Marcus Brigstocke interview

Comedian Marcus Brigstocke talks about the return of Argumental, Jon Stewart and his upcoming stand up tour…

When we last spoke to Marcus Brigstocke, he had just launched his new stand-up DVD, and was about to head into the mountains for a comedy festival with some snowboarding on the side. Since then, he’s become a team captain on the Dave panel show Argumental, which returns tonight. And as we found out, he’s just as busy as he was last time we spoke to him…

Congratulations on the return of Argumental. I’m really chuffed it got a second series. When you come together for the show, does it ever feel kind of like the school debating society?

[Laughs] Yeah it does. It does. But it’s more serious than that. You know, the school debating society is sort of… yeah, I don’t know. I mean you take it quite seriously, but I’ve never been in a show where winning mattered – at all. The extent to which it matters on this is quite ridiculous now. It really is. I mean, because it’s a real beauty pageant, you know?

We’re basically asking the audience, every five or ten minutes: so, who do you think’s funniest and best? And then they vote. And if it’s not for you, you’re just dying inside, you know?

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I love the bit where you all kind of bore with laser eyes into the audience just as they’re about to vote, as well.

[Laughs] Yeah, and there have been some very serious moments, where I felt it went the wrong way and I’ve just completely lost it with the audience.

On the last series, there was a thing about Jeremy Clarkson and I genuinely lost my temper. It was during a double recording as well, and I shouted at the audience, ‘You know what? Fuck you. And fuck you for show two as well.’ Which was a very bad idea.

Did you win any more after that?

No. No, I did not. Not a single point.

It’s odd, that.

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Yeah, I know. The audience, they’re so fickle. [laughs]

How involved are you in picking the subjects themselves that you debate on the show?

Do you know what, I try and keep out of it. The producers are always a bit nervous and they always ask, you know, ‘Ooh, are you okay with all the subjects?’ and stuff. And I’ve said with this I would rather be dictated to. Because it’s no good if you pitch what you want to debate about, then you’re picking something that you already have an opinion on. Whereas the skill of the show, I think, is to develop an argument based on something that is thrust upon you.

The only one that I’ve interfered with was, I think we had to argue ‘Obesity is not a problem’. And that I changed to ‘The obesity epidemic is not a problem’. Just for personal reasons and because I sort of thought, well for individuals it is a very serious problem, and an epidemic you can probably take the piss. You know, at the notion of it being a kind of global phenomenon. But otherwise, I keep well out of it.

On Sunday’s show I have to argue ‘The Iraq war has been a great success’.

Yeah, I saw that on the preview DVD we were sent.

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I really didn’t choose that.

How [far] in advance do you get the subjects? How much time do you get to prepare them? Because the opening arguments that the two of you do are always really well rounded…

I do it all on the day. I’ll often have a look at them two or three days before and just start thinking, ‘Oh, well, okay, I could go that way or that way.’ But, it’s not until the day of the show that I do it. Partly because of other time constraints that I have, but mainly because it means when you actually get up and do it, it’s fresh.

What I don’t want to do is bring stand-up that I’ve already done to the show. I want to stand up and to fly by the seat of my pants and for the audience to see that I am grabbing at ideas and going, ‘Come on! Who’s coming with me with this one?’ And if it doesn’t work, discard it and go onto the next.

Yeah, it’s pretty fast, but it means when you get up and do it, it’s fresh in your mind and exciting because it’s the first time you’ve heard yourself say it. 

My favourite parts of the show are when the argument really kind of takes hold and you do see people getting genuinely irate. What I really like about it is there’s no gimmick to the way it’s shot and it comes back and it pulls to a wide shot and you just see people that just look like they’re sitting there simmering. Is that your experience from your side of the fence?

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Yeah. Yeah. There is an extent to which that is manufactured, I suppose. That we do deliberately wind ourselves up into a state where you can argue and where your wits are fuelled by your adrenalin.

I kid you not when I say we are playing for the win, definitely. And when someone comes up with a really, really good point, it’s frustrating. You’re like, ‘I can’t believe I didn’t think of that!’

Also, Rufus [Hound] is charm personified. I’m more  pompous and self-assured and determined that if – you know – if the truth can be told so as to be understood, it will be believed.

Whereas Rufus is just brilliant at that “Come on! I’m the Pied Piper of Hamelin. We’re all going this way.” He’s also good on the facts. But, he will often talk the audience into a round of applause, and then hope to God that John Sergeant goes, “Well, I think we’ll leave that there.”

And then I’m sitting going ‘No! No! You can’t let it end like that.’

I loved his riposted to the body building stuff in the first show of the new series…

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Wasn’t that a brilliant argument? Just fantastic.

Inspired. That’s one of the things about the show for me. I don’t think I’m talking out of turn by saying you wouldn’t say it’s on a mainstream channel, and yet the calibre of the people it’s attracting to it really punches above its weight, a lot. And there’s two things for me. Number one: The format seems to attract people, and number two: I think it’s the only genuinely competitive panel show on the telly. 

I think that’s true. I mean, the experience of everybody who’s been on it on the first series, is that they all got up with a surprised look on their face at the end and went, ‘You know what, that really is a good show.’ 

A lot of panel shows, actually, whilst a decent stand-up can do them, they don’t play to the strengths of a stand-up. Have I Got News For You, for example: fantastic show and every time I’m on it, I’m kind of like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’ve been asked to do it.’ But as a stand-up, if anything, you’re working against what you would normally do. You have to play with everybody, and you have to not deliver material, as such. Whereas this is kind of like, right. Up you get. Give us five minutes of your best stand-up and then defend it.

You get to do what you would do in a comedy club on stage and the banter that you would have in the green room afterwards. So people like it. I assume that’s why ‘they’re coming on. I don’t imagine the fees are sufficiently high that they’re going, Oh, I can’t miss that one.’ Especially while we’re on Dave.

But, that said, – you know – the viewing figures – they don’t interest me a great deal – but, for a digital channel, it’s done phenomenally well. They started telling me the numbers on the last series and I was, like, ‘Wow. Bloody hell. The people are really catching on to this.’ 

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Presumably the fee’s compensated for by Dave’s repeat fees as well? That’ll keep you in business.

I assume so. I think we’re on some sort of buyout thing. We don’t get a dip every time they show anything. 

That would be a great way to make a living.

Yeah, exactly. I mean, if it was on that basis, I’d settle for a quid for the original show. [Laughter] And a quid for everything that follows.

I interviewed Dara O Briain last year and he talked about doing Argumental and he said he came on the show at the point where he just wasn’t feeling funny. He felt he’d forgotten how to tell jokes. But he said that Argumental just unlocked it completely for him.

Oh, I’m very pleased to hear that. He was terrifying on the show. None of us realised that he was, not only head of debate team at college – at either Oxford or Cambridge – he was the All Ireland Debating Captain. And so, not only is he probably one of the quickest wits on the comedy circuit, but also All Ireland Debating Captain. He was unstoppable.

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But, the other joy of the show, as much as I want to win, is seeing somebody in top flight, if you know what I mean. You’re seeing someone working with new material.

Chris Addison was on just recently, I was arguing ‘Britain will bounce back’ and I thought, ‘This is in the bag. No one wants to vote against the idea that Britain won’t bounce back. Of course just a bit of national pride will do that.’ And then Chris Addison got up and he was flying. He was just a joy to watch, you know?

So, it’s nice to be around people doing that. If the guests on the show get beyond their nerves and really embrace it, then it’s amazing.

They sent us a preview disc of that over and I came away from the end of it thinking, ‘I never thought I’d see John Sergeant making a joke about Hazel Blears’ ass.’ Who writes his gags?

There’s a few guys who write for John. I wouldn’t like to credit any individual joke to any of them because… they might get in trouble, to be honest.

But John does say some stuff on the show that has all of us  – because we don’t see his script until we actually do the show, which is really nice and what he says is funny. There’s a fair few times that we all look at each other and go, ‘Did he just…? Oh, my god!’

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You spend the day preparing and you think, ‘Well, no I won’t say that because that’s probably a bit much.’ And then Sergeant says it!  Bloody hell. He’s a good host.

Am I right in thinking that you record twelve episodes in four days?

Twelve in six. But not all in… They’re not six days in a row.

You’re not doing Deal Or No Deal?

Well, yeah. Exactly! It is double recordings because the money that that saves on the set up of the show means that we can afford well, John Sergeant, and some of the bigger comedy names that have been on it as well. So, whilst it’s a ball ache having to do two in a day, it kind of works. And actually, as long as the audience are still okay, you do go into the second show with a head of steam up. 

As long as you’ve not told them to fuck off in the debate before.

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Well, there is that, yes. It’s interesting. It’s happening more and more. I’ve just done a TV series of I’ve Never Seen Star Wars, my new radio show. Just done that on TV and we’ve done double recordings of that as well and it is pretty brutal.

It’ll be interesting to see, in a few years time, whether that will just be the norm, or whether people will look back at this time in television comedy and say, ‘God, can you believe everyone was having to do double recordings?’ And, ‘What a shame.’

A show like Argumental seems to work on momentum and I’m just wondering if it works having one after the other, or if a kind of debate fatigue almost, kicks in?

I think it runs a risk of doing so. But it hasn’t done so yet. I mean there has definitely been shows where the recording’s gone a bit long and the audience have flagged a bit. But, we’re working, so you do generally keep your energy up until the end.

For the audience, it’s a lot. They’re there for 3-and-a-half hours or whatever.

Is it about an hour-and-a-half recording to get a half hour show?

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Yeah, thereabouts, by the time we finish dicking around!

Moving away from Argumental: did you see the Jon Stewart interview of Jim Cramer?


I’m fascinated by this because it struck me that we’re in a world now where it’s left to comedians to do the job that the news channels should be doing. And, I interviewed you about a year-and-a-half ago and you expressed your dissatisfaction with news channels then. I’m just wondering if you think comedians are having to shoulder that now?

I think, to a certain extent, yes, but I’d be cautious about it because I don’t want to overstate the importance of what we clowns get up to.

The bottom line is, we’re clowns, and that’s it. If you forget that, and start to think that you can really change the world, and you can really do stuff, then the funny starts to disappear.

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I know from my own experience, having done The Late Edition, that I made calls on that where I said to the writers and the producer, ‘Listen, I know this bit’s not funny but it’s worth saying, so fuck it, let’s do it.’

There’s a part of me thinks, ‘Well, I’m glad I did that because no-one else saying it and I’m glad we went out there and did it.’ But on the other hand, people are not tuning in to see me – or even, really, Jon Stewart – to get their news.

That said, what Jon Stewart has done with Jim Cramer is really, really important. And the reason that only Jon Stewart could do it is because it’s a network problem. And the networks can’t do it to each other and they certainly can’t do it to themselves. 

It definitely exists in the UK where we are, every single day, utterly complicit in the nonsense that they get up to in the city.

Tony Benn has talked about this at great length, that they report every night, they report the FTSE share index and the value of the pound. But they do nothing by way of reporting local union meetings – the stuff that makes a real difference to how people live their lives.

The FTSE means nothing to 99 percent of the people in this country, even though their pensions and all the rest of it are affected by it. They don’t actually understand where the link is. And neither do I, by the way. 

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I think some of that responsibility has fallen to comedians and there’s a great tradition, going way, way, way back – long before The Frost Report and all the rest of it – of comedians having a social conscience and pricking the social conscience of society.

It’s just good to see it done that well. Jon Stewart’s show is exceptional anyway and he’s such a brilliant broadcaster. 

And, once again, I make my heartfelt plea- I would love it to be me but I will settle for – if it’s anybody good – [anybody] else: Why don’t we have a Daily Show in this country?

You’re not the first person to say that.

Why don’t we have it? It’s crazy. Someone in telly will tell you, ‘Well, of course, we don’t have access to the A-listers.’ Really? Have you seen The Daily Show? They have an A-lister on once a week, at best. At best. The rest of the time they have interesting, clever, bright  people. And two-thirds of those interviews are not funny, they’re just Jon Stewart going, ‘Well, you’ve written an exceptional book. But tell me what you really think.’

There’s no reason why we can’t do it. It’s only cowardice and a sort of British sense that, ‘Oh, no. We probably won’t manage that.’

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You’d also have to record two episodes back-to-back over here, I would have thought.

Exactly. Yeah, The Daily Show recorded every other day!

Eventually, somewhere – be it on the Internet or somewhere else – I will host some version of The Daily Show.

I’ll look forward to it.

I’m not saying that out of arrogance. I’m saying that because I love that sort of thing so much, I’m determined to see it done.

The I’ve Never Seen Star Wars show started on BBC 4 last week. I’m really intrigued by it. I love the fact that you got complaints over the radio version for some of the things you were doing on it. Can you clear up who you’ve got coming on just on the TV show the coming week?

Yeah. Sure, sure. We have John Humphrys was on last night and I got him to do a moonwalk. I’m very happy with that.

Was that a live stream?

I think it’s on YouTube by now. I would certainly hope that it is.

It’s great, getting people to try new things is a joy. And he – getting John Humphrys to listen to The Chris Moyles Show, which, obviously, he’s never heard because he’s working at that time. And also, why would he? To see him try and artfully describe what Chris Moyles does was such a beautiful thing.

And then Emily Maitlis came on and she learned how to ride a Harley-Davidson. And she read The Satanic Verses, which is really interesting.

Hugh Dennis came on. He ate roadkill. He and I ate something which has otter in it. And magic casserole as well, which was surprisingly delicious.

And then, who else did we do? We had Nigel Havers. I don’t know whether I should give all of these things away… but anyway, Nigel Havers had a tattoo!

Did he really?

He absolutely had a tattoo, yeah. I can’t believe it.

Dare I ask where?

Yeah. On his shoulder.

Oh, thank God for that.

I won’t tell you what it is but, yeah. We had David Davies on yesterday, as well, which was very interesting. He’s a fascinating bloke.

He’s a really interesting guy. He’s a Conservative MP but I am sitting there thinking, ‘Well, so you’re against ID cards. You’re against 42-day detention. You’re against CCTV everywhere. I can’t really think of anything that you and I don’t agree on at the moment.’ I think he wants the death penalty back but anyway, apart from that, he’s a lovely Liberal.

Rory McGrath had a ballet lesson. And went to the Royal Opera House to watch ballet.

It’s been really fun to do. It’s kind of like a very happy Room 101. Room 101 with the potential for love as well as hate.

What would you do? Are you gonna put yourself through it at some point?

Well, to an extent, I already do, because if there’s anything the guests haven’t done, within reason, I do it as well. So, I don’t really know. I should have a list, shouldn’t I?

The trouble is, hosting the show, if there are things – if there are films or books that I haven’t read that I sort of think, ‘Ooh, I ought to,’ I just go and do it. And the same with music.

I wouldn’t mind, I suppose, somebody forcing me to listen to more classical music. Because I kind of feel like if I had the right shove in the right direction, it might be a whole world of music that I’ve yet to discover.

But as it is, I’m quite happy sticking with Pink Floyd and my Cure records.

You’ve got a Britney album tucked away as well. 

I promise you, I have not.

We all know.

Yeah, that’s right: Pink Floyd, The Cure, and Britney.

That’s right. See, if I throw that in, that’ll appear on Wikipedia in two weeks. As fact.

Yeah. Yeah. That’s perfect.

Actually, did you upload your own Wikipedia picture? I have to ask.

No, I haven’t. Have I got one on there?

Yeah, it’s you sticking your two fingers up.

Oh, is it? Oh, right. Oh, nice. No, that wasn’t me.

You’re smiling, to be fair. There’s a bit of a yin and yang thing going on there.

Oh, okay. I think it’s important never to look yourself up on Wikipedia. I think the temptation to correct any interesting factual errors would be too much.

Well, you get to work for the government if you do that.

Yeah. Yeah. No, exactly. I’d much rather just let people make stuff up about me.

I’ll be glad to do that.

Yeah, do. If you want to stick any weirdness in there, I’d be perfectly happy.


You’ll go on some chat show then in about two years time and the researcher for that will have dug it up and you’ll be asked directly about it. That’s my mission now.

Exactly. ‘Is it true that you used to be a taxi driver?’ 

No, I won’t go taxi driver. You learnt to fly when you were four, how’s that?

Exactly. There’s a couple of good things on there that look like random Wiki-style entries. You know, like the fact that I used to be a podium dancer. That happened to be true. [Laughter] Absolutely, genuinely true. And they always come up in interviews as that kind of like…’Now, I read somewhere you used to be a podium dancer. That can’t be true.’ ‘Oh, actually, that genuinely is. For two years I was a podium dancer.’

You know the truth is always weirder than fiction.

Last time we spoke to you, you were on the verge of going up into the mountains for your Altitude Festival. Are you doing that again this year? Is that now an annual event?

It’s an annual event until we run out of money, yeah. Yeah, it starts on the 28th of March.

And also last time I spoke to you, you had a couple of publishers that were approaching you about writing a book. You were kind of humming and hahhing about that. Has that gone?

They’re still approaching. Do you know what it is? For the time being, I really just love performing so much. And much as I enjoy writing and creating stuff, I don’t enjoy it so much that I am willing to give up any time that could otherwise be spent performing. So, for the time being, there’s no book in the offing.

The want me to write the Giles Wemmbley Hogg book. Someone wants me to write a kind of response to the best-selling Jeremy Clarkson phenomenon. They’d all be good, they’d all be fine. I don’t know. I can’t generate a great sense of passion for it.

Did you see Stewart Lee’s show this week?

I didn’t, no.

It’s Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. It’s quite, quite brilliant. I can’t recommend it highly enough. But he was talking about toilet books. About, you know, the Chris Moyles biography and…what else was in there? Yeah, Clarkson and a few others. And it really did just confirmed to me what I’ve suspected for a long time. I just don’t want to contribute to that stack of hardback things at the front of bookshops with my face sitting on it. And someone going, ‘Oh, I’ll read that ’cause he’s off the telly.’ I’d like people to read something because I’d written something really special and interesting. Because there’s so many great books that don’t get read because people like me knock out The Wacky Guide To How To Buy Funny Hats by Marcus Brigstocke.

And I think, yeah, they’re okay, but there are great, great works of literature out there. So, I’m gonna wait until I’ve got one of those bursting to get out of me.. and then fuck it up, probably. [laughs]

And you’re touring again at the end of the year, is that right?

Yeah, I’m writing a new stand-up show. My personal battle with God.

I’ve arrived at, hopefully, an interesting place. It’s interesting for me, anyway. I buy into the Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins version of events to a great extent. Socially, politically, there is no way, intellectually, there’s no way there can be a god. I can’t find one. I can’t make sense of one and the evidence against the existence of one, when you refer to religion, is so massive, it’s unbelievable.

On the other hand, on a personal level, an emotional level, I really need one. I can really do with having God in my life. It would be fantastic. I would love to have that level of faith and of understanding and to feel that I was taken care of. And to feel that there was some force guiding, not only my life, but the planet around us and stuff.

So, it’s kind of about the battle between the social, political, intellectual version of God and then my personal need to find one. So, all I have to do is make that funny [laughs] and away we go!

You know, fuck it. I like a challenge. I always have. I should have arrived at a place a few years ago with my comedy, which was that there shouldn’t be any subject where you think, ‘Oh, well I can’t really make that funny.’ You should pick the subject first and then make the funny, rather than let the funny decide which way you go.

But, it’s shaping up. I’m beginning to write it and I’ll start previewing it and the big first proper outing for this will be the Edinburgh Festival.

Well, the very best of luck with it and thank you for indulging me in talking for far too long. 

It’s a pleasure.

Marcus Brigstocke, thank you very much!

Argumental series two starts on Dave on Monday 22nd March 2009 at 9.40pm.

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