Noblesse Oblige: Ross Noble Obliges

Towards the end of the last millennium, Simon Morgan sold the famed Harold Park Hotel after briefly re-branding it ‘The Comedy Hotel’. He had owned it with — I believe, and I’m doing this from memory — his brother (who was at one time married to Gretel Killeen, and went to America to become a producer). The Harold Park Hotel, until quite recently, remained a construction site thereafter, while Simon went on to open ‘The Comedy Cellar’ in the bottom of the then-newly completed Broadway Shopping Centre. The Comedy Cellar became the central locus of two Sydney Comedy Festivals that Simon initiated, the first in 1998 and the other the following year. A third one failed to take place in 2000 when (and despite), let’s face it, Sydney being primed for such an event, what with the Olympics… In time, Sydney’s comedy industry would be shaken and stirred by not one, but two comedy festivals: Big Laugh and Cracker. That’s a whole other story that I’ll write when commissioned.

Back to the 1999 Sydney Comedy Festival: I remember Simon Morgan proudly telling me of the talents he’d secured, one of whom was Ross Noble. “You’ll enjoy Ross. Make sure you shout something during the performance — see what he does with it.” I had no idea what to make of Ross Noble initially, in performance or in interview. Admittedly, his opening night audience were a bit reticent. It was down to one punter right up the back, shouting stuff out. I recognised him. So did Ross, eventually: “Hang on, your the feller who hired me…" Fact is, I wasn’t disappointed by Ross as an interview subject, a performer or, with time, a broadcaster. And neither have been the ever-growing number of people who make up his fan base.

This is the first of a series of interviews I’ve had the pleasure of conducting with Ross Noble. I intend to run them all here, in the lead-up to what I hope is another interview before his next Australian tour (destined to start any minute now) — hence the title of this section. The interview itself has a name that I’m sure I attached to at least one other subsequent article; no doubt there are a multitude of similar-titled articles occupying cyber space and the arts pages of local and city publications the world over. Don’t get to stressed about it. Ross and his comedy are what’s important.

This interview first appeared in Revolver in 1999 — so ignore the show details at the bottom, they are now meaningless.

The Noble Art of Comedy

“Which cartoon characters would you have sex with if you had to?” comedian Ross Noble demands. Apparently it is the sort of topic he discusses with people — fellow comedians, loved ones, colleagues and even interviewers — and claims that it should have been a ‘Family Feud’ question: “We surveyed a hundred people and came up with their top seven answers… ba-BOW!” I have to be honest and admit that when rub comes to tuck, my main cartoon squeeze would be Daphne from Scooby Doo. “She’s a popular favourite,” Ross concurs. “The real question is, ‘Betty or Wilma?’”

Ross Noble came to comedy some seven years ago, from the world of street entertainment. Initially, he and a partner used to present an Evel Knievel tribute show: “We used to do his famous bus jump on unicycles. We had this big plywood ramp and we’d line up these toy double-decker buses and then ride along and jump over them.” The pair would also juggle fire over unwitting members of the audience invited to lie down on the floor. Despite the good fun had by all, the partnership eventually dissolved due to the “couple of times” that Noble accidentally set his partner’s hair on fire. “He was just getting a bit tired of it,” Ross recalls. “He decided that he wanted to become an architect. It’s understandable, after you’ve had your head burnt several times.”

Going solo did not pose a problem, but getting rained on frequently did, so Noble decided to turn to stand-up. Just as his street theatre had a humorous bent, Ross acknowledges that nowadays his comedy retains elements of street theatre. “It was all very much a matter of having set things – tricks – that you had to do and kind of waffling around them. My act is exactly the same now but instead doing a trick, I deliver a punchline. The punchlines are the framework and the rest just slots in between.”

‘The rest’ that Noble slots in, if reviews are anything to go by, consists of unpredictable material dealing with all manner of topics; Ross Noble has a reputation for being an improviser. Noble takes issue with the phrase ‘reputation for being an improviser’, as opposed to merely ‘being an improviser’, but proves my point in doing so by going off on a totally improvised tangent in a sly, know-it-all voice:

“Heard about Noble… possibly a bit of improv; be careful, watch him. We’ll be off script soon as you know it. Don’t trust him — Devil’s in his eye.”

He claims that when he walks into the Peter Cook Bar after a Melbourne International Comedy Festival gig, he can “hear them whispering: ‘There he goes. There he goes with his lack of preparation…’”

When challenged, Ross Noble says that what makes him laugh is “seeing things fired from cannons”. He claims to have discarded the telly and invested in a small cannon. This is merely the preamble, however. The funniest thing he has seen in a while, Noble claims, is a photograph of a hamster that looks exactly like Andy Warhol – “the hair, the little face, everything. I started to believe that this guinea pig was actually the great artist himself, reincarnated in a rodent form.” And now, Devil in his eye, the notorious improviser is off-script: “…But an Andy Warhol guinea pig fired from a cannon, that would be really funny. With a large-headed child — you know when you see toddlers that have got really big heads? I’d like to see one of them walking across the road and getting hit by an Andy Warhol guinea pig fired out of a cannon. That would be the ultimate laughter-frenzy for me.”

What amuses Noble most, it seems, are uninhibited conversations where the mind is free to — well, associate, I guess, for ‘free-association’ seems to be the basis for this comic’s wild improvisations.

In answer to Ross Noble’s earlier question of “Wilma or Betty,” I am forced to reply “Wilma”. Given my Daphne-from-Scooby Doo fixation, it’s clearly a redhead fetish, I’m sure.

“You see, I would go for Betty every time,” Ross says. When I ask why, he replies, flabbergasted, “Oh! Have a look!” And he’s off again: “Look at Wilma’s hair! What’s that thing on the top? Betty’s cute… But what’s going on with Barney’s eyes? Has he got cataracts? They’re just circles. Fred has proper eyes…”

“That’s the sort of thing I talk about,” Noble concludes. “It’s fairly heavily cartoon-based.” He goes on to relate “one of the most entertaining conversations” he claims he has ever had, which took place recently with American comic Rich Hall. “It was about people who have shit themselves when they should have been working.” He outlines the examples that both he and Hall offered of the same, after which I admit that I have “no further questions, your Honour”.

“What’s wrong,” Ross demands, “are you scared?”

Yeah, I’m shittin’ myself.

See Ross Noble fire strangely shaped ideas from his free-associating cannon at big-headed members of the Comedy Cellar audience this week.


Radio Ha Ha Episode 34

Episode 34 was a tough one to do — it was the first one without co-host and co-founder of the show Tammy Tantschev, who has accepted work overseas. She's not left the country yet, but she has left the show — for all of a week — and I already miss her!

Anyway, this is the first episode to feature a 'guest co-host', as it were — stand-up comic Dave Jory.

The first time I met Dave — in fact the first time I met all the comedians in this episode, and Tammy for that matter, was during a heat of Raw Comedy, that competition to locate fresh talent run by the Melbourne International Comedy Festival every year.

As we discuss in the episode, my first impression of Dave — in his black suit, with his bald head, doing dark and shocking material that wasn't necessarily funny — was that he was scary enough to be one of those crims in a Guy Ritchie crime flick.

In addition to playing a bit of Dave’s stand-up, and discussing his development as a comic, we also feature an excellent piece from Sam Bowring. Sam's got an interesting story — having started doing comedy at age 17 at the now-legendary (and sadly defunct) Harold Park Hotel, formerly in Glebe. Since he was under-age, his father had to accompany him to the venue, as legal guardian. But his father wasn't allowed to see him perform — potentially, too embarrassing for Sam!

Not so now — I saw all of the Bowring family at a recent performance, where I got to record Sam. The routine involves him spitting venom at the proprietor of a pie company responsible for the worst pie he‘s ever ingested, and it was recorded — as was all the comedy apart from a little snippet of Dave’s stuff featured early on —live at the Mic In Hand; that’s the Thursday night gig at the Friend In Hand Hotel, Glebe, run by Sam Bowring and fellow stand-up comic Kent Valentine. (The other Dave Jory snippet was recorded at the Comedy Store, at Moore Park).

Actually, now that I think of it, Sam insists we met long before he tried out in Raw Comedy. When he was a 17 year-old open mic comic at the Harold Park Hotel, I was an earnest wannabe publisher, of a comedy zine called Stand & Deliver!. I don't remember encountering him there, but he certainly remembers me and my little zine — which still almost kind of exists, as my blog, also entitled Stand & Deliver!. Before I move on, I think I'd be withholding important information if I didn't add — for the less familiar — the fact that Sam Bowring was shortlisted for 'best newcomer' at this year's Melbourne International Comedy Festival. And Kent Valentine enjoyed a sell-out season (much to my embarrassment, virtually the only Sydney act I didn't see down there — only because every time I set aside an evening to see him, he was, of course, sold out!)

The other comedian whose work gets a run in Episode 34 is Mat Kenneally, another comic from the ranks of the legal fraternity (that gave us the likes of John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor, James O'Loghlin and many others I should be able to name but can't off the top of my head right now). I got to know Mat this year because he was one of four comics appearing in The Comedy Zone — the show the Melbourne International Comedy Festival puts together by selecting a bunch of up-and-comers from a series of auditions. Of course, Mat insists that I saw him in a Raw final (he would have been a law student in Canberra then; I would have seen him in a NSW State final) and that I commended him on a particular routine for being politically aware and still very funny. I don't actually remember the conversation or the bit of material, but I can still commend Mat for producing that sort of comedy. In fact, it was a joy to see him MC at the Mic In Hand a couple of weeks ago; he was the MC at The Comedy Zone, and was great, but he's already come a long way since then!

If any of this interests you, you may read the transcript of the episode here;

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