Killer punchlines

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Stand-up may be his stock-in- trade, but Ross Noble isn’t exactly playing against type as a killer zombie clown in the Irish comedy horror Stitches. He tells DONALD CLARKEabout the switch from stage to screen

IT SAYS something about Ross Noble’s stage presence that he proves ideally suited to playing a zombie clown with a taste for making “balloon” animals from his victim’s innards. This is not to suggest there is anything menacing about Noble’s stand-up act. But he has always enjoyed teasing the boundary between everyday absurdity and full-on surrealism.

“I have come to the realisation that what I like – in comedy or movies – is real characters in fantastical situations or fantastical characters in real situations,” he explains.

Noble gets to exercise that passion in a new comedy horror film from Irish director Conor McMahon, called Stitches. The comic plays a children’s entertainer who rises from the grave to terrorise some stereotypically dissolute teenagers at a wild party. Blood flows throughout.

“I read the script and he had me at ‘knife in the face,’” he says.

The film-makers haven’t quite adopted the technique, honed to perfection by the Father Ted boys, of writing parts that allow stand-up comics to convert their familiar acts into broad characters. But the shambling, hairy clown feels like a Noble creation.

“Yeah, Father Ted was brilliant for that,” he says. “But you have to be careful going down that road as a comic.”

We are used to comics breaking out of their comfort zones. After a decade or so in the business, the average stand-up invariably starts turning his mind to novels, movies or straight plays. Up to now, however, Noble has remained pretty faithful to his core medium.

Now 36, he started out as a street entertainer, before gradually amassing a fanatical following for his (the word is appropriate) unique school of unhinged stream of consciousness. Any random memory or stray heckle can germinate wild ramblings that – guided by some instinctive genius – eventually find their own organic structure.

He has appeared on the odd panel show. Rare is the successful comic who has not discussed cheese in the presence of David Mitchell. But he hasn’t written that book. And this is his first significant acting role.

“So, why have I finally sold out?” he says in his Tyneside burr.

No, no, no. There’s no reason why a comic shouldn’t stretch every creative muscle. When such a person writes a novel, it doesn’t necessarily mean they think they are moving on to a more valid art form.

“I think some of them are, though, especially those who have become famous through telly,” he says.

Okay then. So, why is he finally moving into another field?

“I’d say two things,” he muses. “Firstly, I have always been very protective of my stand-up. I wanted to be known as a stand-up. I didn’t want people to come just because I had been on the telly. I wanted them to come because I was a really good stand-up. I didn’t want to be this media person. Secondly, I have pretty much achieved all I can. I don’t mean creatively, but in terms of audience numbers. I’ve paid my dues.”

Some Noble fans may be surprised to hear him talk this way. He seems to be suggesting that – like Eddie Izzard in the very early years – he has been assiduously shunning the evil cathode ray. But Noble has a familiar face (and even more familiar untamed hair). Over the past 20 years, the TV panel show has provided stand-up comics with the basis of a very nice pension plan. Have I got QI for the Buzzcocks? could not exist without their input. Noble has been there, has he not?

“This has sort of annoyed me a little,” he says (without sounding very annoyed). “Okay, I did Shooting Stars. But that’s not a panel show. You turn up and laugh at Vic and Bob and get paid for it. I have only done QI and Have I got News for You. I have turned down everything else. Because of the Dave channel, people come up and say: ‘I love you on Mock the Week. I haven’t been on Mock the Week. I’ve done three QI’s and they repeat them all the time.”

Anyway, Ross does appear ready to move on to the next stage of his odd career. Raised in Cramlington, a town to the north of Newcastle upon Tyne, he was never that gifted at school. At the age of 11, he discovered that he was dyslexic and he sees that condition as having contributed to his unstructured approach to comedy. He has had to make up his own rules. What did he mean? Dyslexia is not that uncommon. Erm, Michael Heseltine has the condition.

“Yeah. And we are both people famous for our hair,” he says, running with my nonsequitur. “I don’t know because I’ve never not been dyslexic. From an early age, I was academically poor. But I had supportive parents. They were both teachers, so they didn’t worry. ‘You’ll be all right. Find out what you want to do and do it.’ But I found it frustrating. You are made to feel a bit thick.”

He found that he excelled in drama classes and concluded that he wasn’t stupid after all. Rather unusually for a man of his generation – this would be the early 1990s – he decided that the way forward was circus performance. This information sounds like something from one of his routines. While his contemporaries were moving into IT or financial services, he was learning to juggle and to ride a unicycle. The comedy emerged by accident. While performing on the street, he would include bits of banter. Before too long, the banter had taken over.

Sound familiar?

“It paralleled what Billy Connolly had done,” he says. “He would do these songs and then talk between them. Gradually, the gaps between the songs became wider. I had a big bag of props. But the padding just got bigger and bigger.”

He had also been inspired by an early glimpse of Jack Dee. This is interesting intelligence. One can hardly imagine two less similar comics: Dee is sombre and contained; Noble is deranged and uninhibited.

“Yeah. I won tickets for a Jack Dee show as a kid. At first, I actually did try and do that sort of thing, until somebody helpfully pointed out I wasn’t Jack Dee.”

His first few gigs fired his taste for improvisation. Working as a warm-up man on TV, he quickly realised that any structure would quickly be disrupted by the demands of lighting men and directors. So, the madness accelerated.

We have become used to the fact that, with only a few exceptions, comics adopt a persona when they go on stage. Still, meeting a comedian in the flesh can still be a surprise. Rob Brydon, for example, turns out to be a serious fellow who bears little resemblance to the showbiz windbag we see on TV. The real Ross Noble is a little less of a shock to the system. Very amiable, analytical about his art, he speaks in long paragraphs, but rarely drifts too far from the topic under discussion. Ask him about the competitive nature of the comedy scene and he rambles, but never so wildly that he loses sight of the question.

Is this the sort of world where, to paraphrase Gore Vidal, a piece of you dies when a friend and colleague succeeds?

“No. Not from my perspective,” he says. “But nobody is on my turf really. I don’t mean that arrogantly. There will always be somebody selling more tickets. I used to work with Simon Pegg. Now, he’s in Star Trek. There’s always going to be somebody whose profile is bigger than yours. There’s no point getting bitter. I do this because I enjoy it.”

Noble recently got an opportunity to put his career in perspective even more. At the end of the last decade, he moved to the outskirts of Melbourne with his Australian-born wife and their daughter. His timing could hardly have been worse. In 2009, a massive bushfire levelled the area. The family escaped with their lives, but with little property.

“I wasn’t there. I was doing a warm-up gig actually,” he says, laughing at the slightly unfortunate pun. “I was lucky in that I had an overnight bag. But it was a bit too close for comfort for my wife and daughter. But, in the big scheme of things, we lost our possessions and our ‘life’, but a lot of people actually died. My wife and child didn’t.”

So, he now lives in Kent?

“Yes, it’s a lot less flammable there.”

The Kentish tourism authorities could use that as a slogan. You can have that one for free, Ross.

* Stitches opens on October 26th

Stand-ups who became movie stars

WOODY ALLEN

Allen’s film successes have slightly overshadowed his ground-breaking work as a stand-up comic in the clubs of Greenwich Village during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Check out the imperishable moose skit on YouTube.

ROBIN WILLIAMS

Yes, yes, he drives many viewers (including this correspondent) up the wall, but there is no denying that he became a major star. Misguided critics prefer performances that echo his improvised stand-up anarchy: bellowing in Good Morning Vietnam, doing bad accents in Mrs Doubtfire. In fact, he is far better when the lid is kept on: creepy in One-Hour Photo, sad in Good Will Hunting.

BOB HOPE

Did anybody become a major star while stretching himself so little? He didn’t write his own material. He always played the slippery operator. For all that, there is no denying his brilliance opposite Bing Crosby in the Road pictures. Woody Allen was in awe of his talents as a joke teller and – as he would surely admit – derived his trademark comic coward from Hope’s reliable yellow-belly.

EDDIE MURPHY

A natural successor to Richard Pryor, Murphy emerged triumphantly on screen in Walter Hill’s excellent 48 Hours (1982). Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop soon elevated him to deserved stardom. Swaggeringly arrogant as a comedian, he allowed himself moments of vulnerability on screen. Still very funny, even in bad films – of which there are many.

STEVE MARTIN

In the 1970s, Martin became one of the first comics to play arenas.

His subsequent progress through movies was slow but steady: three steps back with the notorious Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, two steps forward with The Jerk. Lately, he seems to have lost his way. Why would a man with so much money – and a famously valuable art collection – stoop to a remake of The Pink Panther.’

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