Comedian Paul Foot may well have been working the professional stand-up circuit for over 15 years, but his comedy remains unprecedentedly innovative, and subsequently difficult to define. In anticipation of his London show later this month, Beat decided it was about time that we got to know the man behind the comedy. Here we chat with Paul about sex, eating and of course, being a funny man.
SARAH: Firstly, thanks for joining me for a chat. Now, I’ve obviously read about your fan base, and it is safe to say your fans are different to those of other comedians. It’s pretty much a cult following isn’t it?
PAUL: Yes. When you say cult following, do you mean small?
SARAH: No, I don’t mean small. I mean loyal.
PAUL: Yes, that is true actually. Yes. I hadn’t thought of it like that.
SARAH: Yes, and I think it’s a privilege nowadays to have a loyal following.
PAUL: They say a cult following can mean quite small, but I suppose it can mean loyal as well.
SARAH: I think it means loyal more so.
PAUL: Can you have a large cult following? I don’t know, can you? Can you have a small non-loyal following? A small fickle following?
SARAH: I think you can.
PAUL: Yes you could do I suppose couldn’t you? If you were something like a drag artist you would have this sort of small following that would be fickle and go away and then other people would come.
PAUL: And could you have a large loyal following?
SARAH: Yes, you could have a large loyal following. Because you’re quite well known for really treating your fans very, very well aren’t you?
PAUL: Well I like to keep in touch with them.
SARAH: Which I think is a bit of a rarity. You keep in touch with them, you tweet a lot.
PAUL: I twitter them, and I do Facebook with them.
SARAH: And I’ve heard you do competitions like tie designing, which is rather unique. I have to say, I must complement you on your tie this evening.
PAUL: Thank you.
SARAH: It’s particularly special.
PAUL: It’s nice isn’t it?
SARAH: It is nice. It’s perhaps a little bit like spring. If spring was to be a tie, it would perhaps be that.
PAUL: Yes. It is. This is my UK tie. I have different ties for different places.
SARAH: So what might another tie look like?
PAUL: Well they’re all just different designs, nice designs. World tie, Australian tie, Rest of the World tie, TV tie – just for television.
SARAH: Is that because it saves time when packing?
PAUL: Well no, it would save more time if I didn’t have individual ties for different places. In fact it’s quite complicated. In fact I have to be reminded when I go to places. Like when I went to Dublin recently I had to remember to take my European tie. And if I go on television I have to remember to take my television tie.
SARAH: Speaking of TV, you’ve been frequenting our screens a little more regularly. Which is lovely to see. How do you find TV compared to live performance? What do you prefer, do you have a preference?
PAUL: Well it depends what you’re doing on television, if you’re doing a show like Never Mind the Buzzcocks, it is a live performance really, because you’re there in front of a big studio audience, so actually when you’re doing it it’s a bit like a kind of improvisation game with an audience. You kind of forget the cameras are there. It’s just between you and the live audience at the time. Obviously other things like acting are different. You’re there with a camera, which is more artificial in a way, with a camera poking in your face and just do something in a short space of time and get all your words right. That’s fun as well but it’s a different sort of pressure, a different sort of intensity. It’s all fun. I enjoy all of it.
SARAH: Would you ever want to put your live stage shows into a TV series?
PAUL: Yes, I’d quite like to do that.
SARAH: It’d work nicely.
PAUL: I’d like to make a television version.
SARAH: Anything in the pipeline in that respect? Or are you just trying to test the water?
PAUL: Well, we shall see what comes.
SARAH: Well I have my fingers crossed because I think personally that it would be really good on TV.
PAUL: Yes, I’d like to do something a bit like Stewart Lee’s show. Not like that at all really, but similar in the sense that it’s a translation of the stage act, to television. Just sort of anarchy and madness, but translated to a studio and TV format.
SARAH: And I guess it would be important for you to sort of be able to hold the reigns to a large degree, if you took on a TV contract?
SARAH: I’m going to come and see you at the Bloomsbury Theatre on 16th December for your show “Still Life”. Now I’ve deliberately not read anything about Still Life, because partly I want it to be a surprise but partly because I want you to tell me what I can expect, without spoiling my surprise.
PAUL: Well, you can expect the show not to start for half an hour, but to still be laughing a lot. And when the show does start, quite a lot of it will not be in the English language. It will be in a nonsense language, dictated by a horse. You can also expect that there are some parts where I read things off the back of hand decorated cards, which are funny but no-one knows why they’re funny. Including me. Infact a top expert I spoke to who is doing a Master of Arts in Comedy said he was not able to, on an intellectual level, to work out why it was funny.
SARAH: That’s the ultimate compliment isn’t it?
PAUL: Yes. So that’s what you can expect. People like the show. It’s got a nice form to it, and everything in it is there for a reason, even though some of it…and this is maybe giving away too much, spoiling it…it is more organised and more planned than it might appear.
SARAH: So there’s thought behind it. It’s not like you just walk on stage and say let’s improvise?
PAUL: No, but that’s what it looks like. But then there are bits when you realise it’s not quite like that.
SARAH: And you just said it doesn’t start for 30 minutes. So has the show started, or hasn’t it started?
SARAH: So those sat perhaps near the front might get a little bit involved?
PAUL: Oh no, the people in the front will be fine.
SARAH: Oh okay, I should check my ticket.
PAUL: But this is a quite serious point. Which is that, it doesn’t matter where you sit, I go around anywhere in the audience. What I hate is the fact that there’s this assumption because so many comedians do it, that the comedian’s going to come on and ridicule people. With very rare exceptions, I don’t ridicule people. I will sometimes interact with people in the audience, sometimes I will lay into people in a ridiculous way that bares no relation to them.
SARAH: So is that a conscious decision because you don’t particularly think it’s productive or funny to ridicule?
PAUL: Well an example is, which I’ve seen so many times…let’s say there’s a man sitting on his own and then the comedian will say “Oh, you’re on your own, can’t you get a girlfriend?” and go on and on, and it’s quite unpleasant. It can be funny, but it can also just be quite unpleasant. It’s just not very funny really, and also we don’t know why that man’s there but let’s say he is there because he has just split up from his girlfriend and he’s unhappy, he just wants to be entertained. People just want to be entertained. They don’t want people laying into them. I don’t like it when people find out someone’s job then ridicule it. I think everyone’s got a decent job. You know, if your job is sweeping the roads, well we need people to sweep the roads. If no-one did that there’d be all dirt in the roads. It’s so ‘lowest common denominator’, it’s easy and lazy to just have a go at someone because they’ve got a job that we might not think is that good. I can’t bear it. There’s things I do on stage, if I interact with the audience even if it is having a go at someone, it’s so ridiculous, it’s so not personal. I very rarely find out the names of people in the audience, and I almost never know what their job is or anything like that. I’m interested in being funny and if that involves me standing on stage not interacting, or interacting, I’ll do it. But it’s not about ridiculing people. Obviously there are always exceptions to that. If someone heckles in a very unpleasant way then sometimes that is the right thing to do, because you have to take charge. But as a general rule, I don’t do it.
SARAH: Because I’ve seen overwhelmingly positive reviews about you, both from the press and from your fans. So I’ve got here, for example “a work of genius”, “highly intellectual”, “best comedian I have ever seen”, “comedy gold” and “wholly original…wonderful ear for language” – which I think is particularly true. For me, part of the joy when I watch you is you have this lyrical way with language and I really enjoy that.
PAUL: I’m quite interested in that. Those glimpses that I mentioned to you are not really about anything, some of them are quite surreal; it’s almost very difficult to think why they’re funny. So they rely on timing, pure timing and a use of language. But not necessarily a use of language that relates to any particular meaning sometimes, it’s almost beyond any meaning. I’m very interested into moving more heavily into nonsense. Well, I’ve got nonsense in this show but a different sort of nonsense. What I’m saying are still English words but there’s really no meaning to them in the way they’re used. But is does boil down to timing and the specific choice of words, which is really the comedy of language in its purest form.
SARAH: I think that is probably my favourite thing about you. I did notice, and it might have been an old clip…but you were performing. Now I found it a really funny set. You have the cake joke, which I think is a particular favourite of most people.
PAUL: Yes, that’s one of my most requested.
SARAH: Well I can imagine. Everyone can identify with that one in particular. But I found that in the clip I watched, every joke was really funny, and you were full of energy which was really great to watch , but unlike a lot of comedians you didn’t seem to feel the need to link everything. You know how some comedians link every single joke, they line up every joke. You don’t have a ten minute back story to link it through just because a biscuit is involved.
PAUL: Yes, and I like to move in and out of different types of comedy. You know I might just do a bit of a rant about cake, then I might do a bit of a mime, then I might do a bit of a sketch. Then I’ll do some slightly strange joke and they’re all slightly different voices, but at the same time, they all fit together.
SARAH: It feels a bit like a collage where everything’s got something in common, but it doesn’t have to have all the smooth edges between it. So everything is linked, but not necessarily overtly obviously.
PAUL: Yes, I’ve always had that sort of thing about me. That sort of shambolic sort of slightly unprofessional…
PAUL: Yes, shabbiness. It’s not really unprofessional but it appears unprofessional and shambolic. I’ve been doing it for 15 years now and I’m no slicker now than when I started. So I don’t think slickness is in my nature.
SARAH: But have you worked on resisting slickness?
PAUL: Not particularly, no. As soon as things become slick, I rebel against it anyway. I sort of am naturally not slick. It’s not where my comedy comes from.
SARAH: I also read that as of 2011 you refuse, and I don’t know if this is true, but I would like to check, to talk about your Maths degree at Oxford?
PAUL: That’s right. In fact I know that it’s been on Wikipedia, then it’s been taken off Wikipedia because it hasn’t had a citation.
SARAH: It was on last night.
PAUL: Yes, I think it has been changed backwards and forwards. Someone keeps removing it because they say it doesn’t have a citation. I was saying to Jan who works for me,” but I’ve said it. I have myself said it”.
SARAH: So you have categorically said you will not discuss it?
PAUL: Yes. In fact, if this goes into the magazine then that could then be a citation. It needs to appear somewhere in print.
SARAH: So I won’t ask you about it, but why won’t you discuss it? Is it because you feel it’s not relevant?
PAUL: I don’t feel it’s relevant. I feel when I think back to those days when I did a Maths degree; it feels like someone else did it. It doesn’t relate to my life at all now, and I can’t really explain. I’ve basically become the opposite of who I was in life. I was very introverted, studious and just wanted to do my maths and then I’ve gone into being quite artistic minded and different, totally different. I’m creating my artistic work, and there’s a certain logic of course to it. I just think that someone else did that. The other reason that I refuse to discuss it is that people make too much of a thing about it. I get fed up with taking about it, and also I occasionally appear on the radio or TV and they say “we’ve got mathematician Paul Foot”, and I think … a) I’ve never been a mathematician. I studied maths, which is not the same.
SARAH: You are a graduate of a maths degree.
PAUL: Yes. I was never a mathematician, and b) that was such a long time ago it doesn’t relate anymore. So that’s why I refuse to discuss it.
SARAH: I don’t think there is that much to read online about you and maths, apart from the fact that you studied maths at Oxford. So I think the main connection that I pull from it is that you do typically think maths, accountant, introvert; but then for me it is really easily identifiable that you aren’t that. Although I do think there is a correlation with the intellect and your ability to work things out.
PAUL: Yes, there’s a certain intelligence I suppose to my comedy. I do feel that when I was at University, or school, I could have studied English if I’d wanted to. I was good at all my GCSEs and I decided to go one particular way at A-Level, but I could have gone all sorts of ways. And so I find that’s another reason why it’s irrelevant. No-one would have said anything if it was “oh, he studied English at University”, but because its maths they just go on and on about it. There’s probably something a bit mathematical about the comedy on some level I suppose. I suppose it also boils down to the fact that I’m not a typical anything really. I’m not a typical math graduate, nor am I a typical comedian, nor am I a typical normal man in life. So these things are just comparing me to some sort of stereotype of a maths graduate.
SARAH: well thank you for tolerating my question!
PAUL: I don’t mind tolerating at all. It’s also probably to do with the sort of person I am, I mean I can talk for hours about comedy and my direction. But I get very bored talking about myself. A lot of which is unusual I suppose.
SARAH: Yes, especially for those in the public eye. I mean a lot of people really revel in it.
PAUL: They revel in it. People love people interviewing them, but I just find it utterly boring.
SARAH: Oh dear, I’m sorry!
PAUL: No, I’m like that in life. If some of my closest friends meet me and say what have you been up to? I’ll just say nothing. Then they’ll say how have you been? Fine. How did that go Paul when you went on holiday to such and such? Fine. You know, sometimes I just can’t be bothered to talk about things. I came back from a holiday recently and I just really wanted to tell everyone how fantastic it was but then just after I got back within a few minutes I just went into another mode, and a member of my family said how was your holiday? Fine.
SARAH: That’s really bizarre. In a really interesting way.
PAUL: I’m quite sort of business minded about things. So if you’re going out with someone and it doesn’t work out, then you just analyse it. “Ok, why did that happen? Was there anything I could learn from it? Was there anything I did that wasn’t right? Maybe I could have done that, or maybe not.” I think about it for two minutes, learn whatever lesson there is, if there is one, and move on. Forgotten. Can’t remember it.
SARAH: Now I’ve never seen you sing. Do you sing?
PAUL: Well I used to. When I left university I took singing lessons and I was quite good for a while.
SARAH: What kind? Classical?
PAUL: Sort of classical singing. But I haven’t done it for years. The last time was about 1997.
SARAH: So moving forward, would you ever incorporate some kind of nonsensical music number, perhaps a little ditty of a song into a show?
PAUL: It’s unlikely. I mean, I have done sort of improvised things. Well I have done an improvised opera, but it’s not proper singing. But it’s funny. At the end of the day it’s all about being funny. So even if I could sing really well, which I could do I suppose if I had the lessons again, I’d still sing in this stupid way. Because it’s funnier.
SARAH: So would you ever write a show to consciously include some music?
PAUL: I might improvise something. When I improvise I can do anything, including singing or whatever. I don’t know whether a future show would include a song. My initial instinct is that I would rather shoot myself in the leg multiple times.
SARAH: Multiple times?
PAUL: Yes, multiple times. Severe pain. Then going into the other leg. But no, not ruling it out. Not pouring cold water on the idea.
SARAH: Because you could have said head, but you chose legs.
PAUL: Yes, so there’d still be a chance. I just want to keep working at my comedy and get better at that. Be quite focused. I find the idea of saying “now I’m going to do a song”, makes me feel a bit sick, that idea of being a jack of all trades.
SARAH: That’s a bit regimented, a bit predictable and I guess that doesn’t really fall in line with who you are as a comedian?
PAUL: Yes, because I’m very focussed. I get more and more focused.
SARAH: But that’s good. That is similar to the discipline of an academic.
PAUL: I’ve managed to get to a stage where comedy fascinates me so much that it has become my sort of hobby, my obsession. But there’s no will power, I can only do it because it absolutely fascinates me. So therefore the things that really fascinate me… its writing comedy and that particular riddle thing that I’m focusing on. There’s sex. That motivates me, and eating, and travel is basically my hobby. I love travel.
SARAH: I love travelling!
PAUL: But I don’t mean actually visiting places, I mean the actual travel.
SARAH: Oh, we differ.
PAUL: I hate being in places.
SARAH: Oh, I love being in places, but I’m not so keen on the travel.
PAUL: Oh. I love when I go to Australia, I’ve not interest at all…well, a tiny bit I suppose, but basically the thing that fascinates me is that I will be doing my comedy there. I love it, that’s my hobby. The actual idea of visiting all the art galleries doesn’t interest me. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy being in nice places and seeing what they look like, I do. But it’s not a priority. But I love the travel. I love flying, I love going on trains, I love staying in hotels when I’m away so that’s my hobby. Then I’ve got comedy as my job and hobby, and I’ve got sex and eating which really accounts for everything really. Which I enjoy because I’m a human being linked to this physical body.
SARAH: Would you ever write a book?
PAUL: Well, I’m having a meeting tomorrow about writing a book, so the answer is yes. It’s going to be a book that’s going to come out I think as a companion to my next show that I’m writing, so 2012.
SARAH: Are we talking fiction, or non-fiction?
PAUL: It will be fiction. I don’t think it will be a novel. It will be a book that accompanies the show.
SARAH: So it won’t be like a feature length novel? Just something substantial.
PAUL: Yes, a substantial book. But it’ll just be a book of silliness that will not clash at all, it will be quite separate from the show, but will accompany it. Sort of like notes to help you to understand the show, whilst not providing any help whatsoever.
SARAH: I don’t think that’s been done before, it’s a breakthrough.
PAUL: Yes, it’s a breakthrough. Unhelpful notes that only serve to confuse.
SARAH: Unhelpful fictional notes to accompany the misunderstanding of a show. One last thing, obviously a few years ago you worked with Russell Brand as a double act.
SARAH: Do you feel quite proud that he admired how your approach to comedy so much that he decided to steal (and steal I say cautiously), a few of your mannerisms?
PAUL: Yes, I think he was influenced by me and I think he’s said that himself in interviews. So yes, that was clear. Everyone of course influences everyone else a bit. I must say I’m not particularly prone to being influenced much. I’m sure I’ve been influenced a little bit by Russell, but he’s obviously been influenced a lot by me. I would say it hasn’t taken anything away from me. I’m still myself with my own integrity. People have asked if I’m bitter about it? No. a) because I wouldn’t be anyway and b) I have been heavily on the way up since then. I haven’t become a Hollywood star like Russell, but I have been on the way up and am still on the way up so it’s quite difficult to get bitter when you’re on the way up. And the other thing I would say is that Russell is an extremely talented man.
SARAH: I agree. Also, when I think of pretty much any comedian I can almost immediately identify who has influenced them. With you I get a bit stuck with who I would actually stick on that label.
PAUL: Yes, well I think as much as possible I have created stuff in a kind of artistic vacuum anyway. I mean I’m the opposite of most comedians. I’m not interested in comedy. When I go home I just watch murder mysteries and drama on television. I’d never watch comedy. I’ve obviously seen a lot of comedy over the years, but it doesn’t seem to have affected me. I mean at my first ever gig when I was 19, I hadn’t seen a stand-up comedian before so I didn’t know what stand-up comedy really was. I thought you were just supposed to make it all up. I didn’t realise that most comedians basically have a routine, I didn’t really understand. So I just came on and said can anyone name a fruit, and then just improvised from what they said. People who inspire me are people like Sibelius. If I do have influences, it’ll be people like that. I see their creative challenges that they faced, particularly some of those composers creating things and everyone dismissed it. I can see quite a lot of myself in that. Particularly in my early years, less so now.
SARAH: Maybe you’re an anti-comedian? And through trying to create anti-comedy, you become really funny? Because you don’t consciously create what is perceived as comedy.
PAUL: There is an element of anti-comedy, but it’s not just anti-comedy, there is comedy in there as well. There is just a thread of anti-comedy to what I’m doing, but it’s not a conscious thread and it’s not the only thing in it.
SARAH: Of course not, that would be far too simple! Great. Well, thanks so much for coming to have a chat with me.
PAUL: You’re welcome, thanks.
Paul Foot’s show, Still Life is on at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London on 16th December 2011.
If you fancy winning a pair of tickets for the show, visit the competitions section of the website!