Wednesday 25 July 2012 | By Chris Cooke
Rhod Gilbert: Liberating stand-up
After taking a year off from the Edinburgh festivities, Fringe favourite Rhod GIlbert returns with a brand new show. ThreeWeeks spoke to him about Edinburgh, TV comedy, the rise of stand-up and alternative careers…
CC: Welcome back to Edinburgh … we missed you last year! What has persuaded you back?
RG: Last year was the first year that I have not performed at Edinburgh since I started stand up in 2002. Even though putting on a show here is a gruelling shit fight, akin to running a marathon in a pair of size four stilettos, I missed it. I guess my wanting to come back is something like Stockholm Syndrome.
CC: Tell us about the new show ‘The Man With The Flaming Battenberg Tattoo’.
RG: In my opinion it’s the best show I’ve ever done. It’s certainly the most honest and the most personal, and I’m enjoying it more than any show I’ve done before. As always, it’s a mix of fact and fiction, but it’s a slightly mellower me looking back at what a dick I used to be. Or at least, it’s a slightly mellower me looking at what a dick I am. I’ve finally admitted that I am a petty, argumentative little sod, and the tattoo in the title is largely responsible for my shift in perspective.Oh, and with a bit of luck it’s piss your pants funny.
CC: As you do an increasing amount of TV and radio projects, does the prospect of stand-up get more or less exciting?
RG: More. The freedom you get with stand up, where you write everything, script edit it, produce it, direct it and perform it is so exciting after you’ve done a bit of TV. You don’t quite appreciate that freedom until you do some TV stuff, where there are 700 people in a room discussing how they could improve your punchline.If the ‘chicken crossing the road joke’ had been developed for television, he wouldn’t have crossed the road at all, he’d have just stood on the pavement discussing whether crossing the road was the right thing to do for seven hours, before being mown down by a mobility scooter, so his flat dirty corpse could be kicked into the gutter by a teenager.
CC: Stand-up continues to be on a high in the UK at the moment, do you think that’s here to stay?
RG: Nah, I think people are going to get sick of it. It’s like everyone’s trying to make ‘stand up pate de Foie Gras’ at the moment. Stand-up is being rammed down people’s throats on telly to churn out pate, but at some point the goose that lays the golden egg is going to have an anal prolapse, and it’ll be too late to catch the monkey cos the horse will already have bolted. Someone needs to remind the cats in TV not to flog a dead horse.
CC: We really liked your panel show ‘Ask Rhod Gilbert’. Are there any questions not posed on the show that you’d genuinely like to know the answer to?
RG: Yes, “why has the series been axed?” Actually, I think that would be a genuinely be a funny question to have on the show. We could do it as a kind of one off special?
CC: You’ve turned your hand to a lot of jobs via another of your TV shows, ‘Work Experience’. What were your favourite and least favourite tasks?
RG: I fell in love with teaching. It was the most inspirational few days of my life; seeing the impact teachers have on future generations. Their importance just can’t be measured. I turned up with a fairly cynical attitude. My granddad was a teacher and he used to say…’give a kid some crayons and he’ll stay out of your way for a day… teach a kid to shoplift crayons and you can retire’, so I turned up at Monnow Primary School in Newport with a simple game plan. But my cynicism soon melted away. The passion of the school and teachers was irresistible.
I came away thinking teachers should be cradled and nurtured like the most precious things on the planet. Every morning, they should have a team of people giving them massages, a boxing coach rubbing their shoulders on the way to school, someone rubbing their feet at break time, doing them sexual favours at lunchtime, and laying down coats for them to walk over. That way, every day they are as fresh, motivated, happy, relaxed and enthusiastic as it’s possible to be. Then they can do what they do, shaping the next generations of our society, in the most important job in the world. Instead, we pile pressure and stress on them, kick the living daylights out of them, hammer them with meaningless, defective league tables, and criticise them until they can barely face doing the job. If it wasn’t for all the crap that accompanies it, I’d love to be a teacher.
I hated being a drag artist. I can’t sing, I can’t dance and the closest I’ve come to impersonating a woman is holding my girlfriend’s handbag while she makes a phone call. I went to a makeover company called Femmesque to try to find a feminine character inside myself to draw on. When I arrived, they were kind enough to point out that I was the hairiest man they’d ever seen. Basically, I went in looking like Chewbacca and they shaved, waxed, plucked and polished me until I looked more like C3PO. Then they tried to give me feminine curves as I have no discernible bottom. They gave me a bum transplant, literally strapping on some bootie. They must be the only people since Burke And Hare to have a drawer full of spare bums.
They say there’s a woman in all of us struggling to get out, but when mine did finally emerge, the struggle had clearly taken its toll. Going into a busy pub dressed as a woman was a very odd experience. Some men look fabulous dressed in women’s clothes, I looked physically repellent, although I did find the whole thing quite erotic, and I may well do it again…who knows? The performance aspect of drag was the biggest problem though. Trying to sing ‘Big Spender’ in a pair of little knickers and suspenders in a working men’s club in the Welsh valleys is less fun than it sounds. I’m quite shy despite what I do and I was a long way out of my comfort zone.
CC: Did trying out these other jobs for ‘Work Experience’ make stand-up seem like an easier or harder career choice?
RG: Well I love doing stand up, so it makes it seem easier. No question. After you’ve walked 18 miles and shifted 20 tons of shit into the back of a bin lorry for 48 quid, turning up at a nice theatre and making people laugh for a few hours is a joy.
CC: You continue to do your BBC Wales radio show, are you particularly passionate about that?
RG: They gave me a break and took a punt on me years ago and I like to reward that. And they give me complete freedom, the kind of freedom I just would not get anywhere else. I can play what I want, do the show from wherever I want and say pretty much what I want. Although it gets harder to commit to the show, as I lose money doing it and it’s a massive pain in the arse to get up on a saturday morning, I am committed to it and would like to keep doing it as long as I can. It’s very rare in TV or radio to be in a position of freedom and I relish every second of it.
CC: Other than performing, do you have any other plans for your fortnight in Edinburgh this August?
RG: Yes, obviously. I’m not a pissing robot. I will go and see stuff, eat shit food, get drunk, argue with people in bars, have a nervous breakdown and leave. I say I’m not a robot, but looking at that list, that’s exactly what I do every time, so maybe I am.
Rhod Gilbert performed ‘The Man With The Flaming Battenberg Tattoo’ at Venue 150 @ EICC at Fringe 2012.