Live from Latitude: an interview with Al Murray.
When you hear the word ‘festival’, ‘pints’ is surely never far behind. So what better way to kick off our coverage of Latitude 2012 than an interview with The Pub Landlord himself, Al Murray. James Harle tracks him down for a quiet word before his appearance in the Comedy Arena tomorrow morning…
JH: Hi Al. What one question have you always wanted to answer, but you never got the chance to because interviewers have never asked it?
AM: Ah, that’s a good one. That’s a very good one. Gosh, I haven’t even thought about that; there are questions I’d never want to be asked again, but gosh, I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.
JH: Well maybe we’d best go with one of the ones you’d never want to answer again then, if that’s what you’d prefer…
AM: “Where did you come up with The Pub Landlord?”
If you’ve read my cuttings then you must know – because I’ve told this story five hundred thousand times. I don’t know the answer to your question though, and it’s such an excellent question; maybe it’s the question. That question itself is the question…
“What do you really want to be asked?” That’s very good. No interviewer has ever asked me that before.
JH: Let’s just talk about what you’re up to at the moment then. Obviously this weekend you’re doing The Infinite Monkey Cage with Robin Ince and Brian Cox, but you seem to be permanently on tour! How’s that treating you?
AM: Great, yeah. It’s an interesting thing that it gets called ‘on tour’ now, whereas it used to be just called working.
Things get talked into tours now, so that you can have a poster and a marketing campaign. This is just what I do, what I’ve been doing for the whole time I’ve been a comic, really. It’s working almost every night. I mean, I love doing theatres, so it’s kind of a…you stumble and call it a tour, but it’s not, it’s just work. I work all year, basically. I’m always on the job.
To be honest, I very much regard my job as playing to audiences. So if I wasn’t doing that, I wouldn’t be doing my job. I have some time off – down time, while I write a new show – but the way you write a show anyway, or the way I do it, is to perform to small theatres near where I live, so I’m still playing to audiences.
JH: So saying, though, you obviously find a lot of time to do other things as well; TV stuff like Al Murray’s Happy Hour and Compete for the Meat?
AM: We made that series in a week, so we jammed that in during a bit of down-time last April. That’s how game shows get made: en masse.
JH: Well, I was very curious about the show: I’m a vegetarian myself. (I’m much happier admitting that to you, I think, than I would be to The Pub Landlord himself…)
AM: Oh yeah, you can tell me; but The Pub Landlord would definitely have something to say on that! With Compete for the Meat, the reason they’re playing for frozen chicken is because that’s ridiculous; game shows have gone way beyond self-parody. You can’t give a million pounds away anymore, and the greed – was it Red or Black where they were playing for a million quid on blind fucking luck?
We think answering some quiz questions and winning a chicken is just more noble. And just as ridiculous, basically.
JH: I don’t know what’s happened to game shows; the ethos used to be “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”, where you build up to a million pounds, but now it’s more “Million Pound Drop”- you start with the money, lose it, and that’s what people want to see.
AM: Exactly. And the questions are just… idiotic. But there we are. Anyway, back to the original question: you can trade the chicken for… um… a vegetarian option. Or, you could give it to someone you know, who needs the chicken more than you do.
JH: There are so many comedians at Latitude this weekend, and obviously you must have seen a lot of other comedians perform. I’m really interested in the kind of unifying theory of comedy; is there any kind of unity between comics – an essence of comedy – that you can see?
AM: The one unifying thing for all stand-up comics is that they are all show offs! That’s the unifying theory of comedy: you’ve got clever ones, you’ve got quiet ones, you’ve got intellectuals…whatever. But everyone is in [the business] because they’re a show off, and they like audiences and applause. A lot of people try and deny that, or try and fudge that, but I think that’s the case.
JH: Good stuff! You studied History at Oxford University, and you’ve obviously got a huge interest in the past; you’ve said before that that that interest stems from an interest in people. We live in an age where, socially, there’s a lot to take in: Occupy Wall Street, the financial crisis, etc. Do these issues play into your interest in history?
AM: The interesting thing about history is that you can look back at a time and say, “Well, those are the important events.” The problem with living in the right-now is that you don’t know what’s really going on. You can’t tell what the important things are; and the noisy things often turn out to be not important at all. And the quiet little things, that you don’t hear about at all, going on in the background, are actually the things that are shaping the direction of the world.
The Occupy stuff is fascinating, and interesting, and in lots of ways amusing. In a pure sense you look at it and think, “Wow.” But the decisions that are going on in the Chinese Politburo right now about what to do with exchange rates and releasing the dollar and the euro and all that, how to underwrite European borrowing and American borrowing; they’re probably the history events.
But who knows. The interesting thing about history is that you can look at 1960 and go: right, that, that, that and that are the key events, that looked like it could have been but it wasn’t really. It looked like a key event but really that’s just where the heat and the noise and the light were; but actually, the important decisions were being made here. All that stuff.
And also, when you look across history you’ve got people living in different circumstances… and there are simple things in history. You know that Greece, in the last fifty years, has spent half its time defaulting or restructuring its debt. Why did no one know that? No one spotted that before they were included in the euro. And there’s another reason to learn your history; there’s an opportunity to make mistakes if you don’t know it.
JH: [Historical philosopher] Nassim Nicholas Taleb entertains a similar theory in his book Black Swan, in which he suggests that history is ordered retrospectively. I don’t know if you’ve come across it?
AM: I don’t know it, but I’m familiar with the theory, and it’s closely related to the historian’s fallacy – which is that just because we now know the outcome of an event, the people at the time only knew what the potential outcomes were, and made those decisions with the potential outcomes in front of them.
That’s very easy; that’s why conspiracy theorists can tell you that FDR knew about Pearl Harbour and let it happen because he knew he was going to win the Second World War and that the Soviets would end up occupying most of Europe – which is just fucking nonsense. Every moment in history was once a present moment with an unknown future. It’s a trite thing to assert- but it’s obviously true. Just like I don’t know what question you’ll ask me next – but when it’s written up as an interview, it’ll look like an orderly conversation.
JH: Hopefully! Anyway, you’re at Latitude this weekend, back in Edinburgh next month for the festival and no doubt you’ll be ‘on tour’ again soon; if you could say anything to our readers, how would you sell them a ticket to one of your shows?
AM: Well, I’d tell them that by the end of the show they’ll have done things that they never imagined doing in a theatre, and between us we’ll have saved the country.
JH: Fantastic. I think that’s probably a good message to end on…
AM: Thanks very much; it’s so nice to be asked lots of engaging and different questions. You know, you actually ended up with a lot of questions I’d like to be asked more often.
Tickets for Al Murray’s new Edinburgh show, The Only Way Is Epic, are on sale now here; but at 11am tomorrow he’s in the Latitude Comedy Arena with Robin Ince and Brian Cox. And if you want to know what we’re up to this weekend, follow us on Twitter: @GiggleBeats.