Brief Encounter With ... Rich HallDate: 11 February 2013
Rich Hall has come a very long way indeed since he gave up his job as a hurricane namer for the United States Meteorological Service.
Now, more than two decades later, he is hailed as one of our finest comedians. Well-known for his gruff, deadpan style, the man from Montana is a master of absurdist irony and rapid-fire wit. You will not see a funnier stand-up at work today. I am not sure if its the fact I have holidayed in Montana several times that made me first aware of Rich's comedy.
Rich is a rare comedian in that the critics are united in acclaiming him. The Scotsman, for instance says that he, "Creeps up on you and ambushes your funny bone like no one else." The Guardian, meanwhile, declares that, "Now is the time to grab this chance to see the great man at work." For its part, Scotland on Sunday asserts that Rich delivers, "As close as it gets to a guaranteed good show." The Sun’s verdict is short and sweet: "Rich Hall is a comedy phenomenon."
He is wry, crisp and dry and one of the most engaging people you could ever have the pleasure of spending an hour with.
One of the elements that distinguishes Rich’s live act is that he tailors each show to that particular location. Every night, he delivers an object lesson in performing off-the-cuff.
Rich, who won the coveted Perrier Award for his brilliant, bourbon- soaked, Tennessee redneck, Country and Western singer alter ego, Otis Lee Crenshaw, at the 2000 Edinburgh Festival, says he adores the spontaneity of live comedy.
"I really look forward to the fact that every night is different – that's the only way to keep it fresh. A lot of comedians lock onto a show and never change it. But for me, that is not taking advantage of where you are. The more you try to acknowledge where you are and take in local colour, the more you involve yourself with an audience and the more comic sparks fly.
"Nowadays I don't need to look in the local papers to find out information about a particular town. I can go on Wikipedia and find out everything I need to know about a place in an hour."
One of the highlights of the show will be the song that Rich sings about every single town where he is performing. The comedian, who has also starred in such TV shows as Stand Up For The Week, QI, Live at the Apollo, Channel 4’s Comedy Gala Live at the O2, Have I.Got News for You, and Never Mind The Buzzcocks, says that, “I will do a specific song in every single town. I will build a structured song around the information I gather about each place I'm in. I will take into account the history of that town and what it is known for. I will also bring in things that have happened during the first half the show.
"Whenever I ask, 'what's this place famous for?', I always get an amazing response. Recently they have mainly been downbeat stories about closed factories. Someone is always hacked off that they don't make trouser presses there any more. So I take the Woody Guthrie approach and turn it into a song!"
Rich, who has also presented such critically acclaimed documentaries as How The West Was Lost, Rich Hall’s The Dirty South, Rich Hall’s Continental Drifters, Rich Hall's Cattle Drive and Rich Hall's Gone Fishing, continues to get a real thrill out of live comedy.
He asserts that, "I have always loved doing live comedy more than anything else. I adore the electricity of it. I like being in that moment. There is nothing sanitised about that, it's very real. You have to really think on your feet, and that always keeps it interesting. I really enjoy making documentaries and writing books - I get a lot of pleasure out of that finished product. But above all I love the fleeting nature of stand-up. When it's over, it's not coming back, and I love that ephemeral quality."
The comedian, who has also enjoyed a hugely successful career on the other side of the Atlantic where he has written for and appeared on Saturday Night Live and The David Letterman Show, for which Rich won two Emmy Awards, is brilliant at bantering with his audience. He observes that, "I get a real buzz from that interaction.
"Anything that anyone says on the night becomes a key word that you can play off. A lot of people make fun of comedians for asking someone where they're from, but often that is all you need to raise the level of a show and go somewhere with it. Frequently what people do for a living becomes a real feature of the show. It's unique for that audience and for the comedian.
"The crucial thing is that you never belittle people in the audience.
You always try to elevate what they say. So when someone says, 'I breed frogs in a biology lab", you don't want to belittle that. In fact, the more mundane you can stay about that, the funnier it is. For example, if someone said they were an RAF pilot, I would probably write a song on the spot about a hero in a mundane situation. I'd sing about an RAF pilot having to rescue an orphaned puppy in a jet!"
Over the years, the stand-up has cultivated a marvellously grouchy comedy persona. In fact, he is perceived as so crotchety that Matt Groening based the character of Moe, the short-tempered bartender in The Simpsons, on Rich.
Rich reflects that the disgruntled persona works very well as a comic vehicle. "You can articulate the audience’s anger. We all know that you can't be that angry all the time, but as a comedian you can touch on it and help people to express their rage. You always have to have a target, whether it is The Man, the economy, the government or some celebrity idiot. Something has to be taken down a notch, and the best way to approach that is through articulated rage.
"I've taken on this grouchy persona, and that works very well on stage. People might say it's invective, but deep down when I'm doing comedy I'm just trying to touch raw nerves. Someone in the audience is always a lot more peeved than I am and is glad that someone else is talking about it."
Rich points out that we should not confuse the persona with the person. "Audiences are watching this grouchy persona, but most people can see that I'm having a really good time on stage. It's ironic grouchiness. No one can stay worked up about things for that long.
Once you have generated a passion about something, it's already passed. Also when people get really angry on stage, it never works. It has to be controlled rage."
Superb comedy such as Rich’s flourishes even more during a time of recession. The stand-up muses that, "It's a very restive world we are living in right now, and that is very good for comedy. Comedy always thrives at a time when there is very intense economic hardship. When the world is teetering on the brink of collapse, the purpose of comedians is magnified. Tragedy is always good for laughs. Live comedy is a chance for people to sit back and forget all about how rubbish things are."
One of Rich’s major themes in his live show will be the contrast between the US and the UK. He explains that, "Because I've lived here for 14 years, I feel I've earned the right to talk about Britain. I like to talk about what's going on in America and compare that to here. There's plenty of material there.
“Americans are outward-looking, loud, brash and ostentatious, and that's very easy to make fun of. But British reserve is also very funny. The Brits do not want to be seen to be enjoying themselves, while Americans go out of their way to let people know they’re having a great time. Americans have a front-porch culture, while Brits hide more in their backyard. They are having a good time, but they don't want anyone to know about it. Planes fly overhead and see the Brits having fun in their backyards, and you guys say, 'Watch out! There's a plane flying overhead! Look miserable!'"
Rich adds that our way of dealing with the financial crisis is also very different to America’s. "In the UK, the economy has gone into austerity mode, while in America it's a completely different approach.
Americans say, ‘Buy more stuff!" While over here it's, 'Don't buy anything at all!'"
As you can see, this is going to be a dazzling live show from Rich.
This wonderfully funny evening will include compelling stories, fantastic one-liners, piercing insights and hilarious songs. It's the perfect night out.
I close by asking Rich what would be a good title for a random song during this tour. Without a moment's hesitation, he replies, "Do They Still Make Trouser Presses Here?"