As Ross Noble enjoys a visit to Dublin, Conor Luke Barry chats to him about his talent for improvisation, being a murderous clown and the city’s troublemakers
Maybe it was too much to assume that Ross Noble might want to chat about his upcoming comedy tour without something else hijacking his attention straight away: “I’m in the midst of sitting around in an unseasonably, delightfully warm Dublin watching people, I think they might be young offenders, jumping into the river.” He pauses briefly as he adds to the story. “They’re all clearly some part of a scheme. They seem to have kayaks and the like. It’s not something that…I mean, I wouldn’t jump in there.” He’s quite right to be hesitant, these young chaps presumably being covered in whatever toxins the Liffey has to offer. With this in mind he sums up with the prophetic warning: “In a year I reckon you’ll either have some new superheroes or super-villains. There’ll certainly be some mutations on the cards.”
This inability to stick to the topic will be more than familiar to followers of Noble’s stand-up career. His unique skill of completely abandoning pre-planned material to go off on fantastical tangents is now the basis of his shows. Does he do any preparation at all? “I just book some gigs and turn up,” he jokingly replies.
Though the truth isn’t that far different: “You just sort of see what stuff kind of comes up when you talk to people in the audience. That’s your starting block, and then whatever’s knocking around in your head, that’s kind of what comes out really.”
To most comics it would be a cause for concern that a fortnight before the show they don’t have a set plan, but Noble doesn’t prepare like most comics. “I don’t sort of sit down and decide: ‘Right, what’s the show going to be?’ It’s not like I have a show and then I improvise around it. It’s one of those things where I start improvising and then whatever comes out of the improv, I might come up with something and think ‘That’s quite a good idea’. Then I try and take that idea and, like tomorrow, I’ll see where I can take it. But the actual core of the idea might come from the previous night’s show. Or what happens most of the time is I’ve got an idea and I think ‘I’ll try and play around with that tonight’ and then, on the way to the show, I just kind of forget about it and something else comes up. I don’t really have a set way of working so it varies on the night depending on what mood I’m in. I change my process depending on how I feel.”
His fantastically unprepared show isn’t the only reason Noble’s gracing our fair city. The comedian was also in town for the premiere of the upcoming Irish film Stitches, with Noble playing the title role of Stitches the Clown: “It’s a comedy horror. He’s a scummy children’s entertainer who turns up to a party where the kids are basically picking on him. They accidentally knock him into a dishwasher which has a carving knife sticking up out of it which goes through his head. Now you might think that’s the end of the show. It would be, but a group of black magic clowns bring him back from the dead and he takes revenge. It’s 10 years later and the kids are all teenagers and he goes round killing them one by one using clown techniques, so he rips out peoples guts and slays them and makes them into balloon animal dogs, and he kicks peoples heads off with his big shoes.”
Strangely, this is one of Noble’s first big acting gigs. Why, after presumably countless offers, pick the role of a demon clown who viciously murders teenagers? “You get some comedians who only do stand up cause they want to be actors and I’ve always been very committed to stand up. It’s very easy to take acting roles that are in sitcoms, play the wacky neighbour, or the comedic friend of the handsome romantic lead and all that. The sort of stuff that I like isn’t necessarily the sort of stuff that I get offered, and then I read the script for this and it’s got everything in it that I like. I think the problem is if you try and become a serious actor people just don’t buy it. People just go: ‘Well, that’s just him dressed up,’ and they don’t take you seriously because they know you’re just a comic or your personality comes through too much. Or people want you to do roles where you basically just play yourself and they just want to put you in the role, but [Stitches] is perfect for me. It’s a fabulous character in the real world; that’s what interests me. I like stuff that’s like that, fantasy characters in a real world or real characters in a fantasy setting.”
While his choice of outlandish acting roles may not be all that surprising what does seems strange is that Noble was, at one point in his career, a more ‘traditional’ comedian, with material and everything. Does he remember any of his old jokes?
“Yeah, I had jokes like ‘They say cheese gives you nightmares. That’s ridiculous I’m not scared of cheese.’ Another was ‘There’s something in the highway code that says if you get caught driving whilst disqualified, the punishment is six months in prison and underneath it said, in brackets, or 12 months in Scotland. That’s not punishment, that’s a holiday.’ Things like that, you know. I would talk about adverts that were on telly and I’d start off and say ‘Wasn’t it funny about so and so’ and next thing I was talking about glue sniffing budgies and stuff. People would go ‘What’s he on about?’ After a while instead of reining it in I would go ‘Well, I think this is funny.’ I would try to find a way of doing it. But the early stuff, it was too surreal. I’d just kind of start and go: ‘Right, glue sniffing budgie!’ and people would go ‘What are you talking about?’”
In an industry that judges new comedians on their five minute sets, how did he manage to get the freedom to develop his wandering style? “What I used to do is, I used to go on and muck around for five minutes and then when they flashed the light, I’d walk off stage. The reason my style came about is because when I first started, I was up in Newcastle. There was such a desperate need for acts and I used to host the show a lot of the time. It was a lot of student gigs and the same audience a lot of weeks. You couldn’t really just go on and do your stuff so I used to go on, muck around, come up with things, play around. So the whole thing kind of came out of not being restricted. Then I used do a lot of warm ups for TV as well and sometimes those recording would last three hours, sometimes longer. It was the sort of thing where you just start telling stories and then you get sidetracked and then you come back to the story. That’s why it’s hard to describe my style, because I’ll tell a story that’s true but in amongst that genuine story and anecdotes, it’ll spin off on 10 different tangents, takes you off to another land and then returns. The basic story itself is there and it’s the thing that hangs all the odder stuff together. If you go on and just talk about surreal stuff, people just go like ‘what’s he on about?’ Whereas if they can see you’re talking about something real, talking about something in the room, then you go off on that and come back to it”.
With such a unique style, you’d wonder where he gets his influence from. Is he inspired by similar comedians? “The thing is the people I like aren’t necessarily the people you’d think I’d like. I really like sort of satirical comics. One of my favourite comics is Stephen Wright and he just does one-liners. I probably like him because he’s removed from what I do. And people like Lewis Black and Louis CK. Also, what I do on stage is just me being myself on stage. So it’s kind of like you want something that comes from a different point of view, a different angle. But then I love comedians like Sean Rock and Eddie Izzard and Bill Bailey, where there’s similarities to what I do.”
It had been an interesting visit to a man whose mind is just as active off-stage as on. Before my time with him was over I was curious to get an update on those rapscallions in the Liffey. “I think they’ve all drowned,” he responds, deadpan. After a pause he corrects himself as if stating a fact: “They’ve been eaten by radioactive ducks.” No doubt, in the mind of Ross Noble, this was indeed the case.
Ross Noble’s show Mindblender is in the Olympia Theatre on Friday, the September 28th.