When the operator connects my call, she asks if I would like to speak to Al Murray – the English comedian voted as one of the top stand-up comics in the world – or his garishly patriotic alter ego, The Pub Landlord.
Had I known this was a possibility beforehand, I would almost certainly have gone for the latter – after all, how often do you get to chat with somebody fictitious? But it says a lot about Murray’s aptitude for switching personalities at a moment’s notice. Ahead of his return to Australia for Just For Laughs Sydney, we chat about what keeps the comic fresh.
“Well, it’s not quite that easy!” Murray says as I compliment his versatility. “I have to kind of summon him up from somewhere stupid inside me. I’ve been doing it for such a long time, it’s become a matter of, ‘OK, here we go!’ And he talks in a very ridiculous way. Like me, he likes the sound of his own voice, but that’s about the only similarity.
“That said, he’s still my creation. He’s partly my way of addressing the world. If I had to do me, I wouldn’t know where to start. If you have a character, though – someone who puts such energy into things and has such a strong voice – I know where to start. I often think one of the problems in stand-up is how you get onto a subject, and why you want to talk about it in the first place. But , right, just goes, ‘Well, fuck me, the state of the world right now, what a nightmare!’ And then he’d get stuck in.”
While The Pub Landlord is exactly the kind of vehicle Murray can use to push lines and tease certain stereotypes, he is not some hollow mouthpiece for the comedian to spout faux-xenophobic sentiment or cheap gags. He has been living with and crafting this character
for over two decades now, and it is a testament to the Landlord’s adaptability that he remains so popular. Though if Murray ever needed a shield for a particularly noxious punchline, he might be a handy figure to have at the ready.
“Ha! So far it hasn’t been a worry, and I still get to do the stuff I want to do. I’ve got one friend who I listen to, an old mate of mine who sometimes says, ‘You know, I don’t know about that.’ And I listen to him, but for everyone else, there are so many different opinions. You can tell pretty quick in an audience if something is working or not. But there’s not some hidden, hideous gem I haven’t dared unleash yet. But who knows? When you’re writing, you never know quite what’s around the corner.”
The writing side of a comedian’s life tends to be uncharted territory for discussion. Many people seem to treat comics as punchline jukeboxes, casually summoning gags from some absurdist inner fount. But for Murray, the reality is much more practical, and humour comes from keeping a sharp eye on what is exciting enough to make the grade.
“God, who knows how we all really do it. I can only speak for myself, really, but I’m kind of methodical. I write everything down, I save everything. I’ll try to learn it, then I’ll fail to learn it, then I’ll take it all again and put it through a kind of wrangler. [Humour] can be quite a curious thing, but writing, that’s what’s really curious. The big problem with it is that you have to sit down and actually do it. People like to think that comics are struck by inspiration from above, or they happen to overhear something funny someone said on a bus, blah blah. But it’s as much to do with sitting down and writing the fucking stuff, unfortunately.
“I save everything. When I come to write a new show, I look at all the stuff left behind that I hadn’t been able to make work. I have this kind of leftovers file, and very often with ideas it isn’t that they didn’t work, it’s that you didn’t find the way to make them work. You need to try and look back over things at every angle, and you always need to keep things fresh.”
Murray’s One Man, One Guvnor tour is widely anticipated here in Australia, thanks in no small part to his commitment to keeping each show unique. Coming from preposterously huge performances in the UK – including at London’s O2 Arena and sold-out West End gigs – the show is proving to be a rare chance to catch both Murray and his amusingly ethnocentric creation, with each performance distinct from the last.
“You want tonight to be the night. Whatever show you’re at. You want it to be unique for the audience, and one of the ways of doing that is by improvising. I improvise the first half-hour of the show, and because I’m in character … I don’t know if it’s easier, but it tends to define what I can do, improvise-wise. You learn what the edges are, the boundaries that you run between.
“So I improvise that first bit, and all the people who’ve been picked up along the way get reincorporated into the show, fed back into the story. It’s like keeping different plates spinning at once and at the end we all come crashing down together.”