Following on from his enormous success with the comedy series Roi de la vanne on French TV channel Canal+, not to mention his popularity on the France Inter radio show La Bande Originale, Belgian funnyman Guillermo Guiz is quickly becoming one of the biggest names in francophone comedy. The Brussels-born comic, real name Guy Verstraeten, has started the year with a sell-out run of his new stand-up show Au Suivant! at the Théâtre de la Toison d’Or in Brussels, follow-up to the hugely successful Guillermo Guiz a un bon fond. We caught up with Guiz ahead of opening night, and found him to be charming, thoughtful, and of course – very funny.

“The first time I went on stage, I had just been dumped by my girlfriend,” recalls Guiz, who grew up in Brussels in the 1980s, and first began making a name for himself at the city’s Kings of Comedy Club in 2013. “I thought to myself, ‘If I go up on a stage, I will be so nervous that at least I will not think about it for seven minutes’. It worked. The problem is that after a while, I started to feel less stressed, and then I started thinking about her…”

The heartache clearly didn’t affect affect the comic’s performance, as he went on to play in residence at the Kings of Comedy Club for six months, before selling out the Théâtre de la Toison d’Or six times with his show Guillermo Guiz a un bon fond, a light-hearted exploration of what makes someone a ‘good person’.

Early life

Guiz grew up in Anderlecht, home of the iconic Belgian football club, and looked set to embark on a career in the game himself, until he was forced to give up the sport due to various injuries at the age of 18. “I had a fairly happy youth, dominated by football. I was always with a ball, going to play in the park with my friends,” he remembers. “We could stay whole days on the benches watching people go by and discussing life. Today, I wonder what we were talking about for ten hours a day. Nowadays, I run out of conversation after 25 minutes.”

At that time, he was known by his birth name, Guy, so where did Guillermo Guiz come from? “These are two of my nicknames stuck together,” the star explains. “My name is Guy, and in the French-speaking world, that is not a very cool name at all. My friends called me Guillermo, or Guiz, so I combined those to make ‘Guillermo Guiz’.”

No place like home

He may have had vast success in neighbouring France, primarily due to the hilarious Canal+ series Roi de la vanne and his role on French TV and radio star Nagui’s France Inter show, but Belgium will always be home for Guiz. “I go back and forth to Paris for work, but I decided to live in Brussels, because I have all my friends, my bearings,” he smiles. “Paris is a beautiful city, but a little cold, a little tense for me, people walk too fast. Everyone in Brussels is walking more slowly.”

The right energy

As someone who divides their time between the two countries, does Guiz find any big differences between French and Belgian audiences? “I don’t think there are that many actually,” he muses. “I would say that in certain cities of Wallonia, I’ve experienced atmospheres that I haven’t experienced elsewhere. But to say that the Parisian public is distant and the Brussels public is warm – I think that would be a cliché. For me, a show is an exchange of energy between the stage and the room. If everyone is in good form, the comedian and the audience – it creates a perfect moment. Otherwise, it can be very depressing.”

Can Guiz recall a particular performance when the energy wasn’t right? “One time, I had a group of teenagers in the room. It was a very small room in Paris, and people were a little nervous. There was lots of whispering,” he recalls. “At one point, during one of the countless sections about sex, one of the teenagers called out to me saying: ‘Sir, doesn’t what you say about your girlfriend bother her?’ I think he had misunderstood the concept of the show.”

Hecklers aren’t often an issue for Guiz, although when it happens he usually handles them in his trademark style. “When it succeeds, you have the whole room on your side, and you feel strong. When it fails, it makes everyone uncomfortable!”

Rise to the top

Having performed at an array of legendary venues such as the Théâtre du Point-Virgule in Paris and the famous Montreux Comedy Festival in Switzerland, Guiz has come a long way from the days of his early career. “When I started, I performed in rooms without a stage, in fields… So today, everything seems better to me,” he laughs. “In truth, I can find pleasure in front of 30 people or 3,000. It all depends on the energy we receive from the room. Mind you, in general, I don’t like rooms where the ceilings are too high and people are too far from the stage.”

Philosophy

While Guiz also has a bachelor’s degree in political science and a journalism diploma, comedy is where his heart lies. He grew up watching Canal+ classics such as the Guignols de l’Info, as well being a huge fan of Belgian comedy group Les Snuls, who were huge in the early ‘90s. “They were among the people who made me laugh the most in the world,” he grins, also citing the British surreal comedy group Monty Python among his comedy heroes. “When I was little, I watched tapes of Monty Python, I had all the Flying Circus, I know Life of Brian by heart.” In terms of contemporary comedians, Guiz admires Americans like Louis CK, Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr and Sarah Silverman, as well as Blanche Gardin and Thomas VDB from France. “They all bring almost philosophical reflections on human life, whilst making me howl with laughter. It is very high class,” he enthuses.

Guiz himself has a rather philosophical approach to his comedy, as reflected when asked about his ambitions for the next ten years: “I just want to continue doing what I do. To reflect on the world in which I live – make jokes about it and tell them to people,” he smiles.

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