A few months ago I sat in the Wellcome Collection Cafe (a lovely cafe even if the cupcakes seem overpriced, sometimes I pop over the road to the Quaker cafe for my soup) and talked for hours. Unlike when I usually talk lengthily, confusedly and pointlessly, this was recorded by a fine man by the name of Alex who puts together an excellent magazine by the name of Mustard. Readers of Alan Moore’s Dodgem Logic will be aware of his work. Here is an excerpt (yes, an excerpt, the full interview is ridiculously long). I plug it not merely to torture you with my words, but to plug Alex’s fine work. Previous issues include interviews with Alan Moore, Lee and Herring, and John lloyd. they are available from here http://www.mustardweb.org/ as is the current issue with the full version of this.
What was your first TV gig?
The first TV thing I ever did was writing for Channel 4’s Dotcomedy, presented by Gail Porter and Chris Addison, which was not a good show. Then I was asked to do The 11 O’Clock Show. The first thing I did was an impersonation of John Peel, reminiscing about DJ-ing a disco for Pol Pot – that was with Daisy Donovan, who had a natural ability to interrupt right before the punchline.
Then I was asked to write for them. It was fascinating to discover that the writer isn’t necessarily to blame for bad shows. Until then, I’d been naïve enough to watch terrible shows and think, ‘I can’t believe my friend has written this rubbish.’ But then you see the process, which ensures only the most banal and banally offensive stuff is sifted out from any good ideas.
Are you most comfortable as a stand-up, or do you see yourself more as a presenter now?
I don’t think I’m ever comfortable (laughs). I suppose I think of myself as a stand-up, whatever that means, but my shows have changed a lot. The science shows are still officially stand-up, but certainly not in the mainstream sense. I’m never going to be skipping around the O2 talking about quantum mechanics.
I’m quite comfortable doing the radio things with Brian Cox, but I’m not really a presenter. I’m lucky enough to be asked to go on the radio and talk about Bertrand Russell or human genome sequencing. But I don’t see them as different professions; either way, it’s just me talking, but in radio they can edit out the waffly bits.
What did you set out to achieve in comedy, and are you doing it?
When I started in the early ’90s I was in love with stand- up. I’d seen all the alternative stuff as a teenager, going to clubs in London. I don’t think I thought further than, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be amazing to actually get paid to be a stand-up!’
But of course every time you reach a target, you want more. Towards the end of the ’90s I went off stand-up; everything had changed, the circuit had become far more mainstream. I think the comedy bubble burst… leaving an enormous amount of observational detritus around.
I liked the idea of being a political comic and was quite driven by it. Then I lost that, and didn’t really know what I was doing.
I used to hang around with posh boy comedian Will Smith; we’d be happy making £18 for a gig in Kentish Town, but there seemed to be more and more people who knew exactly how many gigs they’d done, saying, ‘This is my 312th gig and I’m on at Jongleurs.’
I became alienated by how it was an overt career path for people, and I nearly gave it up.
Do you think there’s less political comedy now?
Certainly, when I look back at copies of Time Out or Spare Rib from the Eighties, I see how political it was, with this fantastic kind of anger. These days the mainstream doesn’t really care about it.
But there are still people doing political comedy, it just isn’t quite so overt. There’s Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. The old guys are still there – Mark Steel, Mark Thomas and Jeremy Hardy are all doing their things. Then there was John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman, and Josie Long is doing some wonderfully passionate political shows.
It appears in many other people’s work, but you wouldn’t necessarily call them ‘political comedians’ because the divisions are far more blurred now.
If you’ve got a political bent, one of the hardest things – in any industry, but in comedy in particular – is turning down large amounts of money. I predominantly don’t do corporate. This evening, I’m doing an event for a conference of earthworm experts, but it’s not really a corporate.
If you can get to the point where you’ve got enough money not to have to worry… I don’t need to do corporate big deals or do adverts because I think each one of those would somehow lessen what I appear to be.
Back when he was Ents Manager at UCL, Ricky Gervais booked you, saying he liked ‘angry young man’ comedy. Are you still angry?
I think I’ve probably gotten more control of my anger in the last couple of years, after I gave up watching television and reading newspapers. I do a show with my friend Michael Legge, called Pointless Anger, Righteous Ire, which I find harder and harder to do, because he’s remained angry and I haven’t. To be annoyed about what Melanie Phillips has written is really pointless anger.
Talking of Gervais, did Karl Pilkington replace you as his torture-monkey?
Karl, Nigel the editor and me were all there at pretty much the same time. The person I initially replaced was a friend of Ricky’s that he really used to bully, he used to make his life a misery. It’s the guy who now does the drawings for Flanimals. Anyway, he left the country, I think mainly because of the way Ricky treated him. Unfortunately, I met Ricky just after that.
But I have no envy of Karl Pilkington at all. When I got asked to do the last tour, Science, it was quite easy to turn down. I didn’t want to swap my mental health for money.
After the Fame tour I thought I’d never do anything with him again. Because it was monstrous, and it was horrible and bizarre. The way that everyone joined in, it really was very Lord of the Flies and of course I am very Piggy-like.
With the distance of time, I can kind of laugh at it but… today, as a parent, in my 40s, I don’t feel I could handle being squealed at constantly, having make up put on my face while a load of tech crew and Matt, his tour manager, dance around in a tribal manner.
That was one of those moments, when the money kept going up, and I said, no, I’m honestly not going to do it.
It’s amazing, when you turn down money. It’s a far better feeling than when you are making it – as long as you’ve got enough to survive, of course. You go, ‘Oh, what a relief’.
Why did you start The Book Club?
It t came out of a disastrous Edinburgh show which ended with me punching a melon, representing the head of Vernon Kay, until it exploded, and then singing Mustang Sally. No one really understood it. Maybe I was way ahead of the curve (laughs). In that show I would read from Sid Little’s autobiography, which led to The Book Club, and that reminded me why I did stand-up and why I liked ideas.
I started it partly as a reaction to seeing so many cynical, sneering comics. I wanted to do shows from a place of passion, so if someone came up to you and said, ‘I didn’t like what you said’, you couldn’t go ‘It’s just a joke, mate.’ You’d have to say, ‘I’m afraid you detest me and everything I represent.’ (laughs) Which is fine, I am a very detestable individual.
Also, at Edinburgh I saw so many interesting acts that I thought couldn’t fit on the circuit now because it had become so mainstream, so I thought it would be nice to put on something that had a certain element of variety. To provide a space where people could develop ideas, or a space for people who didn’t have a stand-up career, where they could do their thing.
When I first started, it seemed promoters watched acts and sometimes an act did well but they’d think this wasn’t really the sort of stuff they wanted in their club. Equally they’d watch acts fail and think, ‘They have something interesting, I’ll give them another go.’ That’s very much part of Eddie Izzard’s story, where his first manager Peter Harris ran clubs so Eddie could go on, try, maybe fail, then fail better.
There’s a demand for a fast-food version of comedy. They won’t remember the jokes – they don’t even really want to – they just want to laugh for an hour and then leave.
So I wanted to create a space that allowed for failure. Acts would ask, ‘Is it alright if I do this tonight?’ And I’d say, you don’t have to tell me, it doesn’t matter if it goes wrong. I don’t care how ridiculous an idea is. They might not have had time to rehearse, so it might be slapdash. Just as long as it comes from a place of ‘I really want to try this’, not ‘this’ll do’. That would annoy me. I can be quite annoying like that, quite demanding.
You’ve been a panelist on several radio and TV game shows. How do you find them?
The great gag comics are very good on panel shows: Milton Jones is tremendous, Stewart Francis and Frankie Boyle. But comics who are ideas people, ramblers, we don’t fit as well. I’m not right for television. I did Mock the Week and found it agonising. The desperation, the amount of preparation that had clearly gone into the ‘ad libs’ – the attitude of ‘this could make me a millionaire’. I think it brings out the worst in comedians, a horrible locker room mentality; the elbows are out, desperate to be the one who gets the laugh.
Radio panel shows are far more benevolent. Well, generally; Paul Merton does not like it if you win a round in Just a Minute, as I discovered. Oh, how pleased he was when, near the end of a minute, I said, ‘Allo Allo!’ .
So, I enjoy things where the attitude is: ‘Let’s have fun and enjoy each other’s company. Like Sue Perkins or Jeremy Hardy I don’t ever feel the desire to ‘get one over’ on Tim Minchin or Dave Gorman. A supportive atmosphere allows for a great level of imagination and an element of risk.
Will you ever go back to curating small gigs?
Definitely. I haven’t done them for ages and I’m sure there are loads of interesting gothic poets and people doing strange things with puppets who I’d like to see.
I also want to find space to write another book, so I need to cancel touring for a bit. I’ve gone a bit tour crazy. In the last five years I’ve taken nine different shows on tour, and I may well be about to go mad. These could be my last sane words – were they sane?