Few comedians offer as much bang for your buck as Milton Jones, known as the king of one-liners. Since winning Edinburgh Festival’s coveted Perrier Award 22 years ago, through his time on radio and TV, his gags-per-minute ratio seems designed to put others to shame.
“Originally I got into it because I was so terrified on stage, I needed to get to the laugh as quickly as possible,” he says, as we meet in a busy lunch spot in his native London before he drives off to another town on his tour. “I made a rod for my own back, because now I need to fill the time. It’s hard to do for a headline show, because I get through 250-300 jokes in a show. But at least it works on telly, because it’s short and snappy.”
His TV work has been his calling card since the early days of Mock the Week in 2005, when he was a favourite guest panellist along with the likes of Frankie Boyle and Ed Byrne. While stand-up, radio shows, scriptwriting and the odd spot of acting have taken portions of his time since, 13 years on, Mock the Week is still a ratings favourite and its cable TV re-runs take prime-time slots. But the duration and saturation of panel shows bring up the question of whether they're now tired.
"I don't think anyone who works on a panel show would argue otherwise," he says. "They've been around a while, and there aren't any new formats breaking through particularly. Something like The Mash Report has a really strong social media edge to it, but Have I Got News for You or even Mock the Week looks quite over the hill, in terms of format. I think we'll look back on the last 10 years thinking, Oh yeah, that was the time we did panel shows. It's been good for me and people like me, because it gives the audience a glimpse of one type of comedian. But ultimately it's going to be a snack as opposed to a decent meal."
Panel shows arrived into the mainstream at the same time as reality shows; both were found to be successful for their intended demographic, and much cheaper to produce than traditional drama and comedy formats. While reality shows evolved (or devolved, depending on your view) from Big Brother to "scripted reality shows" like Made in Chelsea, panel shows have remained relatively static. Nor have new ideas broken through, an issue, Milton believes, which is caused by a lack of innovation within comedy.
"Mock the Week began as the naughty show that people weren't supposed to watch, because comedians like Frankie Boyle was going to say something horrendous," he says. "This makes me sound really old, but when I started on it, it was alternative comedy. Now it's really mainstream. It needs some students to come into the field of comedy and say 'we're doing this now'. And people my age will go 'it's not funny! I don't understand it! It's gone too far!' It's like music, it all feels like a rehash of something that's come before, rather than something new coming along."
It's actually quite hard to be white, middle class and male, but that's fair enough, because we've had our turn
The reason for the stagnation? It could be the same issue as in other arts, where creativity has become a privilege for those with other financial means. Or it could be, as Milton suggests, a victim of its own success: comedy on television is so popular that it’s taken the industry’s audience and momentum away from its breeding ground of comedy clubs.
“Because comedy isn’t alternative anymore, there are less original voices,” he adds. “The people who you see now are a bit like Eddie Izzard or Harry Hill or whoever, and it’s very rare that you see someone who offers something fresh.
“There needs to be a feeling where it’s like, ‘have you seen this guy? He’s not allowed on telly’ so there’s a live edge to stand-up. But comedy’s got homogenised into a big blob of nothing.”
Perhaps new voices will come now that room has been made for a diverse range of comedians to pick up the mic. The change has happened not only on panel shows, though by their very aesthetic of seven entertainers in a row, they were the first to be called on their white and male dominance. Now festival bookers, promoters, and commissioning editors are casting their net wider.
"It's a society problem rather than a comedy problem," says Milton. "It takes a long time for the oil tanker to move around. It will get better. The producer of Mock the Week's stance is that the show reflects what's on the comedy circuit, which is mostly white men.
“So if you begin to go on colour rather than funny … I mean, you want the funniest people available, whoever they are. But the problem is that it’s not the first criteria of the suits in the TV company. There have been one or two bad bookings, and that reinforces the prejudice. It’s actually quite hard to be white, middle class and male, but that’s fair enough, because we’ve had our turn, and now it has to go the other way to balance it out.
"But it's easy for me to say because that's not my comedy area. If you're talking politics, you either go [liberal] like Mark Thomas, or Andrew Lawrence, who's part of the Top Gear brigade – the anti-PC people."
That said on his current UK tour, in which he supplements his one-liners with props, sketches and music, he dresses up as Great Britain, with a detachable Scotland, and another part finds him pulling out a British flag and an EU flag, which enter into a conversation.
“Sometimes people cheer or boo the EU flag,” he says. “When they cheer the Union Jack, I’m never sure that I want to be part of the cheering of the Union Jack. It gets a bit awkward. I’m also aware that a large part of the audience wants to shut up about it.”
Sounds like the upcoming lengthy Irish tour will need a few adjustments too?
“Yes, I’ll have to go over it,” he nods. “I always notice my second night in Ireland is better than the first, when I find out which references don’t land. My son did an MA in Trinity College and he’s got an Irish girlfriend, so I’ve got a way find out about it. I also used to go to Belfast quite a bit because my mum is from there, so I’ve known Ireland in different ways. We’re in Galway the first night, so they’re going to be the guinea pigs.”
Most likely, any first-night foibles won’t be noticed – that’s a crafty benefit of his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pace.
Milton Jones plays Galway, Limerick, Cork, Belfast and Dublin from April 18th to 22nd. See miltonjones.com for more.