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Interview: Comedian Tom Short Will Make You Scream With Laughter in “The Stand Up Horror Show”

Saturday, July 22, 2023 | Interviews


It’s a long-standing theory of mine that comedy and horror are two sides of the same genre coin. They both require a meticulously arranged setup in order for the payoff to work, and when delivered successfully, both elicit an involuntary reaction from audiences: laughter or shrieks. Putting the two together can be a frightfully successful combination, as proven throughout the cinematic ages. Since the days of Laurel and Hardy meeting Frankenstein and Abbot and Costello meeting The Wolfman, one thing has been very clear: audiences who like to scream also like to laugh about it.

Enter comedy/horror’s latest hero, British comedian Tom Short, who’s bringing this combo to the comedy stages of the UK. Tom is a Chortle Student Comedian of the Year 2019 Runner Up, Leicester Square New Comedian of the Year Finalist, and recipient of the Mike Craig Comedy Industry Excellence Award. His new horror/comedy/cabaret act, The Stand Up Horror Show, has won the Liam Byrne Award for Outstanding Theatre, and has been selected by Creepy Tourist for their alternative guide to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

The show is a blend of magic, horror, humor, and heart, and Tom’s passion for the scary and macabre, along with his outstanding comedic chops, have allowed for one hell of a production. I was fortunate enough to chat with him about his upcoming run at Edinburgh Festival Fringe. We also discussed favorite horror/comedy movies, and how to manage stage fright!

Besides a catchy title, what is The Stand Up Horror Show about?

So, The Stand Up Horror Show is an occult, one-man cabaret, [but] it’s not actually my show. The theme of the show is there’s this magician who performs death-defying tricks is coming out of retirement but just before the show starts, he dies off-stage through a voice-over, and it falls on me as the understudy to put the show together and try to attempt all these tricks. It’s an evolution of my previous show—because I do a lot of clowning and improvisation—and I was like, how do I evolve this show? I went to an art exhibition called The Horror Show and it was all about how artists use horror in order to sort of further their objectives and their agendas. Like The Spitting Image, or The Mighty Bouche—they use elements of horror to highlight the horrors in our own world. I was so interested in that. I was like, can I apply that horror lens to my own work? So that’s how I came up with this idea of – whereas previously I was doing things like improvising and clowning around—kind of jokes and stories. If this main magician has died, it then gives me the freedom to be able to explore all these cliches in occult and tarot but also approach it from a playful standpoint but not necessarily have to get it all correct while still being respectful to the various elements of occult that occur throughout the show.

It’s very clear while watching this that you love horror, and that this is coming from a place of knowledge of, and appreciation for, the genre. You understand the crossover between horror and comedy. Can you talk about your approach to blending the two? Why do you think those two genres work so well together?

One of the main reasons they work so well together is because, in order to be done effectively, they have to take themselves very seriously. I think that if you take either genre too seriously, they also stop working. So, if horror takes itself too seriously, it becomes funny, and if comedy takes itself too seriously, it stops being funny. So, for me, it was seeing where that crossover was without it spilling out into the elements of them not being effective anymore. I thought, what can I apply this comedy lens to? Instead of just stories on stage, I’ll do scary stories on stage. Or instead of normal crowd work that you might see in a comedy venue, I’ll do bits of mind reading and cold reading. Then, once I have those as basics, let’s see what elements of horror I can apply comedy to. There’s magic, so we can take elements of Tommy Cooper out of there. We can look at the occult, so I took Ouija boards and visual elements and applied visual comedy to that, and slowly and surely it grew into this show that I think is like nothing you’ve ever seen before—I know that’s cliché, but I don’t think anyone else has approached comedy and gone, “OK, what are all the different blendings and mash-ups we can do, and put them into one show?”

It’s brilliant. You mentioned your crowd work includes tarot cards, mind reading, and fortune telling. Are these tools something you had used before the inception of your show?

No. So, I’ve always got this thing of, for me, personally, I don’t think it’s right to do comedy that punches down. I think that most comics are like that, but if that’s your bag, I’m not gonna tell you how to do your career—your stuff. But for me it just doesn’t feel right. For me, I’ve always had this thing of I don’t want to belittle someone’s beliefs. I know some people actually do believe in this kind of stuff. If I were making fun of someone for being a Christian or Jewish, say, just a slightly more mainstream belief system, that wouldn’t be right. So, I have to apply that same kind of respect to this approach that I’ve got. I want people to come to the show who are interested in this kind of stuff, and I don’t want them to leave thinking, “He really took the mick out of me.” That’s not my intention. So, I decided I’m going to learn what the rules of divination and tarot were — how to do it correctly. I kind of opened my mind to it, and I’ll tell you, some odd things did start to happen after I began to do it. I worked with a medium, and the person who helped me direct/create a lot of content for this show had done a lot of tarots reading in the 80’s. He taught me how to do it and I picked up on it really, amazingly quickly. Within the space of about two hours, I’d been able to do four reads of the whole tarot deck. When I worked with this medium, they said some people can inherit this — people who are open to this stuff. Then I mentioned it to my mum who I knew was interested in it, and she said, “Oh, yeah, I used to do it.” And then it turned out my grandmum used to do it and had never mentioned it. So, if you’re a believer that you can inherit the gift, that may explain why I took to this mindset much quicker than you’d expect. I’m open to it, but it’s something that I think [could be] an odd set of circumstances that could potentially have meaning but could also potentially not.

So, you discovered that you are a witch through generational inheritance?

Very much so! Very much so. That explains all the warts and legions!

Oh, no! [We laugh] What are some of your favorite horror/comedies?

I think the best two are Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End. I think SOTD has potentially perfected the genre so well that it’s difficult for me to pick another one I think would be as influential or well-executed. In a similar way that I approached this show, I imagine Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg said, “Alright, how do we cross over rom/com & zombie movies?” I think there are elements of how they’ve taken the tropes of rom/com and [something like] Dawn of the Dead and wider zombie fiction, but the thing I love is that it’s layered throughout it. It starts out traditionally, then you see elements of the zombie movie happening, then it becomes a horror movie through to the end. That’s what I love about it — it’s so complete as a piece of narrative work, but also as mashup of the two because I think it does it so well. The only other one, really, is The World’s End, and I don’t think that’ even as good. I think partially because I like Invasion of the Body Snatchers so much and it’s so heavily inspired by it, and even that, I feel, isn’t quite as good. But that, I think, is, so far, the most complete mashup of horror and comedy in film form.

What was some of the inspiration for the tone of the show?

Okie doke! So, the main one is Tommy Cooper. He was very big in the UK. He was a comedian who did magic tricks that often went wrong, so there’s a big element of him in there. My biggest inspiration is Andy Kaufman—he’s such a genius; all about blurring reality and subverting expectation. I think he’s amazing. Also, a group called Comedy Sports — I’m in their UK branch — the improv skills that they gave me are layered throughout the show; almost a bedrock for me to accept everything that’s happening and then building from there. In terms of horror, I took a lot of inspiration from Michael Crawford’s Phantom of the Opera, and from Saw, and The Prestige. There’s also a lot of blood throughout the show. This magician is dying off-stage, and I’ve got a stagehand who checks on him every now and then and every time he comes back he’s increasingly bloody. I’d also say Toby Hooper, and Halloween, your slasher-style horror films link into it. There are plenty of other elements of horror I love, but I couldn’t work into the show… at least, not yet!

I was fortunate enough to see a filmed version of your show in its early form and it’s hysterical.

Well, thank you!

I mean it. So funny. I mean, rolling on my couch. How has the show grown and evolved over time?

The way it’s evolved was, I can say, I came up with these little elements of the mashup and the person I wrote the show with and bounced ideas off is called Ian Angus Wilkie. He’s one of my former tutors and we collaborate on loads of stuff. He used to do sitcoms in the 90’s. I’m very lucky and privileged to have him as a mentor and a friend and someone I can throw ideas to. He has such a creative mind, and he throws back at me. He was the one that came up with the framing device of this magician show. He felt like it would tick all the boxes for the people who are comedy fans, but it wouldn’t necessarily tick all the boxes for the horror fans, so we thought, “OK, let’s really work at this. How do we increase the horror and the dread and the suspense and the danger?” And that’s where we added that this magician has a number of dangerous tricks. We’ve put in that he dodges nails, and people in the audience fire nail guns at the magician. We have put in that I, as the understudy, don’t particularly want to do this trick, so that’s threaded throughout the show, and in the end it’s like, “OK, what’s there left for me to do? OK, well, I’m gonna have to do the death-defying trick now.” We put that in there specifically because we wanted, for the people who are horror fans and want a more visceral, visual experience, to go, “Yes! I went there to see a comedy/horror show, and it ticked both boxes for me!” The plan has always been to market the show with me doing mind-reading and tarot reads outside the venues, and we’ve just got a grant to develop a 1:1 theatre space we can pack down and take to theaters. I’m a big fan of Andy Kaufman, who sort of blurred the lines of reality. That’s something I think horror does really well. Really effective horror makes you go, “Wow, that could happen in the real world. There’s a certain set of circumstances that could lead to that happening.” And I think that when that reality blurs, really interesting things happen. This 1:1 theater booth we’re taking to different festivals—this is happening after the Edinburgh Festival—we will have cool 1:1 theater happening outside The Stand Up Horror Show which we’ll be able to bring into the main show, because I’ll have already done mind reading and cold reading to people. So almost like hot-reading, or warm-reading. It will create this experience I think people won’t be able to get anywhere else. I genuinely believe that those kinds of experiences are the ones people take away with them in comedy shows and horror shows. You could come back loads and loads of times and see new things happen each and every time.

That leads me to my next question: what is the long-term goal for this production?

I think a lot of creatives are keen to go, “OK, I’ve done my idea, now I’m gonna throw it in the bin and go with a new idea.” Whereas that’s never interested me. I want to have this show I can do differently every single time, and it’s exciting for me and the audience. The Stand Up Horror Show is that idea for me. My previous idea, The Wheel of Misfortune, I suppose, had elements of horror to it. I was on stage with a 24-point spin wheel, a stand-up set, and a clown set, broken up. Wherever the wheel landed is where the show went next, and I couldn’t argue with it. It was described to me as the Saw of comedy shows, because there were elements beyond my control, and “What’s gonna happen next?” and that sort of thing. I did that up until the pandemic and when we came back [two years later] I felt like the show had changed into a “Greatest Hits” version of the show. So, I was looking for a new show to replace that one, and this is that show. I’d ideally like for The Stand Up Horror Show to run the next three or four years, and keep adding new elements to it. That’s what I aim for as an artist, anyway.

I have one more question for you: speaking of fear, do you ever get stage fright?

Oh, yeah! All the time. Stage fright is adrenaline. It’s the fight or flight mechanic. We can use that to our advantage. If we get stage fright, it’s like, it can be debilitating, or we can go, “Right, this stage fright is giving me all this extra energy.” It’s like your senses awaken and allow for you to be that tiny bit more of what’s going on around you. I used to get stage fright then I thought to myself, “No! I’m gonna use this as fuel for the show; to allow me to engage with the audience.” It’s like on Dragon Ball Z, it’s that next level-up. As long as we can re-frame our mind, and realize, this flight or fight mechanic isn’t here to hurt me, it’s here to help me, let’s focus it and allow ourselves to use it to help, I think it allows for some really exciting things to happen on stage.

The Stand Up Comedy Show will play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe daily from August 3 through the 27.

Ricky J. Duarte
Ricky is a writer, actor, singer, and the host of the "Rick or Treat Horrorcast" podcast. He lives in a super haunted apartment above a cemetery in New York City with his evil cat, Renfield, and the ghosts of reasons he moved to NYC in the first place., @RickOrTreatPod