An Interview with Ross Noble
By Ben Williams
For more than 20 years Ross Noble has been the king of spontaneous stand-up, almost constantly touring, and he’s busier now than ever.
It’s been a hectic few days for the Geordie comedy stalwart. He’s hopped off a plane on the other side of the world, driven to deepest darkest Western Australia and has just finished his first gig Down Under. In truth, he’s a little knackered.
‘Could you pick out the bits that don’t sound like a mad man rambling on at half midnight?’ he jokes over the phone from his Aussie hotel room. But, as I discover during our chat, even a jet-lagged Ross Noble is on sharp, jolly form.
Over the last two decades Noble’s largely improvised brand of whimsical storytelling has built up a huge, loyal following who are already snapping up tickets to his UK ‘Brain Dump’ dates in the autumn. So, ahead of the tour, I talked to the mischievous comic about his occasionally scary fans, playing a murderous clown and dating Harold Bishop from ‘Neighbours’…
The new tour’s called ‘Brain Dump’. Where does the title come from?
I got it from a customer review on Amazon for one of my DVDs. They wrote, “This is just like a massive brain dump,” and I thought: Oh yeah, that’s exactly what my stuff is! I’ll have that.
Your ‘brain dumps’ are largely improvised. Is it still a risk, no matter how long you’ve been doing it?
No, the “risk” is all relative. It’s like driving a car; after 25 years you don’t get in a car and go: “What if this goes wrong?” If you hit a few bumps in the road you just think: Oh, this is fun, let’s bounce around for a bit!
How do you think your comedy has developed since your started?
The main change is that, because I’ve built up this really loyal audience, there’s more of a shorthand. When I first started, if I was talking about something a bit leftfield people would go, “Oh god, where’s he going with this?” Whereas now that’s what people want, they go, “Oh right! Where’s he going with this!?”
“I’ve just filmed a straight horror film”
Your acting CV has bumped up in recent years, especially horror movie roles. Do your comedy skills come in handy?
It’s definitely easily for a stand-up to do straight acting than an actor to do comedy. In the horror movie “Stitches” – it sounds mad because I was playing a killer clown – but I wanted to play it as truthfully as possible. I didn’t want people to go, “Oh, that’s just Noble dressed as a clown.” I’ve just filmed another horror, and that’s a straight horror film; there are no laughs in it.
Which was weirder: playing a murderous clown, or going on a date with Harold Bishop in the Australian comedy, It’s a Date?
Oh, the date! That was my idea, so I only have myself to blame. It was a mate of mine’s show – he asked me to write and be in an episode. Afterwards I realised that I could have picked pretty much any Australian actress to date; I’ve could’ve written myself a love scene! But when he asked who I wanted to go on a date with I said, “Ian Smith, who plays Harold Bishop.” We laughed about that for about an hour. But he agreed to it, and then the next thing you know I’m on a set sat opposite him.
Back home in the UK you’ve clocked up 17 appearances on Have I Got News For You. Do you particularly enjoy that show?
I absolutely love it. I was still at school when the show started, so it was a really big deal when I first did it. It’s still the top panel show on telly. Because it’s been on for so long, it’s got a really strong sense of what the show is, it’s become very well defined.
On one appearance you and Paul Merton got every single question wrong and scored zero points. What happened there?
We did it on purpose! I’d done the show so many times, so I jokingly said to Paul Merton, “Why don’t we just see if we can score no points?” It’s actually harder than you think, because when an obvious story comes up it’s really hard not to say the answer. Charlie Brooker was on the other team, and at the end he said, “I can’t believe we won!” and Paul went, “Well, we can!”
Paul Merton was ranked at 54 in Channel 4’s poll of the 100 Greatest Stand-Ups. In 2007 you came in at number 10, but when they revisited the poll in 2010 you were bumped to number 11. What happened?
When they did the first programme, he hadn’t done stand-up. By 2010 he’d started, so he was put in the top 10 which pushed me to 11. Which is fair enough – it was voted by the public, and he’s popular. There are probably 10 or 15 acts that nobody knew in 2007 and are now enormous, so if they do another one I’ll probably end up at 25!
“Pretending to be my girlfriend”
So we’re hoping that they don’t do another poll?
I don’t care, to be honest. It’s like those 100 sexiest men or women lists; it’s never won by someone who works in a chip shop in Loughborough. So I take all those things with a pinch of salt.
Like Gervais, you have a very loyal fanbase; they see your show multiple times, leave gifts for you on stage… Is it sweet or creepy?
Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s very sweet and very flattering. Every now and then you get one where you go, “Okaaaay… That’s a little bit scary…”
Who’s been the scariest?
I was in New Zealand once, and I was on my phone to my wife. I’d put the phone down and it rang again. I thought it was her ringing back, so I went, “Hi!” and this voice said, “Hello.” It was a complete stranger who had rung every hotel in Auckland pretending to be my girlfriend. That was a bit terrifying. The thing is, someone being a fan is very flattering, but there’s a big difference between somebody liking your comedy and someone wanting to wear your skin as a suit.