“A month before he died, my grandmother covered my grandfather’s back with lard. He went downhill very quickly…”
There has to be a buzz from telling jokes like this and making hundreds of people laugh at once, but if ‘Life on the Road’ evokes images of after-show parties, groupies and debauchery, it’s not like that for a comedian. But what is it like to take stand-up on the road? In the days before he appeared on Mock the Week, I sat with Milton Jones in a camping field to find out.
DW: As someone who struggles to remember more than three jokes at a time (any new ones simply push the old ones out) I have to admire comedians for remembering them – complete with punchline – night after night. Is it due to a naturally strong memory or is it technique?
MJ: I started off as an actor, so I was used to learning lines. Then if you’ve spent a long time writing one line, you tend to remember it, actually. Because I’ve been doing this fifteen, sixteen years, you learn the knack of remembering stuff – because there’s just a gap if you don’t! Some times I do forget and I’ve got so many that I can just flit to another. That’s one of the nice things, compared with acting – you’re not waiting for someone else’s line, so you can just do your own thing. The worst thing is if someone says, ‘Do that one about such-and-such, now!’ I probably couldn’t do it, or I’d have to sit down and work it out. There’s something about adrenaline and having to do it, that I remember it.
DW: How do you structure your set to keep the pace going?
MJ: There are certain running gags that have to go in the right order, otherwise it doesn’t make sense. Apart from that I tend not to structure it. I’ll probably have the first two or three worked out, because there are only so many you can open with, and so many you can close with, but the middle … I’ll leave it because if I’m doing 5 or 6 shows a week, I need to keep it fresh myself. So sometimes I can surprise myself by adding in another little bit, or linking two things that I haven’t linked before, and you get another bit out of it. So I tend to just keep it scattergun – especially if I’m only doing twenty minutes. If you’re doing an hour, then it helps to have some sort of structure, or you can feel blood coming out of people’s ears after about twenty minutes …
DW: It’s pretty intense stuff. Have you ever worked out how many jokes you can get into a 20 minute set?
MJ: No. A lot depends on the audience. If their laughter is longer, then obviously there are less. Actually, Tim Vine is far quicker. He’s about half as quick as me again. I think my jokes are slightly longer often than his, but it does depend a heck of a lot on the audience. If it’s a hard audience, an indifferent audience, you find yourself getting through loads of material very quickly.
DW (surprised): Does that happen very often?
MJ: Occasionally, you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time, especially for a corporate event; at Christmas, when the boss has hired you and hasn’t even told the people you’re on, and they’d rather be talking and you have to accept that… or you face an audience that is all stag nights or something, and you come to the end of what they’re going to understand quite quickly! So last night I ended up making monkey noises at a bloke for about a minute… it seemed to go down rather well! I thought, “Is this what I’ve come to?”
“Sisters, sisters … you know you really like to sing that song, ‘It’s Raining Men’? You love the idea of them all falling out of the sky. You know you really like the idea of them going ‘Splat’ on the ground really hard? Is that because you really hate men … or love the idea of cleaning up?”
DW: Is your act clean because of principle, or because your blend of wordplay and the zany precludes the need for it?
MJ: I don’t sit down and say, “Now I’ll write a clean joke.” Hopefully, it comes out of what I am. There are parts of me that are quite dark, and some people might shy away from that. I’m a practising Christian, and serious about it, but I am a comedian. I don’t think with separate hats – that would be symptomatic of something more serious theologically, and wrong – it is one and the same thing, so I just get on and do it.
DW: At what point did you dare to make a living from comedy? That’s quite a decision to make…
MJ: I didn’t make the decision. I tried to do acting and I wasn’t working very much. You can get up and do an open spot in comedy quite quickly, if you’re prepared to do it. It just takes a long time to get established. But then it also coincided with the mushrooming of the comedy circuit anyway, so there were lots of little clubs around the outside where you can make small money, and gradually it built over time. The biggest single break I had was after seven years of doing this. I won ‘Best Newcomer’ at the Edinburgh Festival, (mutters) newcomer after seven years … and that reversed the trend of me ‘phoning people as opposed to people ‘phoning me.
DW: While your stand-up is immensely popular, your sketch shows have had a poorer reception, with Planet Mirth even garnering comments like “a waste of space” and “disappointing”. Do you struggle with collaborations?
MJ: Without going into the individual projects, generally stand-up has to work, because you are standing in front of people who will boo you off if it doesn’t; and you soon learn when a line doesn’t work and you jettison it. So I literally can’t afford for something not to work on stage for very long. It’s a very big stick hanging over you. Whereas if you put on a production for TV or radio, you’re doing a whole load of new material all at once, without any kind of audience feedback until it’s out there. That inevitably is a risk. Also, I’ve been doing stand-up for a long time, and so I think I’m better at knowing what will work and what won’t, whereas the radio and TV things – certainly with Planet Mirth, which was quite a long time ago – it was written for us, and you either did it or you didn’t. One of the problems was that it wasn’t all written when we took on the thing. You’re compromised to some degree. I don’t want to blame other people, but because it’s all new, you don’t know whether it’s going to work or not. That’s always going to be the risk – there’s no way of out of it unless you test it to little focus groups beforehand. What TV people often say is, “We like what you do; we don’t know what to do with you.” All the one liners I’ve got are all carefully worked out and it’s very hard to just fit them into anything else; whereas you can’t do more than ten minutes of stand-up on TV without someone treating it like TV.
DW: Is The House Of Milton Jones better because you’ve got direct input?
MJ: Yes, pretty much, but even that is an experiment to a degree. The trouble with the character that I play on stage is that he’s a sociopath; he can’t really mix with other people very easily without them just being set up for jokes. It’s very hard to have any depth in character.
DW: How much do you network with other comics?
MJ: The comedy circuit is very tight knit because of the hours and the nature of the work – everyone knows each other and it’s quite incestuous. There are only certain people I can work with, either because there’s a clash of style or the ideas they would have I wouldn’t be happy with. We sort of know that now. I’ve been doing it long enough for people to know what I am and what I stand for to some degree, which I why I keep working with the same people. I’m working with James Carey on [House of Milton Jones]. David Tyler, the producer, is not a Christian, but he knows where we both stand on this thing. Once you’ve sorted that out it makes things a lot easier, actually. You don’t have certain arguments that you know you’re not going to win. I’m not very good at networking; I don’t enjoy that whole being nice to people for the sake of it. I’d much rather play a game of football, than go to a party where it’s all about seeing people who you’re supposed to get on with, and my agent will tell me to ‘Go and sparkle in front of such and such’. I can’t do that at all.
“Have you ever been faced with a man who’s definitely wearing a wig and you try to get to the end of your sentence without laughing? ‘I swear to tell the truth …I’m sorry your honour, how can you expect me to tell the truth when you’re so clearly living a lie?’”
DW: Is it a lonely life touring a solo show?
MJ: Yes and no. I’m quite often on with three or four other comics, and I will probably know two of those quite well, so that’s quite nice. When you travel with people – you go to Hong King or Dubai with someone – you get to know them pretty well, because you do 5 or 6 shows and you’re stuck on a plane with them. That can be really good or really bad, so there is camaraderie there. But ultimately it’s just you alone on stage, and there’s nothing worse than one of you having a hard time when the other’s not. Or there’s nothing worse than the person before you just blowing the roof off and knowing you’ve got to stand there with some words. That can be quite difficult… So yes, there is a lonely side to it, but that lonely edge is sort of double or quits, because when it goes well, then it’s just down to you as well. So enjoy that while it’s there and treat both with a bucket of salt.
DW: Is that something where your faith comes into the practical day-to-day, because it’s almost a night-by-night life. Do you see that as an element of faith?
MJ: Yeah, totally. Sometimes people ask me, ‘What would you do if you were offered this part?’ and you can’t give an answer to that until you’re actually there, because it depends on the part. These things always have so many shades of grey anyway, that you can’t give a definitive answer. It sounds like a cop out, but I hope that if there is a decision, whether it be about a script, an idea, a programme or a part, that at the time I will be able to have some kind of peace of mind about it, even if I couldn’t see the end of it. Because that’s often the problem – you’re offered something, but you don’t quite know what you’re being asked to do at the time of offering because they haven’t written the part properly. So you don’t know whether you’ll be asked to bash a Christian over the head, or whatever it is in the part, because you’ll have to meet that when you come to it, and you have to get your conscience clear that God will help you when you get there, as opposed to ‘Right, I need to see everything I’m going to be asked to do in this whole scenario,’ because that’s just not going to happen, and you’ll not get the job.
DW: Do you find that your colleagues respect you for what you believe in?
MJ: Yeah, I think so. It’s almost better to ask someone else, because perhaps what people say isn’t what they think. Perhaps, it’s harder with other Christians, because they say, ‘Well you were in this!’ or I’ve had people walk out of comedy clubs, not because of what I’ve done, but because of what the act before me’s done. I think, ‘OK, that’s OK for you, but actually, I’ve got to work here!’ Or people say, ‘Well you were in this thing and there was lots of swearing in it’. Yeah, but you should have seen what I got cut out! That was the Planet Mirth case, in fact.
DW: It’s almost missionary work, isn’t it, going out into an area of culture, trying to be an example and standing up for what you belive in?
MJ: Thanks. But it feels quite hard to keep a grasp of what is the truth sometimes, because things like swearing are not good, but often bad values are far worse. To some extent, swearing is cultural and superficial, leaving aside blasphemy, say. To cut out bad values, or someone not getting their come-uppance for acting in an evil way or something, that is more pernicious. It’s trying to keep your head on. I think it’s harder for actors, because they are given a script: ‘Hey, get on with that;’ whereas most of what I’m involved with I can negotiate, because I’m helping write it.
“Hopefully I’ve got a book coming out soon. Shouldn’t have eaten it really.”
DW: If there were something you wanted to say to a church readership as a comedian, what would it be?
MJ: (Long pause for thought) In one sense I don’t want to be treated any differently to any other Christian and in some senses I feel that I am, and not that people hold me in any great esteem, but people seem to expect slightly more. If there was a plumber working in a plumbing firm and the boss fiddled the books, you wouldn’t blame necessarily the plumber who was working for him; and in the same way, if I am in something that isn’t whiter than white, sometimes I seem to cop the blame for it, even though it’s not my responsibility. It’s not as if people give me a particularly hard time, but there’s something about being in the media that people assume that you have power over it just by being in it, and that isn’t the case. You could be working for good in all that, but I don’t want to be treated any differently to anyone else; I’m just doing what I’m doing. As a Christian you have to do what you are called to do, and if that’s the case, then God will give you the energy and guidance to do it and you don’t need to be treated specially because of that.
Sometimes people say to me, ‘I couldn’t do what you do!’ Someone once famously said this to one of my friends, who’s in stand-up. So he said, ‘Well, what do you do?’ He said, ‘I’m one of the Red Arrows’. ‘On balance, I probably couldn’t do what you do, either!’
This is an expanded, straighter version of a 2006 interview that was originally published in Church of England Newspaper.