THE Canadian comic Stewart Francis makes his money from puns. He’ll say things on stage like, “So what if I can’t spell Armageddon. It’s not the end of the world.”
His stand-up gigs are rat-a-tat affairs as he slings out the puns one after another, one of his most famous being about the tossing of a frisbee: “I was in the park wondering why the Frisbee gets bigger as it gets closer, and then it hit me.”
It takes relentlessness, the sculpting of one-liners that will stand up to the rigour of doing live comedy before big crowds, and Francis, who has performed at the Wembley Arena in support of Ricky Gervais, is in the upper echelons of his trade. The jokes pop into his head while he’s going about his day.
A phrase will burrow itself into his mind while doing chores, watching TV and the likes, although he says he’s “not always on, that would be irritating to both me and those around me”. Neither does he carry a notebook to record them when they materialise in his head.
“I’ve got a pretty good memory,” he says. “If I’m out for a walk with my wife or, say, out for dinner, I’ll tell her the joke. She’ll sometimes prompt me, ‘Oh, it’s about a frisbee’, and I’ll come home and write them in my joke book, but I don’t carry it with me. I’ve learnt that from Bob Monkhouse, who famously lost his joke book [at London’s BBC Television Centre].
He was absolutely heartbroken, as you can imagine. It did come back into his life later. The jokes weren’t funny so it was returned.”
Francis, 56, is from Etobicoke, a suburb of Toronto. Growing up, as the son of British immigrants, he fed on a diet of British comedy TV shows – and comedians like Les Dawson and Tommy Cooper – as well as the comics who did routines on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. A light went off in particular when he watched Steve Martin’s absurdist shtick and his deadpan delivery.
“He has some ridiculous jokes so that’s why I have some ridiculous jokes,” says Francis. “Subconsciously he thought me that it doesn’t have to make sense. It doesn’t have to be truthful or factual. One of his jokes that come to mind is that his cat had stolen his credit card because his bill had come in and it was cat toys, cat food and stuff like that so his suspicions turn towards his cat. That cartoon-like approach to comedy appealed to me..”
Francis moved to London nine years ago – and has been one of the most regular panellists on the BBC’s topical panel game show Mock the Week – because the UK has a more vibrant live stand-up scene than Canada.
He had gotten early recognition in his career back in North America by writing a joke for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
“You used to have to sign a release saying that the show could use your material and that you wouldn’t use it professionally,” he says. “This is back in the day of faxes so you could fax your jokes to the Tonight Show. Son of a gun if the eighth joke I sent wasn’t used by Jay Leno to close his monologue, which is arguably the biggest joke of the monologue, after a week off. It was one of the highlights of my career.”
His jokes are all his own these days, including one that bagged him the prize for funniest joke at the Edinburgh Comedy Festival in 2012: “You know who really gives kids a bad name? Posh and Becks.”