‘Burning an effigy on a fire is a very weird thing to do’
David O’Doherty used to have a routine about being the third most-searched David O’Doherty on Google. Liam Williams is experiencing that exact same problem with two of his own namesakes. ‘There’s a rugby player and a boxer who have both helped me break my self-Googling habit because in recent years they’ve become much more famous than me,’ the Yorkshire stand-up notes. ‘So it can be a bit depressing just to look at my own name. I’m still vaguely toying with the idea of having a reality show called The Liam Williams, Liam Williams and Liam Williams Show. Perhaps it could have a chat show format or maybe we’d try each other’s disciplines?’
Williams has been one-third of the Sheeps sketch team for some time now, and they’re back again this year, on the tiny stage at the Cellar Monkey. ‘Compared to previous Sheeps shows, it’ll be pretty light on props,’ he says. ‘But we’re committed to doing a satirical and topical show with a Sheeps spin on it.’ That self-same venue, somewhat off the Old Town / New Town beaten Fringe track, also housed Williams for last year’s Capitalism, an hour which earned him deservedly strong reviews and an Edinburgh Comedy Award nomination.
On at least one occasion, three critics were in the room. In such a tight space (1980s estate agents would call it ‘compact and bijou’) where both act and audience can spy the whites of one another’s eyes, being party to that amount of notepad-turning and critical glare must be a little disconcerting? ‘When you know there are people in the room, there can be a strange phenomenon of you filtering the show through what you imagine they’re thinking. I’m trying to stay quite clear-headed and zen. I’m still meditating, though not so much. All that stuff has become a bit fashionable and a little bit embarrassing so I try not to bang on about it. I used to be prone to getting angry and anxious, so whenever I feel that coming on, I’m much better at going, “why is this happening, then?” and taking myself off to one side and having a word. Which you can’t always do on stage; there, I just try to tell the audience what’s going on and get them involved in my private fears.’
What he’s not overly keen on revealing at this stage of his Fringe build-up (it’s early July when we talk), is too much about his new show, Bonfire Night. ‘I don’t want to give away all my jokes, but there’s a bit about the fact that we’re celebrating a failed revolution and the real anti-Catholic feeling in there. It’s a very weird thing to do to burn an effigy on a fire. That feels really primitive: has anyone really had a think about what bonfire night signifies as it’s pretty dark stuff?’
One month ahead of show number one, Williams admitted to being quietly confident about Bonfire Night's success: ‘I did a preview the other night that went well, so I’m going to be complacently and dangerously reckless from now. I’ll give up working on the show, abandon all the material, and just be swaggering on stage.’
While admitting that he considered giving Edinburgh a miss this year to concentrate on his literary ambitions (‘I have a literary agent; in fact, everything I need is in place except the book. Watch this space’), he believes that the Fringe helps build a solid structure into a stand-up’s calendar. ‘It institutionalises comedians in the build-up. The thing I like about stand-up is that deadlines are so imminent and so definitive. If you’ve committed to doing a gig, you’ve got be ready, and if you’ve committed to doing an Edinburgh show, it just has to be ready. There’s no postponing.’
There are certain names which have been dropped into reviews of Liam Williams, ranging from Les Dawson (for an ability to look like he’s losing his grip on a performance only to quickly regain it, a skill which can only be pulled off by owning a true mastery of the craft) to Bo Burnham and Alfie Brown for their shared Gen Y anger and neuroses, and Philip Larkin for the northern poetic quality. And there are certain words which recur, too, of which ‘nihilist’ might well be top of that particular hit parade.
‘It’s a strong word to use,’ reckons Williams. ‘But certainly in my teenage years I would proudly accept that moniker. And I haven’t really changed that much; my stand-up persona is a rehash of my teenage persona, so I can’t complain. Then again, a true nihilist wouldn’t care at all.’
Liam Williams: Bonfire Night, Free Sisters, 622 6801, 6–19 Aug (not 17), 11.30pm, free, 20–30 Aug, 7.30pm, free; Sheeps Skewer the News, Cellar Monkey, 221 9759, 21–30 Aug, 2.30pm, free