Award winning comedian and poet Rob Auton will be touring his show ‘The Talk in Show’ in April. Last year the British Comedy Guide declared this piece ‘the second best reviewed show’ at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where he previously picked up the ‘Dave Funniest Joke of Fringe’ award, and it followed a stream of similarly titled successes including ‘The Hair Show’ and ‘The Yellow Show’. We managed to grab Rob for a quick chat about everything he’s up to!
Hi Rob, thanks for chatting with us today! How have you been?
Yeah I’ve been good thank you!
What have you been up to?
I’ve been travelling about in the country, doing a tour of my new show which is about talking. The last places I was in was Leicester then Birmingham. I’m also writing a new show about time for the Edinburgh Festival – that’s it really! Pretty busy.
How did you get into comedy?
Well, I was working in advertising – I did a degree in Classic Arts which was an ideas-based course. So basically, I realised that I liked having ideas and thinking about concepts, so I thought, “Which industry needs people with ideas?” So I thought about advertising because I love when you see a good advert on the telly like the Sony bouncy balls or Guinness with the horses and the waves – because when you see an advert, it can really stop you in your tracks. I got down to London, got a job in an advertising agency and it wasn’t for me, really. What I started to do was build up ideas in notebooks; one day, the Creative Director said he was having a fireworks party and there was going to be some poetry so I said, “I don’t know if what I write is poetry but I’ve got some writing and I’d like to try and share it.” So, went and did that – stood up on his wall for 10 minutes – then got asked to join a poetry night called ‘Bang Said the Gun’, and then did some stuff there and started doing gigs at anywhere that would have me. I remember a guy coming up to me and saying, “Do you want to come and do this at my alternative comedy night?” So I did that and it just kind of went from there!
The first time I stood up and did any type of public speaking was on my University course doing presentations. A lot of people at University do that for the first time, especially on art-y courses because you’ve got to present your work to the rest of the class. I was doing a PowerPoint presentation and realised that I did some funny bits and, as the years went on, I tried to make them more and more funny. Apparently quite an engaging way to get people’s attention is to make them laugh! Just went from there, really. Did as many open mics as I could – I was doing that until 2009 when I left advertising, then I went up to Edinburgh. Got asked to do the Edinburgh festival as part of the Big Comedy Breakfast which was beforehand at half past 11 in the morning – just doing 15 minutes of comedy – and then, when I got back from Edinburgh and wasn’t working in advertising anymore, I was like, “Right, I want to do comedy full-time and writing and performing full-time.” But I had to get a job, you can’t just do open mics, you can’t just make a living from open mics – you’ve got to have a job. So I got a job in an art shop and worked in that for 3 years until it got to a breaking point where I couldn’t do both. So I’ve been doing this full-time since 2012 really.
What do you miss about the Uni lifestyle?
Urm, I miss going back to a house and there being people there – I miss my flatmates. I miss going to a lecture or working in the studio all day and then, one of my favourite things that used to happen was, someone would say, “Should we go for a drink?” You’d have 1 drink then it would be 3 pints and if we had 3 we knew we’d go out. I went to University in Newcastle and it was a fantastic place to go to University. I graduated in 2005 so, I don’t know if there is as much of a drinking culture. I think I miss the one day hangovers – they seem to get longer and longer! I miss the spirit of it but, if someone was to say, “You can go back and do it again,” I probably wouldn’t because I did it and I felt like I got as much out of it as I could. I think the best thing about University is that it made me – I didn’t really feel like a person before I went to Uni – it teaches you things like, you’ve got to cook on your own. You learn some real skills and you’ve got the responsibility of being in charge of your own life for the first time. But you’ve also got other people around you who are doing that as well. You’re all kind of figuring it out together – what you can do, what you can’t do, what you should do, what you shouldn’t do. I just think it’s brilliant. It’s a good way to get it out of your system, all that stuff of going out and partying, making mistakes – if you’re going to make a mistake then University is a really good place to do it. Instead of being in a job and going out and getting really drunk, missing an important meeting and getting sacked. It’s not like if you miss a lecture.
Not everyone is lucky enough to go to University but it should be more accessible to everyone.
For our readers who may not have seen you yet, how would you describe your comedy?
I think, sometimes, it can be a bit of a slow burn. If people come and they’re looking for the answers or the punch lines to jokes – I always do a lot of the legwork but I want the audience to have some space around the words and things, and be able to take what they want from it… much like a painting or something like that. All my favourite stuff or all my favourite lyrics are the ones where you’re like, “Did he mean that?” “Oh I think he meant that – well that’s what I’m taking it as!” So then you can take it away as your own personal thing. I do a lot of gigs at poetry nights, I do a lot of comedy in theatres. I hope it’s funny. The first gig I did, people laughed – some people laughed – so I just hope that some people find it funny.
You’re about to go on your biggest nationwide tour with the second best reviewed show out of over 1800 Edinburgh Festival Fringe comedy productions The Talk Show. Can you tell us a bit more about what people can expect?
Basically, all my shows are experiments of me thinking about a subject for a long amount of time – this one’s about talking. It’s me exploring talking, what it means to me, when I do it, why I do it, where I do it, where I’ve heard people do it. It’s a mix – it’s focused on words, my main strength is writing, so I write the show, read it and perform it. Hopefully it’s funny! There are bits in it that are a bit more heartfelt, maybe. I don’t want the show to be just ‘funny’. I think, if it’s just funny, people disengage after a little bit, so I try to keep it as lively as possible. All my favourite comedy has light and shade in it. I think people connect better to someone who’s trying to speak their piece, really. So I hope they connect with it – that’s it!
You’ve been described as the ‘Brian Cox’ of comedy which is a huge compliment – how does it feel to be compared to someone so respected in their field?
When I was having that interview, I was looking out the window and pointing at a duck and that’s when he said it clicked for him that I was like the ‘Brian Cox of comedy’. I feel good about it! I think the best thing about [Brian Cox] is he’s just interested. He’s not saying that he’s got all the answers, he’s just amazed by the world – and I definitely feel like that and that’s what I want to keep. I’d like to think that I’ve got some of the child-like wonder at everything the same as he does. But also, things keep getting disproved and in 2000 years’ time, people will look back at us and think, “I can’t believe they thought that.” And that’s really exciting for me – I love science, the unknown, space and time – it makes me feel really small and it gives me a certain sense of freedom which allows me and to frees me up to do exactly what I want because I’m pretty much a piece of dust with a heartbeat but I’m not that bothered about – I am bothered about how my life goes, but I know it’s quite insignificant. Once I realised that, and another thing like Steve Jobs what he said about once you realise that pretty much everything has been made up, like language and numbers and time, it’s all been done by people who had to get up in the morning – I find that really inspiring. People are having a go so you might as well have a go, too and try your best and see how it pans out.
You’re not just a comedian, you’re a poet too, you draw, you can act – do you have a favourite?
Maybe the one where I feel most rewarded from it – I mean, I love live performances – but the one where sit down and do some drawing or painting and get to spend a bit of time on it, and takes me away. But also, with writing, I think that if you write something it’s creating something out of nothing that doesn’t exist, then half an hour later it exists, then I want to get up on stage and say it to people so, at the moment, I’ve been doing this style since 2007 so I guess I decided that I liked [writing] the best because it’s my favourite way of communicating. I just love how you don’t need anything, apart from your voice and some ideas. With the show, there is some tech in it but I want to be able to do it wherever, whether I’m sitting down on a carpet, or on a street corner, or a tube so it’s just me.
I think Arts, you know music and poetry, pottery – it all comes from the same place; it’s having something inside you that you want to get out and record it, and try and get it down in some way – express it in some way. Tracey Emin had an idea about a bed; she could’ve written a poem about it but, I guess the most effective thing was that she just got the bed out and did it. Maybe if she had been a writer, she’d have written a book about it – I think it’s to do with your own preference.
Were you always funny from childhood, did you know that comedy was always going to be a career goal?
No, the first thing that I realised I liked was drawing and painting. I remember I was doing some drawings at school and I felt like maybe, I’ve got something here. I still feel like that but unsure what it is. I’m just trying to express it in a way – the thing is, it’s just trial and error, really! You don’t have a clue what’s going on when you’re a kid, do you? I used to think that adults had the answers and when I became an adult I realised that they don’t. So I’ve become more playful from turning into an adult. I’m probably having more fun now than I did when I was little. I think I want to try and hold on to that and not get too bogged down by National Insurance and tax and things like that. I’m trying to create a space for myself in the world where I can do exactly what I want. It’s like that quote Bob Dylan says, “A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants to do.” I’m not saying I’m a success but I’m doing what I want today I can’t do what I want tomorrow – well I can do what I want tomorrow because I’m doing a gig in Cardiff but, if you do what you want all the time, it’s good in theory but you don’t have any time off. I tried to not look at my phone yesterday but, people email and I’m in the process of getting previews in for my new show, and if you respond late to one of those emails, someone else gets the spot – you’ve got to be on it! People say, “Do what you love,” but you’ve got to be prepared for the admin.
You’re quite well known for your beard – but you’ve changed your look. How does it feel now without the beard?
Well, I grew it for my ‘Hair’ show in 2017. I grew it from September 2016 til June 2018 and didn’t touch it. I did shave it off and it felt fantastic! I washed the bottom half of my face properly for the first time in ages – you can try and wash your beard and your face but, you never really get to it properly. I felt the sun on my chin for the first time in ages and felt like my face was a bit more of a canvas for Vitamin D, really. That was October so, since then it’s grown back, Which I wasn’t expecting but it has. So I don’t really know what to do because I’ve just grown it because I can’t really be bothered to shave but we’ll see! I don’t want it to get as big as it did before because it does change things… when you’re on public transport people don’t want to sit next to you. People take hold of their children’s hands in parks and things and I’m like, “I’m alright!” It was quite a harrowing experience – my parents really didn’t like it but they’re really supportive. I’ve just had some new photos taken for my new Time show and I’ve got a beard in that so, don’t know what I’m going to do. Maybe if I shave it off now and don’t shave until August, it might be OK. I don’t want it to become my, er – you know, some people have beards and they really have beards! I just want it to be like, “Yeah I’ve got one now,”
I was just watching Gangs of New York with Daniel Day Lewis and he had some pretty good facial hair in that, so I might try and sculpt it into something like that.
I think it’s quite a look, you should keep it if you’re happy with it!
[Laughs] OK then!
You won the Dave Funniest Joke of the Fringe award – what was the joke?
“I heard a rumour Cadbury’s were doing an oriental chocolate bar – could be a Chinese Wispa.”
How did that go down?
Errr, good question! It got a mixed response, as you could imagine. People were non-fussed, there was some groaning. But, it’s funny that, with all these comedy performers you just need a bit of luck. I was doing a gig on a lunchtime, there was about 8 people there, and because in Edinburgh you do your show then you do other gigs to try and drum up a bit of business and get people to come to your shows. You end up doing maybe 2 or 3 10 minute spots and I was doing one at lunchtime. And I said that joke and the guy at the end said, “My favourite joke of the day was the Chinese Wispa one,” everyone agreed and everyone said yes, even though they had groaned at it. It just so happened that the Evening Standard Comedy had been in there and he put the joke forward – he was like, a joke scout for Dave the comedy channel. He put it forward and went to a public vote. What I found surprising was how angry everyone got. People don’t like being told what’s funny and they want to be able to make their mind up. If you tell someone a joke, they might laugh or they might think it’s stupid but, I think if you say, “I’m going to tell you this joke now – it’s the funniest joke,” then they’re going to fold their arms and say, “No, I don’t think it is!” Whereas, if I just said it to them in the street, they wouldn’t have given me half the grief that they did. That was in 2013 and everyone who wins that prize always says how it’s kind of, harsh, on social media with people having a go at you but, I was pleased. It gives people something to ask me in an interview as well!
For more information on Rob Auton’s tour, visit thewardrobetheatre.com/livetheatre/rob-auton