First published in HK Magazine on August 29, 2013.
When Al Murray first adopted the personae of The Pub Landlord while standing backstage before a 1994 show, he had no idea that two decades later he’d be selling out London’s O2 Arena and touring the world as one of the UK’s most popular comedians. Sean Hebert caught up with Murray in the midst of his massive, 162-show tour to chat about coming back to Asia, controversy in comedy, and the adaptability of his famed character.
Sean Hebert: Is this your first time performing in Asia?
Al Murray: No, actually. I came to Hong Kong in 1996 when I was still quite green, and we did some shows for a week—a long time ago, now.
SH: Do you expect to draw from that experience on this trip, or are you bringing in a totally fresh approach?
AM: I am a different person now, and Hong Kong is bound to be a different place. I was there just before the handover, so that in and of itself was interesting—what the city was like, and the atmosphere at the time. But I am really looking forward to going out there again, because what I love is taking my act to different places and seeing how it goes. It’s always a thrill.
SH: I guess my question came to mind because your now-legendary crowd work is such a big part of your act. Is it more challenging to improvise when you travel to new places?
AM: No, to be honest. People ask me, “do you adjust what you do to where you are?” The simple answer is “yes I do,” because I talk to the crowd every night. The excellent thing about crowd interaction is that it’s hugely advantageous to be doing it, because it just makes everything else easier. I get to talk to the audience, find out their mood, and push their buttons to find out what they like and don’t like. If I just had to go on and do jokes—God, that’s a nightmare. But brassing people up is a good way for everyone to get to know one another, so to speak.
SH: Have you ever travelled somewhere where the local, cultural, or linguistic differences meant you had to change your act?
AM: Not particularly. I mean, the type of person that the Pub Landlord is supposed to be is so hotly identifiable—he’s full of himself, he reckons he knows everything, and he’s sort of ludicrously patriotic. I think those are all pretty standard things that people don’t like or that they would want to laugh at, so in all honesty, it tends not to be an issue. We were in Paris recently and Switzerland after that, and if anything, I get this reaction from the audience: “oh yeah, that’s what the Brits are like. They’re full of themselves, and full of shit.”
SH: So you don’t need to worry about changing yourself, because you’re inherently a foreigner that’s imposing on someone’s land.
AM: Yeah! All stuff I expect may be relevant in Hong Kong.
SH: I read that you’re covering topics on this tour like parenting, Scottish independence, the Euro—when you write your shows, are you just looking for the funniest topics for inspiration, or do you have an agenda?
AM: That’s a really good question. In this year’s show, there is a bit I wrote about news reporting. It’s about how everything now is in such a state of hyperbole, that you can’t really decipher what’s going on in British politics. So I say, “right now, we have the worst government ever in Britain, but then again, they are having to clear up from the worst government ever, who only replaced the worst government ever…” because that’s how its told to us. That really irks me because it means we don’t get to talk about politics properly. So I’ve got a bit about that. But what you’re always thinking is: this better be funny. If you can’t make it funny, it gets dropped like a hot potato.
SH: I find it ironic for the Pub Landlord to comment on hyperbole when the genesis of the character is itself an exaggeration of a stereotype: a bombastic, anti-PC, sexist, xenophobic character. Isn’t going over the edge and into reckless hyperbole the whole point?
AM: Yes, but also, it’s interesting that you used the word “edge” there. The interesting thing about an edge is that we now have debates about where the edge lies in comedy in the UK, and the truth is, I always think that when people talk about “edge” what they deliberately do is try to skirt around the fact that everything has a context. The context of the Pub Landlord is that we are at a comedy show, he is a character, and he is not real. It’s meant to be absurd, so where the idea of the edge comes in has to be after recognizing all of those things.
SH: I hear that you’ll be railing on talent shows on this tour too. What’s the gripe?
AM: Yeah, I’ll talk about how everyone now just thinks they have to win a talent show and their lives will be sorted. Having worked for a very long time in show business, it’s something that really frustrates me. You know, you don’t get things instantly. You have to work really long and hard for them.
SH: Well if not on a talent show, how did you start? Were you the funny kid growing up?
AM: No. I was just mucking about, and I liked when I got to university that it was a thing you could do—write it down, remember it, and suddenly it was a way of mucking about that was legit. There was a club at my school which had an Open Mic thing where you had to write new material every week and go on and do new stuff, which is how I got going, really. And that’s an incredibly inspiring thing, and mainly my problem is that those open spots went well. You think, oh yeah I could do this. You get that first bite.
SH: What are the biggest misconceptions people have about being a pro comedian?
AM: I’ll point out two things: we’re not funny all the time, but we’re also not all suicidal. We’re supposed to all want to kill ourselves, like a poor, sad, lonely clown. Not really.