Interview by Clare Finney
David Mills is smart casual. I mean, literally, he is smart casual, with no tie and a soft white shirt unbuttoned at the top. Well, no shit Sherlock, you’re thinking, it’s the name of the show. Under normal circumstances I’d agree with you – but the thing with David Mills is, he is “always, always, always, always smart”.
“Always,” he says again – as if, perhaps, I had missed the point and mistaken his smart casual attire for what he normally wears. Today is an exception because it is “so warm”. Though half ten at night, it is still pleasant enough to sit outside the theatre discussing Mills’ debut fringe show – the preview of which we have just seen him perform at the Canal Café Theatre – and comedy in general, on which Mills holds some strong opinions; and with the small but voluble reaction of the audience behind him, and the excitement of the fringe to come, he’s on a roll.
First in the firing line are young, naïve stand ups. “All these 22-year-olds getting up and complaining about their lives and how they’re so awkward…” he shrugs despairingly. “I mean, God bless them. I love them, but I also want to say “tell me what you think!” It’s one of the reasons, he says, he struggles with Twitter. He doesn’t talk about himself on principle – and if he’s on a bus tweeting and not observing people he’s concerned.
After all, nigh on half of his material is premised on public transport and public affairs. Though American by birth, he has lived in London since 2000, easily long enough to mock the buses. Indeed it is the subject of his opening skit. Having felled both the Queen and the weather with one stone – “the Jubilee, what a tragedy” – he uses the speculation that the whole thing ended in a night bus home to launch into a joyous tirade against the network.
“People are so mean on the tube! Sitting there all huddled thinking ‘fuck you’.” He sniffs. “We on the buses are far more generous with our rage. ‘Fuck you!’ (He spreads his arms wide.) ‘Fuck you!’ It’s far more giving.” He grins. Three minutes, and he’s dealt with the material that many a stand up could dwell on for hours.
Seen here on the page I’m conscious this sounds aggressive – and, in a way, it is. Yet in reality watching Mills live is far more endearing than you’d expect. You cannot help but like him: his grin, his bitchiness, his honesty with regards being a gay, style-obsessed American. Living in Bethnal Green, for example, he finds its dress code there a continual source of joy. “The population is half Islamic, half students there. Everyone is wearing pajamas!” Again, I might have deemed it aggressive – had it not been qualified by both its delivery, and by our chat after the show.
“You know, I actually love that long tunic over a blazer look,” he enthuses. “Tom Ford once said the best dressed man was Hamid Karzai [the president of Afghanistan], and I agree with him. But I’m my mother’s son and I’ve been brought up to get dressed.” In order to do so, he must spurn his pajamas, don a suit, and, if he goes out in the evening he must dress again. No wonder he was so surprised by the informality when he came here. “There’s a lot of unspoken rules in the US you don’t get here. You’d never see someone in a blazer and a T-shirt at a wedding there, for example, whereas here there is always one guy in the photos”. It doesn’t annoy him, but it makes for easy comic fuel.
That said, if there is one area where style bothers Mills more than any other, it is in comedy: for while the material can be anything, it is nothing without the frills. “I can’t sit for an hour if they aren’t saying something with style” he sighs. “Scott [Capurro] has style, Lee Evans has a style – I’m not sure I like it but at least it’s there – but so many don’t, or just don’t think it through” – something which, regardless of whether you agree with his assessment of others, Mills does to extremes.
He wears the tie. He gestures – not to excess, but he certainly uses his hands. His delivery is eloquent, and most notably, takes place atop a stool. For this Mills cites two reasons: the first historical – he used to do cabaret, he stopped because he couldn’t think of any successful cabaret stars who weren’t Dita Von Teese –the second, stylistic. “It’s more conversational – more like a couple of chicks sitting round just talking.” In the show itself he sums it up beautifully as, “you’re all looking comfortable, I’m going to get comfortable too.” There’s a sense of complicity about the move – the way, leaning forward cross-legged, he lets us in on the joke he’s making. Nevertheless, while the stool’s a leveler, there’s no doubt his sights are set on higher things.
“David Mills is headed for the big time” runs the top quote on every sheet of promo material, and indeed that’s what his intention clearly is. “Some day I’d love to play in a massive big arena on a little stool. Just me, in a spotlight saying ‘Hey’,” he muses. “It’s very Chuck Brown, who I’ve been spending a lot of time with on YouTube.” Catching my blank look, Mills translates for me: “You know the new crooner Willie Moon?” I nod. “Well like that – although when it comes to comedians, Dave Allen was really the one for sitting down, in a dapper suit, his whiskey in one hand.”
An Irish comedian best known for his missing finger, Allen is a key source of inspiration to Mills – not for the drink habit (Mills is on lime and soda) but because he is so smart. “I distinctly remember watching him when they showed British stuff at home” he recalls. “I’m a big fan of the old school. It’s a good look” – and it is one he is emulating with success.
That said, however, his homage is skin deep. Mills’ style and stature might be “old school” but his substance is most firmly on the pulse. He reads the papers. He watches the news. He treads on toes – gay marriage, Islam – and makes it funny. He may not know a word of Cheryl Cole, but he deploys the latest gossip to hilarious effect. The show still needs work – “I need to polish it. And I still haven’t done that gay marriage joke to a gay audience, which I should try. I need to try that,” he confesses – but after all: a preview is a preview. Come Edinburgh you can be sure Mills will rise to the occasion admirably – although, of course, he will remain sat down.
David Mills is Smart Casual is on from the 2nd to the 27th August at The Hive. All tickets are free.