Simon Donald co-founded the brilliantly immature Viz magazine with his brother Chris in 1979. In the years since, the magazine has gone on to become a cult classic, its offensive adult cartoons, “profanisaurus” and top tips providing looside sniggers up and down the country. Simon left in 2003 before starting a career as a stand up comedian, performing at the Edinburgh Fringe three times. His latest show School of Swearing will be touring in London in the near future.
Harry Harland spoke to Simon about some of his creations, curries and his transition to stand up.
What first inspired you and Chris to create Viz?
My brother Chris was a virtually autistic, anally retentive trainspotter. He’d been preoccupied with creating a magazine since about the age of 11. He began with The Lily Crescent Locomotive Times, a carbon-copied trainspotting magazine with a target readership of six people. His partner in this venture was Heaton Carriage Sidings Correspondent, Jim Brownlow, a friend from school. In the meantime I was a virtually autistic, anally retentive comic collector and I aspired to being a comic artist. Chris and I had grown up on a diet of The Goons and Monty Python and Jim introduced us to the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics. Frankly we thought the Freak Bothers was shit, but Chris saw a penny drop and the idea of our own comic for grown-ups developed.
Who is your favourite Viz creation, whether a recurring strip or a one off?
There are many strips in Viz that I think of as favourites, many the work of Davey Jones, the Welsh genius behind the Vibrating Bum-Faced Goats, to name just one. I also love so much of the very early work like Lucky Frank and Paul Whicker. It’s tough to choose an absolute top cartoon, but I elect Sid the Sexist, because once I’d created the character the stories wrote themselves.
What was behind your decision to stand down as co-editor in 2003?
I’d worked on Viz for 24 years and regardless of how much you enjoy what you do the repetition gets to you. Always going to the same place every day, working with the same people on the same jobs, 24 years is a lot of that. I’d always wanted to do other things, I’d trained as an actor when I was a teenager and I’d performed with bands and done comedy poetry and bits of character comedy too. I decided to try my hand at stand-up and I’ve never looked back, it’s a very different world and I really enjoy it.
Have you ever had complaints from the likes of Richard Littlejohn, Gary Bushell or Michael Winner, who seem to be repeatedly mocked?
One of the most annoying things with working on Viz was creating a lovely scathing assault on some fat, pig-headed, self-centred arsehole in the public eye, only to get a phone call from them, wanting to buy the artwork. To be fair the best form of defence when being pilloried is to embrace the pilloriee [sic] and the pillorage [sic]. Believe it or not, this would happen quite regularly.
No-one was ever stupid enough to complain.
I once wrote a letter to Letterbocks which wasn’t published. In hindsight it was shit, but to appease my sense of self-worth, what percentage of letters got binned when you were at the magazine?
It was around 50/50 on average between writers and readers, sometimes as much as an 80/20 split either way. Most readers letters were edited to some degree.
I was fortunate enough to go to the Rupali and meet Abdul Latif, Lord of Harpole before his death. Who instigated that commercial partnership, you or him?
Curry mentalton Mr Latif was a shameless self-publicist, and he approached us. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. He would feed the editorial team every deadline night with a fiery ring-burning feast of gargantuan proportions. He was a lovely man and I have great memories of him and his genuinely very friendly and engaging ways. His son Rukon is carrying on in his father’s footsteps and the Rupali is going strong.
Did you ever finish a portion of Curry Hell single-handed?
I’ve got more sense. There’s a story in my autobiography of the time I was present at the first ever Curry Hell Challenge, which was taken by a long-term Viz fan. It was a terrible sight, watching a man constantly jump from the dining table to run to the toilet to expel from alternate ends of his tortured body, between endless questions about his favourite Viz strips, asked through a face becoming ever redder and more tear-stained.
Whose decision was it to use the word “unfeasibly” in the title of Buster Gonad and his unfeasibly large testicles? It’s one of my all-time favourite uses of a word.
Graham Dury, who remains at Viz to this day. It was his second ever strip for Viz in 1985. He arrived in style.
Do you own any of the Vermin Mint collectables? I personally always wanted an “Elvis Presley Dambusters Clock Plate of Tutankhamun” or a “Bernard Manning: Fat Racist C*nt of Hearts” plate. Are they available to buy?
Many were available to buy, including the Elvis Presley Dambusters Clock Plate of Tutankhamun, which I have somewhere. It probably wasn’t a good idea to start selling them, too many people were confused by what was real and what was a joke in Viz, and this certainly didn’t help.
What’s your favourite Profanisaurus term?
Wanking chariot. (n. a bed)
Viz rarely seemed to pull any punches when it came to taking down a celebrity, were there ever any moments where you thought “we can’t do that”?
Not really, although our lawyer once advised us not to call the Queen a miserable cunt. Sedition, we were told, was still a capital offence. We called her a miserable cow instead.
And continuing from that question, what was the most controversial thing you ever printed in the magazine? Did it get a lot of complaints?
Thieving Gypsy Bastards was probably the most controversial, the use of the word Gypsy resulting in a letter from the UN, accusing us of racism. Not something you want on your CV. We ended up having a good relationship with the Gypsy community through correspondence from two top Gypsies, who seemingly had more bones to pick with one another than they did with us.
Beyond that we didn’t really get any complaints to speak of, well, apart from ones from properly mental people, which don’t count.
I read the first ever issue of Viz when it was given away free with an edition some years ago. Does it amaze you to think how far the magazine evolved, both in terms of profile and (no offence intended…) quality?
I was only fifteen when the first issue came out, Jim, the eldest of us was just nineteen, so for that reason alone I feel no shame about the undisputedly low quality of our early work. That first issue is a nostalgic gem and a historical curiosity, showing that, from the word go, in Viz there was both the originality and the unashamed childish humour that would take us to the toppermost of the poppermost.
The quality of all areas of the comic certainly rose over the years, and yes, I’m very proud of that.
Mark E Smith out of The Fall was the first person to say, “Viz isn’t as funny as it used to be” bizarrely he said this in 1980.
You’ve been doing stand-up for a while now and have a DVD (Comic to Comic) out, what can our readers expect from your live show?
I do allsorts of shows, from Powerpoint style autobiographical, multi-character stand-up (both on the DVD) and this year I’ve done a new comedy called School of Swearing, which covers a lot of stuff. See review here:
And finally… Any Top Tips for our readers?
Always remember, Piers Morgan is a cunt.
And it’s hard to disagree with that… Trivial Pursuits would like to thank Simon for kindly taking the time to talk to us.