Forget James Bond, Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt – there’s a new spy in town. And he’s not dressed in a neat tuxedo or head-to-toe camouflage. He’s wearing a garish Hawaiian shirt.
That’s right, Milton Jones – ‘Mock the Week’s resident oddball, Radio 4 regular and king of the surreal one-liner – is back on tour, and this time he’s an international man of mystery.
The wild-haired joke-teller might not be the obvious choice for a secret agent, but in ‘Milton: Impossible’ the 55-year-old comic will be taking his audience through an action-packed story via hundreds of his trademark, exquisitely-crafted pieces of wordplay.
Ben Williams caught up with the ‘Live at the Apollo’ star ahead of his UK tour to check he’s had the proper training.
The new tour is called ‘Milton: Impossible’. What made you decide on the spy theme?
Basically, I came up with the title before the show! I thought: “That sounds good!” So I made a rod for my own back by theming it. But sometimes it’s easier to write to a theme than have a completely blank page. The show is based on “Mission: Impossible”, but “Mission: Impossible” has a huge budget and lots of special effects. My show is just me and some hats and about 250 jokes. It’s low-tech instead of high-tech.
So, like your last two tours, I hear this show has a narrative element to it?
If you’re going to do a show for over an hour you can’t just tell bits. That’s what I do on “Mock the Week” and “Live at the Apollo”, which is fine, but you want something with the veneer of satisfaction, otherwise it’s too fragmented. This show’s got an interrogation scene, a car chase with a swivel chair, and I end up escaping on top of a Vince Cable Car. It’s not strictly realistic, but it’s as daft as ever.
Before touring, you perform work-in-progress shows to test your material. How important are those previews?
They’re very important. Even after all these years, I’ll think I’ve written the best joke ever and it turns out to be one of the worst jokes ever – but what I’ve improvised off the back of it stays in the show. So I would have never got to point B without going through the dreadful point A.
Do you end up with a lot of great jokes that just don’t fit into the theme or narrative of the show?
Yeah, I do. There are about 250 jokes in the show, but I reckon I end up writing about 350. A lot of them are then used somewhere else – in the next tour, on radio, on “Mock the Week” – so they’re never wasted. And if they’re particularly brilliant then I might go out of my way to include them in the show!
Have you ever thought of doing a show of just the offcut jokes that didn’t make it into the final version?
Yes, I could even call it “off cuts”, couldn’t I? In fact, some would argue that that’s what I do anyway!
When do you consider a joke ‘finished’?
When I’ve got an idea over in the minimum number of words, then I know it’s done.
What makes the perfect joke to you?
If a gag works, it makes a cartoon in someone’s head – a very brief picture where they think they know where it’s going, and then you pull the carpet from under them and it was all about something else all along. It’s reverse engineering from an idea or a phrase.
Your last tour played to more than 100,000 people, and you’ve appeared on ‘Mock the Week’ over 40 times. What’s more fun to do: a live show or a TV appearance?
They’re both a lot of fun in different ways. Going to small places on a Saturday night where they’re all determined to have a great laugh – I don’t think that can be beaten, in one sense.
With radio or television, you’re as good as the edit, and it’s out of your control. That may well work in your favour, or it may not. With “Mock the Week”, when I think I’ve done a bad show, I’ll watch it back and think, “oh, it was all right”, but when I think I’ve done a really good show I’ll watch it back and think, “oh, it was all right”. It all evens out.
Do you always watch your ‘Mock the Week’ appearances back?
Yes, because I need to know what they used and what they didn’t. Doing several episodes, the same subjects may come back, so obviously I don’t want to say the same thing that has already been aired. And then, occasionally, I’ll be channel flicking and I’ll come across myself, endlessly being repeated on Dave.
I’m very grateful to “Mock the Week” for giving me a wider platform, and also a slightly different audience. It’s a younger audience, and those people will come to a tour show, sometimes even bringing their grandparents or parents. My audiences are a motley selection of people, which I quite like, actually.
How do you cater for the different generations in the same audience?
I am aware that if I make a reference to Instagram or something I’m going to lose everyone over 50. But that’s fine because overall my references are quite general, and even if you didn’t get it, the joke’s only going to last 20 seconds, so there’ll be something else along soon enough.
You have another Radio 4 series in the works, the tour and more ‘Mock the Week’ episodes. What’s next after that?
I don’t have anything else planned! But who knows what will turn up. Sometimes the unexpected things that come along are the most interesting – other quiz shows, a corporate event abroad – things you wouldn’t have predicted. Doing “Celebrity Mastermind” or something, you know? You get to meet and talk to people you wouldn’t otherwise.
What was your specialist subject on ‘Celebrity Mastermind’?
‘I mean, if I’d have taken it seriously I’d have done something like Arsenal. But when he announced it – “your specialist subject is potatoes” – the audience all laughed, and I thought: in a way, I’ve chalked up! I came last, obviously. But I’m employed as a comedian. It’s entertainment. If I get to do it again I’ll choose carrots.’
‘Milton Jones in Milton: Impossible’ is on tour, 23 Jan – 18 Apr 2020. www.miltonjones.com. Interview: Ben Williams