As well as screening one of Ross Noble’s recent shows at London’s Dominion Theatre on Saturday night, BBC2 also opted to bracket it with his appearances on ‘Have I Got News For You’ and ‘Room 101′. Six years ago this line-up would have been labelled ‘It’s Ross Noble Night on BBC2′ and a special BBC2 logo in the shape of Ross Noble would have been commissioned to mark the occasion.
Thankfully those days are gone and this was permitted to stand quietly as a piece of intelligent scheduling. ‘Room 101′ and ‘HIGNFY’ are both going through repeat runs anyway, so it was a simple but smart move to shuffle the editions around in order to draw deserved attention to the centrepiece: an hour-long special of Noble’s stand-up.
I knew little about Noble before this show. In fact, I mainly tuned in because the edition of ‘HIGNFY’ beforehand had the mighty Sir Ian McKellen on the other team. But there’s not enough stand-up comedy on TV so I’ll watch anybody who’s supposed to be good, and Noble is said to be very good. It takes most comics many years of gigging to build up a solid act, a stage presence and a reputation: to be selling out lengthy theatre tours at the age of 27 is no mean achievement.
Critics suggest that his comedy lacks substance, and is effectively a knock-off of surreal comics such as Eddie Izzard or Spike Milligan. Perhaps so, but stand-up isn’t all about substance. Much of it is how you relate to an audience, avoid them becoming hostile or bored, and there are many different approaches to this. Bill Hicks would scare an audience into submission. Izzard throws them off balance. Bill Bailey has mastered the art of looking completely harmless. Whatever Jerry Seinfeld says, he gives the impression he’s agreeing with you.
Noble’s talent is to make even the largest gig feel like an evening at the pub with your funniest mate. Ever had a friend who, even though he appears to be permanently stoned, always comes up with the quickest and wittiest response to a situation? That’s what Noble does, only he can do it continuously and apparently infallibly for the duration of a show.
I’d be fascinated to see a couple more shows from the same tour because he appears to improvise around 80 per cent of the show based on whatever the audience says or does. Some routines do seem to have been worked through beforehand but often he simply takes a comment and riffs on it, making it increasingly ridiculous. At one point he busks a spoof music-hall number about a terrible gig in Canvey Island, simply because a woman in the audience says that’s where she’s from.
Either he’s making this stuff up on the spot or he’s seamlessly making connections between what’s around him at any given moment and existing material drawn up at lightning speed from a mental database. Either skill is impressive and I think he has a bit of both, which is even more impressive. The result is that the crowd members feel like they are a part of the show and warm to him very quickly.
Once an audience is softened up, good material will hit home every time – which is why a performer with Noble’s skills will always score in the live arena. Yes, some of his stuff will date poorly – it’s inevitable when working off the top of your head that you’ll use some very time-specific reference points – but who cares when new material is as abundant as this? On the strength of ‘Unrealtime’ he’ll be selling out tours for many years to come.