Ross Nobel is one of Britain’s most recognisable comedians. In fact, scratch that – he’s one of Britain’s most recognisable faces full-stop. With his shaggy hair, trademark Geordie accent and improvised, absurdist approach to stand-up, he’s been part of the pop-culture consciousness ever since he first bounded onto the scene, all weird and energetic. ‘Oh? Ross Noble? That guy who did the sketch about having meat on his face?’ Yeah, that’s your Ross. Even if you think that you don’t know him, you probably do.
He’s one of our finest exports. But, somehow, Noble has managed to fully embrace comedy royalty without sacrificing his identity as an alternative. Despite all of his success, he still remains on the periphery – and happily so. Take his new tour, for instance: Brain Dump.
“I got the idea for the name from an Amazon review on one of my DVDs,” he tells me, over the phone.
“Someone had watched my show and obviously preferred a more linear style of comedy. They said ‘what is this? It’s just like a brain dump’, and I went that’s quite a good description. Not only have I nicked the name of the show off someone who was trying to criticise me, I now like the idea that’s really annoyed them, too.”
Noble’s comedic style certainly isn’t linear, nor is it conventional. While there are a few pre-set topics that he discusses throughout the tour, much of his show is built upon interaction with the audience, be it conversation or response to heckling. It’s an approach that has come to identify him as a comedian; he’s spontaneous, random – daring, if you will.
“When you first start out you’re trying to find your voice – work out who you are. So you’ll try and be a bit like a certain comic, but what tends to happen is you sort of end up becoming exactly who you are off-stage,” he explains. “All of those things come together, and this is just what I’m like.
“If you’re not committed to one particular thing then it allows you to do whatever you want. If you need a safety net, it implies that there’s some kind of danger involved. If you’re funny and you have an idea of what you’re doing, unscripted isn’t that dangerous.”
As opposed to focusing on the precariousness of improvisation, Noble prefers to focus on the possibilities it offers. “It gives you a certain freedom to muck around a bit more”, he argues – and it’s something that you can tell he firmly believes in. Noble started performing in his mid-teens, crafting his act around a case of props he’d bring on-stage. Quickly, though, he came to realise the improvised musings in-between his work with the items received a much warmer response. He enjoyed it more, too. That’s what good comedy is for Noble, you see; mucking around.
“I’m a stand-up comedian who likes to play in different toy boxes,” he claims, like a wide-eyed child living the reality of limitless recreation. One night, you can find him discussing the dimensions of an owl neck-detection device, while on another, it’ll be jihadi mermaids. It all depends on what Noble’s big ol’ brain decides to dump on its unsuspecting audience on the evening. He relishes heckling (encourages it, even) and has unwittingly started a trend which sees audience members bring him gifts (the stranger the better) for him to use during the show’s second act. He’s spent the last 20 years almost constantly touring and doesn’t look like stopping anytime soon. After all, he’s just mucking around, remember.
“When you first start you’re constantly looking around. ‘Where can I find jokes? Where can I find comedy?’ After a while, you get to the point where it works the other way round. You’ll be sat watching the telly and suddenly just go ‘ahh, right – yeah,’” he tells me. Nobel never really switches off, because both his on and off-stage personas are firmly intertwined. They are one. “I’ll give you an example,” he states. “I was at a kid’s party recently – a soft play thing. My little one was saying how she wanted to go in the ball pit and I just started laughing to myself because I thought of the potential of all churches to swap their pulpits with ball pits. Trying to do a funeral in a ball pit. They’re really hard to get out of, ball pits. It’s a funny idea.” He spends a few moments afterwards chuckling to himself afterwards, as if to prove it.
The thing with Nobel, is that for all of his success, I’d wager that if you were to approach someone on the street and ask them to name the five biggest comedians in Britain, his name would somehow evade the list. It’s a strange kind of travesty, really. He’s one our finest – if not the finest – performers of his generation. But there’s still a cultism to his following; though he’s been embraced my mainstream audience (he holds the record for panel appearances on Have I Got News For You, while his tours are always sell-outs), the cultural hegemony would be reluctant to place him next to your Michael McIntyres. Good. This only contributes further to the magical nature of Noble the individual. He’s an odd-ball, and a mystical one at that. Rather than guesting on talk-shows to promote a Christmas DVD, you feel he’d be much more at home starring in an independent slasher film about a killer clown (he actually did this). He moves exclusively to the beat of his own drum; if you don’t like it, good riddance. He probably isn’t doing it for you.
As a comedian, Nobel revels in doing things differently. While some might refer to that as a ‘brain dump’, many others will refer to it as bonkers, unadulterated genius. I know which statement I agree with. Ross Nobel is one of the most unique comedic voices of his generation. Long may the dump continue.
Words by Niall Flynn