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Rhys James: “Who wants to hear the political opinions of a 25-year-old who’s never experienced anything?”

| Comedy | 27/02/2017

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Tomorrow night, Rhys James brings his latest show – Forgives – to Soho Theatre for five nights.  The young stand-up, labelled ‘one to watch’ for a while and now featuring regularly on comedy vehicles like Mock The Week, delivers an impressive show full of great jokes, call-backs and over-privileged angst.  Ahead of the Soho run, Ian Cater caught up with him to discuss Russell Brand, poetry and raccoons.

Rhys James is unexpectedly enjoyable to interview.  At least as funny as he seems on-stage, he’s also relaxed, open and self-aware.  In short, a little different to the young man I saw performing Forgives at the Edinburgh Fringe last year.

That show – which comes to Soho Theatre for five nights from tomorrow – was excellent, easily deserving its four-star rating.  But I found him a bit hard to warm to, writing in my review: “at times he’s too blunt, his Jack Dee-esque resting-bitch-face sometimes sitting unhappily alongside self-deprecating content.”

James is anything but blunt or cold in person, reinforcing two points: (1) as with many comedians, his slightly surly stage persona is an act, intentionally posing as an entitled ‘Millennial’ stereotype; and (2) as he continues to perfect his routine, revealing more of his own personality, the future will be very bright for this 25-year-old son of Hertfordshire.

Future star

The future seems to occupy James a lot, especially when it comes to discussing Forgives.  “I think that’s the theme of the show,” he says.  “A while ago, I found this letter I’d written to myself 15 years in the future when I was 12.  So I share it with the audience and do another one to read when I’m 40, predicting the future.

Rhys James shave credit Matt Crockett“It’s a popular theme right now.  Last year in Edinburgh, it seemed that all young comics were talking about their future, or the country’s future.  And I guess it was a pretty appropriate year to be worrying and self-reflecting.”

While bucking the trend by giving Brexit a light touch – “my Brexit contribution is the most non-committal routine in history” – James focuses on the generational divide, holding the ‘Baby Boomers’ up against the Millennials.  But he does it knowingly, constantly alluding to the fact he’s an over-privileged middle-class male with little to validly complain about.

This self-deprecation is clearly genuine: offstage, James carefully avoids the suggestion he’s doing anything clever, or that people ought to sit up and listen to what he’s got to say.  “Ultimately, I sort of have to talk about the future,” he continues.  “When you’re a young comedian, you can’t really talk about the past, because nothing’s happened to you.  So you have to make predictions and prophesise a bit.”

Comic kid

In reality,  a lot has happened since James first thought of becoming a comedian ten years ago.  “It takes a really spoilt brat to think at that age: ‘One of my options is to be a paid comedian,'” he admits.  “But I didn’t think about how that would work.  There weren’t many stand-ups on TV – only really Jack Dee and Russell Brand, before the younger generation like Jack Whitehall started popping up.”

The real impetus to pursuing stand-up success came when James applied to become head boy of Roundwood Park School in Harpenden.  “Again, it shows how arrogant I was.  We had hustings and while most people did a pretty serious political speech, I did a joke one where I said I was the second coming – ‘Rhesus Christ’.  Thankfully it was taken in good humour and I realised how fun getting laughs could be.”

James didn’t secure the popular vote, but gained something more valuable: the confidence to do his first ever gig at 18 years old.  “It was at The Hat Factory in Luton and it went just well enough to justify doing it again.  After that, you fall into the cliché where you can’t seem to stop.”  And he didn’t, even when completing a degree in Politics and International Relations at Manchester University.  Although earning a 2:1, James spent more time stood behind a comedy club microphone than with his head buried in books.

“I almost didn’t go,” he says, “as I had it in my head that I could just take the comedy world by storm at 18.  But my parents made me and I’m so glad they did, because it gave me three years to get good at comedy and – let’s face it – grow up a bit.  I was interested in politics before I went, but when I got there my real focus was stand-up.”

It proved the right choice, with gigs and TV credits coming thick and fast post-graduation, as ‘one to watch’ whispers wafted around him.  This August sees his fourth full-length show at the Fringe – some achievement at his tender age.

Apolitical animal

Given his one-time interest in affairs of the state, I ask why James so studiously avoids politics in his act.  I mention a 2015 interview with Glasgow Evening Times, where James said he wanted to avoid the Russell Brand route, whose online political broadcasts – The Trews – were getting hit after hit at the time.

Rhys James credit Matt Crockett“Did I say that?” he queries, seeming genuinely shocked.  “God.  This is why I don’t do many of these interviews, because I change my mind so much.

“I never want to criticize Russell Brand, as he was a huge influence on me wanting to be a comedian.  Not stylistically, but seeing that someone fresh could succeed in the business.  And I did like The Trews, but I just prefer Russell Brand being a comedian.  That seems selfish now, because I know he was just trying to do something positive and make a change.”

After burrowing out of that hole, James returns to the self-deprecating safe ground: “I’m just not a current affairs type of stand-up, partly because I hate the idea of my material having such a short shelf life.  But also, who wants to hear the political opinions of a 25-year-old white man who’s never experienced anything?”

That means James is unlikely to shoehorn a piece on Trump into his show this week.  “You need to come up with something so original to go there now.  A big part of comedy is finding contrarian angles and you normally judge those against what other comedians are saying.  Everyone’s obviously anti-Trump, so if you do a contrarian angle on that, you’d better be able to back it up!  Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind risky and I’ve heard some great positions on Trump – Adam Hess, who I’ve been touring with, has one.  But, well … I’m getting a bit bored of reading about him.”

Poetry in motion

This hardly leaves the audience short-changed, given the volume of material James manages to fit into an hour.  “My shows have never been particularly themed,” he says.  “I just try to write things that are funny and then find through-lines to tie it together.  Sometimes I’ll use silly ones to give a bit of relief to heavier topics.  It reminds people when I’m touching on deeper stuff that: ‘This is the guy who was talking about watermelons a minute ago, so we shouldn’t take it too seriously.'”

That writing style also explains his variation, chopping between one-liners, short stories and poetry.  Yes, poetry.  “Like most losers, I started writing poetry when I was 14 for unimpressed girls,” he explains.  “When I did my debut show, I decided to include a list of jokes that rhymed.  The next year, I did a rhyming character piece.  This year, the poem’s set to music which I was really reluctant to do as I don’t want anyone to suggest I’m rapping, because I’m not.”

Once Forgives wraps up this Saturday, James will focus on his next show for this year’s Fringe: he’s already had a couple of outings, but says it’s too soon to ascribe a theme to the new material.  “It’ll be good, although I realised I’ve got too much material about a specific raccoon.  Remember that video clip of the raccoon that drops candy floss into a lake?  I cannot tell you how harrowing I find that clip – it’s easily the most emotionally affected I’ve been in years.  I can’t stop talking about it, so maybe the show will be all about that.”

Other than weeping at YouTube clips, James has plenty to keep him busy with more television appearances and a Radio 4 show – currently called Rhys James Is – out in the Autumn.  “I’m trying to get hold of my old school bully for it – not really a bully, he just pulled down my pants and trousers at school.  I want to interview him because I suspect he won’t remember, whereas for me it was one of the most important moments in my life.  The vibe I’m getting is he’s completely reluctant to meet, which is totally understandable.  But, if he’s reading, this isn’t a revenge plot.  Honest.”

Rhys James is performing Forgives at 19.30 at Soho Theatre between 28th February and 4th March 2017.  For tickets, head here.  For more information on Rhys’ work, check his official website or follow him @RhysJamesy on Twitter.

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