Daniel B Yates talks with comedian Milton Jones, about the stupidity of audiences, the state of contemporary british comedy and ripping off his children...
“We’re just flailing around in the darkness here, it’s kind of a metaphor for my career”. That's award-winning comic Milton Jones speaking, at least I hope it is. We are standing in pitch black darkness, somewhere around the back of Ealing Studios where Milton is due onstage in about, oh, seven minutes. That’s if he can find his way there. Someone has promised us that they’ll find some lights but perhaps they missed us in the darkness. Milton was told the switches were ‘outside’ which kept us pawing at walls for precious minutes until we gave up, defeated and blind. Above us looms the dark shape of a fire escape and someone, hopefully Milton, talks quickly and fluently in the darkness.
“I wanted to be an actor, it didn’t really work out. I wasn't getting much work and standup is something you can do quite quickly if you’re prepared to do it. But it was interactive and that was the hardest thing with me, because I’d trained as an actor I found it very difficult to shake the fourth wall, but there’s a hard cliff face to get up and once you get to a certain level there’s a kind of plateau where you’ve conquered your own fear of things going wrong and a whole boost of confidence that comes from that.”
Milton Jones has done a fair bit of conquering in his 20 years as a comedian. Timeout, Sony and Perrier awards are tucked under his belt, The Times has dubbed him ‘the King of surreal one-liners’, he is perhaps best known for his string of BBC Radio 4 shows, the sixth series of which is due to begin recording this spring.
“What’s nice about radio is that it provides a different audience, it was kids, it was old people, it was people driving home, which was quite nice but sometimes they’d turn up at a rough old night, somewhere like here or Jongleurs, an old man and two children, and [here Milton adopts a worried voice] ‘er it’s probably not what you’d like, I’d just leave if I were you’. I still quite like the idea of young people writing in, but it’s usually children which can be quite disturbing, or old people with different coloured inks, writing rambling letters, ‘I’m shocked and appalled’ and it doesn’t really make any sense at all, there are lots of people with too much time on their hands.”
Talking of too much time on your hands, you were a student once, how was that?
“I went to Middlesex poly, as it was years ago, to do drama, but I was living at home so I’m not sure it counts. However the thing about standup is that if you’ve never had a proper nine to five job it’s quite easy to think of yourself as a student that gets drunk occasionally and says things, you’re keeping crazy hours and mixing with students as well. But you have to work, and maybe have done some other work as well. Those guys that come straight from university to do standup, they have to talk about elves and pixies like Ross Noble because they’ve never been a civil servant, or been in the war, like me, so they have to have to create a fantasy world. I think students are different now though because when I was around alternative comedy was more alternative, but now, and perhaps I’m just an old fogey and can’t see it, but there seems less to kick out against. It may just be that students are too busy paying back their loans to have the time to be active. Maybe there is a possibility for a new alternative comedy but right now I can’t see it happening.”
But if it were to happen, what might alternative comedy look like now?
“Well, it’s very difficult to say. Mainstream comedy has moved into the realms sketched out by the alternative comedians of the 1980s so are we all part of the establishment or is everyone alternative? There is an idea that we have, as a society, accepted the cult of the individual, we don’t trust the government, we don’t trust the journalists that write about the government so we don’t trust anyone but ourselves and this may be a way to conceive of today’s comedy.”
“And there is a sense in which the 80s didn’t really deliver. Not many of the standups from that era are still on television, even fewer that have kept their politics. For all the rebellion a lot of it looks like fashion now. The fact that there are only about 6 women stand-ups on the comedy store books, out of 160 acts, I mean what happened there?”
Do you ever have the urge to use your platform to rant and froth?
“Yes. But it’s normally at student gigs and it’s normally things like ‘sit down for goodness sake’ or ‘if that’s your attitude’ or ‘who’s stolen the mic?’ and that kind of thing. But even in the mid-80s, with Ben Elton and co. they were always preaching to the converted, so it would be really interesting for a right wing comedian to get up, not that I’d agree with anything he said, but if he was really good, to see how well he would do.” He pauses and looks thoughtful, “Perhaps in the current climate that might not be such an interesting phenomenon. I have this joke, about ‘tricky isn’t it when you’re in a mosque, everyone’s praying and you really enjoy leap-frog’, right, okay, fine normally, but I dropped it for a bit. Recently I bought it back in gig in Essex or somewhere and everyone went ‘YEEAAAHHH’ and I thought, no you’re probably doing that for the wrong reason, so I dropped it again.”
It’s fair to say that you have quite a well maintained visual image, is that important to your act?
“I have a saying, ‘The thicker the crowd, the higher the hair’, because they need a signpost that says ‘oh, this blokes a bit mad’. And if you’re in Romford and it’s full of stag night, if come in as a slightly middle class bloke doing clever words you’re in trouble. So if you go in looking like you’re selling big issue and ‘is a nutter’ suddenly its far less threatening, even though they are the same gags. And it disguises the technique a little bit because if you think that someone’s quite slow and not really with it you can get away with more… puns basically.”
Do you ever lose an audience so totally - perhaps you’re a bit too middle-class, perhaps the hair isn’t quite high enough - that they attack you?
“Like any good comic I have plenty of stories of dying. I once did a corporate in Bedford for 700 barmen. 'It’s a bit odd isn’t it, on your night off getting free food and drink, isn’t that what you do every night of the week?' And a lady shouted out ‘we don’t get free food every night of the week’ so I said ‘how come you’re all so fat then?’. I thought that was alright, but I didn’t realize quite how enormous she was. So she burst into tears. She waddled out with the rest of her table. Half the room followed. The remaining audience surrounded me afterwards, said go in and apologise or we’ll do you over. The promoter didn’t pay me my money and I had to run to the car. A great night out. Another one happened during a gig I was doing at Trades Union Conference years ago. And I used to do this gag ‘I used to go out with a woman who was… (traces the sign for curvaceousness in the air with his hands) …deformed’. And for some reason I forgot to do the gesture, and the whole room went cold, and there was no point in trying to explain it. ‘What I meant.. what I should.. oh no..’ and this old man started heckling me and again I got surrounded and yeah...”
All of the good times. So, you've got me a bit worried that i'm not going to be clever enough to enjoy your show, have you got any tips?
“It's really not that difficult, and most audiences can take something away from any given joke of mine. There are certain jokes that have got a top line, and if everyone's feeling clever enough I’ll do the rest of it. And vice versa, if audiences are clever enough they only need know the first line. Occasionally what I’ll do, one I’ll use early on tonight is ‘I’ve just come back from Australia, where I learnt some aborigine words, like the word ‘Boo’ which means return, because when you throw an ordinary meringue…’ But then what quite often I’ll do is pick on someone in the front row and shout ‘Boomerang’. Which is quite unfair, but what it does do is bring up the 20% of the audience that perhaps didn’t get it.”
Like the joke on your Paramount slot, ‘Did you know the pope really likes cats, apparently he’s a cataholic’ and you proceed to bellow 'Catholic' in someone's face, which certainly adds to the funny.
“Did you see that on Youtube? I’ve been informed by children that that’s up there. My kids try and sell me gags. They’re getting older now and they realize there’s money in it.”
And you realize their cheap labour.
“Yes exactly, 10p that’s the going rate. Not too expensive... or fair”
So how much of your set is written by your children?
“Yes, well more than… they know. Occasionally they’ve given me good ideas which aren’t fully formed so obviously I can’t pay them ‘big money’ but definitely they have given me good ideas..”
Talking of good ideas a light has come on and we stand there blinking.
Milton Jones is playing at venues around London. His BBC Radio 4 Show ‘The Very World of MIlton Jones’ airs later this year