As Ben Elton prepares to return to stand-up after a 15-year absence, we caught up with the comedy star to talk about getting back on the road.
His 53-date tour kicks off at The Olympia Theatre, Dublin on September 27 and he plays Belfast's Ulster Hall on September 28 before travelling across the UK for the rest of the tour, which concludes on November 30. Tickets are on sale now.
How are you feeling about returning to stand-up after 15 years away?
Exhilarated but also a little daunted. It's a big thing to be going back to doing something that I love, something which I really want to do well as I've ever done, and I think the audience that come to see it will have the same feeling. I'm aware there's an idea of what I did and some people held that with respect and even affection, and at the very least I aim to justify those memories. It's tense, but I've been doing a lot of work. I intend to get it right, I always do.
Was there any real decision to step away from stand-up?
A number of people have said, 'You're returning to stand-up' and I am because it's been 15 years and it's something that I did a lot and regularly for some time. But I never consciously gave up: it was really the circumstance of family life. I got married and then we had children and that took quite a long time. Our family life eventually began and I did one tour while we had kids back in 2005 and I was away for nearly five months pretty much, and I missed a lot. I'm a writer; I'm very lucky I can work at home so I've been a house husband. I've made an awful lot of school lunches over the last 10 or 15 years but now the nest is empty. Every time I open up a newspaper or get online these days I always go, 'I wish I was on stage', or 'I wish I could be talking about that' and Sophie my wife said, 'Well, now you can'. I don't know whether she wants me out of the house or not, but lo and behold we decided, 'Yeah, I'm 60. If I don't do it soon I might never do it'. I can't deny also the romance of the road. After you've been away a while you do miss the soft, gentle hum of a hotel mini-bar.
Is there any particular reason you decided to kick off the tour in Ireland?
Going back to The Olympia is a big thing for me. I have happy memories from a long time ago and then to play Belfast's Ulster Hall the next day... It's a wonderful thing. I am starting here because really I'm starting at the sharp edge of the current national agony. It shouldn't be an agony and it distresses me deeply that I'll be crossing a border that may be hard, may be soft, may be a little bit squidgy. I never thought we would ever see [it] in question again. We all know the benefits of the Good Friday Agreement and the fact that they've become just another playing card in the hands of such an operator as the current British Prime Minister distresses me deeply. But I don't think it was a conscious decision; it's a very happy circumstance. I go where my promoter books me and we're starting on the island of Ireland. That's wonderful for me and I think it will hone the set beautifully. I think possibly the best two nights of the tour will be the first two because I feel very passionate about my routine and I feel passionate about doing it here, almost straddling the European divide, which I feel so strongly about.
You clearly have a lot to say – did you find it very difficult to distil the subject matter you wanted to cover in the shows?
I think I've definitely got an evening's worth of talk ready and prepared, whether it's as perfect or as honed as I hope it is... Look, it's complicated, certainly in terms of the satirical aspects of my act. The specific political comedy, I think it's much harder. These targets are almost beyond shame. I mean, Trump and Johnson are beyond shame. You say that they're nakedly self-interested, they go, 'Yes of course'. It's as if they're self-satarising and I think it would be very hard to take a traditional approach of a satirical blow. You've got to land your blows more deftly because these are more scary times and they represent a terrifying phenomenon, which is that we will happily traduce laws, facts, venerable institutions like great newspapers, and parliament itself in pursuit of a brutalist, reactionary agenda. These are terrifying times and I'll have to be very clever if I'm to say something, anything, that the audience don't already know and aren't already in despair about.
You have 53 dates ahead of you – is that a daunting prospect?
Yeah but it's also exhilarating. I'm not interested in other stand-up comics. That's not me being pompous or proud, but they're irrelevant to me. My stand-up act is deeply personal. I don't tell jokes; I offer my exhalation and my confusion and my outrage in as comic and as intriguing a manner as I can. My comedy is entirely about me, but that's what I think good art should be. You have to offer your truth.
Of course I'll miss Sophie – she'll come and join me sometimes – but the exhilaration of the audience, the exhilaration of attempting to be understood every night, to remake your arguments, to engage with the imagination... It's quite hard work, my act. It's not jokes, you've got to follow it, you've got to be in the room and in the head. I don't see it as a crowd: I see it as a bunch of individuals, each one of which I have to intrigue and engage. And that's immensely hard work, but that's good – it's good to keep busy. I think it's something to treasure, the idea that people want to share a theatre with me.
Do you have any particular memories of performing for Irish audiences? Are you looking forward to seeing their reactions to your new show?
I had a bruising moment on the second tour. It was 1987 and we came to Dublin and it was the first tour without Rik [Mayall] so I was feeling very naked anyway. Rik and I toured through the '80s and we were brothers on the road. Anyway, we came to Dublin, my wife and I, to do some gigs and somebody had sprayed on the stage door 'Ben's a Brit, Brits go home' which was quite a moment. Now I know there's bigotry and intolerance everywhere, and there's very good reason for some of that intolerance, at least in Ireland, but I just remember that moment.
Having said that, I've never been greeted with anything but absolute affection [by audiences in Ireland], because I deliver. I think if I was crap a Dublin audience... Look, big tough cities have big tough audiences – Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham, Dublin, Belfast. If you go there and take the mickey then you are going to die in a very painful way, a way that's more painful than dying in Tunbridge Wells or Bath, there's no doubt about that. Dublin's a tough city, Belfast's a tough city, but if you engage then the triumph is all the greater because it's a visceral connection with an audience that does not suffer fools gladly. But yes, I have wonderful experiences of playing in Dublin and holidays in Ireland and of friends in Ireland so yeah, it'll be very nice to be back.
Ben Elton kicks off his new tour in Dublin's Olympia Theatre on September 27 and Belfast's Ulster Hall on September 28.