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Max & Ivan

The UK's Greatest Optimists


Max Olesker and Ivan Gonzalez speak to me from a Shoreditch restaurant, café, lounge and barbershop… where you can also buy a motorcycle. The Wrestling creators went in for a coffee, Max says in response to my “fine journalistic question” of what they’re doing there, “and it turned out to be a way more complicated place than we realised.”

It’s the day after Halloween, which he spent celebrating his dad’s birthday. His comedy partner had a slightly different evening: “I bought a load of spooky sweets to give out to trick-or-treaters, had no trick-or-treaters, ate all the sweets – there’s nothing spookier than diabetes.”

Shoreditch is where part of the story behind their new show, Commitment, took place. Their first fully autobiographical show recounts, says Max, “the very elaborate stag weekend I organised for Ivan at the end of 2018. You’ll know it’s true because it’s bolstered with tons of humiliating photographic evidence of our lives leading up to that moment.”

For such visuals, he returned home to Portsmouth where his mum and dad “enthusiastically dredged up some of the incidents I had long-suppressed, so now they are just floating around my subconscious, untethered, and disturbing me on a daily basis.”

Said stag celebrations saw him try and reunite the band his friend was in as a teenager: Voodoo 7:2. “It was beset with difficulties, all of which we explain over the course of the show.” The only way of finding out if Max succeeded, says Ivan, is by going to watch them. “Or asking anyone who’s already seen the show,” says Max.

“Yeah… you could do that.”

Described by his colleague as unashamed of his band-playing past, Ivan jokes of using Commitment for the prosperous future of Voodoo 7:2. “Ivan’s five-year plan is an absolute mystery,” adds Max, “it involves a successful narrative sketch comedy career which he can then pivot into reforming his teenage band.”

I wonder how married life is treating Ivan. “I love it. Get married.” He’d been with his wife 12 years before proposing. “We already had a place together and a cat, so not a lot has changed.”

From here we end up in an imagined scenario where he kills his wife for the life insurance money, which could be used to fund a Voodoo 7:2 album. “That five-year plan is getting bleaker by the minute,” says Max. “Of all the reasons to kill your spouse… imagine the look of disdain on the judge’s face.” The album, Ivan states, could be recorded behind bars.

“Oh, you’ve factored in prison.”

“Oh yeah, big time.”

The comedy duo performed the show at this year’s Fringe, the first time in three years that they’ve been up there for the duration with a new hour-long piece. “We did [Max and Ivan’s Prom Night] last year,” says Max, “which was great fun but only one night, and it kind of whetted our appetite for going back to Edinburgh.” 2019’s festival “was a joy” that saw them play Queen Dome – “one of our favourite spaces in the world”.

The Fringe is something they first “kind of stumbled across and became addicted to”, he says, it being perfect for what they do. “But we’ve tried to only go back when we really want to be there.” There is a trap, he resumes, where performers go “because they feel obliged to. There’s nothing worse than seeing comedians’ po-faced, hangdog expressions – ‘oh god, why am I up in Edinburgh again?’ You’re in Edinburgh quite literally because you wrote a show, then applied and decided to go. It should be a joyful place to perform the work you want to make and it’s important to avoid getting sucked into the feeling that you have to do it because you don’t – you can do a million and one other things.”

“We went in not having a clue what we were doing,” Ivan recalls of their Fringe debut, the opening performance of which sold no tickets. “The stage manager came in and said, ‘We don’t have a house for you.’ We said, ‘Great, what does that mean?’” After hours flyering the Royal Mile, “we ended up selling out and getting word-of-mouth to spread.”

Now, he says, when they do choose to go, they also get a bed each which hasn’t always been the case. “There was a year we slept in a flat where Max was in a double bed and the other side of the bed was on a rotating schedule for any person who had booked for that night.”

Cue, Max tells me, “a deeply alcoholic spoken word poet who I’d never met before, with an unintelligibly thick Irish accent, who woke me up by sitting on my recently-broken ankle. We’ve moved up in the world.”

While I haven’t seen them perform at the festival, I’ve twice watched Graham Dickson, with whom five years back they set up London improv school, The Free Association. They were all trained in improv, says Ivan, by Monkey Toast founder David Shore, “who came over from Canada and kind of started a resurgence of long-form improv in the UK”. The threesome would soon get together to form what Max and Ivan thought would be an improv group. “Graham said, ‘Right, let’s make it a school and teach thousands of students improv.’ Max came up with a name, I found the venue, and then it flourished.”

The school, Max says, is a decent example of a plan he’s embarked on going “wildly out of control”, which can happen when you’re “overly optimistic about literally everything, and sort of believe everything will turn out alright. [The Free Association] wasn’t even my idea necessarily, but it’s quite in keeping for me to go and start an improv group which then spirals and becomes a school.”

“Optimism is a word that applies to both of us,” says his partner, who has “belief that if I just bumble along and let things happen, everything will be work out alright”.

According to Max, I’m “talking to two men who are forging a career in narrative sketch comedy, so possibly the two greatest optimists in the UK”. Is there a specific thing, I ask, that everyone else seems to be down about, that you’re not down about? “If I actually focus on any of the current troubling realities plaguing our national conversation, it all becomes very depressing.”

By the time our January Optimism Issue is out, so too will be their eight-part scripted podcast, Fugitives. “It’s kind of based in the world of the rise of the far right in politics and the destruction of civilisation,” explains Ivan, “and in a way, while all of that [happens] around us, it does make me feel optimistic that it will reflect well on our podcast.”
At the close of our conversation, I learn of their weekend plans: Max’s dinner with school chums and Ivan’s trip to the Bush Theatre for Richard Gadd’s Baby Reindeer, a “harrowing show about being stalked”.

“One of the most extraordinary and terrifying pieces of theatre,” says Max. “You’re seeing it on Halloween as well, you’re going to leave traumatised, walk into the street and be surrounded by an army of the un-dead. How about you, Sam, what are you up to?”

It’s my birthday weekend. They offer to get me a motorbike.

Max & Ivan: Commitment | 24 January, 8pm | The North Wall, Oxford


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