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.