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Taking Note

Noble Cliches

This interview with Ross Noble took place one sleepy Sunday during the 2001 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, for Revolver, in anticipation for his subsequent Sydney run. So, this being an old interview, ignore the show details at the bottom.

You will notice recurring themes in these recurring Ross Noble interviews – attempts to encapsulate what exactly the comic genius does on stage. Or what it is I think he’s doing. Hence the title ‘Noble Cliches’ – the cliches are mine, about him. I forget what this one was called – probably the same as the last one:

The Noble Art of Comedy

A funny thing happened to English comic Ross Noble one day, trying to order a ‘vegie burger’ at a McDonald’s restaurant in Mildura. Ross claims that the woman behind the counter “just looked at me as though I’d asked for a polystyrene head,” before replying that all McDonald’s hamburgers featured vegetables amongst their ingredients. When Noble explained that, as a vegetarian, he didn’t want any meat, the woman offered him a chicken burger. “Chicken’s a sort of a meat, isn’t it?” the comic pointed out. Deciding to just get fries instead, and wanting to make a meal of it, Ross asked for both a small serving of fries and a large one. This must have thrown the woman, because she wanted to know why he didn’t “just have the medium fries” instead. “She couldn’t grasp any concept of space, time or what was animal, vegetable or mineral,” Ross says. “I was literally just standing there going, ‘What the fuck have I walked into?’”

If you have seen Noble on stage you may empathise with his McDonald’s misadventure. Ross Noble is a kind of comedic alchemist who seems to create something out of nothing as a way of life. He effectively grabs all manner of concepts of space, time, and what is animal, vegetable and mineral, and contorts them, taking them apart and rebuilding them in a different order. He improvises material around whatever prompts his audience gives him. However, Ross himself is loath to put it in those terms.

“If you were to come out and fire yourself from a cannon, land on top of a big ladder, do a big summersault, land on the floor and present a cheque to a crippled kid,” he reckons, “somebody would say, ‘What about that guy with the crippled kid?’” So Noble is at pains to point out that there is a bit more than merely “improvising around the audience” taking place. Although it isn’t necessarily obvious, the performances always contain developed or developing ‘material’ within them — or as Ross puts it, “stuff that I’ve done before”.

“With material,” Ross Noble explains, “I’ll try to expand it to see where it goes. I’ll have an idea and play around with it each night, try to take it in different directions and see what happens with that idea.” If he wants to, Ross can improvise a whole night’s show, or he can do an hour of “solid material”. The problem is that if he improvises everything, people complain that he “hasn’t got any jokes”, and if he only does material, his dedicated fans, having virtually seen it all before, bemoan the lack of improvisation. Furthermore, there are always critics who need to know just how much is improvised and how much is ‘material’. As a result, Noble is no longer interested in drawing the distinction between what is improvised and what is developing monologue. “I used to really try to pick it apart: ‘Is it this? Do I do that?’ In the end, it’s more a matter of, ‘If they’re laughing, what difference does it make?’ I just go out there to have a laugh, and hope I don’t get bottled off.”

Ross’s allusion of being ‘shot out of a cannon’ is a telling statement. Such imagery recurs in Noble’s casual metaphors, and stems from a childhood obsession with circuses. This obsession pretty much formed Ross Noble as a comic. When he first became a performer, it was one of the ‘street theatre’ variety that juggled and rode a unicycle. The way he structured the performance was to know how each stage of the show ended – that is to say, with which trick each section would culminate – allowing the rest of the performance to consist of free-form dialogue and gags leading eventually to that end. The tricks, which had no set order, built dramatically to the big finale. As a stand-up, Ross’s performances are the same, with ‘ideas’ in the place of ‘tricks’. “Stuff fits together in any order,” Noble explains. “You can link all the thoughts together.” However, he does admit that the constant interconnectivity of all things can sometimes be mentally overwhelming. When that happens, he says, it’s time to “sit down and watch ‘Burgo’s Catch Phrase’”.

Noble’s obsession with the circus continues on another level: his biggest hero is Evel Knievel, and Ross admits that his house is “one big homage” to the stuntman. Noble is also into all modern manifestations of the circus – “monster truck shows, guys on motorbikes jumping double decker buses,” as well as the guys who fire themselves out of cannons. Ross himself is into tamer versions of the same – though to no great proficiency – such as skateboarding, surfing and rollerblading. “I always buy whatever new thing comes out,” he admits, listing “boots with springs on them; one of those BMXs where you can spin the whole thing around on the front wheel…” but, he says, “I’m never at home so I never get the chance to play with them”.

I would go so far as to say that Noble’s work is the stand-up version of extreme sports, his humour bridging the gap between disparate topics as the comedic equivalent of the motorcyclist’s leap across double deckers. And Ross agrees. It is conceptually a “big extravaganza”, but, he says, “not in the sort of pretentious Cirque du Soleil ‘climb into the world of mystery’ type of thing”. Rather, Noble is of the opinion that his show is the best live experience that anyone will ever experience. And furthermore, he adds, “if they don’t come to see the show, they’ll die.”

There you have it. Avoid death and watch Ross Noble avoid the comedic equivalent of the same doing extreme comedy stunts at the Valhalla, Glebe Point Rd, 7pm from 24th April to 6th May.

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