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.


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!”

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.

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.