do it. So I have a camera with a half silvered mirror and some lights, and by altering the lighting state I can either light myself or the table in front of me so I can do graphics, low grade cardboard animations, and speaking directly to the camera. And I don’t ever go on stage so what you’re watching, or what we’re all watching, is the same thing, a screen. And I just think there’s an interesting area to explore.
So I did it last year. I did it with a different show this year. Started off well, because it was all new and it was all very exciting, and then about a week in it was neither new nor honed. That went through quite a bad patch. But by the end it was great again, which was good. Sort of, I proved Pythagoras’_theorem in the style of Mr T. So, ‘interminable’, the Scotsman, that was in the second week, and then by the end it was a highlight. But then it’s quite hard to prove Pythagoras’ Theorem and keep it entertaining, but I just wanted to set myself a challenge. It was John Hegley made me want to do it because he said, ‘Pythagoras’ Theorem, isn’t it amazing’. When I was at school I think I proved Pythagoras’ Theorem in maths but then I’d forgotten how I’d done it so I had to start from scratch and, ah, yeah, I can do it now. Any time you like.
On ‘evolving’ the shows
No. I really object to the use of the word evolve. Really. ‘Cars evolve.’ No, they’re designed. No, there’s some process perhaps similar to…no, I mean, I don’t really know, nor does anyone, what actually evolution is. There’s lots of arguments between, you know, the gradual, gradual slight changes. Now when I was young, at school, we were told before Darwin there was a Lamarckian view. How giraffes got their long neck was that… the Lamarckian view was that successive generations had stretched their necks a bit and this had been passed onto young. That’s nonsense. And then the Darwinian view was there were these horse like creatures in Africa, some of them had tall nets – taller necks – taller nets? Some of them had nets and they died out of course because there’s no use. They’re not hunters. Some of them had taller necks, there came a terrible drought and only the ones with the tall necks survived and then that happened again. And again. And all the other creatures in Africa, they weren’t affected by the terrible droughts, except the zebras. They turned stripy to get more water. No. So it’s very easy to overestimate our own knowledge about that.
And there arguments, even within Darwinism or evolution. But has my show evolved? No. What happens is, I do it and I change it and sometimes the audience changes it and bits drop, I drop bits out and new bits come in. So it changes slowly. Or sometimes fast. I put a whole new thing in, drop a whole bit out. I like to keep changing it, you know, fiddling around with it, hopefully, honing, I call it.
On the future advancements of science
I think we’ve done enough. I think you should work more on learning how to use the ones we’ve already got. You know, calm down a bit. I really, of late…I mean, when I was young I wanted to be an astronaut like what everyone did, I mean, we’re all going to go into space and I think there’s something…there’s some subliminal…you don’t notice it, but the idea that we’re going into space, the idea of space, you know, Star Trek and an infinite cosmos, it sort of fits in with capitalism quite well in that, you know, infinite markets or…of course we’re going into space, but, it’s too far. We go, ‘Oh we don’t seem to have met any others, any alien life forms’. Yet it might be that life sort of occurs a bit like, um, a glimmer of light on the ocean, sort of in little flashes. And space is so big that there’s no chance…like, where would we go? OK, Mars. You can’t live there. We haven’t the skills, even if we had the skills it’s still not a secure place for humanity, or life, to go because the sun will eventually explode.
So you’ve got to find another planet, a bit like Earth, it’ll take millions of years to find that. And if you have to look for a million years it’s not worth finding. So rather than waste money on rockets I think we should, you know, calm down a bit.