Look at the history of truly great British comedy over the years and there's one man who ties a huge amount of it together. He’s not always the writer, director, creator or even lead actor, but his presence – however odd or small or seemingly insignificant – is always felt.
Kevin Eldon links I’m Alan Partridge, Spaced, Big Train, Jam, Fist of Fun, Black Books, Brass Eye, Nathan Barley, Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, Green Wing, Saxondale and countless others, as well as his own shows, such as It’s Kevin and Kevin Eldon Will See You Now. While most recently he’s starred in shows as enormous as Game of Thrones, for the better part of the last 25 years he's been a quiet hero of British comedy.
After agreeing to a very rare interview (purely as an "experiment"), we discussed everything from his early days of stand-up to whether or not Chris Morris is really a genius.
VICE: You started your comedy career doing stand-up in the early 1990s. Looking back, it seems like quite a fertile period for alternative comedy. Was that the case? What are some memorable experiences from that period?
Kevin Eldon: Here’s the problem with me and interviews: the questions quite often ask you to shoot your mind back in time. The sad thing is, you can’t really get a reliable account of last Tuesday out of me. Shocking memory. I remember liking the people I was sharing the stage with, that’s stuck with me. There was a real sense of solidarity – us against the punters. I don’t know if my recollection of it has become all dreamily mythologised now, but I have an impression of the whole scene being a bit of a wild west. Drunks went to stand-up gigs a lot more than they do now. The audiences today seem pretty tame by comparison – they’ve got some lovely beards, though. It wasn’t very pleasant when the bad gigs happened – a room full of people deciding they actually collectively hated you. It must be what it’s like to be Iain Duncan Smith most days.
Audiences aside, I remember the acts were so varied. I think there was a much wider kind of act doing the rounds then. They were all in there: chancers, predictable workaday mediocrities, genuine weirdos. There were quite a few brilliant comedians. This was when the likes of Bill Bailey and Harry Hill were doing tiny clubs. But, yes, it was a bit of a zoo: drunks, drug addicts, loonies, wise persons, kind persons, humble people, massive fatheads. I loved it. Up until I did stand-up I’d been sitting in queues in casting rooms with other out-of-work actors, nobody meeting each other’s eyes, trying to get jobs I had absolutely no interest in. Suddenly I was careering around various clubs, working with an assortment of fascinating individuals and earning enough to pay the rent and have enough left over for a few beers. I was very happy. I still have some dear friends from that time.
See, another thing about interviews like this is suddenly you find yourself trying to define the bleeding universe. It can get a bit chin stroke-y, can’t it?
You’ve been involved in some notably dark comedy shows and scenes over the years. Was there ever a moment where you felt what you were involved in was too much or you questioned it? Is there such a thing as too dark?
What is all this dark business? I often ask this myself. Un-fluffy, I suppose. Non-John Bishop. It’s an over-used term, though, isn’t it? It’s inaccurately used quite often, when actually they mean it’s gracelessly cruel or just not funny. Chris Morris does dark stuff occasionally, and the League of Gentlemen lads, to name just a couple of the good ones. But the important thing is there is a wit about their looking through the black window. There is a subversion of what’s expected, and you get funny from that, don’t you?
See, another thing about interviews like this is suddenly you find yourself trying to define the bleeding universe. It can get a bit chin stroke-y, can’t it? Ah, pass me my earnest cap would you, dear boy? It’s there next to my pretentious trousers. Here is my theory of comedy: yak, yak, yak. What makes something funny? Jokes… and moving on. Is there such a thing as too dark? Yes, for some people. For some people The Wombles [is] too dark. It’s all subjective.
What makes you gravitate towards darker material, though? What do you get out of it? Or why do you think people wish to cast you in those roles?
I don’t think I gravitate towards darker material. I’ll do something if I find it funny or interesting or there’s someone else involved in the job who I like or admire, or, occasionally, just if it’s well paid. Them kids don’t feed themselves, the greedy little sods. I mean, I did an episode of The Detectorists. Hardly what you’d call dark, that, was it? I've aimed for more sympathetic characters lately, to try to get out of the psycho mould. You’d think that might be a bit bland, but I think the comedy there comes from the fact that nice people are often compromised by life’s shit, and it’s usually a giggle watching people struggle to cope. As long as it’s not just laughing at misery.
You’ve worked with Chris Morris a fair bit and he is something of an enigma. How would you describe working with him, and is he the genius that he’s often painted to be?
Well, he’s only an enigma to the media because he’s not interested in doing interviews. I’ve done a couple of projects with him over the years and it was always very good fun, pretty challenging. He’s very thorough. He’s also very flexible and likes to give ideas a run. A project can go through a number of developing permutations and be fired off in all kinds of directions from all sorts of dischargers before he settles on what he wants. Genius? I don’t know. It’s a pretty difficult thing to define. He is certainly razor sharp and a hugely intelligent, kind bloke. He also has a very finely tuned built-in bullshit detector.
You’ve been involved in countless shows that are considered innovative. Is there anything that you feel has slipped under the radar a little or hasn’t quite got the recognition it deserves?
I think Attention Scum was pretty terrific. It was Simon Munnery’s dream child. Simon should be on syllabuses. I love his work. I love him. I think he has coined some of the best comedy lines in decades. His stuff is a magnificent mixture of outrageous, silly, intelligent, imaginative, nonsensical, wise – and on and on I could go. His characters are something I never get tired of: Alan Parker, urban warrior, fantastic. "What do we want? Nothing! When do we want it? Now!" And [his character] the League Against Tedium. There is nothing like it. He’s a true original and his stand-up is amazing, too. Go and see him. Also, I Am Not an Animal was an animation I did a voice on with all kinds of comedy bright lights [Steve Coogan, Julia Davis, Simon Pegg]. It was written by Pete Baynham [I’m Alan Partridge], and I think it was really, really good. I don’t quite understand why it didn’t get more of a reaction.
Do you have a favourite role or scene that you’ve been involved with over the years?
Not really. I don’t watch any old stuff. I watch it once when it’s out, try to spot where I’ve fucked up, and move on. It’s a busy life – there’s always Sainsbury’s to get to. Although I rather liked the Amish version of the Bill Grundy Sex Pistols interview. Everyone on camera, and behind it, completely nailed copying the original, and I think it looks great. Simon Pegg told me he met Steve Jones off of the Pistols, and Steve told Simon he’d seen it and laughed. I was so chuffed. Arthur Matthews’ idea, that sketch was. Very simple… the sketch, not Arthur.
Is there any particular role that has stuck with you more than others? Something that people tend to pick up on and not let go. For example, did you have people calling you a fat handed twat for a while?
Old stuff has stuck. The man in the lift from Alan Partridge and Simon Quinlank [from Fist of Fun], for example. It used to do my nut in. I’d think, 'Oh Jesus, I did that years ago, I've done stuff since, you know' – but that’s just petty. If people liked it and still like it, then that’s a lovely thing. I let myself down a few months ago, actually. I’d just bought a coffee at a train station and a chap came up to me and said, "Oh, you’re not drinking weak lemon drink then" and I said, "No, it’s coffee, it’s not the 1990s." Which I must have imagined was some sort of dry piece of spontaneous wit, but not long later I thought to myself, 'You horrible little wanker. What a mean, pissy, downright rude reaction.' Really ashamed, I was, and rightly so. So, man at the station, I am truly sorry. I have thrown weak lemon drink directly into my own eye as punishment.
Stewart Lee is now someone you’ve worked with a large number of times over the years. How would you describe your relationship and what makes you click?
He’s my mate who lives down the road from me, and that’s it, really. Every now and then we actually meet up and, usually, go and see a band. Always one which he is a nerdy fan of, and he usually knows the names of all 17 of the bassists who have been in the line-up over the band’s 27-year career, and what bands they’ve gone on to be in. He still gets excited about bands like I used to when I was 20. These days, it gets to an hour in and I think, 'This has been very nice, but I hope they don’t do an encore.' But his enthusiasm is infectious. I do admire his stand-up a lot.
How was your experience of working on Game of Thrones? I assume it’s a bit of another world in terms of production?
I just beamed down to that particular planet for two brief stays all in all, but it was most enjoyable. It was a thrill meeting and chatting to the writers. They’re astonishingly humble, approachable guys. There’s not a whiff of Hollywood about them. Basically every episode is a little movie in terms of production values and budget. The level of media scrutiny I had even getting the two tiny parts I had was just ludicrous. People are nuts about it, aren’t they? We were filming a scene on a beach and we found out that someone had hired a room in a hotel a mile across the bay, got a telescopic lens on a camera and was live streaming the day’s shoot. Basically eight hours of tiny dots moving up and down a beach was what was being offered to the internet viewers. Some people should have a word with themselves.
What are you most proud of in your career so far?
I’m pretty proud of Big Train. That first series particularly, but they were both pretty good. Also, my BBC2 series and my Radio 4 series Kevin Eldon Will See You Now. Big Train seems to have held up well from what I can gather. The other actors in it were ace, and with the other two, I know it sounds big-headed saying two of my own shows, but the fact is I tried my best, worked hard at it, got a completely brilliant team of people around me to help me get them done, and the shows may not be perfect but they’re not too shabby.
Do you have any more of your own shows planned for the future?
I have plenty of plans for more comedy shows. I shall have to align those plans with people who broadcast such shows, though.