Tim Vine interview

The king of puns? He may well be that. As he prepares for a brand new UK tour, we sit down for a chat with the comedy genius that is Mr Tim Vine…

Tim Vine had a busy 2009. In amongst appearing in Neighbours, sitting in dictionary corner on Countdown and braving Total Wipeout, he also found time to write a new comedy tour, which he’s taking around Britain from the end of this month. So we sat down to ask him a few questions…

How’s the preparation for the show going?

It’s going okay. I think I’ve learned it, which is the main thing. I was doing pantomime in Richmond for the last eight weeks and what I used to do was practice in the taxi going to the theatre. So the taxi driver had to listen to me. The poor guy. It was about 45 minutes every day running through the one liners. He was Sri Lankan, so English was his second language, so he didn’t know what I was on about most of the time!

Going and doing panto, was that a deliberate choice to get back in front of a live audience with the tour coming up?

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No, no. It’s my third time doing it, and, to be honest, it always seems to be an option at Christmas to do it. Normally someone says do you want to do it. And I completely love doing it, it completely suits my act and the comedy I do. And also I like the lifestyle of it. It’s very social – a bit like summer camp, you’re all thrown together for eight weeks or whatever, and then suddenly it’s over, it’s very sad.

Presumably in terms of live audiences, a pantomime crowd is one of the most reactive you’re going to get?

Yes, it is. But that works both ways. The afternoon shows before Christmas they had a lot of schools in, and that’s a bit of a nightmare, actually, as you get one adult to about 25 kids. So all the jokes go over their heads, and you motor to the next bit of shouting out. That can be slightly soul destroying when you know that they’re staring at you, waiting for the next moment to scream at you! Evenings they get the jokes…

Going back to the tour, when did you decide you wanted to go out again this year? How does the timeline work?

What happens is my promoter is always badgering me. He rings me up and goes you’ve got to do it for the fans, that sort of nonsense. I say, listen, I can ring the three of them up! And he said you’ve got to put one in, and eventually I go yes, and it’s such a little word. But when I say it, it immediately means I have to lock myself in a dark room writing nonsense for hours on end.

So I sort of started writing it at the end of May last year, and I would write stuff, then every week I would go and try out what I’d written. Read it off postcards, put ticks and crosses next to them, mainly crosses. But I’d accumulate the tick stuff, and then I’d do a whole evening somewhere, doing two and a half hours reading it off. And then I’d put more crosses on, cross off maybe 80 jokes or something. Then I’d do the whole process over again. Supposedly what’s meant to happen is a gradual purifying process. That’s what’s meant to happen – on the tour, people might sit there and think this is the stuff you kept, yes?!

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Do you evolve the act much as the tour goes on then?

Not a huge amount, no. What I end up probably doing is saying I don’t want to sing that song again, it’s awful. So I drop a song or something, and then think maybe I should put something else in there. I’m moving the order around all the time. Just to find that optimal order of when you’re doing a whole patch of one liners, and you feel the audience getting a little tired of the one liners at which point you find the right point to do a little song or go and get a prop. To keep the fire stoked.

A show that relies on you remembering so many jokes, it would strike me as quite hard to change the order as you go along?

Well, I don’t change the order of the gags. They’re kind of like the cement. It’s more to do with the items in-between. So I might change the order of whereabouts I put a song, or some item. But if I said I’m going to do these eight jokes in reverse order, I just couldn’t do it! Sometimes when I insert a new joke, it cocks up what I’ve remembered. If I add a joke about an ice cream shop that was then going to go into a joke about a funeral parlour and then I put a joke in-between about manhole covers, then suddenly I’ve got to find a way to get from manhole covers to a funeral parlour. You have to re-invent a different link.

With your material, what do you find hardest?

I think the writing is the hardest bit. Once you’re out on tour, it’s like most of the work is done then and I’m enjoying myself. But particularly with – and I don’t want to tempt fate and get booed off – touring, when it’s my name on the poster, the people who come tend to already like what I do. You walk on, and it’s like coming on to friends in a way. If I could click my fingers and have another hour ready, I’d go straight out again next year. It’s just that amount of work. I think I might have to slightly adjust my style slightly and do less one liners in the future, because it is a big job getting that sort of stuff together.

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Your feats of memory are impressive…!

I don’t think they are, actually. I get asked it a lot, but if someone’s doing Hamlet, people don’t go up to them and ask how on earth do you remember it! I would have thought that that sort of thing is much harder.

The way I remember it is that I start rehearsing it, rather than cramming it two weeks before, I start two months before. I start going through it once a day, two months before. And that’s the way it sticks. If I do it little and often. While I was doing panto, as long as I ran through it every day, I knew that by the end of the two months, it would be in there.

As you do more and more tours, do you find it getting any easier in any way?

Not to come up with the jokes, or the writing, generally. I don’t think that gets any easier. I think you just have to put the hours in. The way I kind of work on it is that I assume that it’s to do with quantity. If I write lots, then there’s more chance something I like is going to come out of it. I think it’s the same with writing songs: if someone wrote 50 songs, they’re more likely to write a good one than if they wrote three. Simply because you’re throwing enough mud at the wall.

You mentioned before that it’ll feel like you’re coming out to friends on this tour. Last time we talked, you said that you got the biggest kick coming out after a more conventional comedy act, and defying people’s expectations of what they’re going to get off the next act. That seemed to work really well on Live At The Apollo, for instance?

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I used to get the biggest kick from that, particularly when I was doing loads of circuit gigs. Because then you’re coming out to people who don’t know you, and so it is that you come as a bit of a bolt out of the blue.

There’s more people doing this sort of thing now, though. When I started it wasn’t really in vogue on the circuit to come out and say, “Black Beauty, he’s a dark horse.” But you don’t get that on tour. On tour they know what you’re doing, and tend to like what you’re doing. So, in some ways, with touring the audiences are possibly easier, but then it’s more of a challenge because you’re talking for longer and you have to keep generating new material. On the circuit, I was pretty much doing the same 20 minutes for about ten years.

Are you filming the gig this time?

Not any plans to. If someone was to say let’s do a DVD, then maybe we’d do it. The previous tour I did, Punslinger, wasn’t made into a DVD. No one wanted it. That’s the other thing that slightly demotivates me to write another hour, if no one wants these things on DVD. I don’t want Punslingers to disappear into the ether, because I thought it was quite a strong show. I think maybe if we do a DVD this Christmas, I’ll probably do the Joke-amotive, and hold Punslinger back as my White Album!

Are you tempted to follow what Stephen K Amos did and get it filmed yourself?

I am tempted to do that. I didn’t know that was his route, but I am tempted. At the very least, something I’ve been meaning to do this week before I go out on tour, I’ve got no record of Punslinger. I’ve got it written down. Normally when I have these cue sheets for myself, it’s on a couple of pages of A4. And each word suggests a joke. As time goes on you forget what that means. I never recorded it anywhere, so I keep meaning to record me doing Punslinger into a microphone somewhere.

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On your last DVD, in the extras you showed you getting your dad on stage to tell a joke. Are you bringing any family members along this time to do the same?

[Laughs] I think my brother’s coming along to one of the London gigs, so I might do an impression of him! And I think Martin Lewis is coming too, from Money Saving Expert. I shall probably take the mickey out of them! Maybe I should get my brother up on stage?!

I have to ask about your Neighbours cameo, that your agent managed to get you. What’s it actually like stepping onto that set about 15 years after Kylie left?

[Laughs] It was very, very surreal. It was a lovely sunny day, and you wander out and there’s Lassiters. The funny thing about it was that I didn’t know the characters. I haven’t watched it for so long, so I didn’t know there was a girl called Pip or Elle or something, and then there was a couple of blokes, one called Lucas. And it was one little scene, and obviously I had no idea what story was coming out of. I just sat outside Lassiters, and I was aware of trying to manoeuvre my head so that when the two of them were talking I was in the background and able to see the lens of the camera between their heads. I moved my head so it was definitely in shot, and then wandered over and asked them directions.

They had a joke written in the script too which I did, but was quite pleased they edited out. It was that old joke about why the long face, a horse going into a pub. And I thought as I was doing it that I don’t really want to be telling it, it’s an old joke. But it was Neighbours, so I humoured them. So it’s just me asking for directions.

Was Lassiters really the only name you recognised?

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That was the only name, yeah! They put me in this little trailer, and said we’ll come back for you in a minute. And I was just laughing, sat there on my own wondering what I am doing here!

It’s like going back to your old school 20 years later?

Yeah, yeah, exactly! It’s one of those sort of moments. It’s like when I did Not Going Out, Bobby Ball was in the Christmas special. And I used to be a massive fan of Cannon and Ball when I was younger, and this was the first time that I’d met him. I think when you meet people and see things that you remember from your childhood, they’re more special, you know? So Neighbours was a bit like that. I remember with Bobby Ball, the first time I met him at rehearsals, I walked up to him and put my hand out and said, “Bobby Ball.” And he shook my hand and said, “Tim Vine.”! And I thought this is great, he knows my name!

It was great news about Not Going Out getting its reprieve…

Yeah, yeah! I think we’re doing some more. I think it’s in September we go again.

Presumably you’d given it up, and got a call out of the blue?

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There was a lot of stuff going backwards and forwards with Lee and the BBC and stuff. I think when the BBC had said they didn’t want it any more, the production company – Avalon – were on the case.

2009 saw you also tackling a varied collection of projects. I saw you on Total Wipeout at one point?

Yeah! It was exhausting. I got up that morning and thought I’m going to break my back today. I was convinced that I was going to get injured. There were 20 of us out there, and of the 20, six were injured. I was really actually genuinely amazed. If someone had said to me beforehand that six people were going to be injured out of 20, I would have put my house on me being one of them!

I think it’s rewarding, though. Sometimes when you do things that scare you, they’re the most rewarding. The best thing I did last year in terms of a day’s filming – which I think comes out this year – is a show called Scream If You Know The Answer. It was hosted by Duncan from Blue, and the whole thing was questions being asked on rollercoasters. It was just brilliant. A whole day at Thorpe Park, being paid to go on this ride and asked general knowledge questions!

Have you been watching Jim’ll Fix It again and drinking milkshakes?!

It’s funny you should say about Jim’ll Fix It

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Tim’ll Fix It..?

Someone had said that might be quite fun. I’m okay at messing around with kids – that sounds wrong – I mean when I do pantomime, you do the bit at the end with the song sheet and bring the kids up. There’s loads of fun to be had chatting with kids, it’s great. Tim’ll Fix It? It’d be quite a laugh!

Have you got a big chair, some cigars and loads of jewellery?


Can you imagine it being done on a TV budget now, too, with all the scrutiny going on? They’d be the shittest fix-its ever!

[Laughs] Someone, somewhere would like Tim to fix it for me to drink a glass of orange juice!

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I’ll just squeeze in two more questions! Firstly, compared to doing Total Wipeout, how scary is it sitting in Dictionary Corner on Countdown?

Most of these things when you first do them… I get frightened quite easily, particularly as I get older. But it’s making me do things that scare me so that my phobias don’t get worse. If you start feeling yourself getting more hesitant as you get older, then that’s the time to attack it, I think. I found Dictionary Corner, the first time they come to you with an audience 50 yards away from you, and there are 20 of them more interested in playing the game than listening to you, that’s a little bit strange. But I’ve done it three times now, and I love it. Me and Suzy Dent are always passing notes backwards and forwards!

Finally, you talk about going out of your comfort zone. We talked previously about a little film you’d done called Library Altitude Zero, and you’d run some copies off but kept them in your loft. You’ve always seemed keen to do film work…

… but I’ve never got round to it, I know. That was my little experiment. I have been a little bit busy with stuff. I started off last year writing a film idea, and then all this other stuff happened with the tour, and I went to Melbourne, so I didn’t have time for it. But I like this idea about a giant moth that attacks a small village, and I’m the manager of the light bulb shop!

So once the tour’s out the way…?

Well, after the tour I’m going out to Melbourne again, so I’ll be doing the Joke-amotive in Melbourne. So that’s pretty much almost immediately after the tour, five days at the most. Then I get back from there half-way through April, and then I don’t know what I’m doing til August, and I’m going to do the Joke-amotive in Edinburgh for the whole festival. April, May, June and July maybe I’ll do something again then – there’s a few possible bits and bobs!

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Tim Vine, thank you very much!

Tim Vine’s new tour, The Joke-amotive, begins on 25th January and runs through to 12th March. Full details can be found at www.timvine.com.