Mitch Benn is one of the UK’s foremost musical comedians. Liverpool born and bred, he returns to the city for a rare theatre show with his band The Distractions on November 15.
“Kind of a rock concert but funny” is the simplest way for Benn to explain the latest show. Spoofing musical genres and cramming songs full of satirical gags has been his stock in trade since he began on the circuit in the mid-1990s, and he’s as likely to turn up on Radio 4 as he is to appear on the bill of a metal festival. His diverse career path is reflected in his audience, as likely to be retired Archers fanatics as much as teenage goths.
Benn can often be found performing in Liverpool on the club circuit, but has not played here with his band The Distractions since 2004, a comedy festival show on the theatre ship Fitzcarraldo. Comedians heading up new shows in their home towns can be apprehensive about it, but Benn doesn’t feel that pressure returning to Liverpool even though his upcoming appearance at the Unity is a rather different kind of event for him.
“Liverpool has never really been my home town in a comedic sense, and it has changed so much,” he says. He left for university at 18 and never moved back. “There is an optimism and vitality there that was conspicuously absent in my day. One of the reasons it doesn’t feel much like home anymore that that I just don’t recognise the place. It’s not just the shops I used to go to aren’t there anymore, the whole street’s been demolished.”
Benn’s shows with The Distractions are ambitious for the comic. Musically, he says, he thrives on the “squealing handbreak turns of genre” that can see songs switching from heavy metal to reggae and show tunes. “I started writing to stretch the others in the band,” he admits. “I was almost thinking of Frank Zappa, you know, when sometimes he made things so complicated it was funny.”
The thrill of presenting your own headline show is as exciting as it is frightening, and Benn notes a stark difference between putting himself out there as a solo act and being top of the bill at a comedy night.
“If the club has a reputation then the audience turning up isn’t the problem, although they’re not necessarily there to see you, and then you have to win them over. But most people are there for a night out. When you’re touring under your own name, the situation is reversed, it’s about getting people who are interested in you to turn up in the first place.”
And touring with The Distractions brings a whole other set of things to worry about.
He says: “It’s difficult in these times, with everyone tightening their purse strings. One of the great unspoken thing about comedians is that people do a lot of corporate stuff for the money, and that’s got a lot thinner on the ground. And to that same extent, touring is a bit of a risk, it’s less guaranteed than anything else we do, and a more expensive way for me to perform. But at the same time, it is the most rewarding thing I do.”
In his genre, Benn is at the top of his game, and so now spends time promoting other acts. He set up his own podcast and a regular club night in London to showcase the best up-and coming-talent. “I am an elder statesman – an old fart really — of musical comedy now, so I feel I have to do my bit for its rehabilitation,” he laughs. Guest of honour at this year’s Musical Comedy Awards, he presented the accolade to Liverpool’s own Jollyboat.
Benn began performing at an early age, becoming a member of the Everyman Youth Theatre when he was nine. “I have very fond memories of those days,” he says. “I keep wondering if I ever met Daniel Craig…”
Although his family home in Allerton was full of guitars as his parents both played in folk clubs around Liverpool, he didn’t pick the instrument up until his teens. Comedy and music twinned straight away, Benn says he has never wanted his act any other way.
“People ask what came first, but I immediately incorporated the two, because it never occurred to me not to. A lot of musical comedians get self-conscious and ditch the guitar, feeling they have to, to compete with other stand ups. I never felt it was a competition. I’m ambitious, and a bit of a perfectionist, but I don’t judge my success against other people’s.”