Ross Noble: ‘I always say stand-up is just playing around’

Ross Noble
Ross Noble
Howards' Way pub the  Jolly Sailor at Bursledon

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Rarely is a tour as aptly named as comic Ross Noble’s latest trip around the country.

The Geordie stand-up has given this 15th national tour the punning title Tangentleman.

And considering you’d have more luck nailing blancmange to a wall than getting Ross to stick to a subject, it’s almost a surprise that he hasn’t used it before now.

Even mid-sentence, he can change thread and go off in a completely different direction which, while entertaining on stage as he takes numerous surreal detours, makes for an interesting interview experience.

And boy can Ross talk – The Guide’s interview was only sadly curtailed when Ross’s phone died.

When performing Ross appears to follow wherever the comic muse takes him on the night. But is it just a very convincing piece of acting, and is it all really tightly scripted?

‘That’s tricky, because when you say scripted, it’s hard to say. I don’t sort of script the show. I go on and I improvise – stuff falls out.

‘I’ll talk to people in the audience, or whatever’s going on in my head, and that sparks the improv stuff. I’ll follow that idea and that might lead me to another idea. And so the next night I’ll see where that’ll go and that’s my starting point, instead of sitting down and writing a script.

‘I improvise something and someone in the audience will say something that will remind me of one story and then that might trigger another story and I’ll go off on a tangent.’

Would you say then that you’re easily distracted?

‘Yeah, it’s one of those things. Some comics will write a show and then they’ll just do that show – I do it the other way around.

‘If something goes well one night for me, I might then retell the story, but then how I do that – it’s all about playing. You can sort of get hung up on the terms of it. The trouble is if you’re not careful, once you start talking about improv, you sound like you’re trying to be clever, a bit (Ross puts on a posh voice) ‘‘la-de-dah”, so I always say it’s just playing around.

‘But that’s the beautiful thing about stand-up, it’s possibly the only art form where you are the writer, director and star of the show.

‘The fun of it is that you can talk about something and if the audience don’t buy into it, you can either go: “I won’t bother then” and talk about something else, or there’s fun in dragging people in and by the end of it they’re laughing at something which 10 minutes earlier would have made no sense at all, but you’re creating a logic and stuff is happening.’

Warming to his theme, he says: ‘It works two ways, you can take something incredibly mundane and make it funny and fantastical or you can take something that’s bonkers and make it logical.

‘One minute I might be talking about the fridge in the dressing room and the next I might be talking about Narnia, and it can flick between the two and that’s what keeps it interesting for me.’

In recent years it has become commonplace for bigger name stand-ups to trial new material at work-in-progress shows in smaller venues. It’s not a practice that Noble indulges in.

‘I think that work-in-progress has become a “scene” now,’ he explains.

‘People are trying some things out and being experimental and they get to the point where it’s: “Right this works, and I know exactly where every single laugh is”, and it’s like doing a play.

‘I’m not knocking anyone who does it, but saying a show is a work-in-progress is a bit like saying: “This might be a bit rubbish and might not be funny.”

‘But I think half of the joy of the show and stand-up is that when you’re going with the flow, there’s times where you can follow an idea and you can see the audience go: “Where’s this going?” And then there’s something that happens where your brain goes: “That’s the thing!”

‘Something kicks in and it kicks up a gear and everyone goes: “Ah, right!”

‘And they’re on that train of thought with you.’

And he adds: ‘There are some guys that do one-liners, for example, and that’s great. Somebody’s who’s written a lot of one-liners and does them precisely, that is a skill and I enjoy watching that.’

‘There will always be a place for really good one-liner merchants and people who do slick and accessible stuff, but luckily for me, I’ve built my following live. Luckily people come along to my shows and what they want is to get involved.

‘Some people come along to comedy shows and they don’t want to sit in the front row because they’re going: “Don’t pick on me”, but I’ve got a front row full of people going: “Brilliant! Talk to me – I want to be part of the show”. They want to be part of something rather than be picked on.’

However, Ross is not one for resting on his laurels. He’s joined the touring cast of The Producers, Mel Brooks’ musical, which will be at the Mayflower in Southampton in late May – and he is already very excited about.

And he also has a second series of his TV show Freewheeling due to air on Dave this spring. The show follows Ross around the UK in response to tweets he’s received. With its anarchic feel, it fits Ross’s ethos perfectly. It’s a travel show ‘where the destination isn’t the point,’ says Ross.

‘There’s a moment in the new series, where I’m up in Scotland, where I lose my signal, so I can’t get any tweets. I’ve got a show without a format that now hasn’t got a premise,’ and he laughs at the memory – it’s a moment that just about sums him up.

Ross Noble is bringing Tangentleman to Portsmouth Guildhall on Thursday, January 29. Doors open 7.30pm and tickets cost £25. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk or call the box office on 0844 847 2362.