Milton Jones: interview
No smutty pub chat here. Milton Jones crafts comedy that is non-stop solid joke, says Time Out.
The art of the one-liner is rarely mastered. A huge amount of comedic skill is required to write a joke in its purest form that is fresh, funny and doesn't sound like its from a Christmas cracker. Leading the pack of imaginative zinger-shooters is Milton Jones. With this Radio 4 favourite, every joke is an absolute gem, a masterful mix of surreal imagery and intricate wordplay. Jones has been performing on the comedy circuit for over 15 years, but recent appearances on 'Mock the Week' and 'Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow' have introduced a broader audience to his intelligent brand of absurd humour. What is it? Good, old-fashioned, clean-as-a-whistle gags…
Your whimsical one-liner style isn't the most obvious fit for a topical panel show. How did the 'Mock the Week' appearances come about?
'I was asked on by the associate producer and in fact I almost said no. I know enough people who have been caught in the headlights on the show and for them it's been the worst day of their life. But I thought I should give it a try. It turns out people like jokes. Not everyone, but there's a demographic who like one-liner gags and I don't think “Mock the Week” was catering for them previously. I got invited back and gradually got more confident. But it's not easy. It's like shaking hands before a race.'
Do you enjoy the recordings? It's a very competitive show…
'It is. Someone said recently it was “like filming dogs fighting”. I don't look forward to it, but I'm not afraid of it. The 24 hours before are like revising for an exam! On “Mock the Week”, if you don't say something early on you can feel the audience losing confidence in you. So when you do speak, there's so much pressure on it being funny that it's hard to look as if you don't care, which then makes it less funny. With any comedy subject there are only three or four ways you can really deal with it. But there are seven people on the show. So after three people have spoken it's quite hard to come up with a new angle.'
You have a very distinctive eccentric, spaced-out persona on stage. When did you first decide to perform in character?
'Not until about three or four years in. I had messed about with clothes, accents even, and then found if you just stuck your hair up, or put on a jumper it lowered your status and so you were less threatening. If you went in to a rough club as a slightly middle-class person, you had to get over that. This way, at least even if they didn't get your jokes they could go, “Ah, look at his funny face!” '
Your material is totally clean; a rarity on the circuit. Has your comedy always been that way?
'Pretty much. I'm a Christian, so I don't swear or blaspheme, and when I started stand-up I found I needed to be as accessible as possible. Even early on I picked up gigs that other comics wouldn't have been asked to do: schools, some charity gigs… I was comfortable with it. If you're able to develop a style out of being clean then you can be accepted by a wide variety of people.'
Do you like the fact that whole families can all enjoy your show?
'It sounds rather saccharine, but when I look out and I see mum and dad have brought their kids, I do like that. At one show a little girl asked about my trousers, or something ridiculous, and I talked to her for a bit. I came back to her at the end to ask, “Did you like the show?” and her mum said, “She's asleep.” You get into situations that are totally un-Jongleurs. It's great.'
Being one-liners, your jokes are very quotable. Do you find yourself vulnerable to joke-theft?
'Yes, one-liner people do in general, definitely. I don't so much now, but about ten years ago a mainstream comic would just do one of my jokes in their act. It was very frustrating. Also, apparently a couple of years ago there was a talent competition on a TV station up North where some bloke stuck his hair up, put on a jumper and did all my gags. It wasn't a tribute act; it was just a complete rip off. I don't know whether to be pleased that he didn't win or not! But there's nothing you can do, really. There's been no legal precedent. So a punch in the face is as good as you can hope for.'
You've been on the comedy circuit for a long time. What does performing your own show at the Hammersmith Apollo mean to you?
'I haven't really thought about it that much. It's generally exciting, I suppose. It's good to be there, but it doesn't mean it will go well necessarily. Well, it should do - I've done a big tour of exactly the same show! But with a venue that size, like with “Mock the Week”, it feels like there's a lot more pressure on each joke.'