Ross Noble interview
Most of us have experienced a nightmare where we’re on stage, in front of a huge audience, with no script, no cues, and absolutely no clue what we’re going to say next. What is an unwelcome nocturnal stress for most people is a daily fact of life for Ross Noble. When Noble takes to the stage, he has no more of an idea what he’s going to say than the bloke in row Q. As he tells us, he just wings it.
Hi Ross. Tangentleman will be your 15th stand-up tour. What is it you enjoy about touring so much?
Is it my 15th? I’ve no idea. It depends what you class as a tour. I started doing stand-up when I was 15, and I’m 37 now. And I’ve pretty much been gigging relentlessly that whole time. It was 1999 when I stopped doing the comedy clubs and started touring on my own. But when you tour the UK and Ireland, and then go off and do the rest of the world, and then go off to Australia for six months, is that all one tour or not? I’ve just released my 9th DVD, and most of those have got a couple of different shows on them. I suppose I’m a bit like Bob Dylan, I’m just on one never-ending tour.
The second series of your show, Freewheeling, is back on Dave next year. Viewers saw the first series take you all over the country on your motorbike, following suggestions from the public on Twitter. What were the oddest scenarios you found yourself in?
Probably the oddest, and my favourite, was when I went to investigate whether Lesley Joseph had been rude to a guy in a café in York. I tweeted “What celebrities have you seen, and where have you seen them?” and somebody tweeted and said Lesley Joseph had been in a café opposite where she worked and had been rude to someone in there, so I turned up there and heard the story. And obviously, legally, you have to be balanced, so I was sat there wearing the face of Lesley Joseph. That sounds massively sinister. I wasn’t wearing it in a Silence of the Lambs way. I got a tattoo artist to do a pencil drawing of Lesley Joseph’s face, and I was wearing it on my face… Then she walked past the café, so I chased her down the street! That was just amazing.
Do you have a favourite part of the country to visit?
I love Scotland, I absolutely love it. You get the best of both worlds, you get great audiences, but then you get the most phenomenal scenery. We’ve got some of the most picturesque landscapes and countryside, but most people, certainly in the south, go “Meh! I can fly to Greece in the time it would take to get there.”
Do you have a favourite venue to play? You always seem to do plenty of nights at Newcastle City Hall when you tour…
Playing Newcastle City Hall is special, because that’s my home crowd. That’s the place where, when I was a kid, I looked at and went “Anyone who plays there has made it.” I always get a buzz off that. The older theatres that were designed by Frank Matcham are perfect for comedy.
It’s fun to do a thousand-seater theatre where it’s quite intimate, but when I’ve played arenas, you’ve got the big screens. So, weirdly, you can do stuff that’s even more intimate because even the people at the back can see you close up. But then you’ve got that odd disconnect of the fact that people are essentially watching it on telly. On the other hand, once you start to get 10,000 plus people laughing, there’s a noise and an experience that becomes really exciting. On this tour, they’re all theatres, and I think that’s the best, because no-one’s having to watch you on a screen.
Do you think senses of humour are like accents, and they vary with regions?
No. I think that may have been the case once, but not now. I think in the Variety Theatres, the audiences in different places used to have a certain sense of humour. I think now you’re much more likely to get different crowds on different nights in the same venue, who have totally different senses of humour. If you’ve got a crowd in seeing Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown one night, and Eddie Izzard the next, they will be totally different crowds. It’s more about the mindset of the people going to see the gig. People used to say Glasgow audiences were really tough – I think some southern comedians might find it difficult. For me, I find the Glasgow audiences are some of the best. They’re rowdy, they’re lively, they’re great fun.
Anyone who’s ever seen your work before knows it’s not exactly what you’d call structured. Is there any point in asking what people can expect from Tangentleman?
I think what I try and do is do the show that I would want to see if I went to see somebody live. I like to keep it interesting for the audience, and I like to keep it interesting for myself. I’m naturally quite playful in the way I approach life, and that’s what I try to bring to the live shows.
What that means is your show is basically different every night. Do you get people who come back again and again?
Yeah, some do. The way that I work, I go on stage and I improvise stuff. Somebody might say something that will spark five or ten minutes or more of improv, and then out of that ten minutes, there might be one nugget of an idea that I like, which I’ll maybe expand and kick around next night. The best way to describe it is some comedians write out lists of words, to remind them what to say, whereas my show is like taking a bucket full of cartoon characters and melting them, then taking that melted cartoon sludge, putting it in a water pistol, and firing it into the air.
With a scripted show, comics will often leave their best material to the end. Do you ever worry that you might finish on something that doesn’t work?
That’s why my shows are so long. “No, that’s not good enough to end on. I’d better do another five minutes.” “Is that good enough? No. Five more.” But in terms of ending the show, I’ve probably started ten different stories, so I’ve got to try and get back to them to wrap them all up. So the problem I normally have is remembering all the things I’ve started.
Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and think “I didn’t finish that bit…”
Oh, all the time! The great thing about Twitter is that now people will just tweet me and go “You never finished talking about that thing…” Very often I’m in the hotel bar or a Nandos or a petrol station the day after the gig, and someone will come up and go “I was at the show last night. What was that you were going on about?”
You say your shows can be quite long. How do you know when to finish the show? Are you able to keep track of the time?
Because my tour manager is at the side of the stage tapping his watch, going “Come on, come on. You’ve had your fun.”
You get really involved with the audience. Do people ever come up with something that throws you?
Yeah, all the time, but that’s the fun of it. Sometimes stuff happens that you think would completely ruin the show. For example, I did one gig where the fire alarm went off. That could knacker the whole thing. The audience had to be evacuated. But I went outside and just continued doing the gig while everyone was standing around. And there was a little kid there, probably about 12, with the fire engines behind me, and got people to take pictures of me, so it looked like I was saving a child’s life. Then we all went back in, and I came onstage and brought the fire brigade out with me like a chorus line, and we all took a bow. And I was thinking “The firemen will be loving that,” and one of them just went “Don’t go thinking you’re special, I’ve already been onstage with Goldfrapp.”
People have also taken to leaving items on stage during the interval that you interact with later on. What kind of stuff do they leave?
I have no idea where it started, but people just started giving little gifts on the stage. Then it just became a thing where people tried to outdo each other. There are some nights where there’s so much I have to get a broom and just push it all off to the side. When people make stuff themselves, that’s amazing, the best one I ever had was somebody made me a proper suit made out of bubble wrap. It was great. And people leave vegetables that they’ve carved into the shape of my face, stuff like that. But I have to be careful, otherwise I’ll suddenly discover that I’ve done an hour of just talking about the stuff people have left onstage.
Lastly, is it really true that you once played the love interest to Ian Smith, who played Harold Bishop in Neighbours?
Yeah! I did. I’ve always been a stand-up through-and-through. Some comics just want to act. I’ve always thought “If I ever do that, it’s got to be fun.” Two years ago, Peter Richardson asked me if I wanted to be in the new Comic Strip. So of course I did that, and it was so much fun that I wanted to do a bit more. So I then did a horror film, Stitches, playing a murderous undead clown out for revenge. So I got a taste for them, but didn’t write either of them.
Then a friend of mine who makes an Australian show called It’s a Date, a drama about people going on dates, suggested I co-wrote and starred in an episode. It can be anything you want. Now, I could have chosen anyone to star with, instead I said “I know exactly what I want to do. I want to play a gay fella who’s on Grindr, looking for a guy, and he thinks he’s going to meet somebody who looks like Antonio Banderas.” And my mate said “Right. And who would you be on the date with?” And I said “Ian Smith. Harold from Neighbours.” So I wrote the script and that was it. Even as it was happening, I couldn’t get my head around the fact that Harold was my love interest. Maybe one day it’ll get shown over here.