Siobhan Kane talks to Alex Horne ahead of his appearance at the Vodafone Comedy Festival in the Iveagh Gardens on Thursday… there are some tickets to be won too.
“How to Avoid Huge Ships“, “Birdwatching“, “Wordwatching” – all worthwhile things – especially to Alex Horne (they are the names of some of his previous shows) – one of the most erudite, brilliant comics at work today. Over the years, his interests have become projects, which have then somehow found their way into becoming shows (and occasionally books). While he is described primarily as a comedian, that doesn’t go far enough, not least because he has so many other interests; writing, music, table football, Latin (in which he has a degree), wanting to become the world’s oldest man (Long Live Alex campaign), and recreating a whole lifetime in one hour (in his new show – Seven Years in the Bathroom). These are the interests of someone more attuned to anthropology than anything else (except for the table football, perhaps) – but this is part of his gift, exploring the nuances of living, folding out into something far more epic. Horne makes you laugh and think within beats, much like his friend and collaborator Tim Key, who also possesses a radiant love of language and ideas, as much in love with the complexities of language, and subtleties of communication than anything else.
Key and Horne met over a decade ago, and developed a kinship that has seen them work on wonderful shows such as “Every Body Talks” and “When in Rome“. He has also rattled his long-held love of music through The Horne Section becoming bandleader (mingling storytelling, jazz and comedy, along the way) eventually featuring on BBC Radio 4, among other places, which is unsurprising, since he manages to pop up in the most oddly interesting cultural landscapes, whether as a contestant on Channel 4’s Countdown (which he has won three times – “the greatest achievement” of his life), or as an “expert” on BBC4’s We Need Answers; but research and learning are touchstones to his work – partly a legacy from his days with Footlights in Cambridge, but more truthfully, it is an extension of his childhood interests, which brings a sense of wonderment to everything he does; he talks to Siobhán Kane.
Your comedy often tips expectations and understanding of the form upside down, sometimes even breaching the walls of the space, perhaps you need to start performing outside?
[Laughs] Well, it does make me happier being outside. For example I mowed the lawn yesterday, and that’s done the trick, it’s good being out in nature. But you know, I did an outdoor comedy festival last year and I thought it was going to be really good, but it wasn’t, the laughter just dissipated up into the sky. I think comedy, sadly, is meant for dingy pubs and dingy places – people are too happy already if its nice and sunny, so there is no need to laugh.
The Horne Section seems like you fulfilling a childhood wish of becoming a musician, and you have grown up with the people in the band (although there are often guest appearances by people like Tim Minchin) – where did your love of music begin?
I am quite like a lot of comics – a frustrated musician really, but I have zero talent, well not zero maybe, but just above zero. It’s mainly just envy – I really am envious of people who are musical, and I have always tried to hang around people who are. This is a great way of actually being with musicians and effectively being the lead singer in a band, which is funny, because I really can’t sing, but yes, I am playing out my childhood fantasies [laughs].
When you did your first Edinburgh show with The Horne Section, it unfurled its potential to the point where you now regularly feature on BBC Radio 4, among other places – something you probably never envisaged.
Not at all. We did our first previews for our new Edinburgh show last week, and we remembered when we first did those early shows – we turned up with no ideas at all, to see what would happen, and it’s not really changed that much [laughs]. It was nice to think we had a crowd to see us, I don’t know what they were expecting – and it has been a welcome surprise that it works.
You nourish your restless, curious spirit with so many different kinds of projects – for example your new show Seven Years in the Bathroom. It is a faintly depressing statistic that men spend on average, seven years in the bathroom (although more reassuringly we spend an average of four years dreaming) – and your show recreates an “entire life” in an hour. So many of your shows betray a fascination with time.
Well in a way these shows have made me very aware of time, but it hasn’t unfortunately changed me at all [laughs], I waste so much time. Being a comedian or a writer, you don’t really have anything to do during the day, and I know that I could fill it with really interesting things, but I just seem to waste time, spending hours looking at the internet, on things I am not interested in, but become drawn in by, although now I am more conscious than ever of how much of my life I am wasting, so that’s the problem.
But going to Edinburgh each year teaches me not to waste an hour of the day, because it is such a magical place, so I do use my time well in certain places. My Dad is amazing, actually, he is retired and has started taking Italian lessons, and he fills his days with interesting things. I suppose I am still hopefully halfway through my life, whereas perhaps he is more the other end, so feels the ultimate deadline of cramming stuff in, whereas I am still a bit complacent.
You mention Edinburgh and its specialness, during the festival. the whole city is happily implicated, and it demands, somehow, that you live.
You’re right, it does – you can’t just sit around in your flat watching telly – you have to get out there and experience it all. It’s my favourite time of year, by miles.
You seem to be bringing even more shows to the festival this year, The Horne Section, your solo show, a children’s show, a “searching questions” night with Tim Key….
This all sounds far more impressive than it is [laughs] , because it is only a one-off kids show and then one night with Tim, and both of them are experiments – we have a few ideas, so we will see what happens [laughs]. I am going up there without my family for the first time in a couple of years, so hopefully I will have some time on my hands.
You have folded in so many of your curiosities and life into your shows over the years, and now that you have children, it makes sense that you are going to do a children’s show, I imagine that it has made work stress melt away?
I think there is something in that, definitely – I think I turn into a more relaxed person on stage because that is the fun and easy bit of life, or easier bit of life for me, whereas having kids is something you worry about, maybe it has set me free a bit, which is a healthy thing for a comic.
You and Tim Key have such a special friendship, how did you first meet, and how you would you describe the specialness?
It’s an odd one that, he is my son’s godfather, which is nice, and he is surprisingly good at it, which is worrying [laughs]. We met when I wrote a pantomime at university, and he auditioned to be in it – he wasn’t actually at the university, he just lived nearby. I think it was around 1999, that sounds more romantic than 2000, so let’s say that.
I read an interview with Fry and Laurie recently, that resonated with me, they knew straightaway that they had the same sense of humour – and I felt that way with Tim. It’s a bit like being married, if you have been lucky enough to have found ‘the one’ – you just know. Tim and I just had that thing sense of things straightaway.
I read a really inspiring interview in 2009, when Robert McCrum interviewed Seamus Heaney for The Observer – ‘A Life of Rhyme’, to celebrate him turning 70, and was going back over his life, and special relationships that have impacted him greatly, in particular his relationship with his wife Marie, who he met while he was going out with someone else (“it took a long time to clear the decks”), but he was compelled towards her, because “there was a kind of immediate recognition, yes”. It is a beautiful way of describing something that is an extraordinary feeling, and whether it is a romantic relationship or friendship – it is so rare.
I know exactly what you mean. You don’t know it until it happens, people probably don’t believe it if it hasn’t happened to them, which is sad, because you can’t even be on the lookout for such a thing really, but it does exist.
These projects of yours are a natural progression from when you were younger, was it partly distilled through your time at Footlights at Cambridge?
I think Cambridge was a condensed version of life, where you have these amazing opportunities and they are all within reach – you are rubbing shoulders with amazing people – people who are still doing comedy now, and I was lucky that it all worked. It’s like you are in a test tube, and melting pot – and I think I just got lucky really, as everything seemed to chime. I wasn’t particularly interested in comedy when I was younger, or going to university, not like some other people in comedy who studied Bill Hicks and things, I mean, I liked Father Ted and that was about it, but I kind of knew I always wanted to give it a go somehow. But there was no masterplan – and then at university all of this was at my fingertips. I also tried a lot of other things I haven’t followed through on, like journalism and rugby, so it wasn’t like the one thing I tried.
To call you a comic doesn’t seem to go far enough, your reach is so much further, like Tim’s. I think my favourite comics have always had an idiosyncratic progression, not beholden to the form.
I know exactly what you mean, I am very suspicious of the production line that you seem to have now, and these courses that people go on when they are 18 and come out a comic. I admire people like John Bishop who came to comedy late, as he had lived a life and has a point of view, and he’d had lots of struggles, had kids, and was trying to navigate that, and I also think of someone like Frank Skinner, who is maybe an even better example, as he came to things late, definitely 30 odd, and is just a funny man.
You mentioned Father Ted earlier, I read that Ardal O’Hanlon was something of an inspiration to you?
I would have to say that for my first couple of gigs, I pretty much adopted his accent [laughs], as I did listen to his album over and over again, it’s the one album I could probably recite completely. I did copy his turn of phrase, it was dreadful [laughs]. I do think you have to start aping someone initially as you don’t really kick off with a voice – and I absolutely adored his stuff.
At the comedy festival in the beautiful Iveagh Gardens, it is such a treat, as you and Tim are playing the same night.
We are on the same plane! We are going to do the work for our show together on that plane [laughs].
What other projects are you working on?
There are a couple of things that might not go anywhere at all, but I am currently sending a lot of messages in bottles out into the sea [laughs]. I really love messages in bottles. It’s quite addictive. I started in January, and I am on tour at the moment, and so I send one whenever I am by the sea, I put one in, and I have had a few get across! I have heard back from Holland and Germany – and as soon as you get a letter back from someone it is the most amazing thing, and the thought that when I am talking to you- there are twenty odd bottles all bobbing around somewhere – is a lovely one.
There is also something really magical about getting a proper letter through the post, nothing can replace that feeling.
Absolutely, especially if it is unexpected, that is exactly what I am trying to recapture I think. You know I was in Donegal a few weeks ago, in Bundoran, and I put a couple in the sea there – it is a long journey from there to America, but you never know…the thing is, it could take years and years, so it might turn into a show around 2020 [laughs].
This could possibly tie in with your Long Live Alex campaign – to be the oldest man in the world – you could then do a show about the messages in bottles when you are elderly.
You know, that’s true, this might just keep me going! [laughs]
If you’d like to win a pair of tickets to see Alex Horne’s performance at the Vodafone Comedy Festival in the Iveagh Gardens on Thursday night then just send an email with the subject ALEXHORNETICKETSPLEASE to email@example.com by midnight on Wednesday.