Different strokes, different jokes

TIM Vine's jokes have often been mistaken for the late Tommy Cooper's - much to his chagrin - but you can see why. Exhibit A, m'lud: “The other day someone left a piece of Plasticine in my dressing room.

TIM Vine's jokes have often been mistaken for the late Tommy Cooper's - much to his chagrin - but you can see why. Exhibit A, m'lud: “The other day someone left a piece of Plasticine in my dressing room. I didn't know what to make of it.”

Or: “So I went to the dentist. He said 'Say Aaah.' I said 'Why?' He said 'My dog's died.'”

His shows feature dozens and dozens of quickfire gags - maybe 10 a minute - some silly songs and a few japes with props.

Tim's such a pistol-packing punster, in fact, that two years ago he annexed the world joke-telling record - his score of 499 smiles-per-hour wiping the grin off the face of previous holder Erkki Kolu, from Estonia, who notched up 362.

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Unfortunately, he lost the record eight months later when a jester from Down-under did about 560 jokes in 60 minutes. “I couldn't believe it,” says Tim. He says of his own effort: “Naively, I thought 'Well, there you go; that will stand for ever. I'll be the fastest joke-teller that ever lived.' And soon found out that wouldn't be the case. I'd love to see a tape of what he actually did. He must have just been making noises!”

Unlike much of comedy today, Tim's show is an obscenity-free zone. That's not because he's a Christian, just that swearing isn't part of his act - “not as a virtue in itself, but I like the idea that a father can bring his 12-year-old son and not fear there will be a moment when he feels terribly embarrassed”.

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He admits he'll utter something rude if he stubs his toe on a chair, for instance, but laments the fact that the phrase “family-oriented comedy” is often used in a derogatory way, as if it's not hip and trendy enough.

“It has a connotation of naffness and not being very funny,” he explains, “but I definitely think there's a gap in the market for something funny that, like I say, a father could take his children to. I don't want to sound nostalgic, but something in the vein of Dad's Army would be so popular. I know the way forward seems to be to constantly push the barriers, but that's not my thing.”

Tim's first stab at stand-up came just before Christmas, 1990, at a friend's party - guests said to have been more bemused than amused. There follows a well-trodden path through comedy clubs - and, at the start of 1992, a disciplinary hearing at his office job in Croydon because he's not doing enough work.

In the spring of 1993 he comes second in the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year contest, where he's pipped by Ronni Ancona. That summer he quits his day job to do comedy full-time.

He's since had sell-out Edinburgh festival shows, and won The Perrier Best Newcomer Award. There's been an appearance on The Royal Variety Show.

Tim was the first man to appear on Channel 5. Other TV credits include hosting Fluke (a Channel 4 show he devised) and The Tim Vine Christmas Present (Channel 5). He's appeared on the Des O'Connor Show as well as Call My Bluff, Give Us a Clue and Loose Ends.

Tim tends to “binge-write” his material - his mind concentrated by deadlines, he admits. Then he'll go to a little comedy club and read his puns from postcards. Jokes that get a laugh will be kept and honed; those that disappoint are ditched.

Even though this autumn's month-long tour features 26 densely-packed dates from Salisbury to Folkestone, via Great Yarmouth, Tim enjoys the experience.

“You've got to remember - well, you haven't got to remember; you haven't got to do anything - when I started doing this job I was working five or six nights a week, all year round. The nice thing about touring, compared to doing a comedy club, is that people have come to see you because they like what you do. It's not so much of a 'make me laugh' atmosphere. It's more of a challenge because you've got to do a bit longer, but it's like being with friends, and people are usually very nice.”

So why does he like scattergun puns?

“Well, I didn't set out to do these jokes initially; not consciously. What it is is a slight insecurity of waiting between laughs. I don't like waiting too long before the next - or at least if I tell a joke and you don't like it, well here's another one straight away. So it's probably a nervous reaction that's developed,” laughs the 39-year-old..

Why did he want to be a comedian?

“I think probably there's the psychology behind it. I'm the middle child; and maybe I'm just trying to say 'Over here, Mum! Dad! Look!' I think there may be a bit of that; just trying to justify my existence. But on a purely straightforward level, it is a lovely thing to do - to make people laugh.”

Speaking of families, his brother is Radio 2 presenter Jeremy Vine. Does big bro mind being overshadowed by Tim's success?

He laughs. “Well, I've never, ever heard anyone say that, and I would disagree with that description! He used to write the occasional joke for me. He wrote one which went: 'I went into the chemist's, walked up to the counter, and said 'Furrggh.' And she gave me some lotion. I said 'That's amazing. How did you understand what I said?' She replied 'Bwrrh-bwrrh'. That was his.”

Confusion between which puns were Tim's and which were Tommy Cooper's arose when an email of 20 or 30 jokes did the rounds, and someone attributed them to the legendary comedian.

“At the time, when it first came to light about seven years ago, I was quite wound up by it. But I've let go of it now. When people say 'You should be flattered', I always think: Well, isn't that like getting burgled and someone saying 'He must have really liked your DVD player to take it.'”

Here's another case of fiction becoming fact if you say it often: pages on the world wide web suggest Tim plays the organ at church. Not true, he laughs.

“I play drums in my church, once in a while, but never the organ. My drumming's not fantastic; I'm largely self-taught. My brother plays the drums a bit, so he taught me a rhythm at one point - so really it's one rhythm at 30 different speeds.”

A bit like the puns, then.


Tim Vine appears at Bury St Edmunds Corn Exchange on October 8. Details: 01284 754252.

Six of the best - Tim Vine puns

I was on holiday and my girlfriend got hit by a tidal wave of tonic water. She got Schwepped away.

Velcro: what a rip-off.

A bloke said to me: 'Whatever you do, don't mention deodorant.' I said: 'Sure; Mum's the word.'

He said “I'm going to chop off the bottom of one of your trouser legs and put it in a library.” I thought “That's a turn-up for the books.”

So I was getting into my car, and this bloke says to me “Can you give me a lift?” I said “Sure, you look great, the world's your oyster, go for it.”

You know, somebody actually complimented me on my driving today. They left a little note on the windscreen; it said “Parking Fine.” So that was nice.

JEREMY Hardy always was an intriguing mix: his utterances suggested he'd happily buy the Queen and most politicians a Eurostar ticket to Paris - one-way only, mind - yet his manner was mild and many of his observations dealt with the mundane nature of life.

He might have taken to the streets to support victims of the miscarriage of justice - including, famously, some Irish nationalists - but he wasn't the type to smash windows or warm himself at burning barricades. Less political hooligan than the acceptable face of an agitator . . . able to give traditional BBC Radio 4 listeners a frisson but without making them fear the revolution was at the gates.

So it's not overly surprising that his concerns today centre on prosaic matters: namely making time for a bath and picking up his teenage daughter so she can get home in time for a wee. (She's just phoned and asked to be picked up. “Think you'll be able to last?” asks her dad. Yes, honestly.)

Jeremy's getting into his stride on an autumn/winter tour that reaches Chelmsford on October 10 - which is where the ablutions come in. Going out on the road means banging the publicity drum. He doesn't mind a round of phone chats with the media from different corners of the UK, but it is, he says, “a bit difficult fitting in your bath. You have to think 'Have I got time between Hull and Halifax?'”

Publicity blurb for his tour takes self-deprecation to a new low level of intensity, saying his live show could be called an extravaganza “were it not for the fact that nothing happens. He comes on, talks for a while and then goes off again”.

The man himself concedes there's no unifying theme. “It's just me talking. I've worked out most of my subjects - what I'm going to be talking about - but they kind of change. It flops about.”

Is the show shaped by the news?

“Sometimes. But most things are kind of extensions to issues that have been rumbling on for ages. The main item on the news for the last two years has been 'When's Tony Blair going to go?' and 'More people have died in Afghanistan, more people have died in Iraq', so . . .The news does tend to follow a pattern.”

Early reviews give a taste of how things go. Topics have included private education (wrong, in his view) and health food shops (items should bear labels saying “call this number if you are not totally self-satisfied”). Debating the question “nuclear power or coal” is simply akin to asking if we want our environmental disaster still or sparkling.

He smiles. “I draw attention to all the negative things, but the overriding message is one of hope!”

His appearance on the TV show Grumpy Old Men could lead us to think he's a Victor Meldrew in waiting, but the south London-based comedian insists: “I'm not grumpy; it's more chipper resignation, I think. And not so old, either. I'm only 45; I'm getting more youthful as I get older. I'm living backwards!”

He expounds. “I suppose I kind of forget that I'm 45 - or forget that 45 is old. Then I'll suddenly look around and realise that I'm the same age as other people's parents.” He considers. “I suppose I am old, really; being realistic.”

Jeremy Hardy was and is very far out on the left wing of UK politics; much was made in his earlier days, for instance, of his membership of the Socialist Alliance. One imagines he isn't among those feeling betrayed by the Blair Government, since his expectations wouldn't have been high anyway.

“I never was a fan of his, although I was pleased when he got in - to see the back of the Tories. I suppose I didn't realise quite how bad he was going to be: three wars in a row.”

Is that what's most disappointing? “Well, that's pretty bad! And, also, the onslaught against civil rights” - identity cards, curbs on protest - “all the things the Tories tried to do and now claim to be against.”

Does he feel disenfranchised as a voter? “Well, yeah, in that there's nobody that I can vote for with a song in my heart. I vote Green, which is all right, isn't it?”

Whither Labour?

“I've long since realised I have no ability to predict anything. I don't know what will happen. I think the Tories will probably get back in. It just seems to be about bickering now; it's not like there are any profound ideological differences.

“At the top of the parties, it's just about personalities. People have got short memories, and they sort of see Cameron as youthful and can see him as Prime Minister - which is a desperate thought. I suspect that will happen, but I don't think it will make a huge difference whether Brown or Cameron are Prime Minister; I think things will carry on much the same.”

In 2002, the comedian featured in a documentary called Jeremy Hardy vs the Israeli Army, after he travelled to the occupied West Bank at the invitation of the International Solidarity Movement of Palestine. It highlighted the alleged heavy-handedness of the military forces.

What does he think of current developments?

“God! That film is like a walk in the park compared with what's going on now. It's rather a depressing time; I don't know what will happen. I think there are seeds of hope, but whenever Hamas and Israel seem close to some kind of agreement, the Israelis manage to kill one of their leaders and it's back to square one again.”

He's now crunching up the path, on his mercy mission to meet his daughter. Er, do they not have loos at Streatham Hill?

“Well, they've got one in the bowling alley, but someone told me it's closed down. But generally there's not much in the way of public toilets.”

Perhaps she'll replay such paternal devotion by doing a Lily Allen and make a fortune to sustain him in your dotage? (Lily's the daughter of comedian Keith Allen, who's just had a big hit with the song Smile.)

“I hope so. I'm going to train her . . .”

Jeremy Hardy appears at Chelmsford's Civic Theatre on October 10: 01245 606505, www.chelmsford.gov.uk/theatres

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