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It’s been four years since your last tour. How long have you been working on the new show?
‘Fifty-eight million years. It’s a show beyond time or place. It’s a culmination of generations of my whole family. [Laughs] No no, I’ve been fussing around with this bullshit for a couple of years, probably. But not in an intense way. I’m still messing around with it.’
Messing around how?
‘I’ve written loads of stuff, and part of the game is trying to remember it and seeing what comes out on a particular night. I haul my arse around the world with my falling-apart box of mismatched Lego pieces and build a new thing every night. I don’t want to know what it’s going to be every night. If I did know I wouldn’t do it. I can’t do that, I don’t work that way. I have a lot of broken biscuits and every night we make a cake.’
Do you enjoy the actual writing part?
‘Oh, I do I do I do. I wrote this show slightly differently. I used to write and then just tour it without really trying the material first. This time I wrote it over a longer period and tried out bits, and now it means I’ve got loads more stuff. But then, I have listened to records of those try-out gigs, and that’s painful.’
Listening to your own voice is painful?
‘Oh, it’s very hard. Listening to yourself tell the same story a dozen different ways? I hate that! And that’s the real work. Argh, I just want to make the cakes and fling them out of the window, I don’t want to remake the fucking cake! I just want everybody to love my cake immediately. That’s the really infantile part of me talking, but it’s a big part of me.’
Audiences across the world have enjoyed your cake. In 2012, it was claimed that you became the first English-speaking comedian to ever perform in Russia. Why hadn’t that been done before?
‘I think it’s just an incrustation of prejudice. People go, “You don’t go there” and you don’t go there. It was a fascinating experience, coming into the country with all the baggage, prejudice and presumptions that we have in the West. Everyone thinks it’s just Putin, oligarchs and loads of peasants. It’s not quite like that. It’s a complex place.’
You’ve also performed in Kazakhstan, Estonia and Ukraine… You must’ve had to adapt your material for each show?
‘Yeah. You do a little bit of reading about the history of the place, their relations with their neighbours – in particular, their powerful neighbours – and their government. Those kinds of things.’
That must be much more interesting than thinking up jokes about Milton Keynes.
‘Yeah, it is! Not that Milton Keynes is without interest, it’s just a question of how much you want to get out of something. In places such as Russia, everyone there is making a huge effort to meet you halfway. Whereas if I go to Middlesbrough or Milton Keynes or wherever, there’s not so much of a bridge between the audience and the performer. It’s really up to you. You’re as interesting as you are interested.’
What else are you interested in at the moment?
‘I’m trying to process modernity, trying to make something digestible out of the torrent of toxic gunk that’s falling out of all of us or being sprayed into our faces all the time.’
‘The internet and technology. I’m not comfortable with technology. Work and life used to be partitioned, but now tech has meant that you’re never able to quite turn off completely. It creates a sort of grey goop feeling, I find. To me, it’s laughable – secular people have just made their new god. People think they’re terribly sophisticated and question religion and they’re busy walking around with a big fucking cross hanging off them.’
But technology has helped you too. ‘Black Books’ has a big global following and that must
be thanks to the internet and Netflix?
‘I can only presume so.’
Do you mind that, ten years after he left our screens, people associate you most with Bernard Black?
‘No, of course not. But when people say, “Are you going to release a range of bathroom toys based on the character?” I’m not. I’m delighted if someone liked something I did, and came back and saw some other work of mine, you know? That’s all I’ve got.’