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Milton Jones: Interview

November 3, 2009
by: Emma

With mad scientist hair and a healthy appetite for ridiculous jumpers, Milton Jones looks every part the comic on stage. His repertoire of silly, surreal one-liners is renowned on the comedy circuit and he has a strong fan base of Radio 4 listeners from his award-winning series The Very World of Milton Jones. Currently two thirds of the way through a national tour, I caught up with him to find out why he doesn't do Edinburgh anymore, what happened when he came face to face with Jeremy Clarkson and his new possible career as a novelist...

This Saturday, Milton Jones finally brings his new tour to London, but it's been a long journey to get here: "I've sort of lost track of where I am, I know I'm not home at the moment. I was in Manchester last night, Berwick the night before, Birmingham before that, so it's not unusual to go onstage in Oxford and say 'Hello Cambridge!' "

But, unlike many comics who precede a tour with a month's run at the Edinburgh Fringe, Jones hasn't been up in five years: "I got fed up with it. People make a lot of money out of it but it's certainly not the acts. It's gone from being a bit like a trade fair to a scam. It's also for me, too long. I think if you're starting out it's a good thing because it makes you match fit in a way you couldn't be just doing a couple of circuit gigs a week, but it's very fashion-led and there's little attention paid to craftsmen getting better at what they do." In fact you'd have more luck seeing Milton perform in church than in Edinburgh; as a Christian he regularly attends and even performs there sometimes, although he'll always try and stir it up a bit: "It wouldn't be the first time I've said to a happy clappy bunch: 'Christians need to get away from religious clichés. Amen?' and there'll just be murmurs!"

After an unsuccessful acting stint in his early 20s, he decided to try his hand at stand-up, but it took him a while to find his own style: "It didn't really click for me until I thought of myself as someone else. I used to go on as me and do different types of jokes and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't, but when I then went on and stuck my hair up and wore silly jumpers I felt more like a character. It's like a mask to hide behind." Jones found one-liners were his niche, or rather they found him: "I was so terrified in the beginning to get to the joke as quickly as possible that I ended up doing just one-liners. Obviously the downside is that they take a lot of writing."

In 1996, he won the Perrier Award for 'Best Newcomer' and was nominated for the main award the following year alongside Graham Norton, Al Murray and The League of Gentlemen. His career has been in the ascendancy ever since. BBC 4 gave him his first radio series in 1998: The Very World of Milton Jones which won a Sony Award and led to two further programmes The House of Milton Jones and Another Case of Milton Jones. As a result he gets plenty of radio listeners along to his solo shows: "There's a real mixture of people there usually: women, children, blokes with beards. I look out into the crowd and think this is the people who should be first onto the lifeboats! I've done Radio 4 for over 10 years now and that's a different audience to the clubs and pubs, but I quite like the fact I can get whole families to a show."

So does he find he always has the audience eating out of his hand now? "Absolutely not, I know that within the next six months I'll be in the wrong place at the wrong time, probably at a corporate gig with 40 Japanese people, but that's part of being a comedian: taking the lows with the highs." It may be surprising to think of someone of Jones' calibre performing corporate gigs but most top level comics do, and why wouldn't they; when they pay ten times what a small comedy club can.

"It's nice to think you shouldn't have to do them anymore but then you get a tax bill through... I did one gig years ago with 12 men sitting round a table and one was Jeremy Clarkson, so that's already set up as your worst gig ever and then he tried to guess every single punch line. So I started to pull him apart and all of his friends began to boo me. It's all about developing a thick skin to get on with it and recover. It's not like after a few years you stop having bad gigs, it's a tightrope walk that can go wrong and you can be vilified for it. This is why comics hang out with each other – they understand each other's sensibilities."

Milton is good friends with fellow one-liner specialists Tim Vine and Lee Mack. "We have to keep an eye on each other's acts in case we're on the same bill. I once did a show where it was me, Tim Vine and Jimmy Carr and you can imagine by the end the audience were pretty fed up!" He lives in Richmond with his wife and three children, who he occasionally tests material on: "Sometimes I come down with a sheet of jokes to try out but everyone just hides! Or they try and sell me stuff. They'll say 'Dad how much is this worth?' and I'll say 'It's worth nothing' and secretly jot it down."

As well as completing his second national tour this year, Milton has just finished penning his first novel about the career of a fictional comedian called Where Do Comedians Go When They Die. "It follows the comic's career from his first open spot to jaded, cynical TV appearance and the effect it has on his mental state and his attitude to the business." So could novel writing take over from stand-up in the near future? "We'll see! I think it's best to have as many irons in different fires as possible. It's not like you're a musician who can keep playing their greatest hits, people don't want to hear the same jokes again and again! You can tell as an audience when a comedian has gone dead behind the eyes. You have to keep re-inventing yourself."

Milton Jones: Milton's Paradise Jones
is at the Bloomsbury this Saturday.

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