First published on 27 Feb 2012. Updated on 12 Mar 2013.
Armed with little more than his inventive spontaneity, Ross Noble has enjoyed an illustrious career on the comedy circuit since the staggeringly young age of 15 years old. Since marrying his Australian-born wife, much of his time is nowadays spent touring between his homeland of the UK and his honorary residence of Australia.
Amidst a busy schedule of dates around the country, Time Out caught up with Noble to pick his relentlessly active brain on a few things.
In recent years you’ve opted to tour places less frequently visited by other comedians. Do you do this for your benefit as much as your fans?
There’s no point going out and making other people laugh if it’s not fun for me as well. It’s a reflection of my personality – I’m always looking for new things to entertain myself with. If you can go to interesting places and draw a crowd then it just makes it more fun. It would be easy to just do a load of massive gigs in all the big cities, but I like to do stuff that’s a little bit different. It’s my own thing: I thought, that’s a good way of doing a tour and fulfilling my passion for riding motorcycles too.
It’s been well documented on television [see Ross Noble’s Australian Trip] that you prefer to travel around on tour via motorcycle. Are you doing so again on this current tour?
Normally I do, but I haven’t got a bike over here at the moment. I’ve just got my push bike for now. I just go out of an afternoon and have a little wander around.
But still, two wheels rather than four must allow you to see parts of the country you wouldn’t normally see.
Totally, yeah. What’s great about this country is that it’s so friendly. You just stop anywhere and there’s always someone to chat to, even in what is seemingly the middle of nowhere.
I’d assume that doing so often provides you with material for your shows that you simply couldn’t make up yourself?
Yeah, it’s true. I think if you’re not careful you can go on tour and spend your whole time just going from plane, to car, to hotel; then from the hotel to the gig and back again. Then all you talk about is mini bars and how annoying it is when they bring you the wrong room service food, so it’s good to get out there and actually do stuff.
The current tour is called Nonsensory Overload. A great summary of your shows in general?
It’s probably the most perfect title for a show I’ve ever come up with!
You’re known for doing shows which rely on very little pre-planned material. Can you ever truly prepare for the type of shows that you do?
Stand-up is hard to rehearse for me. It happens in the moment. You can never pre-judge exactly how something is gonna be taken. There are so many different variables. It’s about reading where the line is, and where people’s heads are at, and then dragging them into your world.
It’s definitely a much braver approach to comedy than more traditional stand-ups.
If you have a joke that you’ve honed you’re basically trying to recreate that exactly each night. But if you’re improvising something, it usually comes out fully formed, and if you try and recreate that it’s never quite the same.
Do you often have fans quote things to you that you’ve said on stage, but you honestly can’t recall having done so?
All the time. On an almost daily basis!
Similarly, does something said by an audience member at one show provide great material for the following night’s show?
Definitely. Sometimes people say stuff and you think "That’s too good not to share with somebody else".
You often have audience members shouting out for your attention during your shows. Whilst this can often provide laughs, can it sometimes become a distraction?
Sometimes you do get people who are a little too eager to join in and you’ve got to strike a balance. I can usually judge when it's got to the point where people are going "Oh for fuck’s sake!" If they’re just disrupting things, and it’s not going anywhere, then I’m generally good at saying enough is enough. If an audience doesn’t say anything then there’s plenty of nonsense in my head for me to say.
Would a quiet audience not be a little bit unnerving though?
Well, hopefully there’d be laughter…
Did you find it hard adapting to the Australian way of life when you first spent time living here?
Not at all – I got on with it straight away. My wife actually started to become more British and I started to become more Aussie. There was a period when I first moved here where I got really into eating kangaroo steaks and would cook them every night outside on the barbeque. She did say at one point, ‘You do realise you’re taking fitting in to a ridiculous extreme?’
What do you feel spurred on your vivid imagination?
When I was a kid I always loved anything that got my imagination fired up. This could be a film or TV shows; just anything out of the ordinary and a bit different. Where I grew up [Cramlington, Northumberland] was a very ordinary place, though I wouldn’t say it was boring – it’s down to you to make things interesting. When I was at school I decided that my life ambition was to not lead an ordinary life, and I guess I’ve succeeded with that.
What career options did you contemplate as a youngster before settling on ‘comedian’?
At first I thought I’d be a cameraman for a war zone reporter, but apparently you needed science for that, so you can understand all the lighting and stuff. Then I thought I’d be a DJ; then it was a stuntman for a while; but with those things you can’t really get any experience at them until you’re a bit older. Then when I was 11 I decided I was going to join the circus, so I taught myself to juggle and ride the unicycle. I had it all planned.
So what changed?
When I was 15 I won tickets to see a comedy show, and after watching it I thought, actually, that’s what I should be doing. There was no audition and you didn’t have to write anything down. You just had to say funny things. So I went to the local comedy club and did a five-minute spot.
Wasn’t it a nerve-wracking thing to do at such a young age?
Nothing at that age is scary. If somebody says “Jump off a garage roof” you just say “Yeah, all right.” You don’t think about the consequences of anything. There’s no filter system in you that says ‘What happens if I fail?’ It doesn’t matter when you’re 15; you just do something else. I just did the gig and it went really well. Within a couple of months I was getting regular work – I went from doing five-minute spots to being the main compere, and bringing on all these big acts who’d come up from London. I was earning enough money to live on – far more money than I’d earn working in some crappy factory job or in a call centre – so as far as I was concerned I was winning.
How did things progress from there?
Everyone said to me “If you wanna make it as a comedian you’ve gotta move to London”, so I packed my bags and off I went. Within a few months I was getting gigs and went to the Edinburgh Festival too. I built up a following and it just went on from there. At no point was it this struggle that I’d heard people talking about. I just loved every minute of it.
How did your parents react to all of this?
My mum and dad weren’t the sort of parents that said “What are you gonna fall back on?” They saw how much work I put into things. They knew I wasn’t one of those kids who said they were gonna do something and then dropped it, so when I said I was gonna be a comedian they just said “Brilliant, go on then. Show us what you’ve got.” My Dad came to one of my gigs and thought it was brilliant.
Does the Ross Noble we know and love today have a lot to thank 15-year-old Ross Noble for?
He’s the reason my style as it is now developed. When you’re 15 people say “What do you know about anything?” so I just used to talk about daft stuff that no one else was talking about. I was just commenting on things that I’d seen, and that’s where the offbeat style came from. Anything I talked about came from a different angle. There are a lot of stand-ups who talk about the stresses of modern life, but that didn’t apply to me as a 15-year-old kid. I was just having the best time of my life! Over time, it gave me licence to talk about anything I wanted, and it developed into what I do now.
I used to do a lot of television warm-ups in front of studio audiences, and the thing that a lot of people used to talk about was how good I was at making stuff up. I didn’t really choose my style; it chose me. That was the reason people started coming to see me. When I was playing the clubs I used to host a lot of nights, so people used to come back every week because I was always doing different stuff. It meant that when I started touring people turned up and they knew me for doing that, which allowed me a licence to play with ideas. People were coming along saying, “You’ve gotta see this bloke. One minute he’s talking about firing onions out of a gun made of shoes, and the next minute he’s talking about killing hamsters with tins of soup!”
And now, 20 years later, you’re scheduled to do seven shows as part of this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Do you mingle with other comics and try to catch their shows at such events?
I do try and catch up with people I haven’t seen for a while, but the problem I have is that my show is at least a couple of hours long. Festival shows tend to be an hour or an hour and a half long, whereas I do much longer, which usually counts me out for the entire night. I ask other comedians what time their show starts and they tell me its 8pm, and I’ll say, “Oh, sorry, that’s when my show is on”. Then they’ll say “It’s okay, there’s a late show at 10pm”, and I reply, “Sorry, my show’s still on then as well!”