OnTheBox Meets Milton Jones

Milton Jones performs tonight on Dave’s One Night Stand

OnTheBox: When was the first time you remember making someone else laugh?
Milton Jones: Oh dear. I think it was probably…my parents used to get my brother and I to do demonstrations of The Changing of the Guard, when we were about three or four years old.

So was acting a big part of your childhood?
I’m not sure it was particularly. We had a lot of old relatives, my mum is from Ireland and my dad is from Wales, so we assumed they were doing silly voices, but it was just their accents. We grew up, my brother and I doing accents…

Were there any particular characters that you enjoyed impersonating?
Well, let me think. My grandfather actually, a big Welsh voice
A Richard Burton type?
No, no. More like a Monty Python character doing a Welsh accent. He knew he was messing around as well, he would put on silly hats and leap out from behind doors and things, so we would pretend to be him.

Is that what pushed you towards becoming…
That’s where it all started, doing voices and all that messing around, but it wasn’t until I was in my late teens, I thought “I could do a job of this.â€? Because my dad was a physicist, with quite an academic background, I hadn’t quite worked out that there could be a whole other side to things…I suppose I wasn’t that good at the whole academic thing.

So there wasn’t a scientific process to arrive at the Milton Jones character?
No, no. Totally organic. I tried to be an actor, because stand-up as it is now, didn’t exist. And it wasn’t until I thought of my stand-up character as a part that it began to fall into place as a character in itself.
An external technique?
Yes. It became easier to write for someone who wasn’t me. So I began to imagine his world, as opposed to just thinking what is funny in my head.
And that’s how you get to the wild shirts, and wilder hair?
Yes, yes.

You must have got a little bit of stick for that coming up. Were there any particularly negative things that you heard?
Not really, because I experimented with a lot of different things. Not just the shirts and the hair – suits, and jumpers, and all sorts – clearly, some of it didn’t work.

But especially when I did big telly things, I wanted people to remember me; if they didn’t remember my name, then they remembered “Oh, the bloke in the shirt!â€?. Sort of an aide-memoire, going “That bloke!â€? Because with a name like Jones, you can just disappear. It was a sort of conscious decision and hopefully its a bit of signpost of where I’m coming from. That slightly left-field, not sure if he’s with us or not by the way he dresses. So yes, it was a conscious decision.

When you’re on stage, it is more satisfying to silence a heckler or to make a stubborn audience member laugh?
Oooh, it depends. They are both satisfying in their own way. I suppose silencing a heckler is more satisfying because everyone knows about it.

Whereas, I think sometimes when you’re starting you look at the people who are not laughing and you want to make them laugh, and after a while you realise that there are some people that are never going to laugh. Well they might be laughing on the inside, but you’re best concentrating on the people who are laughing and trying to make them laugh more, because it doesn’t matter how well I’m doing, I can point out someone who’s not laughing. There’s always someone out there who’s just staring, either because they don’t get it or…some other reason. So concentrate on the positive and if someone heckles, deal with it.

It’s a bit like teaching I suppose, if you make an example of someone early on, they everyone else knows that they have to obey you.

Do you find it more difficult as a one-liner comic, not being able to mine your own life as much for tales and such?
In a way you can, it’s just not your true life. People say things, things happen to you in terms of…I’m always looking for ways of turning what’s happening in the real world upside down – exaggerating it to the worst possible conclusion. So things do come up in real life, that I can use in my style. Just I’m not talking about my real childhood, or my real relatives; it’s just entirely fantastic.

Would you characterise that as surrealist?
Yes, sort of. Without getting too tedious, the nuts and bolts of the writing are quite mathematical. In that there are a number of formulas which occur, and what you have to do when you’re putting together a big set is to keep the formulas similar. Sorry I’ve forgotten the initial question…
Would you characterise yourself as surrealist?
[Laughter] No, I would prefer to be called ‘funny’

Is it the type of comedy that you intended to do when you first started out?
Not really, I think stand-up has been equated to learning a musical instrument but where you do all your practice in public. And what happens is that you style evolves as you perform. You don’t set out saying “I want to do this..â€? You just end up saying things that you think are funny and as I was saying earlier, with one liners, I think because I was so scared onstage I had to get to the joke as quickly as possible. So if you do that a couple of times you end up with a lot of one-liners. So that’s how that happened, and also I’ve got very short attention span, so anything too long I lose patience with – one-liners suit me.

Have you ever had a favourite one-liner that you were really certain was going to get a great reception but actually bombed?
It still surprises me to this day what works and what doesn’t. I come up with stuff that I think is definitely the best gag of the 21st century and it just doesn’t work. And then conversely, I’ll say stuff off the cuff that gets a big laugh. Something that I should be getting better at I know, but it’s not an exact science. And if you look at any DVDs or anything from 20 years ago – comedy changes. What’s old hat or cliché, in 10 years time you’ll look back at people’s DVDs from now and wonder “How did they get away with that?!â€? But no, I think, I’m already fed up with what I’ve done already and I’m always looking for the next thing.

When you test your material out, do you use secret gigs…
My children aren’t allowed to eat until they have laughed at my jokes. Unfortunately they’ve found out that it pays money, and they’ll say “Dad, I’ve got a joke. How much is this worth?â€? Rather than tell me the joke. So there is a certain amount of family trying out stuff. I also do new material nights, where I can go and try stuff out, which aren’t perfect but its usually a load of wannabe comedians in the audience so its not really a normal audience but you really find out what works and what doesn’t.

By saying it out loud half way through you immediately know if something’s not going to work. So that’s quite useful, if painful to do. But its all about saying things out loud and also if you do a big show, put something new in between two bits that have worked and then at least you can save yourself if it goes wrong.

Plagiarism has been a hot topic recently, how much have you suffered from it?
Anyone who does short jokes, it happens a lot usually if they’re any good – because they’re easy to steal. And people remember them. And there are certain people who make a living in the United Kingdom, although not so much on telly now, who haven’t really got an act, they’re just a greatest hits of other people’s jokes. And that can be quite frustrating.

But the most frustrating thing when I was starting, I had several jokes nicked early on, by someone else who was on telly and the first time I heard about it was when someone shouted “Plagiarism!â€? in an audience, and I said “What?â€? and he replied “[He] did that on telly last night!â€? And he had. But people will assume that it was the famous person who got the joke nicked and so that’s very annoying.

Have you ever tried to doing anything to remedy the situation?
Well, its very difficult because you’ve got to prove that someone wrote it, that someone else stole it and they just say “Someone else told it to me.â€? And you could, if it was music or something, the record company would go to war, but because comedians aren’t really backed by an industry, no one can be bothered to do that because you would become more known as a whinging comic than a funny comic and nobody wants to become that. And you’re better off just trying to write a better joke.

Another thing that happened to me is that I had a joke ages ago “When the boys in the playground found out I had a potentially fatal allergy to peanuts, they shoved me up against a wall and made me play Russian Roulette with a bag of Revels.â€? Then Revels did a massive ad campaign about Russian Roulette, and loads of people wrote to the Guardian and said “That’s Milton Jones joke, isn’t it?â€? And the Advertising Agency said “No, they’ve denied itâ€? and I got a big thing in the Guardian about it and that’s fine. But as soon as they denied it, you’re either into a big lawsuit or leave it.
And nobody wins in that situation
Absolutely, yes. You might even lose. There’s just no point. I think the best thing is self-policing in the industry.
Do you feel the industry lacks integrity? Or is it just individual comics?
Quite often what happens is that a comic who hasn’t been going very long, gets an enormous amount of success and suddenly they’re under a lot of pressure to produce new material and they either go into denial and sort of reproduce other people’s material or they’re from the old school mainstream school that everyone shared material anyway, and so they think it’s fair game if its out there for anyone to use it.

That wouldn’t happen in any other industry.

Is your despondency with the industry perhaps why you haven’t done Edinburgh as much?
No. It’s just too far and too long. I think it has become more of a scam, Edinburgh, in that audiences have to pay too much for too little. Having said that I was there a couple of days this year and a week last year. I don’t feel comfortable with it anyway…the sheer logistics of two hundred, three hundred shows going on – competing for advertising – when 90% of them are from London anyway. And why wouldn’t you put that same ten grand or whatever it is doing a show in Clapham and get people when they’re not competing for attention with other shows.
I’ve heard Michelin chefs say the they hate the first month or two in the restaurant after it receives its first star because it means the customers they get are particularly heinous…Is that perhaps another reason to stay away…?
I think if you haven’t done Edinburgh, its good to do because you notice as a comic, after doing the same gig thirty nights in a row, you actually get a lot better. But once you’ve done Edinburgh, its a diminishing returns sort of thing. Unless you’re going up for a specific reason, and it’s not a Fringe Festival either, it’s called a Fringe, but people go to Canada, and do three weeks to get ready for Edinburgh.

It’s not a load of people trying out new stuff. The place is so award heavy and there is so much media interest, that no one can afford to fail. And so it’s not a festival, it’s a trade fair. You can’t take the risk of something…which all stems from the mainstreaming of alternative comedy. There are less people taking risks, less death or glory acts and that’s a shame ultimately. Someone will break away and form an alternative at some point.

With the much greater exposure you’ve had over the last four or five years, do you find fans coming dressed similarly to you, to show their affiliation?
There are A LOT of Hawaiian shirts, which is nice but I tend to get a real mixture. I oversaw a tweet before a show, which was probably a mistake to even look, but someone was saying “I’m in the Milton Jones audience and I’ve got an old age pensioner on one side and a goth on the other.â€? And there’s a real mix, because I’ve done a lot of Radio 4 and Mock the Week I suppose, I get a real mixture of kids and old people. I always look out and think that this lot should be on the life-boats first, because they’re such an eclectic bunch, but I quite like that, it means my demographic isn’t too small and the laughter is more family I suppose.

You once said, “The thicker the crowd, the higher the hair.â€? Do you have to take a Van Der Graaf generator to certain cities?
[Laughs] You can’t generalise about cities actually, because you might go to Durham and get a load of students from Surrey. It’s all mixed up now. But where the accents are strongest, that’s usually where I find it hardest. You can only say “Pardon?â€? about two or three times when someone says something rude.

Also, the further north you go, because I sound southern, they get a bit sort of ‘Prove yourself laddy’. Which can be done, but its just slightly harder, its more ‘chip-on-shoulder’ country.

Thank you
No, thank you.

Nick Arthur