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Now’s the Time

Continuing the project to dig up and re-publish the older interviews, here’s another one with Mr Ross Noble.

That strange Sunday catch-up with Ross Noble all those years ago began with a discussion of comedians we liked, before we actually tucked into the interview proper. At the time, I’d yet to secure a copy of Richard Pryor’s Pryor Convictions (and still have yet to do so). Ross owned a copy, he told me, in addition to many other books and videos fans of comedy would love.

“The comedy shelf’s this deep,” he said, demonstrating with palms facing each other, a considerable distance apart, “about this tall,” jumping into the air to give me an indication, “and from about here” – indicating a starting point in front of him, before taking a number of big strides – “to here”. We agreed that, should I ever get it together to head to, say, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I would get in touch with Ross first, and pop in on my way.

Of course, by the time I finally got to the Edinburgh Fringe – only a few years later – there was no way someone like me was gonna casually pop in on someone like Ross. Not that I didn’t try, mind. Just that colleagues – of his, not of mine; fellow stand-up comics – who’d have his contact details weren’t about to hand it over. So I knew Ross Noble had well and truly hit the big time… but I wasn’t sure to what degree. That is, until I actually stepped off the train at Waverley Station in Edinburgh and tried to hail my first minicab in that city. It bore an advertisement for Ross’s show that year – Unrealtime. (I apologise for the poor photo, below – and not taking the time to secure a better one.)

I certainly had an unreal time seeing the show and interviewing Ross afterwards in one of those chain coffee shops that had colonised the US and UK before they’d made inroads into this country (I’ll locate that minidisk and transcribe it – at the time, the sound recording was meant for ABC NewsRadio but my association with that station had ended before Ross returned to Australia and I could exploit the ‘exclusive’).

I was given the opportunity to talk to Ross again, for FilmInk magazine, for the Australian release of Unrealtime on DVD – which must have been some time towards the end of 2005. I used a fair whack of the interview – not represented below – for an episode of Radio Ha Ha later on, and I’ll deal with the transcript of that some other time. For now, enjoy this. I can’t for the life of me remember what it was called when it was published in FilmInk.

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According to fellow comic Wil Anderson, just as filmmakers nowadays learn to make films by listening to directors’ commentary on DVDs, comedians will learn to do comedy by listening to Ross Noble’s commentary on his new Unrealtime DVD. Or at least, they would if they could get their hands on it; until recently, you could only get it from the UK or through Ross Noble’s website. Although the comic was launching it in person in selected HMV stores in the UK last October, it’s taken some seven months to make it to Australia.

“It was supposed to come out at the same time in Australia,” Ross Noble insists from his Melbourne home (having ‘settled down’ with a local lass, he has spent the last little while touring and living out here) “but unfortunately – what’s the best way of putting it? – the people responsible for actually physically getting it into the shops didn’t realise that Australia was such a long way away and it might take a bit longer to get it. It was the same in Ireland as well: there’s so much stuff on the actual thing itself that to get it certificated and produced and whatever else just took a bit longer than was anticipated, i.e. seven months.”

Now, the thing about Ross Noble’s comedy is that it’s never set in stone. Having first been a street performer who juggled and rode a unicycle, when he first took to the stage as a stand-up comic, the jokes were still the fillers between the tricks. But because this took place in the northern town of Newcastle, England, where comics were a lot thinner on the ground and the London variety proved too expensive to ship up, Noble got a lot of flying time as a stand-up comic. He’d MC a lot. When he finally started to ‘make it’ in London, it was as a warm-up guy for live studio audiences in-between and during the technical hitches of sitcoms.

“It meant that I got to the point where I was comfortable enough on stage going on and actually genuinely talking and genuinely being funny without relying on jokes,” Ross explains. As a result, he learnt to have faith that no matter what came up and where he took it, he could always end with a flourish, impressively tying all the loose ends together. These are the skills the comic still utilises on the stand-up stage, bantering with the punters and looking as though he makes it all up out of thin air as he goes along. Even when he starts to do the ‘same bits’ – which in Noble’s case, means merely attempting to revisit the same topics and usually ending up somewhere else entirely – he never does them the same way twice.

Why is all of this important? Only because you’ve got to wonder at what point you decide to record it for posterity. If you’re gonna make a DVD of a show that changes nightly, how do you decide that ‘this night is gonna be the one that nails it, that best sums up what it’s about’?

“To be honest with you,” Ross admits, “that was the hardest thing about the whole process, just going, ‘well, hang on, when is the best time to catch it?’ So, basically, I didn’t. The release is actually a two-disc set. There are two shows, filmed three months apart.”

The first show, Noble explains, took place at The Regent’s Park, an open air theatre “where they do Shakespeare and it’s all a bit ‘la-di-da’.” Having recorded that show, it was bunged on the shelf and duly ignored it. Two months later, Ross embarked on a month-long run at the Garrick Theatre in London’s West End, which culminated in a final night’s taped performance. “Obviously,” Ross says, “they’re two different shows. But they were basically recorded at the same time.” Rather than a document of ‘a show’, they form a snapshot, like a band’s live performance, of what took place on those respective nights.

So, okay. How do the performances differ?

“Oh, blimey!” the comic begins. “Well, one’s indoors and one’s outdoors, that’s the main one.” Because of the nature of performing outdoors – “it’s got no roof on it and all the rest of it” Ross elucidates – the performance is more driven by the venue. “Just ’cause of the nature of being outside, there’s a ton of stuff about picnics and cheese and there’s a bit about a fight that kicked off on a moped just up the road from where the gig was. It was the sort of thing where everyone was going, ‘well, this is a bit weird; we’re watching a stand-up show, but we’re essentially in a park’.”

The show at the Garrick Theatre is in fact the Unrealtime show proper, and, Ross insists, “is a bit darker; it’s a bit more about what’s going on in my head than what’s going on in the room.” He pauses before offering the definitive explanation of the differences between the two performances: “I say different words and people laugh in different places. That’s the main difference.”

In addition to two and a half hours of stand-up comedy – the Garrick performance goes for ninety minutes, while the open-air performance is an hour – Ross promises that the two-disc set is “chock-a-block!” There are the educational commentaries, the subtitles and pop-up trivia, even a standard ‘Ross On Tour’ featurette. And then it gets interesting: there is a Trivia Quiz To Unlock Hidden Extra Footage, so there are easter eggs as well. “Nine hours it will take you to get through everything,” Ross reckons. “There’s no room left on either of the discs!”