Milton Jones, the award-winning stand-up comedian, actor and radio performer, best known for his show-stealing appearances on Mock The Week is currently touring the UK with his show, The Lion Whisperer, which comes to The Glee Club in Nottingham on February 10th and to the Nottingham Theatre Royal on April 12th. Impact Magazine spoke with Milton about the tour, his style of comedy, and his career so far.
First of all, could you sum up your style of comedy for any readers that might not know you too well?
Weird One-liners. I tend to tell jokes that take me into cul-de-sacs, reverse out of them, and go right back down another one. In terms of topics, I have a real scatter-gun approach, where I will tell jokes about anything and everything I think of. I tend to think that if a joke is more than three lines long, then it’s too long.
What is your show, The Lion Whisperer all about?
There are a lot of jokes. The name itself doesn’t mean anything in particular, it was just something that was on a page on my desk when I was called about a name for the tour! It’s just a fun night of me being stupid, with flip-charts, music and lots of audience interaction. Luckily, we’ve been able to extend the tour to some much bigger venues in April, and I’m faced with the happy dilemma of how to adapt the flip-chart, because people won’t be able to see it! There isn’t really a target audience for the show either. Teenagers can enjoy it, but so can grandparents, which is a real cross-section of people. In terms of a theme, it isn’t pinned down at all. I just tell jokes about myself, my family, my travels and things I see in the world.
You’ve found recent fame on Mock The Week. Do you prefer doing stand-up on TV or on stage?
Variety is the key with comedy. You really can’t do television without doing live comedy, it’s the bread and butter of the profession. If you just do radio and telly without going out and performing to audiences, often, the quality runs out. You haven’t got time to try it out and work on it. The most important this is to learn how to perform and find out by doing it what works. When you’re on television, you are selling that material, because once its been on a popular show like Mock The Week you can’t use it anymore. You are on the mountain-top with it, but its important because performing on television is what get you an audience for your live shows.
In addition to television, you have been very successful on radio. How does writing for radio and for stand-up differ?
You can’t pull faces on the radio, it has to be all words. Everything has to be scripted, which means that there are a lot of words! A 6 episode run means that you have to have 3 hours worth of jokes, which is a tough task. Luckily, James Carey writes with me, and he’s great at creating characters and storylines. Another thing that differs is it has to be more than simple jokes, it has to have a narrative. Radio is enjoyable because it is immediate too. I can be writing jokes up until the moment the audience walks in because its just me and a microphone, whereas with television, everything has to be in weeks in advance so they can set up lighting and camera angles. Radio is also great because people can listen to it anywhere – in the car, in the kitchen, even when they are running, so they can use their own interpretations of it to put pictures in their heads. By performing on Radio 4, and also on BBC Two, it allows me to reach different audiences, who probably wouldn’t take themselves down to a comedy club to see me.
Who are your comedy influences?
Before I decided to be a stand-up, which I didn’t originally want to do, I looked up to greats like Ronnie Barker, Leonard Rossiter and Rowan Atkinson, because they are such talented actors that are so funny. It was only in the 1980s, when people like Harry Enfield and Eddie Izzard came along and developed alternative comedy, that comedy could be a viable career. Now though, I love stand-up because its much looser, and the buck stops with you. You don’t have to perform a script you don’t like or worry about other people not being funny because its all on you.
Who do you enjoy currently in comedy?
I saw Bill Bailey last year and was really impressed, he tells jokes, plays music, works with the audience, he does everything! I find Harry Hill really interesting live, and I enjoy Ross Noble. He takes a lot of risks on stage, so much of his material is made up on the night, and audiences really appreciate that. Johnny Vegas is another comedian whose material and performances are funny, and filled with pathos.
An interesting thing about your comedy is that you make audiences laugh without resorting to offensive material or swearing. Is this something you are conscious of?
I don’t really go to great lengths, but I am aware of it. As a Christian, I don’t want to go out and blaspheme or needlessly offend, and I try not to do that in my shows. It was harder to begin with, but these days, it makes me more accessible to audiences. I believe that when you write and perform, you have to be true to yourself, and this is just me.
What is your attitude towards comedians that swear a lot and use offensive language in their acts?
In my opinion, there are two types of ‘swear jokes’. One type is where the joke is the swearing, and its all about shocking the audience. To me, that’s just cheating to get a cheap laugh. The other type is when there is a joke, and the swearing is there to give it emphasis. Billy Connolly is great at this. He swears, but you don’t notice it, because he does it to enhance his material. Personally, I think its cleverer to do a ‘joke’ joke rather than a ‘swear’ joke.
There seems to be a real appetite for live comedy at the moment. In your experience, is this the best time to be a comedian?
When I started, comedy was something that was alternative and edgy, and not really something you could make a living off. Now, its much more mainstream, and because of that, audiences are much bigger. However, most comedians don’t tend to take risks anymore, because in the past you would get some alternative comedy that would either go brilliantly or fail spectacularly. Nowadays, everything is very safe, right down to the clubs and venues themselves, because it’s all about money. You can do a university course in comedy now, because it has become a recognised profession. At some point, someone will do something new and interesting and that will become the new alternative, which is how things evolve and develop.
What are your plans for 2011?
I have this tour till May, and then I have another series of my radio show to record straight after. I have a pilot for a Channel 4 sitcom, which films over the summer. Its about me living in a huge house with my mother, and it’s been written by myself and fellow stand-up Dan Evans. After that, the tour might continue into the autumn. Its the first time in my career that I know what I’m doing for the next 12 months!