Step away from the mobile phone. Put away the tablet. The wonderfully acerbic comedian Rich Hall is about to come on stage for an already-sold-out performance in Portree, and he would like your undivided attention.
Rich, one of the most magnetic stand-ups currently at work in this country, is chatting in the run-up to hugely anticipated spring tour of the UK - Rich Hall 3:10 to Humour
The American-born comedian, who was raised in North Carolina, emphasises that what he is looking forward to more than anything else on this tour is the experience of performing, “What I love about stand-up is the immediacy of it. Having run the gamut of TV panel shows, after a while you know how to do them and they are not so much fun anymore.
“But now I know I’m going to be on stage somewhere like Portree, and that prospect is really exciting. For those two hours, no one is looking at their phones. It’s a true non-media event. Those sorts of occasions are rapidly disappearing, and that’s why I value them so much.”
A stand-up whose plainspoken, growling indignation and waspish observations have won him fans all over the world, Rich has been described as a transatlantic messenger lampooning each country he visits with his common sense comedy.
The Montana resident is renowned for his expertly crafted tirades. His biting, yet compelling comedy has helped earn him a Perrier Award in Edinburgh and a Barry in Melbourne. He is a coruscating presence – both on and off stage.
The stand-up, who was the inspiration for the curmudgeonly barman Moe Szyslak in The Simpsons, says he gets a kick out of touring this country. “I may have become overly familiar with the motorway service stations of the UK, but I really like discovering new places. It’s important to visit out of the way towns because it gives you a new perspective.” This is his first visit to the Outer Hebrides.
One of the many aspects that distinguishes Rich’s live act is the brilliant way he can craft delightful on-the-spot songs out of the smallest items of information that he gleans from the audience.
The comic, who won two Emmys for his work as a writer on The David Letterman Show, explains that, “I do what Americans call ‘crowd work’. I really enjoy that because I can turn it into improvised songs, which is a big thrill for me. I always have a guitar beside me on stage in case something happens.“
Rich continues that he does not need a lot of material to work on. “It’s funny, the less I get from people, the more you can improvise. Nothing is out of bounds. I want them to tell me, ‘I’m a clerk,’ rather than, ‘I work for the council finance department and am involved in the end of year expenditure’. As soon as I hear the word ‘clerk’, my head immediately starts formulating rhymes for it.”
The fuel that powers Rich’s act is a marvellous sense of simmering fury. Appearing regularly on Stand Up for the Week, QI, Live At The Apollo, Have I Got News For You and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, the stand-up gets riled by, “The level of incompetence and amount of crap in the world. I’m also incensed by the fact that we are all turning into button-pushing squirrels. That has brought about a serious loss of personality in this impersonal, digitised world.”
Also a very accomplished documentary maker who has fronted six critically acclaimed BBC4 programmes focusing on US popular culture and the Wild West, the stand-up is equally angry about the by-the-yard, rote nature of so many comedians’ material these days.
He says that, “What is exasperating is that as comedians we live by the word. I see that very swiftly deteriorating, and I find it really scary. There doesn’t seem to be any appreciation any more of the written and spoken word. Everything is turning into shorthand. When a comedian like Dylan Moran gets on stage and speaks in his own very distinctive language, that really appeals to me.
“But nowadays a lot of performers are simply acting out the role of comedian and going through the motions. They use a very predictable cadence of comedy – ‘here comes the punchline’. If you close your eyes, you can hear it coming. But in order to have a very individual way of saying things, you need to perfect that live.”
Of course, Rich is not that irate in reality – it is simply a persona he adopts for comic effect on stage. He says that: “It works because people know that I’m not really that angry. Anyone that angry should not be doing comedy.”
Rich, who in the past was a regular on Saturday Night Live, has enjoyed particular success in this country, where his trademark downbeat style really strikes a chord. The comedian reflects that “British audiences are always very appreciative of the spoken word.”
Finally, Rich reiterates how much he is relishing the idea of playing to British audiences once more and receiving our rapt attention. He concludes that, “You have someone’s complete attention, which is almost impossible nowadays. You can’t go to a sports event without someone Tweeting about it every five seconds.”
(Rick’s sold-out shows in the Hebrides are on Monday 8th February at An Lanntair, Stornoway; and then on Tuesday 9th, he’s at Aros, Portree. His latest audio CD, “Waitin’ on a Grammy”, is available to buy on CD and download now from here!)
Interview by James Rampton