Comedian Ross Noble is perhaps one of the world’s most loved improvisers. Known for his rapid, imaginative storytelling and gleeful audience banter, Noble is back in Australia for a string of comedy festival shows, including this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival. His show El Hablador is set to be 130 minutes of pure delight. Ross kindly caught up with us to chat about his upcoming show.
It almost seems silly to ask you what this year’s show will be ‘about’. But is there something like a running theme or idea to El Hablador? Something you’ve had on your mind recently maybe?
You would be right to make that assumption! Basically, I don’t give the show a theme, because the thing is it changes so much anyway, it really all depends on what’s going on in my head. And because I talk to the audience and improvise, it’s that thing of like, something might happen to me.
For example, down in New Zealand there, when I was doing those gigs I was talking about, over there – you know the green man when you cross the road? Their green man’s animated, with like LED, so it’s like an animation as it walks across the road. So I’d start talking about that, and that’ll start becoming the show, and I’ll talk about the way that the guy moves and I’ll take off in one direction. And then the next night I might think “I’ll talk about the guy on the sign”, but then on the way I might get distracted and start talking about pelican crossings or something. So even though it’s the same thing that I’m talking about, the content changes. And also depending on who’s in on the night and all of that sort of stuff.
So the show’s called ‘El Hablador’, and what will be consistent throughout the whole thing is I’ll have this enormous set, and the opening film for the show telling people to turn off their mobile phones – there’s a big song as well at the start. So that’s the constant, and the rest can be whatever really.
You’ve always seemed to have an incredible amount of freedom onstage, even compared with other comedians. Do you feel free when you’re up there?
Yeah definitely, the good thing is that people come along to my shows, and they know that it’s going to be – if you watch a film or something, it’s just like a passive thing, whereas the great thing about standup is it can be whatever you want it to be. And if I think of a one-liner and think “Oh that’s a good joke” I’ll do that, just sort of give myself free reign.
And is that something you get more onstage than off, or is it something you take with you?
I always get very sort of wary when people sort of, like… I’d say that what I do, that’s standup, but sometimes critics can get – what’s the right way of putting it – a little bit kind of la-di-da in the way they describe what I do, you know? It can start to get a little bit pretentious. And instead of going “Is it funny or is it not funny?” they start trying to, you know…
Yeah, and it’s one of those things, just trying to work out exactly what I’m doing. And it’s not – the only thing that you need to know, really, is that it’s all about playing, it’s about going on stage and sort of like – some comedians go on and it’s about working, working to make the audience laugh, or it’s about holding something until, it’s about precision or attacking or whatever. What I do is go onstage and play, because that’s what I find the most fun.
And you’ve just got to be who you are, you know? Be yourself onstage. And basically I’ve sort of worked out that I love to play, I have done all my life, and whether that’s onstage or whether I have to do a job which is not standup, maybe doing a TV show or a radio thing or a film, then I approach it as “Is this going to give me a chance to play?”, sometimes with other people or just in general. And that’s how I sort of choose my projects. And life too – if I look at something and think “This is going to be really boring” then I kind of try and avoid it, but if I can turn it into something playful, then boom – it’s on.
So on and offstage, that’s kind of what I’m about. And when you try and define people in terms of what is a standup persona, what’s their outlook on life, what is their attitude, mine is basically – and it took me a long time to figure this out – is basically I’m just a sort of very playful person, and that ties into, like, I’m easily distracted, I’ve got a very low boredom threshold, unless it’s something I like really enjoy doing, and then I can do it for hours.
Yeah, it’s definitely a playfulness that a lot of comedians are trying to ‘get to’, I think that’s part of the interest.
Yeah and it means I can do stuff which is a little bit dark, like I can talk about serious things that some comedian’s audiences would kind of go “woah”. It’s the same as talking to people in the audience, you know? Some comedians will come on and they’ll talk to the crowd, and it’s about taking them on or belittling people, whereas my audience know that if I say something to them I’m just being playful, the agenda is not one of aggression.
Your show must differ wildly from country to country?
I would slightly disagree with you there – not as wildly as you’d think. There’s like cultural references which can be different, and obviously an Australian audience is going to be a lot more laid back than a British audience. But that’s normally just because the weather’s better, and in hot weather people don’t tend to be as miserable. And that’s not to say that British audiences are miserable either, they’re usually just cold, you know? Sometimes with an Australian audience they can be incredibly, you can get brilliant energy off them, but you can tire them out. Whereas sometimes a British audience can come in and they can be cold, but they warm up over the course of the show.
And also it’s as much about this idea of “Are British audiences like this, are American audiences like this” – that’s true to a degree, but it sort of depends on the demographic of the audience as well. Like for example, if you only watched commercial television you would think the American sense of humour is, you know, this idea that Americans have no sense of irony, it’s just absolute bullshit. Like if you only watched commercial TV you’d think the American sense of humour was Two and a Half Men, but then if you look at things like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Mr Show and like, Larry Sanders… It really depends on the sort of people who are coming to see your show as well. So if you only played RSLs, and there were pokie machines on and all the rest of it, and you recorded a DVD, the audience probably wouldn’t have the same attention span as an audience that were in a theatre.
So one of the things about that strain of American comedy is that it’s influenced by improv and improv schools, and certain disciplines that develop around that, like at Second City, Upright Citizens’ Brigade, Del Close’s work and such. Do you have much engagement with that sort of long-form improv?
That’s an interesting thing because there’s two schools of thought – certainly with like Del Close, you’re kind of improvising but going for the absolute truth, especially when you’re improvising with other people, that’s the thing of going for the absolute truth of the scene. Like say if you’re making an improvised comedy drama type show – if you’ve got an audience, there are ways of doing jokes that would get that audience to laugh, but I think he was much more about trying to for the truth of it, which the audience would find funny.
And that comes back to that thing of how much are the people on stage, not only listening, but have that understanding of – it’s a tonal thing, you know? If you have two people on stage and one of them goes, you know, points their finger at the other and says “This is a robbery!” and the other one goes “Well why are you pointing your finger at me?”, that’ll get a laugh, but it’s blocking, you have to accept the offer that that is a gun and not a finger. So when you’re doing that with other people that changes, but obviously when you’re doing it on your own that’s different. But it’s certainly interesting, that Chicago stuff, more and more people know about it now.
We’re a bit beyond Whose Line at this point. I mean, I love Whose Line, but as a culture we’ve got room for all the improvs.
Yeah, that’s the thing – you would think there’d be loads of improvised shows on telly, because you don’t have to spend loads of time writing it in the same way that you would. I mean obviously there was Thank God You’re Here over here, which was brilliant. But one of the reasons why you don’t see more improv on telly – well there’s two reasons. One is that some of the commissioners are like, terrified. I’ve certainly come up against this thing where, like a live show that I do with a group of other comics, we sort of pitched that as an idea. And they go “Well what if it doesn’t work?” and you go “Well it always does”, because that’s the nature of, you know, getting people who know what they’re doing. But the main reason is there’s nothing for them to do, nothing for them to mess about with. With an improvised show you can’t really – and they’ve tried, you know, they’ve tried a few times to do an improv show in the UK, but the producers are either so scared of what’s going to happen or they try to meddle with it too much that it loses… It’s chasing the rainbow, you know?
What general advice would you give to newcomers on surviving the festival?
Enjoy yourself, have fun – that’s was advice that someone gave me when I started, and with comedy that’s the main thing. If you go into the festival and your goal is to have rave reviews across the board and win a bunch of awards, then you’re kind of setting yourself up for a fail. Go in there to make audiences laugh – and on your terms as well, not on their terms. And the main thing is like, even if you’ve got 3 or 4 people in the audience, and like on the surface it’s not going well, you can go on and just enjoy yourself, and the audience will just, through osmosis, will literally just… if you’re not having fun, they won’t be having fun. That’s the key, I reckon.
Ross Noble’s El Hablador is on as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival on April 10, 12, 13, and 14 at 8pm at the Palais Theatre in St Kilda. Show details, accessibility information and tickets are available by the MICF website.
Ross also has a webseries called Brain Dump, and the first episode is available for free on his website at Ross Noble On Demand.