September 25th, 2007
Today sees the publication of the latest long-awaited issue of Mustard magazine. The reason it's been so long-awaited is because Alex Musson, its creator, has had an awful lot on his plate. For the past couple of months however, he's been as busy as twelve-thousand bees getting this issue together, even holing himself up in the Fridaycities office for a while to escape the creeping claustrophobia of his tiny tiny attic. If you don't know what Mustard magazine is, well then it's probably time you found out. Read on.
Tell us about Mustard magazine, Alex. You know, some people have never even heard of it. The heathens. So what is it?
It's a quarterly mag crammed with new comedy stuff - cartoons, satirical news stories, spoof books and films, true stories and comic strips. And there's a big exclusive interview every issue with people like Michael Palin, Graham Linehan, Terry Gilliam and Alan Moore.
I've just tried to fill it with all sorts of things that make me laugh, that I'd like to see. There's observational stuff, like 'Girl on Train is Soulmate in Fellow Passenger's Imagination' and surreal stuff like 'Lethargy Generator Found Under Bed'. Spoof films like 'Dirty Harry Krishna' and spoof mags like 'Armchair Psychologist'. And a lot of wordplay, like 'Step Dad Referred to as Faux-Pa'. I am fond of a good pun.
What if you had to do the comparison thing? Comedy-wise, what's it like?
I suppose, if I had to do the comparison thing, the style's nearer Fry & Laurie or Mitchell & Webb than, say, Little Britain. There isn't really a UK magazine comparison, we're not like Viz, much as I love some of their stuff, and we're not topical like Private Eye. In fact, I've purposely stayed away from topical stuff to give the mag a longer 'shelf-life'. We've been likened to America's The Onion, which is fantastic, but I'm not intentionally copying them. In fact I don't think I'd even read it when I started, but certainly we do a lot of stuff as fake news articles, though we try to keep ours really short and punchy.
Good. The Onion does tend to go on and on. And on.
And we've naturally got a kind of British sensibility running through it, probably hideously middle-class English. Although, saying that, one of our contributors is Russian.
So why did you create your own comedy magazine in the first place? Oor Wullie not good enough for you?
Originally, it wasn't specifically designed to be a comedy mag, that's just what it turned out to be by the time it was finished. It was very much, as the tagline says, 'a bunch of stuff stapled together'.
When I first came to London after Uni I was, like most people, full of enthusiasm with all the possibilities of being in the big city. And writing our own magazine was one of those things my friends and I would talk about down the pub, but which would of course never quite get off the ground.
I really wanted to do it as a team thing, I was trying to recapture those times at University where a group of you'd sit around late into the night drinking coffee, throwing ideas around and scribbling on bits of paper.
So I was planning it for a while, but I probably wouldn't have found enough time to do it. But then two things happened at once: I broke up with a long-term girlfriend and the work dried up for a few months. So I suddenly had this huge acreage of time on my hands, I was stuck living in Forest Hill, which I hated, my friends were far away and I was feeling pretty pissed off and depressed. And as a way of occupying my brain, I started really concentrating on the magazine idea.
So I suppose, to answer your question.
Yes, please. If you would.
I started Mustard as a way of distracting myself from the unrelenting bleakness of existence!
Thank you. It's an odd name for a comedy magazine. Or indeed for any magazine. Except perhaps for a magazine about mustard. Why 'Mustard'?
When I was first putting the mag together I had this huge list of possible names: Claptrap, Space Cadet. pages of them. I was looking for something unpretentious and a bit silly and which didn't really mean anything. I wanted the content of the mag to create the character, rather than the title kind of imposing a personality upon it, if that makes sense. But nothing was quite working. And I started thinking about a factory I'd worked in when I left school, a radiator manufacturer in Coventry. It was horrible, I had no interest or ability in engineering and I spent every day watching the clock until home time. But there was this one guy there who kept me sane, a cantankerous old bugger called Derek Wall who had this amazing deadpan gallows humour. I'd say, 'Hey, 5 o'clock already' and he's chirp back 'Yep, soon be dead.' And whenever he was pleased with something he'd say 'Mustard!' which is kind of slang for 'brilliant' or 'pucker' or whatever. I even used to doodle little comic strips of him as this superhero called 'Mustardman', who couldn't be arsed to solve crimes or save people or whatever. So the word 'Mustard' was kind of floating around my brain, and I tried it as a title and passed it by a few people and everyone seemed to like it, so it stuck. Plus, it lent itself to taglines like 'it's a gas' and 'can you cut it'. The similarity to my surname never occurred to me - if it had I probably wouldn't have used it, which would have been a shame really.
How did you make the move from writing and performing comedy to web design?
Actually, I started in web design – that's my day job and it's what pays my rent. And it's what pays for Mustard, which I do in my spare time.
So if you are a web designer, why do a printed mag? Why not do it as a website?
Yeah, doing it as a webzine would be so, so much quicker, easier and cheaper. But, firstly, I didn't want my hobby to be the same thing as my day job. And secondly, I think there's still something much more satisfying about a solid, real-world, printed magazine that you can hold in your hand, give to friends, read on the train and keep in the downstairs toilet.
How much of the magazine do you write yourself?
As I was saying, I really love the team thing and I tried to get lots of my friends involved but I soon realised that - duh! - they still had their girlfriends and their jobs and therefore no time to spend on frivolous little projects. So I was going to have to do most of it on my own.
The way it's panned out is that I design and edit the thing, and write about half of each issue. But I get as many people as I can to contribute. Friends, people I've met through work… If someone says something really funny I sometimes ask them to write it up as an article. With one guy, who would never get round to it, I'd write it up for him and sent it to him to rewrite, which is a good way of getting some people going.
Often, two or three other people would write about third of the mag between them, and lots of others would contribute just one article or one illustration.
Quite a few people have been keen on getting involved, but there's a lot of what I call 'pub promises' - people are really keen when you're talking over few pints, but then the daily grind kicks in and nothing happens. It's totally understandable, but the first few times it can be quite dispiriting.
I also realised my web design job was a good for barter. For example, a landlord I had was an artist and I got him to do a bunch of illustrations in return for me building him a website for his paintings. And I later built a site for a printers in return for them printing the mag.
You've had some pretty impressive interviewees. How did you manage to snag Terry Gilliam?
Hah, well that first one was a blag! Around the time I was planning the first issue I met him in the Curzon Soho bar, where he was waiting to do a talk after a film. He was really down to earth and friendly and I chatted to him for a while. Then when I did the first issue I put him on the cover and - in really small print - the words 'stuff he said when we met him in a bar but written up to look like.' then in really large type below that 'AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH TERRY GILLIAM!' So yes, that was a bit of a blag.
But what I am genuinely proud of is that we got both Michael Palin and Alan Moore because they saw Mustard and liked it enough to do to an interview. I sent them both a copy of issue 4 via some contacts I'd made and they both got back to me to say yes.
Michael Palin's assistant emailed me and said 'you're really lucky, he's incredibly busy but he said he'll do it'. And Alan Moore, who's been a hero of mine since I was 14, actually rang me up whilst I was at work 'Hi it's Alan Moore here, I read your magazine I thought it was real good'. I nearly shat. A total fanboy geek moment. Then a few months later me and a friend went to his house for the afternoon and he talked to us for a four hours, making us tea and showing us artwork from the new League of Gentleman comic. Unbelievable.
They say 'never meet your heroes', but that's three I've met through doing Mustard and they've all turned out to be really nice, generous guys.
The same goes for Graham Linehan, who I interviewed for the new relaunch issue. He had seen the Mustard issue with the Alan Moore cover in Gosh and put it as 'set dressing' in the new series of The IT Crowd. Which I found out about when Talkback emailed me to get permission. I'm a big fan of Father Ted so of course said yes, then asked if I could interview him. He ended up inviting me up to a recording of the show, then to the editing suite and did the interview over a lunch which he then paid for. A total gent.
The magazine is densely packed with visual and written gags. How much time do you spend developing materials and putting them together?
You know, I wish I knew! Because I do it all in my spare time it's really hard to quantify. Sometimes I work on it every evening and through the weekend and other times a couple of months will go past without me having any time to spend on it at all.
How it generally works is that I always, always have a small notepad on me and whenever an idea or a joke occurs to me I scribble it down. Then eventually when it comes time to put an issue together I go through the notepads, choose the good bits and start fleshing them out on the computer. I have an unbelievably bad memory, but that sometimes works in my favour because I'll have forgotten some of it and therefore get to see it fresh and can tell if it's actually funny.
With the relaunch issue I planned for a few months, mulled things over and then took five weeks off work to put the issue together. That's the redesign, new writing, editing and also the big new jobs of sales and PR. Creating media packs and cold-calling sales to get advertising so I could pay for the colour issue and extended print run. I covered over half the print run with advertising, but really the biggest cost is not being paid for five weeks!
Where do you see Mustard going in the future? Do you see it purely as a London publication, or will you try to spread it to other markets?
Essentially Mustard had been a hobby. This relaunch is a go at doing it on a slightly larger scale, but it's still nowhere near a commercial venture. If I can get enough advertising in to pay for printing the next few issues I'll be extremely happy.
The London-based distribution is just because I can only afford to print so may copies and, well, that's where I live! But I would say to anyone thinking of doing a small press mag like this: only do it if you're doing it for the love, for the joy of putting it together, because the chances of it being a commercial success are tiny, tiny. But if you're doing it for the pure joy of it, then you've succeeded already.
You've done stand-up as well as the comedy magazine, which is better?
I did stand-up for two years and it was a great experience, but essentially it wasn't really me. It's all about being up in front of people and being the centre of attention and I never really felt at home doing that. I'm much more comfortable sitting in the corner with a notepad or a laptop. But the big benefit of stand up is immediate feedback - if people like your jokes they laugh, and the more they laugh the better you know the joke has gone down. With a printed mag you don't get that feedback, unless you were to follow each reader home and peer in through the window while they read it on the toilet. Which would end up being just too time consuming.
Are you really taller than Jesus? Where do you get your information? What other religious figures can you better? Are you brighter than Buddha? More militant than Mohammed?
Ha! I came up with the 'Taller than Jesus' thing for my business cards when I was a stand-up, it's just a riff on the Beatles' 'Bigger than Jesus' comment, though I don't know if people get the reference. But I'm basing that on the fact people 2,000 years ago were shorter on average, I'm freakishly tall, and nowhere in the gospels does it mention Jesus being a giant. To my knowledge.
Where will this issue of Mustard be distributed? How else can people get hold of a copy?
You're always looking for contributors to the magazine. What would make someone an ideal Mustard contributor?
Make me laugh. And work for free.
But presumably, if this issue does very well and as a result you actually start to make some money, you might one day actually be able to pay contributors, no?
That is my fervent hope and dream, yes, since I am currently paying them in kind words and beer.
Thanks, Alex, and good luck with the magazine.
[cached from the FridayCities site, now Kudocities]