For our day celebrating comedy, Steve Taylor-Bryant decided to sit down with our very own funny man, Barnaby Eaton-Jones to talk memories, the state of comedy, and what may happen in the future...
Comedy has been at the forefront of my mind of late. I have watched possibly the worst comedy ever committed to screen in Gun Shy, but I have also marvelled at the career of Michael Palin with a lovely one hour look at his screen work on the BBC. I also sent my father to the ISIRTAA production at Cheltenham Playhouse just before Christmas, he’s quite the fan of Tim Brooke-Taylor and it was his birthday. This led us both a memory trail through our lives together with comedy, from Dad’s vinyl copies of The Goons, through our shared love of Monty Python, to Billy Connolly and Victoria Wood to my love of American stand up and Bill Hicks in particular. All of us have a story about how we fell into loving comedy in all its forms, whether it be Only Fools and Horses, the Russ Abbott stuff in the 80’s or a local theatre putting on an Improv group. One of the reasons I even knew about ISIRTAA to begin with is that I am lucky enough to know in the virtual world a powerhouse of comedic giggles, Barnaby Eaton-Jones, who put ISIRTAA together and always seems to know something or someone that brings comedy to the fore just when you need it. I was originally going to approach Barnaby before Christmas and interview him in the lead up the show my Dad so enjoyed, maybe help him boost some ticket sales, but between the show selling out very quickly and my own ineptitude at being prepared for anything ever, it never happened. Then I realised I had no opportunity to do another interview with him as I have no idea what wares he has to flog next. I still want you guys to know what a funny, intelligent, hardworking, obvious blackmailing chinbeard he his though so I approached him anyway hoping that a lot of questions fired at him might mean he starts to return my emails, or lifts the restraining order. What I went for instead was just a chat style thing, not so much a grilling as two guys who love all forms of comedy sharing memories and talking about stuff, because stuff just doesn’t get an airing anymore. Here’s the resulting chat/interview/evidence for the jury…
Let’s start with the toughest of my questions, the one that held me up the longest as I thought back on my own memories who is your favourite comedian or your favourite comedy show growing up? And now? I really struggled with the show thing, I was raised on Morecombe and Wise, but loved the Russ Abbott Laughter Show and the Les Denis stuff that followed, and then there was sitcoms. How do I pick a favourite between Allo Allo and Fawlty Towers? Eventually just so my wife didn’t have to put up with my frustrated growling any more, I went for Fawlty Towers for show, my dad used to belly laugh at the Major’s forgetfulness so that’s a great memory to have, and for comedian I pumped for Bill Hicks as I listen to those shows more than I do any other.
Always start with the toughest question, that’s what I say! I think Donald Trump is my favourite comedian. Most definitely. He just doesn’t say funny things but he also looks funny too – so you can laugh at him twice as hard.
No, you said growing up. Sorry. I mean, I love the fact that you’re remembering Russ Abbott and Les Denis, etc, in the same breath as Allo Allo and Fawlty Towers. Predominantly, I’ve always believed your influences are initially led by your parents and what was the ‘big’ Saturday evening show on television that you sat as a family and watched.
I think we can ALL agree, though, that the BBC had some mental breakdown during the decade of Little & Large and the public were in some sort of hallucinatory trance. They were never funny. Not once. Not ever. I am genuinely appalled that they were giving a primetime show and held that slot for so long. I know people don’t put Cannon & Ball up there with Morecambe & Wise and The Two Ronnies but, seriously, compare them to Little & Large and tell me who has funny bones. There wasn’t an ounce of personality or wit or comic timing in Sid Little. Eddie Large trotted out ancient impressions and seemed like the irritating show-off at a party who just couldn’t stop clowning around even when not getting laughs.
Sorry, I went off on a tangent there.
If we’re talking Saturday Night Entertainment, I’m going for Cannon & Ball. I remember seeing them in Pantomime when I was a pre-teen and just doubling up with laughter. Having come from years of live performing, they knew how to judge an audience, keep an audience, and entertain an audience.
However, if we’re talking about what shaped me, I’d have to say A Bit of Fry & Laurie. That was ‘my’ comedy double act of choice, who I tried to write and perform like. I was constantly looking for a comedy partner, to form some sort of double act. My good chum (and still good chum), Paul Birch, was often roped into this and – somewhere – I still have some sketches we wrote in biro on A4-lined paper with the title ‘A Bit of Birch & Jones’. The ‘bit’ was how much comedy was in those sketches, which wasn’t a lot. We were very young. We’re a lot funnier now. Well, my ‘bit’ is. I often stand naked at the mirror and just laugh.
As for a single comedian, I’d plump for Spike Milligan and not just because he could grow a magnificent beard. The Goons was a great revelation to me and, with shows like Round The Horne and I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again informing my desire to be a radio writer/performer before I’d hit my teenage years, it was Spike’s unique style that I tried to write like first. I still am that silly, on occasions. Even though Spike got.. er… spikier with age, I don’t think he ever lost the child-like ability to see the world and the English language in a different way than an adult.
Nowadays though it’s harder. I don’t know if comedy has just gotten hard to do or whether my soul is too dark but I find it a struggle to enjoy modern comedy. I liked the satirical stuff in The Daily Show, I have quite the soft spot for Jon Stewart.
I don’t think comedy has got more difficult, I think comedy often reflects the times we live in – and certainly is a good barometer for social change and political unrest – and, as the times we live in are tough, then maybe it’s harder to laugh at things unless it’s more satirical or talking about our lives?
I’m a great fan of John Olivier’s Last Week Tonight in the US – very barbed, very topical, very satirical and also very intelligent. The same can be said for The Mash Report in the UK, fronted by Nish Kumar with a whole host of funny writers/performers. I’ve only seen extracts but, what I’ve seen, has made me laugh out loud.
We’ve just lost Sir Ken Dodd, at 90, who was – for me – the epitome of a pioneer of the past who, possibly, wouldn’t have had such an impact in today’s cynical age. There’s elements of his act in modern comics like Tim Vine and Milton Jones but Doddy was unique. He had his style, he ploughed his furrow, he made people cry with laughter and he seemed to bridge generations. He never rode trends, he just performed in whatever medium he could (theatre, radio, television, even appearing as Yorick, the King’s Jester, in Kenneth Branagh’s epic 4-hour ‘Hamlet’ movie). You couldn’t call him ‘modern comedy’ but I think that’s where labels fall down. People laugh or people don’t.
Back to my point about modern comedy. Why do you think some of us struggle so much nowadays? Has comedy changed? Where are the Allo Allo type sitcoms, has Be A Celebrity type of viewing stifled the opportunities that Variety shows used to get? Where do you go for new material now either for your personal consumption or for your own writing?
I’ve watched a few recent comedies that I just found myself smiling at, rather than guffawing, but I’m often amazed at how comedy can divide people. I don’t know whether that’s because I’ve got older and more cynical or whether it’s because the ‘natural’ comedy stylings that everyone tried to ape after The Office, and the need for something heavily observational rather than just a barrage of gags, isn’t designed to make you roar.
For an example, a few like-minded friends were raving about the sitcom Mum (in its third series on BBC 2), so I gave it a go and watched one episode. I didn’t find it funny at all, I barely smiled – mainly because the script is whimsical rather than amusing and the situations seemed forced rather than the reality they were clearly going for. Crucially, and this is more to do with the direction than the actors themselves, the main two leads play it as if it’s real but most of the supporting actors play it broad and end up seeming over-the-top against them.
However, if we’re talking about those nostalgic variety shows of yesteryear, I think you have to look at Ant & Dec for that. They’ve got that old school appeal and work wonderfully in a mash-up of formats and styles that drew big audiences every Saturday night – like Morecambe & Wise, The Generation Game, Noel’s House Party, etc. They’re not comedians, in the same way, but that have that unique relationship that the public warms to because they knew they’re friends off-camera too.
Modern comedy is a real hotch-potch, which is reflective of the shift in attention spans and tastes of different generations all trying to be catered for. I think certain television channels veer towards ‘edgy’ and ‘dark’, to make sure they don’t produce the type of sitcoms that worked years ago – as they could then lose that ‘youth’ audience they are desperate for. I can’t see Dad’s Army or Allo Allo being commissioned nowadays, to be honest. But, if you’re looking for old school, then ITV attempted it with Vicious, which got by on the star power of Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi (surely, it could have been called Please, Sir? Ahem), but it was slaughtered by the critics. The revival of Porridge on the BBC was a lumpy mess and went cold very quickly after the pilot episode. There’s also Plebs, which is set in Ancient Rome, which is aiming for a more traditional type of sitcom but also crowbarring in The Inbetweeners crowd. So, traditional sitcom isn’t dead, it is just difficult to get right as it has to – by its nature – deliver big laughs and big audiences.
However, what is ‘traditional’? Something like Blackadder is, now, to all intents and purposes, a traditional sitcom but at the time is felt new and refreshing and unique. Talking of which, Ben Elton (one half of the Black Adder writing team) is delivering similar laughs with his Shakespeare sitcom, Upstart Crow. He’s basically taken the same template and the same characters and produced a Blackadder for now. It’s often referred to as the poor relation but, to be honest, if those were Blackadder scripts and Edmund Blackadder was passing himself off as William Shakespeare with all the regulars in place, I’m pretty sure it would be hailed as a ‘return to form’ for all concerned.
On writing - you have a sharp and intelligent wit - Do you prefer writing scripts for yourself to perform or for others to deliver?
You flatter me, sir. I just think of myself as silly. I see a situation immediately from a comedic angle, which can probably annoy others. Especially as you get older and I’m still acting like a seven year old. Friends often look at my wife with a look of pity and say ‘Is he always like that?’ or friends that know me well will ask me a serious question about something, get a joke in return, and then sigh and say they knew they should have asked someone else. Ah, well.
I find the process of writing a script to be either ridiculously easy or ludicrously hard. There’s no in-between. As I’ve got older, I find adapting or co-writing is a lot easier for me and I think I’ve produced some of my best work when others have begun the writing process and then I leap on board. However, as for writing for myself, not really. I tend to write characters and sometimes with people in mind. I know I’m not right for some of the roles I write, which is why I like directing my work. If I can’t play it, I can at least help the person playing it to get the maximum humour out of their lines.
Is there ‘one that got away’? A joke or scene that you wish you could have made work, or perhaps thought was funny but maybe someone in your rooms shouted you down on? And on the other side of that coin, is there something you wrote or maybe pushed someone to perform that looking back now you think maybe you shouldn’t have used?
I’m pretty sensitive to performer’s needs or worries and, also, I’m also very collaborative. If someone suggests a change that’s funnier, I don’t rage against it. I like something to be the funniest that it can be and, I believe, I’ve developed a gut instinct for whether something’s funny or not but you can never properly gauge an audience until you’re performing the material.
There has been a few instances in my stage adaptation of the radio show I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again that apply to your question, though.
I like to throw topical things into scripts, as audiences respond so well to such jokes, and – in the Christmas 2017 show – I wrote two gags which I thought were very funny, if a little close to the knuckle, about Kevin Spacey. Now, one landed brilliantly and had the audience laughing. The other got a silence that I wasn’t expecting but the cast had said it was a ‘marmite’ joke. So, in that instance, I should have taken it out as you can’t have that 50/50 percentage going into a performance – you’ve got to believe in the jokes.
Also, there was a Harvey Weinstein gag, which also referenced Jimmy Savile and Fred West. Now, the performer who was initially delivering that just didn’t get the joke and it made them feel too uncomfortable. The joke was, a list of horrible names read out and then leading into saying the worst monster of all was one that wasn’t caught – which turns out to be a name the audience can laugh at (in this case, Tony Blackburn) and then sets the stage for a Jack the Ripper parody sketch.
Now, saying Harvey Weinstein, Jimmy Savile and Fred West’s names aren’t the joke. They are the set-up. But, the performer quite rightly expressed worry and, in the end, it was given to another performer to deliver and not cut out as I felt it worked and warranted those names being in there.
On the night, it got a big laugh and all was groovy but it was right that the original performer didn’t have to deliver something they didn’t believe in, as comedy has to come from truth. If you don’t believe in what you’re saying, and don’t think it’s funny, then it’s harder to make an audience laugh because you’re not delivering a truth to them.
Comedy for me was always the medium that pushed the boundaries of society and taste before any other. Just recently I have seen comedians, show hosts and their ilk try and fail to make comedy from the world they are in. The Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey allegations are obviously a very serious matter, but years ago the likes of Ben Elton would take a serious matter, make it hilarious at the same time as driving home a very important political point. Whilst I cringed at James Cordon’s Weinstein joke I thought Seth Meyers at the Golden Globes did incredibly well to shame those in the wrong, bring attention to the cause and yet still be funny, but maybe his audience in the room and most of the world wasn’t quite ready. Do we still have the right to find laughter and maybe a good message in the terrible things around us? Or are those days as dead as can be? How far is too far for a joke (that sharp intake of breath moment?) - When does it/should it stop being funny? And is there/should there be anything still taboo in comedy?
Yes, I think we’ve touched on this before, as I made the same comparison in regards to James Corden and Seth Myers dealing with a horrible subject in a clever manner to illicit laughs (or, in Corden’s case, not a clever manner). I think, with comedy, you can explore taboos. But, you’ve got to be that type of comedian. To compare two similar and musical comedians as an example, I wouldn’t expect, say, Bill Bailey to deliver stinging rebukes about serious matters in the same way that Tim Minchin does. Laughter is a release mechanism. It can be how we process tragedies and grief and shock and horror, by turning to dark humour to cope.
I don’t think anything is off limits in comedy but, again, that comes from the performer you’re watching. People would be genuinely shocked if Michael McIntrye suddenly started ranting about some recent tragedy or political scandal or equally uncomfortable subject. That’s because he’s known for his humour observing everyday life – the self-checkout at a supermarket, the useless items men shove in a drawer in case they’re needed, the way women put tights on. These things are innocuous but relatable. Whereas if you saw someone like Bill Hicks, back in the day, you know you would be in for a rough ride into darker areas because that’s what he liked talking about.
So, although I think comedy can be wrung from any subject, I do think it’s dependent on the comedian doing it and, therefore, the mind-set of the audience watching that comedian.
How do you see comedy developing in the future in style and maybe in subject matter, and delivery? Do you think we will ever get that ‘Golden Age’ we lived through as kids? Was it even a Golden Age or are we looking back through rose tinted spectacles? I’m also new to things this year like streaming. I now get I would say around 75% of my screen entertainment from the likes of Rakuten and Netflix, so I guess my question is are comedy clubs and theatre still relevant? Is the future of comedy straight to streaming sitcoms and YouTube videos, and what affect will that have do you think on both society and industry if it is indeed the way forward?
I think the comedy scene has changed forever, in that there are new platforms out there to have your work seen, but I don’t think it’s excluded anything that went beforehand. Clubs and theatres are still relevant to gigging comedians and, in Cheltenham alone (where I perform), you can throw a punchline out and hit so many open-mic or new comedy or comedy club nights in so many venues that I think there’s more variety than ever.
A comedian like Peter Kay, who is achingly old school, can sell out arenas and stadiums – so I think the ‘Golden Age’ is still here but I’d hazard a guess that the ‘Golden Age’ was always just about populist comedy.
A comedian like Stewart Lee, who I think is great, will specifically take down and avoid populist comedy. He plays in smaller venues. A comedian who is big, bold and basic can play to a bigger audience at a bigger venue, just because that is the way of the public. They want to be entertained and not engaged intellectually. Not everyone, but the majority. I can’t see that changing in the future as the world gets darker and more dangerous. Most people will seek a lighter sense of humour as an alternative to deal with it rather than engaging with the darker sense of humour.
As a director (like the Robin of Sherwood audios and theatre work) do you work with a fixed idea and detailed vision or do you allow some improvisation?
Don’t get me started on improvisation. That’s a whole different discussion. Ha. It’s my favourite form of comedy, when done right. But, sorry, to the question – yes.
To it all.
I do have a general idea and vision, especially if I’ve written the script, but I’ve very good at changing that if a better idea or vision comes along. I mean, some things are fixed to the point of knowing they won’t work if done another way but some things have fluidity which allows more scope. It generally depends on the script and the performers. I’ve always tried to be a collaborative creative, encouraging others and helping showcase talent, so I’m all for making something the best it possibly can be by surrounding myself with talented people.
It’s the only reason I’m talking to you, because you’re more talented than me. So, hopefully, you’ll make me look good and, in that process, we’ll both come out of it looking groovy.
On a similar note do you prefer being on stage or backstage making it all happen?
I’ve done the backstage thing and I get fidgety. I like to be in the thick of it, not because of any sort of ego.
As it happens, the more recent things I’ve done on audio (Robin of Sherwood, as an example) specifically work because I am producing and directing rather than performing. But, even then, I’ve had to squeeze myself in somehow. Tee hee.
I wouldn’t say I’m a control freak (and I always worry I look like one when I’m producing and directing and writing and starring in something) but I just like to trust myself to get something done and then I don’t have to blame anyone else if it fails. I’ll take the risk, as long as people come along for the ride.
You work with/know a LOT of famous people (present company excepted). Have you ever been star struck? And (naming no names unless you want to) have people not quite lived up to expectations - has there been a case of "never meet your idol", and how do you do it? We at the office are firm in our belief that somewhere in Chinbeard HQ there is a draw of shame, full of photos of Eric Idle doing something he shouldn’t that you bring out when needed.
Oh, I’m so much more small fry than Stephen Fry. I’ve been lucky enough, more recently, to get to know and to work with some famous names. That’s been a genuine joy and I still pinch myself daily. I’ve got the bruises to prove it.
Here’s the thing – I’m not a formal type of chap. I approach everyone as if they’re a potential friend and I’m eager to please. I have no qualms in aiming for the moon to reach the stars, as it were. The worst that anyone can say is ‘no’. I don’t have a ‘business-type’ approach to anyone and some may say that’s unprofessional but I hope it’s why I’ve had so much fun with those who are more famous than me and they feel comfortable or safe in my presence. I’m forever belittling what I do, which I get told off daily about, because – although I’m good at shining a spotlight on my projects – I’m very uncomfortable with how I appear.
I have an ego, sure. You have to have one hidden somewhere to do what I do. But, I keep it locked up and never let it inflate. Confidence can often be seen as arrogance and they are two totally separate things.
You know what, I was most nervous about meeting Graeme Garden. Not because I’d heard anything bad about him but just because he was someone I’d massively admired as a writer and a performer. So, to be pinging emails back and forth, be made fun of by him, and to have set foot on stage with him as a performer is astonishing to me. He reminds me so much of my late father, even in the way he writes emails and phrases sentences, that it’s uncanny. So, I hope one day soon that he may adopt me.
As for those that have caused trouble or I haven’t hit it off with, I can’t divulge. Suffice to say, I just don’t work with them again!
You’ve been a performer and a writer for a number of years now. Which do you prefer? How did you start on both paths? How on earth do you manage to keep going? I see your schedule and I need a nap just reading it!
One of my friends describes himself as a polymath. That’s not a parrot who’s good at sums.
I wouldn’t be so grand as to say such a thing but I’m a polymirth. I like to do lots of things, as long as they make me happy.
I’m always of the opinion that you should keep challenging yourself by jumping from different project to different project, which means I’ve never been REALLY good at anything. I just get by, but I do it with a certain amount of style. Ha. Not really. The only thing that’s stylish about me is my chinbeard and even that’s somewhat of mess compared to the neatness of the facial hair of others.
As to how I started on the path to be whatever? I was inspired. Something made me so excited that I wanted to do it – mainly comedy, that’s what always inspires me. I find it uncomfortable if I can’t make someone smile. I don’t feel we’re truly friends unless I’ve caused a giggle. Maybe that’s insecurity on my part, maybe that’s a need to be always liked, I don’t know. I often wonder.
But, my family like to laugh. We’ve had a lot of illness and tragedies in our lives but the one constant is laughter. I think I did my first stand-up gig at about eight years old, reading jokes from ‘1,001 Jokes For Kids’ at family gatherings and being encouraged by hearing my Grandad guffawing at them. This led on to wanting to write my own jokes and my school had a great ‘competition’ where everyone could write and perform original plays every year as long as It included all ages.
That’s where I started properly, at school.
I purloined sketches and jokes from my favourite comedians and shows and, as each year improved my confidence, I found that the stuff I’d written to link it all together was becoming more prominent and the purloining was becoming less and less. You learn from the best and then you develop your own voice. It takes a while.
As for keeping going, I have my illness to thank for that. I have M.E. and it’s a bugger but, aside from two years spent in bed to begin with, I’ve managed a level of control – ably supported by my close family – that means I can concentrate when I want to on what I want to. It’s genuinely what keeps me pushing forward. Making others happy makes me happy, which doesn’t allow me to get maudlin or self-pitying. I often cite my illness as being more a cloud with a silver lining. I was struck down as I was about to go to RADA (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London) and, had I gone, I think I would have been a bit of a nightmare. At that age, I really didn’t like authority, I had a great belief in myself and I knew I wanted to get paid for being an actor. I wasn’t unlikeable, from what I gather, I just was burning the candle at both ends and something had to give. So, becoming unwell, I had the time to reflect and follow other pursuits – like writing – as that’s all I could do at the time.
I’ve never been able to give advice on such matters as how you go about becoming a performer or a writer, as I just did it. I learnt to rely on myself and just did what I wanted to do, regardless. I’ve never followed a career path or been massively successful. I just make sure what I do, I enjoy. And that’s all you can hope for, really.
What's the favourite thing you've ever worked and or person you've ever worked with?
Ooh, good question. My default response used to be a monthly comedy improvisation show called Off The Cuff that I set up and ran for about six years in Cheltenham. It was essentially a stage version of the popular Channel 4 show Whose Line Is It Anyway?
But, that became too bittersweet for me to say it’s my favourite thing I’ve ever worked on as, towards the end, performers were pulling in different directions. That’s something that happens when a show seems like it’s a success, the desire to break out or step up can often infuse a cast. I made the mistake of carrying it on for too long, at a time when I couldn’t appear in it and the performers didn’t like to be told to ‘stay on format’ from afar.
I learned later, via the venue manager and some of the regular audience, that they felt the show changed and wasn’t as funny in that period when I had to run it from afar; which is sad but it certainly was a lesson learned the hard way for me.
Usually, I suppose, the favourite thing you’ve ever worked on is the thing you’re doing right now and – for me – that’s still the stage version of the BBC radio comedy I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again.
But, you know what, my absolute favourite thing is a small one-act play I wrote and toured with on two separate occasions. It was called Waiting For A Friend and, both times we’ve done it, it’s been a delight. I only had a small recurring comedy cameo in it and the heavy lifting went to the main cast who all were marvellous.
On the page, it seems a whimsical and amusing script but, when we performed it originally and when we revived it, we were always surprised by how much laughter was generated. For me, it was the perfect meld of a script with the right actors – especially the main role, played by Bob Roberts, who was a tour de force in facial tics, comic timing, contorted expressions and emotional depth as a lonely man sat on a park bench with his space invaded by a few visitors who he tried to interact with.
As for favourite person I’ve ever worked with? I couldn’t pick one. I’ve been very lucky to be surrounded by great actors and great comedians, so to pick just one would seem disingenuous. Though, I would like to say that my wife should hurry up and be back on stage again soon, instead of being backstage, as she is the most natural of actors and I really miss performing with her.
What's coming next on the Barnaby drawing board - can you tell us or is it all too hush hush?
Far too much. My chinbeard is wilting just thinking of it all. It’s easier to just follow my Facebook page (That Eaton-Jones Fellow), as that crows about the creative projects that are upcoming. Whereas my website is as sporadically updated as the NHS is under this Tory government. Little bit of politics to end on, ladies and gentleman. I, thank you.
Find Barnaby in various online places below...
That Eaton-Jones Fellow
The Offstage Theatre Group
Off the Cuff
Images - Wikipedia, Trevtography, and from stalking Barnaby's Facebook pages for the last few years.