Rich Hall interview

As he released a brand new stand-up DVD, we get to spend some time with Mr Rich Hall...

One of the finest stand-up comedians currently working, Rich Hall has just released his first new DVD in a long, long time. And as we note in our review here it’s a real treat, with one half dedicated to Hall’s stand-up, and the other given over to his country and western singer alter ego, Otis Lee Crenshaw.

On the eve of the DVD’s launched, he spared us some time for a chat…

I really enjoyed the DVD…

Really? I though it was shit…!

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The thing that struck me about it, whenever I’ve seen you play it’s been at Birmingham’s Glee Club, in front of a very simple set. Watching this DVD, you’re doing a gig in front of a set that seems to have pretty much everything…?

I was pretty impressed by it! I saw that set two hours before I went on. We showed up about 4, and I thought ‘wow’.

How much say did you have over it?

Well, we sat down here and I said ‘yeah, how about a tractor’. They said ‘alright’. So I started throwing stuff out. At one point I said ‘How about a huge tree and at the very end of the show all the leaves come off? A kind of magnetic release or something.’ And the guy said ‘we can get you a tractor.’

What about the huge backdrop you did the stand-up in front of? Was it you who made it lopsided?

No, I don’t know what that was…

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… you looked as bemused as anyone by it?

I know. It is flattering, because, like you say, we’ve been playing to chucklehutches and we’re on tour now and sometimes we come to a place where we have to perform on a theatrical set that they decided we’re not allowed to move because the production company putting on the play didn’t want us to. We did a show on turf in front of some Irish play. In front of some kind of little Irish shack. You’re doing stand-up.

That gives you your first ten minutes, though?

Yeah! Yeah! So it was nice to have all that stuff!

The thing that’s always struck me about your act is that surely you could play much bigger places?

Well, I don’t know about that. I think if you look towards the back of the DVD, if you look closely you’ll see a lot of cardboard cut-outs of humans. I don’t think I filled it. It wasn’t my idea to play there, it was my manager. I’m caught up in this sort of ongoing ego trip of comedians playing big places.

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To be honest, the Apollo felt pretty comfortable, it’s about as big a place as you want to play. I don’t understand people wanting to play Wembley, O2, there’s nowhere to go. What are you going to do next? Fly over a country and perform on the wing of a plane? Where are you going to go after the O2? Are you going to fill it again? No.

The last DVD you put out was the Otis Lee Crenshaw disc released pretty much at the start of the decade, and we’ve been after a new one for some time. But why are you coming back to it now?

Probably the fact that you were looking for one. There was enough of a market.

There’s been no demand for a Rich Hall DVD as far as I know. Maybe people will see it and think ‘great, okay’. But I don’t know. I like to think of myself as a marginally acceptable comedian, the size of the places I’m playing now. And I’ve never watched another comedian on DVD for more than a few minutes.

Just unnatural?

Personally, it’s not the same as live. I’m glad it’s there. I’m particularly glad that this stuff is committed to some sort of media.

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One thing you lose on DVD is moments like the last gig I saw you at where you stopped and just started taking questions from the audience. It seems that’s where you have the most fun?

Yeah, and I was sort of told beforehand, which I didn’t need to be told, to do the scripted stuff. Don’t fuck around too much. And to be honest, people are aware that there are cameras there, they aren’t going to be quite as relaxed. Everyone is pulling for you to be funny and it’s a slightly false atmosphere. It’s a slightly kind of ‘we know it’s a DVD, so we better laugh a bit louder’. It’s helpful, Stockholm Syndrome kind of thing. But putting people on the spot and improvising in a big place like that would be treacherous.

I think it’s fine though, I need to talk to people some because it sets up the second half of the show. I need to make up a song.

The improvisational songs that you set up for the Otis Lee Crenshaw segment seem to be getting more and more difficult. You’re setting yourself up…

I know, I know!

Are you setting the songs a little more challenging for yourself, or are you finding that people’s professions are just becoming homogenised?

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No, they’re not. I really relish getting something completely new. It’s hard in London. In London you are going to get a fairly homogenised cross section of jobs that are going to be media or business related somehow. Go to Yorkshire and I get farmers and stuff.

I’d love to make a compilation of the same song over and over. Because it isn’t the same. We’re going to follow the same musical song every time, because you have to. But it would be lovely to go back and see all the different ways that the improvised songs come out.

But as far as music, yeah, after ten years, music has got a little more sophisticated. And I do need the challenge of trying to play it right on stage, and keep up with the other guys who clearly know what they’re doing!

What I love about the Otis material is the songs come from the strangest little details. The Scrabble Song that you’ve done in the past is one of my favourites – it’s like nobody in their right mind would write a song about it! Where is the inspiration coming from?

I don’t know. If I knew where inspiration came from, man, I’d be cranking out new 30 minutes every damn day. I don’t think any comedian can really tell you where their inspiration comes from. I think if you have an agenda, it’s easier. If you’re Mark Thomas or Lewis Black, or someone like that. Maybe if you’re political then you’ve got a constant source of material to choose from.

But I don’t really want to be a political comedian. That’s not to say I don’t talk a lot about what’s going on in the world, but that’s just because I’d rather talk about outside stuff than personal stuff. I don’t find myself personally that entertaining or interesting.

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So mostly what I do is bitch about other stuff. But I don’t want to be a political comedian because I don’t quite trust that anger. It’s like the radio guys in America, the conservative right wing guys. Every day they’re worked up about something. You can’t be this worked up or you’d have had a stroke by now. You’re just pretending to be angry again and again and again because that’s what you do. And I’m more interested in entertaining myself, I suppose. If it strikes me as funny I share it with the audience.

You made a joke of it in the set that two-thirds of material has disappeared now that Bush is out of office. But it almost feels like a call to comedy to move on…?

Yeah, yeah!

But you tied Obama to…

… Denzel Washington movies! But that’s not making fun of Obama, though. It’s making fun of the mindset that America and the world has. Perhaps the world more than America, because America is scrutinising him every day. The rest of the world is looking at Obama, at this okay guy. And he is an okay guy. But he is a politician. He’s just another president. And possibly, hopefully, more effective than the last one. Who made lots of mistakes. No one is ever going to think that everything he does is golden, you know? But there is this messiac aura around him currently. And it is going to disappear, it’s disappearing now.

Are you still planning the film of the Otis Lee Crenshaw: I Blame Society book?

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No, I’m not planning anything. This is it for Otis.

This is the end of the character?

Yeah, yeah.

I saw you’d brought in a new character at a recent gig, Tex Weatherspoon?

[Laughs] I did, yeah!

That’s just a one off?

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Yeah, just a one off. I want to keep doing music, but I’m going to do it as myself. I don’t feel I need to hide behind a country and western character any more. Not that I’m hiding. It’s fun to do but it’s becoming harder and harder to write songs within that character. I just feel like there’s other stuff.

Does the DVD end the Otis material?

Yeah, yeah. Unless I get offered a lot of money. At which point it’ll come back as an Otis tribute band.

You’re finishing off the tour now, where are you going next?

I just sort of never look past the next project. I don’t know what I’m going to do next year. As of now I have no gigs with next year, apart from one with Jeff Bridges…

… Really? The Dude?

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Yeah! He’s going to play piano and I’m going to do some comedy at this little town in Montana right before New Year’s. But that’s my only gig.

That’s not a bad gig, though!

I know! I know! But I used to live next door to him, about a quarter mile away. We know each other really well. I think he’s pretty good on piano, too. I’m going to the South to make a documentary for the BBC, but we’ll shoot it before Christmas.

Rich Hall, thank you very much…!