Milton Jones interview: Standup for Jesus
The comedian Milton Jones talks to Stephen Tomkins
Milton Jones was acclaimed as one of the best comedians on the standup circuit for years before he became more widely known through BBC2’s Mock the Week.
His trade is one-liners. Some are convoluted puns: “If you Google ‘lost medieval servant boy’, you get the message: ‘Page cannot be found.’” Others are simpler: “Some people see the church as a giant helicopter. They’re scared to get too close in case they get sucked into the rotas.”
And some are sublimely surreal alternative takes on the world: “I was walking along the other day, and on the road I saw a small, dead baby ghost. Although thinking about it, it might have been a handkerchief.” Or did you hear the one about eating sushi at the airport? “Nice big portions, but it did taste a bit luggage-y.”
How does this connect to Milton’s Christian faith? Does it restrict the things he can say? Does it drive things he has to say? Or is it just a case of inspiring the dedicated craftsmanship of comedy creation? To find out, Reform tracked him down to a coffee shop in a rather pleasant part of west London, and fed him our best straight lines.
The idea of doing standup comedy seems to terrify people more than any other job that doesn’t involve physical danger. What makes someone do it?
Yes, it is in people’s top 10, or three… top one thing they don’t want to do ever, but it’s changed over the last 10 or 15 years. It’s a recognised job, whereas when I started all those years ago it was always a stepping stone to something else. I wanted to be an actor originally, so I wanted to perform so people could come and see me do something.
It was quite hard to make a living on it. It really helps if it’s the only thing you can do, so you’re desperate enough to make it work. It’s a bit like a rugby tackle: if you go in thinking: “This could hurt” then it probably will, whereas if you go in “whack” then for some reason it seems to hurt less.
There’s also something quite glamorous about the idea of performing on stage, but your book Where Do Comedians Go When They Die? makes it sound really quite miserable.
Most of it is. There are glamorous moments. But most of it is driving to Manchester, having a sandwich, doing 20 minutes to an indifferent crowd and driving home again. I guess most apparently glamorous jobs are like that – pop stars having to practice, film stars sitting around.
A lot of funny people gave up; a lot of not-so-funny people kept going, and turned a corner in the end. It’s a marathon really.
And do you need a big ego?
It helps. It does help. I think everyone thinks that they’ve got something original to offer, and if you don’t think that then you won’t succeed. You’ve got to have self-belief, and that’s slightly different from a big ego, which implies arrogant selfishness as well. People like Eddie Izzard, Jack Dee, no one dislikes them, but they’ve got big self-belief. Others, who people do dislike, have got big egos.
Your onstage persona isn’t exactly exploding with the kind of self-confidence you talk about.
The persona evolved. I used to do it as myself – sometimes it would really work, sometimes it really wouldn’t. Where it wouldn’t was in a rough club where someone sounding middle class and using clever words felt threatening. But if I stuck my hair up, put on a jumper, and they thought: “Oh, he’s mad,” it was all right.
Are there other ways in which being a comedian effects your life offstage?
Well, it’s better to ask someone else that. But I find, being in front of the press and audiences, it’s all about me all the time. And I think that can erode you a little bit. You go to a party and someone doesn’t recognise you. You have this battle in yourself; you think: “C’mon! Who have you turned into?” And also you become a bit of an adrenaline junkie as well.
There’s something a little bit dangerous about not being afraid to stand up and talk to people. Especially in a church context. You think: “Come on, this is not communicating.” You feel like heckling. But you’re forgetting that this is not the same arena or the same purpose. When I see someone in a public role I’m always thinking: “What I would be doing with that?” Which is a bit boring.
John Cleese said that there is something cruel about all comedy other than puns. Do you agree with that?
Well, sort of. But if you create a world that everyone knows is imaginary, and are cruel within that world, then no one gets hurt. Why my comedy works is that I put a funny cartoon in people’s heads, and usually they don’t have a victim – or it’s me. And we all know that I make money out of this.
Mock the Week is singled out as a particularly cruel programme. Is that fair?
It can be. It can be vicious. But if I was not to work with any one who had a different worldview to me, I wouldn’t work with anyone. And, while I’m not on there to change it, I’m there to be myself. And that’s quite hard in itself, because a subject will come up, I’ll think of something that’s a bit “not me”, but it will work; so it’s quite hard to remain silent on those occasions.
Comedy’s great for bringing down pompous authority. Where I have a problem is where it attacks soft targets. That’s not fair on the targets, but also it devalues the currency of comedy. It means Daily Mail readers can get angry about something that was unnecessary, whereas there’ll be other times when you really need to attack something, and it will be harder because of the times before, where they’ve shut up shop on us.
What soft targets?
Disabled people. Famous people’s kids. And that comes out of a worldview that’s: Attack everything. And being a Christian means that you can’t. I can respect other people’s technique, but just because people laugh at it, doesn’t make it right. Laughter is just exposing what’s inside someone, and some of that is pretty dark.
But Mock the Week is a hard show to do. It’s always seven people trying to fit through a door for two.
That must be the advantage of having a different style.
Yes. Where I win is I do short bits. I can get in, chuck a grenade and get out again quite quickly. The editors like me because they can: chat chat chat, Milton’s stupid one-liner, on to something else.
But I cheat in a way, because Chris will say something, that’ll be “one”, then someone will say “two”, “three”, then I’ll say “pheasant”, and that’ll be the end of it. I’m not really playing the game.
When you talk about a joke coming into your head, but you don’t go with it because it’s not you, is that to do with it not fitting your persona or is it a moral decision?
It can be either. Sometimes I’ll think of something that’s a bit off-colour that isn’t me, and it would work. So far I’ve managed to bite my tongue – and been glad afterwards. But it’s having the nerve to sit there with nothing to say that’s really hard.
Do you have any rule about what you wouldn’t say, or is it just instinct?
No I think it has to be instinct, because sometimes words written down can look fine, but it’s the way in which you say them and vice versa.
Are there some subjects that aren’t fit for humour?
There are some subjects that are far harder to make jokes about. Something like Madeline McCann, say – you might just be able to make a joke about the press’s coverage. But the trouble is as soon as you’ve mentioned it, it’s such an awful thing, even if the joke was good the audience wouldn’t hear it.
There’s a thing in the book, about organising holidays for children with short attention spans but I made the mistake of advertising them as concentration camps. And it sort of works as a joke, but in a family audience just the mention of concentration camps would be too much.
Can you laugh at God?
I think probably “at” is the key word … I’m trying to pin it down what I feel comfortable with. There are some things that in theory I’m fine, but actually… It’s like The Life of Brian: I’m happy to laugh at the film; as an actor I’m not sure I’d be comfortable being stuck to a cross singing “Bright Side of Life”. The theory is fine; the physical doing of it I’d feel uncomfortable about.
It feels like a kid messing with a fuse box or something: I don’t understand it enough, I just have a bad feeling about it, and I just need to stay clear.
What kind of a Christian are you?
If you’re going to put it in labels, it’s nonconformist. But in terms of what kind of Christian I am, I like to think I am… a failing but moving Christian. I hope I’m not staying still. Yeah, failing but still going.
In 2008, Ben Elton told Third Way that the BBC was much stricter on jokes about Islam than about Christianity, out of fear. Would you agree?
Well it’s maybe even more pragmatic than that, out of “can’t be bothered with the stink it would create”. And I think that’s true.
It’s easy to see the church as a bit of a sort of bullied boy in the playground that won’t fight back. But I think there’s actually something quite strong in that. God is big enough to take criticism or take a joke. There’s something pretty insecure about feeling the need to do God’s work so enthusiastically and kill people.
Within comedy, people don’t hate Christianity. They hate two-dimensional reactionary Christianity and there’s actually quite a softness towards thinking Christianity. Comedy is full of people who used to go to church but couldn’t quite go along with the whole package because it was too jingoistic. I know a heck of a lot of people in comedy whose parents were clergy or missionaries. A lot of comedy is dealing with the truth, about life and what it’s all about.
You do jokes that touch on Islam.
There was one: “Tricky, isn’t it, if you’re in a mosque and you always enjoy leap-frog.” I would argue to any Muslim that it’s not about their religion its about their image. But I’ve been in some clubs where I’ve said that and a section at the back has gone: “Yeah! Tell ’em!” You think: “Oh”. You’ve got to be quite careful. I think if I went to Afghanistan to entertain the troops I might not do that because it would be layered with something else. I like to think I’m brave enough to do it in Bradford. Because why not?
It still seems very hard for women to succeed as standups
Yes, after 20 years of non-sexism there are still very few women comedians. What’s interesting is that when a woman comedian gets up, you see all the men fold their arms, but you also see the women fold their arms. There’s something deep in society that means you have to be funnier than a bloke would be. You have to jump a higher wall. Which means the ones that eventually get there are very good, but so many fall away. It’s getting better, but it’s still not 50:50. Like a lot of things, like racism, it’s gradually filtering through to the next generation.
I think anthropologists say men prefer addressing groups and women like to talk to individuals. I’m not sure how true that is, but something like Mock the Week is very testosterone-filled. So is the industry. I don’t think there’s a way around that.
What’s the connection between your faith and what you do for a living?
Sometimes people say to me: “Wouldn’t it be marvellous if you could preach a bit? Use the opportunity that you have.” And it makes me too cross for words because that’s not the platform. The Gospel is essentially confrontational, and that’s not funny.
People say: “Jesus used humour”; but he was preaching to people who knew all about religion, and I’m employed to make people laugh. Preaching won’t make people laugh. I don’t like being preached at. A sitcom like Seinfeld or The Simpsons – or Eastenders – the moment when you can feel the message coming through you think: “No, leave me alone.”
I’m committed to the comedy community and I’ll have ups and downs with them. Yes, I do speak to people about God occasionally, but its about being with them and loving them where they are, and that’s a long term thing. That’s my responsibility.
A lot of comedians do use comedy as a way of commenting on things they feel strongly about, don’t they, whether it’s politics…
Yeah, they do – I think less so now – there probably aren’t many political comedians. But the more I go on, the more I think it’s not about the words I say on stage; it’s more about the people I’m with and the way I conduct myself in that environment. I’m on tour with a tour manager and a support act and a promoter and agent, in a car, 12 hours a day, five days a week. There’s no hiding there. If you say nice words but you’re a pig during the week, that will come out. So that’s really where the cutting edge is rather than the words. The words are 2%.
Is your comedy an escape from the world?
Yep. Yep. I think that is true. But when it works – and it doesn’t work for everyone – but when it does work it brings joy.
I like the idea of people spending a lot of time embroidering something really small – being beautiful even though it’s pointless. Whether it be embroidery or words or some other artform, I think that’s creative and positive. If I can do that successfully, and share God, either with words or mainly actions, with people around me, then that will be enough.
This article was published in the July/August 2013 edition of Reform.