The Den of Geek interview: Tim Vine

Our stand-up comedy week continues with a chat to, simply, one of the funniest comics currently working. Meet the pun-meister...

Mr Tim Vine

From his BAFTA-winning days on The Sketch Show, through to holding the world record for telling the most jokes in an hour, Tim Vine has been making people laugh for many years. But if you’ve never heard his quite unique stand-up, do check out his excellent new DVD, which we had a chance to talk to him about…

I don’t think I’ve seen a stand-up who takes such obvious glee in simply standing on a stage and telling jokes. There’s no snideness or anything. I take it joke telling is your first love?

I suppose it is, really. I do like people, and that probably covers part of it, in that I like being in groups of people, and most of us like it when we make someone laugh. I suppose it’s an extension of that, really. I do love that thing of standing there – half the time I’ve heard the jokes loads of times – and it always becomes fresh to me when I see strangers enjoying it.

The tone of your comedy, contrasted with the range of stand-up DVDs out this Christmas, means yours is the only one rated PG.

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I think it should be a U actually…!

So what got you the PG?

I’ll tell you what it was. I had a bit of a go at them and said surely it’s a U. But it’s the one drug reference in it. ‘My local police chief does a talk on heroin…’ And actually I had to get them to remove… you know it says PG on the box and sometimes it says occasional violence or something. It actually said ‘one moderate drug reference’, and I said you can’t have that on there. It’s such a tiny moment, so they agreed to take the caption off at least.

Is it important to you that your comedy can be enjoyed by such a broad audience?

Well, yes. I suppose it is, but I don’t know whether that’s for a noble reason, or because I want as many people as possible to see it. It’s certainly true that I do like the idea that a father could sit and watch it with his 12-year old son, and not have to explain what something meant. There’s a certain innocence about the whole thing that I like.

In researching this interview, your 1994 Pebble Mill debut turned up on YouTube…

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Yeah! Actually, I was responsible for putting that up. I’ve had that tape for ages and I’ve got a mate who puts things on YouTube. And I thought maybe I should put some things up there. YouTube is one of those things where, with the rigmarole of trying to use something like that on a DVD, you’d have to try and get permissions, but nobody’s going to complain about it being there [on YouTube]. But if you try and put it on an actual DVD, then it’s more hassle than it’s worth.

Was your act a tough sell back then, particularly in the early 90s? You were doing gag-based comedy at a point where many of your contemporaries were going for edgier, racier material?

Well, yeah, but I found that a great plus. When I was on the circuit and doing five or six nights a week, the strange thing is that I was the one who appeared to be …. dangerous is the wrong word. But if you’ve got two acts on before you who are doing effing and blinding and suddenly I’m coming out and doing Black Beauty, he’s a dark horse, you just feel like I’m the one taking the bigger risk at that moment, with 200 drunks in front of you.

But I loved that. I used to love coming on after a couple of acts who were doing something so totally different from me, because the impact was always more. I’ve got some great memories from all those years, some very magical nights of lots and lots of laughter.

Did winning your BAFTA earn you lots of currency?

Well, the BAFTA thing was extremely exciting, but I didn’t win it individually, it was won for The Sketch Show. All these things are slightly accumulative, aren’t they? It’s never only one thing. I’ve never had a moment where I thought I’d made it, and I still don’t feel I’ve made it as such, I feel like I’m bouncing along doing my thing. But you know, you sort of realise more with hindsight that these things accumulate.

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Turning to your live shows, just how scripted do they have to be, and how much space do you leave yourself to improvise?

Not much, really. The only thing I do have is that I have them in clumps a bit, so the one-liners are very scripted and in a particular order, because if I go out of order, I start missing stuff out. The props tend to be a bit more not in a fixed position. So I have the bag of props there, and so if I feel that the audience is getting a bit tired of bang-bang-bang jokes, I give them a break by going over and pulling something out of a bag. Just to break stuff up a bit.

When you’re learning the show, do you have to learn it in those clumps as well? You do refer to a piece of paper from time to time.

That’s just because I forget things! Thankfully, the audience quite like that. You build it up gradually. When I was writing my last tour, Punslinger, which is a different hour, I would go to a place near where I live in Kingston and do ten minutes each Monday night with jokes written on a postcard, one word cues on a card, and I’d pop up there, read all that stuff and be silly, and come down and put ticks and crosses next to everything.

And then the ones that work you write down somewhere, and you accumulate lots of stuff that you feel works. And as you start doing that in front of people, I do maybe an hour of stuff with all the new stuff but reading it off big cards, and the more you do it, the more you think that will probably go better with that, because it’s a similar subject. And so you start getting them nearer. As you know, they’re not hugely clumped together in subjects, but you think sometimes that would make a good link to that joke. Once you’re in amongst it, doing it night after night, they settle into a natural position a bit. Then you write little songs to break things up. Pen Behind The Ear, all that rubbish…

I was coming to that shortly! You’ve said in the past though that you don’t like jokes people groan at, and the thing about your act is that every joke you tell has a shot at being funny. I couldn’t pick out any groans in there. How much do you have to get through to hone it down?

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Quite a lot! Probably for every ten jokes I write I use three or four maybe. That probably sounds like a huge amount of work, but at the same time, if I want to write ten jokes quite quickly, I can write them quickly. The important thing with writing is that you must allow yourself to write rubbish.

And do you find that the most important thing is to start with punchline and work backwards?

Absolutely, yeah. I was joking to someone the other day that you know that kid in The Sixth Sense who says “I see dead people”. I was saying,“I hear punchlines!”

I heard someone say the word ‘sweepstake’, and I thought maybe it’s something to do with being at Sooty’s barbecue, you know? Often there’s a phrase where you think why have I only thought of that now? I’ve heard the phrase ‘sweepstake’ forever. But for some reason a couple of days ago someone said it, and I suddenly thought Sooty’s barbecue.

It’s like the phrase ‘serves him right’. I’ve heard that phrase loads of times, heard it the other day and I thought that’s interesting. And I thought okay, I’ve got a butler whose left arm is missing, serves him right! You do work backwards from the punchline with those wordplay things.

Then other times there are different types of jokes. I’ve got a joke where you say do you know if you chop a horse in half and then bang the two halves together, it sounds like someone riding a coconut! Now in that situation, that’s just a bit of nonsense! So there’s no hard or fast rules.

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There’s this whole thing about me being Mr Pun and everything, which I slightly play up to seeing as nobody else wants to say I’m Mr Maestro or whatever, then I’m happy for it to be me. But at the same time, I know that if someone was to come and see my act, there’s slightly more to it than puns. Maybe I’m not doing myself a lot of favours by saying I’m the king of the puns, that sort of thing. Not that I do so!

Going through the disc, there’s a lot to the act, though. I found the musical side, for instance, just as inspired as the puns. You do Pen Behind The Ear at one point [a skit where Vine stands on stage literally until he can throw a Biro behind his ear], and I’m curious just how long you stand there and try it for?

I know it probably went on a bit too long, but the audience were so nice, and I knew that the pay-off to that is the longer it takes, the bigger the cheer at the end.

What happens is I deliberately miss the first two times round the music, and then I start trying third time round! But often what happens is having deliberately missed two times round, I suddenly find I can’t do this thing any more! So I do sometimes get myself in a little bit of a panic about it, and five times round the music is the longest it’s gone on. Normally when I do it, it’s just socially, and I can do it one in every five throws.

I brought it in because in 2005 I went to Edinburgh with a show I was touring the previous Spring, called Current Puns, which is what this DVD is. And I found that the show was a tiny bit short, and thought I could do with a couple of more bits in here, actually. Then I thought I’d done Flag Hippo before, so I got my Dad to post the costume up to me and had a mate of mine do that. And the other thing I thought was when I was rehearsing The Sketch Show, I came up with this trick where I threw a pen behind my ear. And I though maybe I should try it on stage and see what happens.

So I went to a recording studio in Edinburgh and got the keyboard, and literally that thing that you hear me singing, I’m literally just making it up! The bloke [in the studio] thought I was insane!

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You seem to love the music stuff as much as the comedy, and you had original ambitions to be a pop star?

Yeah, I think I probably still have a bit! Thing is, in this day and age you can do what you like, can’t you? And leaving aside whether anyone likes it, if I want to go and do a music gig somewhere, then I can go and do it. Regardless of the fact that people might say tell us a joke or whatever. And then there’s CDs. In the past it used to be only vinyl, and if someone had a record pressed, it was incredibly impressive. Now it doesn’t take all that much to get 1000 CDs printed off.

Would you be tempted to do a CD of comedy songs?

Yeah, maybe I should do. You mean of that ones I’ve got?

Not only those. I’d imagine the ones we’re seeing in the gig are contained to a minute or two…

No, a comedy song shouldn’t be longer than a minute and a half anyway, so those are the full length songs. They’re written for the show. I go through periods of writing more songs than other times, and sometimes I write a song that I think is vaguely funny that turns out to be a full-on comedy song, and then other times I try and write a comedy song and it’s not really funny enough to be comedy. I’ve written a lot of songs that are slightly quirky but you wouldn’t do them at a gig.

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And do you take your Dad to a lot of your gigs? He pops up in the DVD extras telling a joke!

[Laughs] He’s been a few times. Did you see him telling his joke?

Yeah!

Well, we’d discussed it before, a couple of times I’d brought him on stage to do that before in other places. And what happened was I finished filming the DVD, and they wanted some more. So I went back on stage and thought I haven’t got anything else, and saw my Dad! I’d not told him we were going to do that [get him on stage], in fact I’d told him we weren’t going to do that, because I didn’t want him to worry about it. But literally I just looked at him and thought it’s the perfect time for it, a perfect extra!

He looked really pleased with himself!

[Laughs] He did! I know. That’ll be played a lot over Christmas, I’m sure!

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You seem quite committed to making sure there’s a good DVD package. You’ve got your parade of sports, and even following through from the show, you’ve got the deleted ‘deleted’ scenes. Are you passionate about making sure it’s right?

Part of the reason I have an act with loads of jokes is an insecurity about wanting to make sure I don’t let anyone down, and that they get enough of what they paid for. So I think that probably it’s more I think to myself I’m not making DVDs, it’s only my second, and the people who come to my gigs, the small but loyal following I’ve got, I’m very grateful that they exist. So I want to give them something for their support. Not only that, quite often I make these things for a laugh anyway. ‘Parade Of Sport’ was originally an idea for a television show that nobody was interested in, so I thought I’ll put it on as an extra.

Talking of television, how’s Not Going Out coming along?

It’s going well, yeah. We’ve done two episodes, we’ve got another six to film, and that comes out in January.

And then subsequent to that, are you touring to that?

I haven’t written anything else at the moment, so probably not. Probably not next year, I’m hoping that maybe the fact that there’s a DVD coming out might buy me a bit of time. But it’s quite a big deal to write another hour of nonsense, so we’ll see! I’d like to do a little film or something, so we’ll see. Who knows?

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You told The Independent in 2005 that there were, er, two things left for you to do now. Win an Oscar. Read the news. Have a hit single. Is that still the list?

[Laughs] It’s three things, isn’t it?

It’s your list!

[Laughs] Win an Oscar, read the news and have a hit single. Well the charts no longer exists now does it. No one knows what the charts is any more. Is there such a thing as a number one any more?

To be honest I did do a little film in 2006, where I thought to myself I want to film something that’s feature length. Even if it’s rubbish. So I booked a little film crew, did this film, and it’s an hour and 20 minutes long. It’s called Library Altitude Zero. And I printed off 500 copies on DVD, and it’s currently in my loft! I occasionally give it to a friend, but it’s not out there or anything!

Tim Vine, thank you very much.

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Tim Vine: So I Said To This Bloke is out now on DVD. Check out our review here.

Also see:Russell Howard interview;Dara O’Briain interview

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