Hilary Wardle

Interview: Tony Law

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Tony Law is a surreal and unique stand-up comedian, who looks like a cross between a 1908 Olympic athlete and – his words – a 16th century Genoese sailor. His TV appearances include Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle and Have I Got News For You. Here he talks to Hilary Wardle about his current show, his plans for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe and – of course – Vikings.

HW: You’re currently touring a show called Tony Law: Maximum Nonsense. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

TL: Well, it’s sort of nonsense really. But underneath all the nonsense there’s some social politics, meaning and messages, though they’re not very obvious. It’s very moral and ethical, even though it’s ostensibly about banter, pirates and trolls…

HW: Trolls?

TL: They’re my children. Three year old twins. But rather than doing observational stuff about parenting I just do a bit of nonsense then try to go back and figure out what I mean. On the whole, I like to say good things, kind things. If I do make fun of human beings it’s the powerful, the rich… bullies, basically. But some people just see the show as nonsense, even reviewers who liked it. They say “there’s no meaning in this show, but I really enjoyed it”. Although friends who’ve been along say you have to see it a couple of times to get the hang of it.

HW: So people should buy two sets of tickets then?

TL: Absolutely!

HW: Maximum Nonsense started life as a lunchtime Fringe Show last year. Do you have any plans for Fringe 2013?

TL: Yes, I’m coming up again this year and going on at the same time. I like the lunchtime slot. It’s a tricky one, but I’ve built up a bit of a following over the years. Also, I like being first, although this year Bridget Christie is coming on before me at 11. Some people might think going on early is easy, but it’s quite tricky, it took me ages to build it up. Bridget will be fine as she’s got a good following, but I made a loss for years. I stopped going to the Fringe in 2007 as there’s no way I could afford it,  but now we can just about break even.

HW: So what’s the show about…and will we be seeing much more of your time-travelling sausage dog Cartridge Davison?

TL: I started writing the material – well, jotting it down – during last year’s Fringe, then between September and Christmas I was doing new material every week. Every year when Christmas comes I inevitably look at the new stuff and decide it’s a mess, but when I start touring the old show again (like I am at the moment) I get excited about doing new things and it all starts to come together in my head. As soon as the tour’s over I’ll start doing bits of new material every night, although I really do just write it as I go along. Two of the main bits of Maximum Nonsense were improvised in the first two nights of the Fringe run. And yes, Cartridge might make a little cameo appearance, although not physically, sadly, as he’s now gone blind. But it’s nice to bring back the odd little element for people who’ve been there from the beginning.

HW: I’ve heard you – or possibly your eclectic style – variously described as surreal, weird, whimsical etc. What is the least favourite description you’ve ever had applied to your work?

TL: Meaningless, probably. Sometimes I’ve had a really positive review and even though they’ve liked it they’ve said it was meaningless. Maybe I’m wrong but I think there is meaning in what I do, and also it comes from a good place. My wife and I work really hard at looking at it and she asks me questions like ‘who’s that for’, or ‘why are you doing that?’ She convinces me meaning is there, though I suppose it’s hard to see at first glance. Having said that, some of the reviewers get it bang on. In fact I’d say some of them understand it better than me and they find the right words and then I stick those quotes on posters. I did a Soho Theatre run and the reviewer from the Evening Standard really nailed it. He didn’t say the show was perfect, but he did gently remind me of things I could tweak.

HW: Are there any comedians out there at the moment that really stand out for you? People you think: wow, that’s really great. Wish I’d thought of that?

TL: The Alternative Comedy Memorial Society are great. It’s John-Luke Roberts and loads of guests like Josie Long, Isy Suttie etc. They really push the boat out and they’re really original. Well, I say original. It’s not easy to be completely original, but they are doing things that no one has seen on the circuit for a long time, things you can pull in from the past. Simon Munnery goes down a lot too, as do Phill Jupitus and Harry Hill.

HW: Are you inspired/influenced by other comedians or do you see yourself as more of a trailblazer (or Viking Explorer, to use your own term)?

TL: When I first started out I really didn’t know what to do. I was just pandering to the audience really. Then I went to Edinburgh and saw The Mighty Boosh, Sean Lock, Simon Munnery and loads of other shows and they were so different to other comedy I’ve seen. It really inspired me and made me feel like I could do anything I wanted.

HW: How long ago was that? 

TL: Well, I’ve now been at it 13 years, though I’ve been full time for the last five. Basically, it took me about a decade to get where I am now. It’s supposed to take 10,000 hours to get really good at something, so I’ve certainly done my time. I was funny with my friends growing up, then I became very serious when I was insecure in my 20s so that set me back a bit. I was wandering, and I felt that I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I didn’t go to university so felt I’d screwed myself in a way, limited my options.

HW: I heard you had a period fairly early on where you did the big comedy clubs and had a few tough gigs…

TL: That period really just blends into one long slog of disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, I was very grateful for it at the time – it was a steady job, it paid rent etc. – but I was really pig-headed and didn’t change what I did. It was a very mixed crowd so when I did a whole weekend, one night might go okay, the other ones really wouldn’t and I’d get a call on the Monday saying, ‘That didn’t really go very well’. Although it did help me in a way. It made me try to be punchier and more immediate, otherwise in that environment you’re mincemeat. That’s also when I started to describe the jokes as I was doing them and narrate what’s going on out of sheer panic. Even now when I’m doing a gig to ‘my’ crowd, I still have that feeling of panic, although I suppose it does keep me fresh.

HW: So if the big arena comedy is the ‘new Rock and Roll’, what does that make you?

TL: I suppose Michael McIntyre and the other big arena players are U2, Phil Collins etc. But we’re the underground jazz bands, the people in basements.

HW: You should incorporate bar stools and finger clicking into your routine to reflect that.

TL: Yeah, maybe I will!

HW: Unlike other ‘alt’ comics, you’ve done a fair bit of telly, most recently in Sue Perkins’ new sitcom, Heading Out. What’s been your favourite TV appearance to date?

TL: I would say definitely Never Mind The Buzzcocks with Paloma Faith and Noel Fielding. It was two hours of just playing around and letting rip. I’ve known Noel since I started out – like I said, I went to a few Mighty Boosh shows and sort of followed him around a bit. But I liked all of them really. Have I Got News For You was fun, it was nice to be around a friendly audience who were all there for the same reason and who get you. Also it’s pretty exciting as they encourage you not to do any prep work. It’s pure improvisation.

HW: Finally, you make quite a lot of references to Vikings in your current show. Why is that?

TL: Vikings are something I used to read about a lot. However, I’ve been reading a lot of Stalin recently so there might be a bit of Bolshevik stuff in my new show. History’s my main interest outside of doing my job. Also, when I look in the mirror I sort of see a Viking.

HW: Because of the beard?

TL: Yes. Although I’ve cut it back a bit now. It’s more of a Game of Thrones beard. A Sean Bean medieval fantasy beard.

HW: Do you have a Viking Fact Of The Day you want to share with our readers?

TL: Sometimes they used to feed mushrooms to a horse before battle, then drink the resulting drugged horse urine as it sent them berserk. That’s where you get the word ‘berserker’.  Although to be fair, I didn’t actually double check that fact was true. You should Google it.

Tony Law: Maximum Nonsense is touring the UK until 28 April 2013. For dates and tickets, see: showandtelluk.com