King of the one liners
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Date: 22 December, 2010

Photo: Greenbelt

 

'Comedy does take over your life if you're not careful.'

 

George Luke talks to comedian and author Milton Jones

You recently published your debut novel. I've been told that there's no right or wrong way to write a novel; how would you describe your method of novel-writing?

My method for writing that novel? Well, technically it's a novel. But it's about a comedian over 20 years, so... but the thing about making it into a novel is that you can change what happens in the book so that it's a) not libellous, and b) that you can tie it up a bit neater than it was in real life.

There's about a third me, a third other people, and a third stuff that I just made up. But it's entirely authentic.

In fact, I pulled back a bit, because there were things I thought people wouldn't believe if I wrote them – even though I knew they happened!

Jokes

It's not a list of my jokes, but it is supposed to be what it's like to be a comedian for the last ten years at least, and suitable for someone who you think might want to be one, or thinks they should be one. Say to them, 'Read that; this is the grim reality.'

As for the process of writing – well, the context of the book is journeys over the course of a career.

So the process of writing was to write one journey at a time. I did that over about four years, and then I got some of it on radio and then it all sort of came together.

But I don't know how to write a novel. I wouldn't pretend that it was anything other than a series of essays.

Robin Ince and he said he'd observed that Christians are good at writing one-liners whereas atheists are better at rambling. In your opinion, does a comedian's faith background (or lack of) have any bearing on their style of comedy?

Tim (Vine) and I both do one-liners, but there are other Christians in comedy who don't do one-liners at all – Jo Enright, for example.

The way it evolved for me is that when I started, I was so terrified that I had to get to the joke as quickly as possible. Now, when people swear, they quite often do it when they're starting out because it lards up thin material.

Waffle

Both Tim and I refused to do that. And so we had to get to the joke as quickly as possible, and we couldn't waffle with swearing. And I think that's how it evolved, really.

It's not easy. And sometimes when people are starting off as comics, they swear more than they need to and that gets them by.

I think Christians might even take longer to get going because of that. It comes back in the end, because you can play family shows and stuff, and possibly get more work.

Is being a comedian a job, a career or a vocation?

Well, it's now a course you can take in university! You can certainly do it as a module in drama. It wasn't a career option when I started; as far as other comedians' views on that go, it's 50:50.

You get Ken Dodd on one side, who will never stop until he can't; and then there are others who just want to make enough money to get out of it. I'm on the Ken Dodd side, really; I don't think I could stop now.

Boring

It's too much fun, and you get to be in weird situations. It would be very boring to retire. But it's also a weird career in the sense that people don't get better necessarily.

You should do; if you were a silversmith or something, you'd get better and better. But how many times have you heard someone say about a comedian: 'I liked his early stuff, but somehow since he's been on telly, he's not so great.'

It's an occupational hazard that the more successful you become, you don't necessarily get better – partly because you lose touch with what most people find funny, I think.

So how do you prevent that from happening?

It's not a conscious effort. It helps to have as many normal experiences as possible, I suppose. Isn't it the case with most artists that they often produce their best work when they're under the most pressure or the most pain?

In Edinburgh this year, a lot of the shows are about subjects like 'my dying father'. there's that edge of pathos creeping through a lot of comedy as it tries not just to become more rounded but also to push the boundaries a bit.

Appreciation

I don't do that at all, but it's something that can bring a more three-dimensional appreciation, rather than just a joke and moving on.

The problem is, you get surrounded by comedy people and you think in jokes all the time, and you become a bit sociopathic, probably, because you're not interacting on a normal level.

There are some comedians I've come across who try out material in conversations.

You think 'Hang on – that sounds like you're doing it for the stage' – and then later on, you see it on stage! You're taking it too seriously!

Comedy does take over your life if you're not careful.