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Nine Songs
Jamie Demetriou

Following the release of his new Netflix sketch special, comedy creator and bona fide R&B virtuoso Jamie Demetriou takes Olivia Swash through the key songs that have inspired him.

03 March 2023, 22:00 | Words by Olivia Swash

Jamie Demetriou captures the push and pull of being an outsider in a way that only someone who truly understands what it is to be an underdog can. His path to four BAFTA wins for his superb Channel 4 comedy Stath Lets Flats has been atypical, and his new Netflix special A Whole Lifetime With Jamie Demetriou is testament to how he has stuck invincibly to his surreal-leaning roots.

Demetriou’s characters are everyday weirdos. From the anxious and selfish to the mundane and familiar, he’s become a masterful observer of Britain’s culture and people, infusing aspects of individuals he’s come across, as well as himself, into every one. “I like playing people with a kind of confident absence - people who are quite comfortable being completely honest in their own feelings,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s a mirror to the fact that I am a lot of the characters.”

The elements of the journey that make up A Whole Lifetime… could easily be viewed as cynical about the human experience. Its cradle-to-grave acts touch on themes like mass hysteria of royalists, toxic masculinity and many men’s experiences of pressures to act like one of The Bigger Boys.

One sketch is simultaneously about an uninvested dad who tries to strangle holier-than-thou parents at a barbecue, and also the relatable notion of lashing out as a result of social rejection (“they're yet to imply that I'm similar to them”). But the special’s message is one of finding humour as a way to cope through the sometimes repetitive, vain, inane aspects of life. It offers a reassuring, knowing glance that no matter what life might bring, there’s always silliness to be found.

As the first UK comedian to land a Netflix sketch special, Demetriou challenges the imagined Atlantic barrier in comedy culture. In recent years, a powerful executive must’ve assumed a baseless theory that the US is a sketch country and the UK is for panel shows – but we’re a nation whose comedy canon is packed with the gloriously silly vignettes of Vic & Bob, Big Train, Monkey Dust, Smack the Pony, Victoria Wood, French & Saunders and, of course, Monty Python.

“There’s a running joke that’s like, ‘have you heard sketch is dead?’” Demetriou says, “but it’s just some short comedy, how can it be dead? Have you been on social media? Ultimately, we live in a time when sketch comedy is free: Tim Robinson, Ellie & Natasia, John Early and Kate Berlant’s new pilot - it’s so brilliant. It's hilarious that an art form might be dead.”

Demetriou has contributed to some of the most influential output of the last few years, with appearances on This Time with Alan Partridge, Fleabag, Fred Armisen and Bill Hader’s Documentary Now, Friday Night Dinner, Toast of London, and The Afterparty alongside Tiffany Haddish and Ilana Glazer. He’s gained blockbuster credits in Cruella, Pinocchio, Paddington 2 and the most anticipated film of 2023: Greta Gerwig’s Barbie.

It feels even more special, then, that given such a major platform, A Whole Lifetime… stays so true to the deep cuts of Demetriou’s comedic DNA. “I feel lucky to be able to create things that feel like an extension of my sensibilities,” he says. When I ask if, a decade down the road, he envisions still having the freedom to put bowls of eggs around his sets (a reference to the magnificently absurd Year Friends and the subtly-placed background props on Stath), he says, “Oh yeah, I do do that quite a lot. Eggs and rice… and water. That’s my Cornetto Trilogy. I think, especially in comedy, that it’s as important to remain surprising as it is to remain true to your sensibilities. If you’re not satisfied unless something feels new, then by definition you’re going to have to change. If you were to boil comedy down, it’s just about surprise really. In order to surprise, you can’t keep filling bowls with eggs.”

Occupying similarly absurd landscapes as Tim Robinson, the special gives those of us who lap up surreal-leaning comedy the indulgence of seeing Demetriou bounce off some of his usual ensemble - a truly exciting, experimental new canon of comedy greats. Ellie White, Al Roberts, Katy Wix, Emma Sidi, Kiell Smith-Bynoe, Jon Pointing, Sian Clifford and Seb Cardinal make memorable appearances, while Demetriou’s sister and collaborator Natasia was filming the next series of What We Do in The Shadows.

“There’s a big part of me that’s feeling relief I’ve been able to make a multi-character thing, which would’ve been the first stepping stone in the comedy boom of around ‘98 to 2006. All those comedians like Sacha Baron Cohen, Julia Davis, Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan and Ricky Gervais - they were all able to flex and say ‘does this character work? I’ll put a sketch show out,’” he explains.

With Stath, Demetriou felt like he was taking a shot in the dark. He tried out a few characters, notably a set of three who were “struggling to be good at life” in his Channel 4 shorts, but didn’t have a platform to workshop to the extent that he did in his new special. “It feels like I’m kind of doing it in the wrong order, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a massive relief, because I’m hopefully going to do more stuff, so it’s been a useful exercise to ask, ‘Which one works best for me, and does anyone have something that’s an essence I can capture for something else?’”

It’s satisfying to see him develop the painfully self-conscious teenage couple attached to their phones – a progression of Demetriou and Ellie White’s BBC short Pariahs. There are callbacks to the ‘90s VHS aesthetic of Eurosketch (“so dangerous, so funny, so Europe”) and Internet Nails.

At the whimsical heart of Demetriou’s output is the purity and joy of toying with linguistics. It’s the same playful nature that positions his writing next to Chris Morris’ “John Fashanu” bit in The Day Today, and the entirety of David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day, as some of comedy’s greatest low-key moments. The charming speech patterns of Stath’s family are often grounded in the borderline poetic idiosyncrasies that come with speaking English as a second language. Cultural touchstones of middle England embellish the sketches, like “pesto pasta with sweet chilli sauce” and a doctor’s reality show lexicon, telling the tiny, flaccid character of Clive on his deathbed that “I just wanted to pull you for a chat.”

Many of Demetriou’s characters are based around his own fears. The South African tech expert, Anthony Clance, represents a pressure to rely on tech. “If I have kids one day, I’m terrified of them feeling like life isn’t nice unless you’re experiencing it through your phone. Every time I go to a restaurant and I see a QR code on the table, I think, ‘What about the guy in the sketch?’”

The character is a lonely grandad whose FOMO is piqued as he’s excluded by his grandchildren while they gossip about social media, which he doesn’t understand how to use. “See? It’s nothing! Cat shit! Who is luton_larry and what is he even doing big style?” yells Clance, giving an aggressive glimpse into the often sad reality of social media via a cameo of Baby Cow exec Rupert Majendie - a frequent bit-parter who also starred as a comatosed Natasia’s arse baby in Year Friends.

“Funnily enough, the actor playing that guy said, after he read the script, ‘I never thought there was a possibility that I shouldn’t be on social media,’” explains Demetriou. “He had only ever been in a position where he was like, ‘How do I get on my phone?’ He said, ‘I was ranting to my friends that we don’t need to be on it!’”

The wizened narrator sets up the grand finale by assuring that “you’ll learn to love the minutiae” of life, and it’s an admirably optimistic message. Demetriou explains that all the foibles that his characters display represent the harmony of existence. “The cacophony is the harmony,” he says.

A colourful, choreographed pastiche of a musical is the final sketch, set in a quaint English town, where characters blurt out humdrum remarks. A man tells a heavily pregnant woman he feels knackered, and Al Roberts makes his awaited cameo, singing about how hilarious it is to be “talking about how pineapple on pizza’s not nice”. “It could be seen as cynical,” explains Demetriou, “but it’s more a celebration of how people are quite comfortable getting stuck into mundanity - like me, even. We’re all just having the same chats and it’s quite nice - it’s comforting and it’s OK.”

Demetriou’s musical influences are utterly intrinsic to his comedy. Through the universal language of silly songs and nostalgic, sleazy-cool ballads, he’s created a world where bursting into song as an emotional release flows naturally and hilariously for his characters.

He once said that he hopes the only thing he has in common with Stath is a love of Euro R&B. “If you juxtapose intensity with idiocy, it feels like you're saying something silly,” he says. In A Whole Lifetime…, the excitement of the upper middle class Suffolk couple celebrating their anniversary incites his stiff-upper-lipped character to unleash a cautiously impassioned, two hands on the kitchen counter, butt-out jump - before serenading his disinterested wife with R&B.

In BBC Three’s Ellie & Natasia, Demetriou’s DJ Big Boy with his luminary “Universal Pussy” is a series highlight, and he sings with his food to avoid real-world problems on the peak-absurd Jarressy. It makes perfect sense that Joe Pelling of the incredible Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared worked with Demetriou on the music for A Whole Lifetime…

“There was a real crossroads in my life, whether it would be music or comedy,” says Demetriou. He has a seriously impressive voice – he used to be a session singer. He ushered in his love of singing ballads after burning out CDs by The Temptations, The Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder. “I would try and recreate any runs and ad-libs they were doing. I would mimic them all day,” he recalls.

“At school, if you weren’t solely listening to Pure Garage 3, you wouldn’t have mates. I remember homophobic slurs coming my way because I said I liked The Beatles. It was a very weird time to be at school! Around the time I got to being a teenager, I entered indie mode and didn’t leave it for a long, long time.”

“I was in a band when I was in my late teens, doing the circuits of London for two or three years. We were called The Alphabeat… and then Alphabeat came out. At the time, I was singing in a sort of faux-London accent - when bands were all called ‘The’ anything. I felt like deep within me was a desire to sing in a kind of harmonious, more power-ballady voice,” he says. “It’s such a big difference between those two things, it’s kind of picking between irony or sincerity.”

Demetriou cites his decision to go down the road of comedy as being partially due to the The Office boom. “Mostly because I worried about writing about how I actually feel to music,” he explains, “and maybe I’d end up writing ‘Free Love Freeway’... Which was a potential choice for this list.” His failed drama school auditions were a blessing in disguise which also led him down the path he’s on.

He certainly understood the brief for his Nine Songs selections. “I want to preface this by saying I actively dislike some of the songs I picked,” he explains. “Because ‘pivotal’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘love’. I’d say only one of the songs I would list as one of my favourite songs. Everything else is just a significant life turning point.”

"The Only Living Boy In New York" by Simon & Garfunkel

This song and album has a real glow to me. It represents a brief period in my childhood where I can associate music and family. Growing up, I was just scraping for whatever music I could get my hands on, because it wasn’t a really musical household, to my dismay.

My dad would listen to Greek radio, and I loved listening to Greek music, but Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water felt very much like the gateway album to everything that I’ve been obsessed with musically in my life, and a bar to which everything feels like it’s trying to meet.

It was the only music that my mum had in the car, or anywhere, and I would beg for that to be on every day. There was a brief stint where Tash got The Marshall Mathers LP and insisted we listen to that on car journeys. When it came to the skits, my mum would nearly throw herself out of the car.

When I auditioned for drama school - and didn’t get in anywhere - this was the song I auditioned with. I wanted something that felt authentic to me, I guess. There’s something funny about me standing there singing that – I’d never even been to New York! I talk about sincerity versus comedy, and I guess drama school, similar to music, would’ve been a more earnest route to go down.

I think it was useful that I didn’t go to those places, so my failure, I guess, is a kind of positive.

"Everything Changes" by Take That

This was the first single that me and Tash got together. We were in Woolworths standing by the cassettes in order of the charts. I think CDs were just taking over, but we definitely didn’t have a CD player.

I remember my mum wasn’t really au fait with how much it cost to buy music, so we were like, "Oh my god, this cassette is only 99p," which was our sweetie money. My mum was like, "There’s no way it’s only 99p, it has to be £99, surely!"

Me and Tash have that shared memory of her saying that, and can never work out whether we made it up or not. We said, "We’re actually gonna do this, we’re going to buy a tape and listen to it." And we sat in her bedroom with a little battery-ran cassette tape between us, and I remember listening to it and just looking at the cassette player - what was I getting out of looking at it?

It would finish and we’d just turn it over and listen to it again. I remember hours and hours a day, just pathetic children listening to it and quietly going "forever moooore" [falsetto]. The idea of owning music felt like the real beginning of something.

I think this was the first song I wrote down on this list. I actually think that Gary Barlow was writing extraordinary pop songs, objectively. The more I hear about what was going on for them at that point - this song for me is so joyful, but for them it represented the first song that Gary Barlow wrote that management gave to Robbie.

It wasn’t long after that, they had an image shuffle to keep people on their toes. Robbie shaved his head and Howard got dreadlocks, a nose ring and an eyebrow piercing, and I remember crying myself to sleep!

"In Love With The World" by Chicken Shed Theatre Company

I was part of the Chicken Shed Theatre Company from the age of about five to 19. It’s defined by its inclusivity of people with learning difficulties and special needs, and it was about creating a community unlike anywhere else.

Soon after I joined, they released this single and it got to about #13 in the Christmas charts or something like that. I got to sing on Top of The Pops, which was the most exciting thing ever, and it felt like the first instance of performing music, as well as enjoying it. I was just a dot in the throng of children singing it, but it felt really special. Lisa’s voice was just so mesmeric. All my favourite singers at that time were people who went to Chicken Shed who I would hear singing.

I feel very fortunate to have had that experience. So much of my musical upbringing was via there. Every Christmas I would do a show, which would be between 15 and 60 shows. I would learn harmonies and arrangements from the singing teachers there. It was between this and singing "The Lord’s Prayer" on An Audience with Cliff Richard, but I chose this!

"What Ever Happened?" by The Strokes

My indie phase is ongoing. It was just the most exciting time. I got to convince myself that I was living at a good time for music, which is always a nice feeling. I don’t know how true that is now, I don’t necessarily know how influential an era the noughties were, because effectively everyone was putting a slight new garagey spin on an older kind of music. But it didn’t stop it from being exciting, and it felt so accessible.

It didn’t really matter where you were living in the UK, it felt like every city had its own scene, which I think brought everyone together. If you went to Camden on an evening you’d probably come across some of your favourite artists drinking.

Julian Casablancas - I imagine for 90% of boys desperately trying to work out who they were at that age - he just encapsulated their dream persona. I remember lying in bed stressing about the fact that I wasn’t him! I was so desperate to be cool and I felt like there was nothing cooler to me at the time. I bought Room on Fire before Is This It, and I remember that coming on as the first track, there’s a pause before the second verse starts, and that break sends shivers down my spine.

As much as I miss the bands, I miss being a sponge - to love stuff in the way I loved music up until my early 20s. It was transcendent, the feeling of being that excited about stuff. I stumbled upon this indie club in Manchester recently - I was dancing to Maximo Park, and I think they even put on some Larrikin Love! Oh my god, I fell apart, I remembered what it felt like. I was like, "Oh no, I’m old! Shit!"

"4 Seasons Of Loneliness" by Boyz II Men

A friend of mine was the first person I knew to get a job, he was like a brother figure to me. I remember going into HMV and he said, "If you want any albums…" and I was like, "What, you’ll just buy me some albums? They’re like £10 each!"

One of the things he bought me was Boyz II Men’s Evolution, and because I couldn’t really afford much music, I listened to it over and over again, and I loved it so much.

"4 Seasons of Loneliness" has been a massive part of my life. My live comedy career is predominantly me singing bad comedy ballads. Comedy music to me is very specific - I like the idea of bad lyrics and bad songs. I started doing that by downloading an instrumental version of "4 Seasons of Loneliness". I rewrote the lyrics to make them really awful and sung along to that.

I never put it out or did it at a gig or anything, but that spurred the idea to work out how I could include music in my comedy. The sincerity of it: just four mates hanging out with matching unbuttoned shirts, stressing out about their exes in the same minimalist design living room - it’s the dream. What more could you want from music?

"Real Love" by Massari

This song is probably a quarter of the influence of Stath, which is why it’s on the list.

I was in Cyprus and we met a guy in the Larnaca area. He had a car with blacked-out windows for no reason, and he had a group of mates who’d refer to themselves as hard without ever having to demonstrate it. ‘Hard’ to them was that they would bob their heads to a heavy bassline with blacked out windows. They’d flick cigarettes out of their window without smoking them, to be seen to be smoking.

I remember him asking me if I liked good music. And I said, "Well, yeah! I think good music is incredible. What – like, the best music? Yeah, it’s great!" And he said, "Well, you’re gonna love this. He’s Lebanese and he’s going to take over the world." He flung Massari on the CD player and all of them were just bobbing their heads. Off the back of that, I started improvising in that voice - that British Greek guy, and that character became a kind of obsession of mine.

I wanted this song to be the theme music for Stath, but we couldn’t clear it. But I’m so glad that I get to put it out there in some capacity. I mean, I don’t need to put it out there, I think in some parts of the world it’s the most successful song in the past 20 years.

"Galaxy Of The Lost" by Lightspeed Champion

Around that time, maybe just post-Strokes, bands felt like they were maybe winding down a little bit, and I remember someone pointing out this guy’s incredible MySpace, and it was Dev’s. I’d see him out and about at clubs and stuff - I remember thinking he was the single most stylish, influential person I’d ever seen.

I remember reading NME and seeing he was part of Test Icicles, and that really felt like, "Oh wow, you can make your work public and be in the public eye and do stuff that’s really cool."

"Galaxy Of The Lost" was my favourite song for so long at the time. When I first started doing comedy, I remember being in a flat with a lot of my contemporaries. Someone put it on and everyone was trying to pretend they didn’t want everyone to see them mouthing all the lyrics. I remember doing it myself, almost trying to show off that I knew every word, and looking around and seeing everyone do the exact same thing!

It felt like such an inventive song. He invents genres. Again, he’s the kind of songwriter who makes me feel like I’m living at an exciting time for music whenever he puts out new stuff. The way he’s gone from Lightspeed Champion to Blood Orange, to all the soundtrack stuff he’s been doing and the orchestral stuff.

He’s been such a marvel to witness. It’s exciting to see someone maintain that quality and invention for as long as he has. Whenever someone like that breaks the mould, it gives me hope and makes me less scared that I’m going to lose my way.

"Rushes To" by Frank Ocean

When this album came out I thought it was the long-awaited album - I just didn't really read the news around it. I became obsessed straight away and I remember someone telling me, "Oh the album came out today," and I said, "It came out yesterday didn't it?"

He's in such an exclusive list to me of specific songwriters who create a seismic shift in the way that people make music. It's such a thrill to be around at the time that the person is operating, because who knows when they'll make another album? This song as well… His voice, I've just never heard anything like it - the tension.

So many singer/songwriters talk about, "You've got to tell the story," and a lot of the time I'm not sure I’m following this story! With him, the story is so vibrant and in so much of his stuff. I'm desperate for narrative all the time when I'm writing, especially with sitcoms - which couldn't be further from Frank Ocean - but I do feel when I'm listening to him it inspires and encourages me to think more about how potent storytelling is, how it creates a more robust connection between you and whoever is watching or listening to your thing.

He also just has a magic about him which I haven't seen replicated. In the video he's just building a staircase and it's so hypnotic. It's a powerhouse.

"Who Knows Where The Time Goes?" by Fairport Convention

With this one I was like, "Right, I’m allowed to have one song which is just something I love, which doesn't represent a time or anything."

I probably heard this song for the first time about eight years ago, and it's been my first or second most played song every year since. I feel like it's liquid catharsis. The quality of her voice and lyricism is so entwined in the musicality, I'm floored every time I listen to it. If I were to pull out my favourite song, this would be the first thing that comes to mind.

Any time I'm feeling a sense of despair and I want to be empathised with, I tend to draw to this song. It also goes to all those surprising places you want it to go to - the points at which it soars are so deeply satisfying. It summarises the best of that time, it feels like the perfect moment in music.

A Whole Lifetime With Jamie Demetriou is available on Netflix now.

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