I was born in Buckinghamshire. My dad worked for the railway, and when I was eight, he had a job where we went and lived in Venezuela for a little while. That’s the first big event in my childhood that I really remember everything about. I’ve got an elder and younger sister. We thought we’d be there for years and it kind of petered out, which was a shame because it was brilliant. When you’re eight, it’s swimming pools and barbeques…
We had that for a while, and then when we got back to the U.K. I went to boarding school, because it looked like my dad was going to carry on doing those kinds of jobs. And then [laughs]… he didn’t. And I kind of got left there. Which was interesting. I was nine. It’s funny, because people who haven’t been have all sorts of assumptions; they think everyone’s f***ing each other, buggery and all that British public school stuff. As far as I know, there was none of that. By the sixth form, it was awesome. We had an amazing theater there, a brilliant drama teacher, brilliant music school. That was really cool.
On starting writing comedy
This great drama teacher got us all writing. That was where everything really came from. This idea that, if you like comedy, you don’t have to just recite Monty Python sketches, you know? Which is what people were doing, at school. There was a sketch group, and half the lads would come on and recite Monty Python, and you’d think, “Why not write something?” And it all came out of that, really.
But there’s a fine line between writing comedy and pissing around with your mates. Especially when you’re 17. It would be hard to say where one began and the other ended. There was a bunch of us who did all the plays together and played music together. We were all really tight, and in a good, creative environment. Also, if you wanted to meet girls, you did plays, or debating. So I did a bit of both.
On his first job – and moving into comedy
I was about 21 or 22, and I had a girlfriend whose dad was a teacher at a school for emotionally and behaviorally disturbed kids. There was a social work job there running the dormitories in the evenings. They were all living in school, so they’d come in from class having been fighting all day, then they’d fight all evening, go to bed, get up in the morning, fight and go to school. I did that for a little while, because I needed to earn some money, and also because I was thinking, y’know, “Social conscience”… And I hated it. I wasn’t any good at it. I’d just think, “Shut up you little shits. You ungrateful little shits.”
I had a few friends doing comedy, and I just thought, “I’ve got to go to London. I’ve got to do it.” Friends were doing this, and it looked like a way of sustaining being a student as well, or the student lifestyle, getting up after lunch, all that stuff. Then I went to London and I had an act for a bit that worked fairly well, but three years later I had the moment of revelation of the Pub Landlord character and I basically completely hurled myself into doing the circuit. There’re enough pubs in London that you can do four gigs on a Saturday night quite easily.
On his parents’ reaction to his career choice
Honestly, I don’t know. We’re a very English family. To paraphrase the American military: If you don’t ask, we don’t tell. We’re like that. We don’t sit down and go, “Oh god, I’m so unhappy,” or whatever. And I like that. You only go to your mum if you’ve really got a f***ing problem. And even then you probably don’t. You only talk about something that’s really a problem and only if you’re asked. It’s that kind of atmosphere. So I’ve never sat them down and gone, “This is what I want to do with my life.”
And because I never went to them for money, we never had a conversation where they went, “Well, when are you going to become a lawyer then, you twat?” There were maybe five years where I don’t think they really knew what to make of it. I don’t think they knew what to make of the humor, you know? Humor’s so much a generational thing. And then once it got working and people ran with it, I think they were a lot more comfortable about it. But I just don’t know. I think they’re not so worried anymore. They never said they were worried, but I guess they must have been… I just don’t know because we’re English and that’s not the way we do things.
My dad’s into his music – an incredibly bright man, into his history and very creative – but he went to work for the railways in the Fifties, because he didn’t get into the civil service, which was what he wanted to do, so he went to work for the railway because it was public service, you know? Nationalized industry. Anyhow, very successful career, top echelons of that industry, but I remember once he said to me kind of wistfully, “In 1956, after I’d finished national service and university, you went and got a job, you didn’t fart about for a year wondering if you were going to be creative. There were no options like that.” And he said, “I look at your world, and look at the f***ing options you people have got.” He was saying that in the sense of: How would things have worked out for him in a world where there were those kinds of opportunities? It’s an opportunity of mindset. That whole world is open to you now, if you want it. I think that’s what has changed dramatically since he was a lad in the Fifties. But the flip of that is that you can’t go and get a job for life anymore.
On the origins of the Pub Landlord
The character came about by accident. I was working with Harry Hill in Edinburgh; we had this show and we needed something to tie all the pieces together. And I’d been doing this other character… Looking back on it now, it was never going to work, but it was interesting. What I wanted to do was, like, an old entertainer. A friend of mine does a really funny act called Sol Bernstein, who’s an old Jewish entertainer who’s basically filthy and terrible, but he does it very well. And I wanted to do [something similar]… I very often think that when comics are stuck they write jokes about jokes, because that’s what they know about. So, anyway, I wrote this thing and it was shit. It didn’t work. I was stuck. We got to Edinburgh and – literally the night we opened – I said to Harry, “Well, I’m not going to do that because it doesn’t work. How about we say the compere hasn’t turned up, and I’m the barman who’s decided he’ll take over?” And it worked straight away in Edinburgh. But I still didn’t know if it had life outside the show we were doing, so I rang an old friend of mine who used to run a gig in Croydon, and said, “I’ve got this new character, and I really need to find out if it works as a stand-up set.” He told me to come down, so I did 20 minutes with it and I thought, “Right. I’ve got this dead right.” And the other thing that was interesting was that I could improvise with it, and it’s open-ended, because he just talks about any old shit. It’s not all jokes about the French and xenophobia. He thinks planes fly because god does it for us, because they can’t possibly fly; they’re too heavy. It doesn’t make any sense to him. That’s how he looks at it. So his explanation is that one afternoon when he was bored, god moved the Wright brothers’ plane for them and now he’s obliged to make sure every other airplane works on the same principle. Because god is honest. And British.
You can talk like that when you’ve got this character who’s basically had to fill in endless hours in the pub in the afternoon talking about shit with a couple of drinks inside him. That’s the character really.
On dying (onstage)
Harry Hill used to say, “The better I get, the worse it goes in clubs.” The more you perfect it into the thing that really is what you’re all about, the worse it goes in clubs, because people have to adjust more. Short slots, I’m rotten. But if you give me a whole program, you’ll be fine, because we’ll get some distance together. If they come and see a full show, they get the whole thing. I think good stand-up is a long con. It’s not like a mugging. I always think that an hour in a stand-up’s company is always more rewarding than even the best, blow-the-roof-off club set. Because you get a beginning, middle and end out of it. At least, that’s how I feel. Some people don’t see it that way at all.
In the first two years I came up with this quantity theory of dying on stage: 90 per cent of the time it’ll go really well, eight per cent it’ll be difficult and two per cent you’ll die. I remember one gig… I used to have this opening joke that was pretty much surefire; I’d do something off-color, usually talking to women, then I’d go, “Look, I’m not sexist, I believe in equality. That’s why I let my female staff work longer. So they can make the same as the men.” It’s obvious what’s going on in that joke: The guy thinks he’s doing the right thing, but he’s wrong, ’cause he’s an idiot. I remember doing that and someone going, “That’s sexist!” Straight away. And you think, “Yeah, I know. I know and I’m also saying that’s stupid, but I’ve come up with an idiot’s ingenious way of getting around it.” But that was it. That was the end of the gig. Nothing you can do after that. You can’t stand there and go, “I’m in character.” You can’t do that.
Even now, no matter how experienced you are, [when things are going badly] you speed up, your mouth goes dry. Every now and then you get one, and you’re not used to it. So I start thinking, “I don’t remember how I used to be able to deal with this.” It’s an odd one. And everyone’s died a proper, horrific, straight-up, nothing’s-working-for-me death. Absolutely everyone. I remember a really terrible death when I got off stage and I rang another promoter – a friend of mine – and said, “I’ve got to come over to a club tomorrow night. I’ve got to get back on the horse. I think I’m f***ed.” He was like, “Yeah, alright, come down.” And I had a great show.
Sometimes you come on and you haven’t got an idea what you’re doing and you’re a bit shit. I always try to say to myself, “What could you have done differently?” A lot of comics will come off and go, “F***ing audience are idiots.” And yeah, y’know, maybe. But maybe there’s something you could have done about it. And when I’ve exhausted the possibilities, then I blame the audience. Because I can’t work on the audience, I can work on my act. So you have to look at it like that.
On interacting with the audience
To be honest, a large part of why I do that is that I love seeing it. I love it when people do that. Because stand-up – of all the things you do onstage – you don’t have to have a fourth wall if you don’t want. Rock bands say, “Hey! How you doin’?” But they say it in the same place every night and they say it in the same way. And they’ve been reminded they’re in Birmingham tonight and not Newcastle. You know what I mean? That’s how that works. There is a fourth wall. The lights are going to do the same thing each night. Jazz musicians improvise, but they improvise where they’re expected to, so in lots of ways it’s not improvising. It’s fairly formalized. The great thing about being a stand-up is: You can ask Craig what he does, then you ask Barry, and then you discover Craig’s mum’s here and it’s her birthday. That won’t happen the next time. That’s what’s brilliant about it.
The going on and talking to people – that’s a tightrope we’ve all agreed on. It’s this big bit of trust. People in the audience now know that’s what I’m going to do, so they let me do it. If they don’t know what you’re going to do, they don’t let you do it sometimes. It’s a relationship when you come in and improvise. They have to be into it. And the thing is, after this long, I would’ve gone mad if the character didn’t have that built into it. But the character would do this. The character would come on and go, “Who are you? What do you do?” He doesn’t know you can do stand-up by basically performing like the audience are there but not there.
On putting a new show together
There’s a guy I write with – for TV – who I’ve worked with for four or five years now. He’s produced and co-written some stuff that I’ve done and I can pretty much go to him and say, ‘What do you think of this?’ For TV, because of the speed of the turnover, you get other people to help. But for stand-up stuff, I’ve never had anyone write with me. Sometimes, a friend might go, “You need another actual gag in the middle of that riff” or “You need a stronger thing at the end,” but they never tell you what it should be. And I don’t ask either. Because stand-up is so direct from brain to mouth that if someone else writes something for you, you go, “Uhh, I don’t know. Where would that go?” If you’re doing one-liners, it’s a different issue, I expect, but the way I write my stuff, I’m so used to how the voice works properly that I think it would actually double the time and effort if someone was writing it with me. It’s quicker not to bother.
What I like to do is, there’s two months when I do a gig every Monday for three weeks, at a little pub theater round the corner from where I live that holds about 60 people, so I can bully the room regardless. And then a week. Then another three Mondays then another week. Then we go to another theater, so that I can start to make it work in a bigger room. And by the end of that, I tend to have a show. So, about eight weeks.
You don’t just turn up and do the show. God no. In the early ones, there’ll be a list on the barstool, a list of topics, things I’ve got to remember, things to try. And I also put Post-It notes on the dressing room mirror with topic headings, then move them around for best structure. And when I come off, make sure I know what order they actually came out in, rearrange them, sometimes take a picture of them or write it down.
On being a father
My eldest daughter was born four years after I’d started doing Pub Landlord. It was the same week as I won the Perrier Award [at the Edinburgh Festival] in 1999. So I had this, like, really surreal week. She was born on the Monday, I was nominated on the Wednesday, signed a deal for the [TV] program on Friday and won the award on the Saturday. It was, “What the f***’s going on here?” And it kind of made me think, “Right, you’ve had your fun being creative, now there are other people who depend on you.” I mean, I like working hard, because I know that if I don’t, I will do nothing. I have to make sure I work hard or I’ll grind to a halt. I work hard because I’m lazy.
On future plans
When I started doing this, people were always asking, “When are you going to come up with another character?” Well, I don’t know that I need to. There’s an audience that’s actually grown up with this act. That was one of the interesting things about going back to Edinburgh this August ; there were lots of people coming up and saying, ‘I first came and saw you in ’97. It’s great you’re still going, I’ve always loved it and followed everything you’ve done.’ They get the joke, you know? So carry on, I think.
[Apart from stand-up], I’d like to do some actual acting. And more of the presenting. [In 2010, BBC4 screened Al Murray’s German Adventure.] That actually has a lot in common with stand-up, because you’re telling a story, trying to communicate it clearly and persuade people that the thing you’re talking about is interesting. And how you offer people information, you know? Breadcrumb them to the thing you need them to really listen to. The Germany thing was like that. When you’re in Hamburg, say, talking about Brahms’s upbringing, why is that interesting to anyone? Well, there are ways of making it interesting; there are ways of talking about it and making it lively. And I find that very stimulating. You won’t get me presenting any old shit. It has to be something I’m interested in. I just wouldn’t be able to do it. There would be blank eyes. You’d know. And you’d say, “He doesn’t give a toss about this.” You need a connection, or you can’t do it. I think that’s the case with lots of people. Why are some actors good in some films and bad in others? Maybe it’s because they haven’t made that connection with the director or the material.
We get proposals all the time: “How about the Pub Landlord goes to Paris. That would be hilarious.” And, actually, it wouldn’t. Because the Pub Landlord, like I’ve said before, is basically hallucinating; the comedy, with him, comes from his imagination, and the gap between that and reality. But if you put the real thing in front of him – if you plonked him in front of the Eiffel Tower – he’d have to go, “Wow! That’s impressive.”
From a September 2011 interview in Dubai