Richard Fitzpatrick

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Milton Jones: When one line will do just fine

Milton Jones talks hecklers, Hawaiian shirts and the world’s favourite clever Irishman with Richard Fitzpatrick

Milton Jones: When one line will do just fine

Milton Jones talks hecklers, Hawaiian shirts and the world’s favourite clever Irishman with Richard Fitzpatrick

Milton Jones begins his Irish tour at Cork Opera House on Monday, April 20.
Milton Jones begins his Irish tour at Cork Opera House on Monday, April 20.

Few comedians on British television are as distinctive-looking as Milton Jones. He always looks slightly startled.

The get-up on him — the “Mexican wave haircut” and the flamboyant shirts, which he sources in retro stores — is part of his character, which he brings on stage with him when he’s doing stand-up too.

He will perform at the Cork Opera House in April, as part of a mini-Irish tour.

Perhaps his appearances on Mock the Week, the BBC Two topical panel show on television, have brought him most attention. He’s one of the show’s longest-running panellists, along with host Dara Ó Briain, who has been there since its debut in 2005.

“Dara’s got a big brain,” says Jones about his colleague. “Sitting next to him, as a I do, there are not many people in showbusiness who could host that show because what he does obviously is present it, but also he then improvises and he has lines and he referees the thing.

"That’s like patting your head, rubbing your stomach and doing something else at the one time. Most of us, we either say lines or we talk rubbish, but he’s actually doing many things at once.

“I often suddenly realise when he goes on a flight of fancy that it’s quite an intellectual one and that I worry if I can keep up with this thing.

I’m busy going through the rolodex of things that I could say and he’s moved on before I get a word in.

Jones also appreciates the Irish presenter’s ability to put up the jibes he gets. “The ‘Megabus’ business [Ó Briain looks like the coach service’s mascot] and ‘things that look like Dara’. I certainly know people in showbiz who wouldn’t put up with that, but he is happy to play along. He has affability as well, and he’s quite rude to the producers, which is funny.

They often ask him to re-take stuff and he tells them to ‘F off’ — that he’s not doing that again. He’s very much in charge of the show.

Jones has become a kind of byword for daftness because of his clever one-liners and malapropisms. Along with the likes of Tim Vine and Jimmy Carr, he’s one of the masters of the artform.

He uses his wacky shirt-and-hair look, and arched eyebrows, to heighten his deliveries. When he casts his eye around the world, he notices that populist politicians can be as unintentionally artful.

“Donald Trump supplies so many as well,” he says. “You just have to listen. I can’t believe he’s the most powerful man in the world. He said recently that American forces ‘took over the airports’ during the US War of Independence in the 18th century.

“It’s one of the difficult things with satire at the moment. With Boris Johnson as well. You just have to write down, what they say. You don’t even have to exaggerate it because it sounds exaggerated already. It’s a problem for comedians because they’ve gone beyond satire in this strange 1984 world that we live in.”

The 55-year-old Jones, who started out in showbusiness as an actor, has been doing the stand-up circuit since the 1990s. “I tried to be an actor years ago but no one else wanted me to be an actor,” he says.

Winning a Perrier Award for “best newcomer” at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1996 was a notable stage post. It can be a hard graft, trying to make rooms full of strangers laugh.

“I spent the first two years of performing hoping that the venue would burn down before I got there.

Emotionally, you’ve got to find a way of putting on armour. For me, it’s being a character.

"For others, it’s having a very thick skin. Doing a hundred-odd dates, as I’m doing on this tour, mentally you’ve got to be quite tough.

“It’s a bit like when you practice for karate where you bang your hand on a board for ages and ages. It builds up tough skin. It’s like stand-up — you just get tougher so it’s harder to be affected by the highs and lows, which is why comedians are always miserable.

"They stay on a middle line. They’re quite hard to get high because they refuse to go down low.”

Jones’s tough nights are often at corporate gigs, he says, and he’s endured both good and bad heckling.

“I did the Cardiff Retail Awards a few years ago,” he says. “Just before I went on stage someone said to me, ‘You know, they don’t speak English?’ I did half an hour to the soundman laughing and no one else.

"You think: it’s only half an hour; I’m still getting paid, but you feel a bit bruised, like you haven’t done your job properly.

“People tend to shout out the same thing, as you can imagine. Because of the way I look — with the high hair and the shirts — they often shout out, ‘Where did you get your shirts?’ and, ‘Get a haircut!’ Depending how aggressive they are, I’ll say, ‘Get your throat cut.’

Usually a heckler will spend 10 minutes thinking, I’ll shout this. He shouts it, and then if you engage him in conversation, he hasn’t planned the next bit at all so usually you win quite easily.

“Having trained as an actor that was the single hardest thing, the fourth wall coming down, being prepared to talk to people and to be calm enough to wait and not be over-aggressive.

“There are only two heckles that have floored me. They were more esoteric ones. Someone once shouted out, ‘What is this?’ It’s too complicated to explain. Another time someone shouted out, ‘These are just words!’ That was really hard to deal with. It made me laugh.”

- Milton Jones will perform at Cork Opera House on Monday, April 20. He plays five other venues in Ireland, including in Galway and Dublin

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