“My favourite thing about comedy, letting it go” - I chat to Phill Jupitus
- Credit: Archant
Phill Jupitus, who attended Woolverstone Hall School, in Suffolk, as a youngster, has trod many paths during his career. New tour Juplicity sees him return to his poetry and stand-up roots.
Q: What are you up to right now...
I’m cleaning the car. I’m touring on me own so the thing’s a wreck. I’m trying to get all the crap out and re-pack it so I can ruin it for next week and then do it again. You just accumulate stuff. The thing you really shouldn’t do is eat in the car, because then you’ve got biological waste and then that kind of musty aroma. There’s always a banana skin you don’t realise that goes under a seat and then things start growing on that.
Q: You’re back on tour with new show Juplicity...
The last full tour I did was in 2013, You’re Probably Wondering Why I Asked You Here, which was a character stand-up tour where I played three different blokes who did a Q and A with the audience. It was asking a lot of the crowd to be honest. I think they much prefer it when you just do stuff at them. There were a couple of times I had to explain at the end of the first half “this show is really, really good but you need to participate”. If they feel they’re working on a night out an audience can feel a bit odd like that.
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Another thing that would propel the show along is I have no fear of silence whatsoever, so the long pauses while they were thinking of questions… they feel more uncomfortable than me. That was four years ago and sort of experimental. It was fun and worked sort of well but this is back to me saying stuff and then not requesting anything other than they enjoy it (laughs).
Q: You’re drawing from your own life, which you’ve described as chaotic and flaky…
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The nature of doing what we do for a living means you don’t know what you’re doing year to year. I would probably be happier if I knew exactly what I was going to doing in a couple of years. If I was a five-year planner like Eddie Izzard I’m sure my life would be much smoother but I tend to just lurch from thing to thing.
It was very rare, especially in the Buzzcocks years, that I didn’t know what I would be doing in the autumn of any given year, because I was always doing Buzzcocks. That rhythm of your life, when that’s taken away… by negotiating and chatting with people you get to do something different to fill that time. It’s as exciting as it is challenging.
I have to say it was initially a bit of a worry when the show went. I thought “well, now you’re free for more things now” so I spent a couple of years doing theatre. I did The Producers, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and A Midsummer’s Night Dream for the Theatre Royal, Bath, so I did a nice spread of different work.
What was brilliant about doing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for a year, it made me realise, firstly, I’m not sure I’m really cut out for acting. I’m not saying never again but I’d be more reluctant. Secondly, the freedom stand-up gives you, if you can devote yourself to it full-time and be methodical about doing it, then it’s a great thing to do. I’m enjoying this tour more than I have any other I think because it’s got a lot of different things going on in it.
Q: I was surprised and sad when Never Mind The Buzzcocks was cancelled after 18 years…
You don’t know all the story behind things but generally when someone new takes over a network they like to make their mark and cancelling Buzzcocks was certainly a mark because it was the most successfully rated comedy show on the channel at the time I believe. It certainly consistently delivered good audience figures for the BBC.
Q: It must’ve come as a surprise…
No my mindset always was that television is a very mercurial and transient thing, so every year I thought it would be cancelled (laughs), “oh they won’t want that again”. Panel shows stand or fall on the chemistry of the individuals in the room. If you record a two-hour programme and only need 23 minutes of screen time out of that… it’s actually a testament to the skill of the editor, I always thought the team that edited that show were absolutely brilliant.
Q: You’ve always struck me as not being one to discuss family on stage…
Oh God we are being sarcastic there aren’t we (laughs), it’s all I do. The weird thing is “oh you’re talking about your family; it’s not fair on them”. I’m more talking about how they impact on me and how my life has been shaped by them you know.
The thing is, talk about what you know as a stand up. When there’s truth in the story you’re telling it’s got more substance. I’ve realised as much as I wish I could be a complete flight of fancy merchant, and there’s certainly an element of that in what I do; I need the foundation of a real something that happened to me to make that take off. All of the stories in the current show are things that happened to me… I talk about the first time I went to Scotland, I’ve got a daughter living in America now... it’s like if these people met me in a pub and we got chatting these subjects would come up.
I wish I could say it’s completely intentional; it’s just the way these things come out and that’s the nature of the tour. A lot of acts will come up with an initial concept, write it, work it, hone it and then it’s set in stone and then that’s what happens every single night. I’m a bit more fluid and I’ll muck around with the running order and do things in different places… you know when the sediment goes to the bottom of a bottle of squash, you shake it up so it’s all mixed in. I have to shake it up every few shows to get a different feel for it.
Q: There’s music and poetry too…
Absolutely I’ve been describing it as a cultural triathlon, all three disciplines employed.
I support myself every night doing a poetry set and that’s really good, calms me down… it brings a different energy and also it’s showing the audience that know me from QI or Buzzcocks or stand-up shows what I very first started doing. Even though the material’s not new, I like the poetry because it feeds the stand up.
The music I like to do because, again, it brings a different energy to the room. You kick off the second half with a couple of songs you’ve written and it’s a nice fanfare to the thing.
Q: This tour you’re on stage from the moment the audience come in the door and never leave it…
It’s a new thing I’m trying out. I’m quite enjoying it and it changes the dynamic of the show as they know it. You used to go “okay, you’re on stage in half-an-hour and you used to sit back and wait. Now I sit on stage and wait. I tweet selfies and things of the audience as they’re arriving. I’m facing away from them, playing records. I’ve got all my wardrobe, everything for the gig on stage. Then at the interval I’m milling around with them.
Q: You mentioned your daughter Molly in an interview, how she’d married her American girlfriend and emigrated to the States; with what’s going on there at the moment with Donald Trump and LGBT rights gay marriage is trope that’s very much in vogue right now…
Definitely it gets a mention… now you’ve said that, the last two gigs, it didn’t… the components of the bit where I talk about her… it’s like when you tell mates a story you tell it a different way each time. I’ve recently just done a project with an artist called Peter Liversidge for the national art collection which is going to be shown in Hull. He filmed me for an hour telling the same story, five times but in five different ways.
That’s what will happen when I do the stand-up, on any given night sometimes some things will be left out. If I did the full show on everything I know at the minute, I could probably be up there for one-and-three-quarter hours so things get dropped, get moved around. The poetry set varies wildly. What’s nice about that is that you can feel the energy of the room and you can try something different or you can not do it, I like the fluidity.
With regards to your actual question, I address it but I’m not making any great statements, I think he says enough about himself. I think that it’s all there to see to be honest. One does worry; I’d worry about her if she was in Australia, if she was in Europe… the fact the world backdrop is slightly grim is just something we all have to deal with and I think we’re all worried at the moment.
Q: Is there a struggle in your mind about how much of yourself you share on stage…
There’s this odd thing, there’s things I’ve said on stage I wouldn’t say to friends. When you’re on stage you’re a construct, it’s a side of you that doesn’t exist. That person isn’t really me and can say anything. I was talking about it on stage, I asked the audience “are you enjoying the show” and they go “yeah” and I go “it’s really interesting because if you met me after the gig I’d be a colossal disappointment. That guy you’re watching now doesn’t exist”.
I think that’s why I’m blurring the lines with what I do before the show, in the interval and at the end of the show. I’m completely ignoring them, then I’m fully engaged with them but as a performer so there’s a barrier, then I break that wall and I’m now among them. I return to ignoring them for a little bit and then I’m back to performing for them and as soon as the gig finishes I just say “goodnight, thanks for coming”, I play a record while I pack all my crap up but they’re watching me do that.
Q: Where did the idea for blurring the lines come from…
The actual inspiration for it… I saw a comic called Laura Davis at the Edinburgh Fringe and she was on stage when the audience arrived and she was playing songs on her phone. She just says hello to them as they walk in. I liked that idea, so that’s what I’ve done I’ve literally moved my dressing room on stage. I’ve got water there, I have a cup of tea when I’m sat there, I make notes, text people…
It’s playing with the normal way a gig operates, I find it’s my gag of the show - the fact they’ve been watching me for however long I’ve been sat there. The lights go down and I stand up and there’s a microphone in front of me and I introduce myself on stage while I’m on stage. It keeps me engaged and interested and to be honest it’s a really interesting warm up to know that they’re looking at you while you’re sat there doing stuff, you become more present.
Q: Is it more about your mindset rather than the audiences or a bit of both…
I think a bit of both, I’m just interested to see the reaction. Certainly when I introduce myself in the second half I get a bigger cheer than I’ve ever got before because I’ve been out there for the whole time and then I go out in the interval and give them badges and biscuits… I just smash down all those barriers you normally have with a performer in a gig situation.
Q: You mentioned being reticent about returning to acting…
It was never planned; I never thought it would happen. The thing of it is, with this job, you can either go down the “let’s do this one thing and just do that” route but with stand-up there’s so much freedom, there’s so many different things you can do. That’s what I like, I like the variety, a new challenge… I’ve been in a band, I’ve done visual art work, design, straight acting, comedy acting, six musicals, stand-up and poetry. I’ve presented television shows, radio shows, club DJing. Never shut the door on something.
The thing is, with acting at the minute I’m less disposed to it because what I suddenly realised by doing it for a year is that you can’t do anything else. You have to completely devote yourself to that and that for me is limiting. If I did do it again it would not be for any longer than about three months.
The thing about stand-up is it’s nice to walk away from it. It’s my favourite thing about it, letting it go. Because when you come back you’re a different bloke.
Q: How would you describe your relationship with stand-up…
It’s cathartic, it’s almost like therapy for me. It’s really good to be able to turn awful things into funny things; it makes horrible stuff lose its power. It was a bit like the routine I did at Live at the Apollo talking about my daughter Emily and her first boyfriend, that was genuinely a quite stressful time for me. By talking about it as material I was able to work out my feelings about it, to actually expunge them and get rid of any agg about it.
What’s interesting about that routine is I’ve had parents come up to me who said “we were in exactly the same situation and we made the same decision you and your wife did and it was so nice to hear somebody else talking about the reluctance and the fact they were confused by it, the fact it was a bit scary”.
Every two-three months, a dad or mum will come up and go “can I just thank you because it turned what was a very stressful and anxiety promoting family situation into a joke and meant we could talk about it”. I’m not saying I’m any kind of family therapist or anything but that’s the power of jokes.
Q: The show’s still evolving…
Ideas can blossom on stage… you can get meat on the bones of a rough idea that will grow during the course of a tour. The show’s in a certain state now, it will be in a completely different state by December. When I see stand-ups I always want to see a couple of gigs in a row, because you see where their mind’s at. When you see the differences you see how much they’re playing about. I always love to see the different qualities of audience.
Stand-up is a very immediate reaction art form, very different from its colleagues. I mean live music. there’s elements of that but you’ve got the security of the song you can retreat into. When bands talk about tough audiences it’s understandable but at the end of the day turn your amps up, you can’t hear the audience; just play the songs and get off.
With stand up there’s more openness, there’s that space. Because I walk out among them, that’s another change shift in the energy in the room. I let people do selfies, I’ve got free badges… sometimes I walk up to people and “go thank you for coming, do you want a biscuit” (laughs). It’s just a different way of doing things. I’m not sure how much money this tour’s going to make because I’m spending most of it on digestives and ginger nuts.
• See Phill Jupitus at Colchester Arts Centre October 20, Norwich Playhouse December 2 and The Apex in Bury St Edmunds December 6.