"I wouldn't sell this as a mainstream show. You need to come prepared"

A master of absurdity, John-Luke Roberts is one of this year's hottest tickets. He tells Lewis Porteous that it's only now that he's got the skills to pull it off

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John-Luke Roberts. Image: Sarah Donley
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Published 14 Aug 2018

“I describe it as an absurdist manifesto told through 24 fictional Spice Girls, because that's a better way of marketing the show. What I should be saying is, 'it's a really stupid show about the Spice Girls'.”

John-Luke Roberts is having a breakthrough. Long established as one of the most consistently inventive—and funny—comedians at the Fringe, his latest offering All I Wanna Do Is [FX: GUNSHOTS] With a [FX: GUN RELOADING] and a [FX: CASH REGISTER] and Perform Some Comedy!, directed by Sam Bailey, is garnering rave reviews and reaching audiences outside the alternative comedy intelligentsia.

It's tempting to attribute his current flush of success to dogged determination. Roberts has been ploughing his own idiosyncratic furrow for years, seemingly indifferent to notions of mainstream acceptance and commercial success. As a co-host of the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society, he's acted as the architect and figurehead of a wilfully left-field comedy scene. One could argue that only prevailing trends have prevented him from achieving wider impact, though he's not so sure. The comedian suggests his earlier work was hampered by structural issues.

“All my shows have been about something and people haven't really noticed, which made me realise I hadn't quite put them together in the right way,” he says. “It's a tricky balance. You've got to be funny throughout. As soon as you make it about something, you can put that in the jokes to an extent. But when it's absurdist jokes you're dealing with, then you have to be oblique in a way. You have to put enough of the theme in for it to register, but not so much that it dominates and turns into something that isn't comedy.

“Around the time of my very first solo show I said I thought the follow up was going to be called A Cogent Defence of Absurdity... Live! but I didn't do it. I've realised I didn't have the tools to put that show together then.”

While Roberts says he's been steadily honing the techniques required to pull off his strongest work to date, it has to be said that its premise—“laughing at things we don't understand”—is particularly suited to his nonsensical stylings. Certainly, the dissolution of a long-term relationship, mental illness and his father's death were difficult topics to broach in this fashion.

“All art has to be about something,” he goes on. “If you've made a choice for it not to be about something, then it's sort of about not being about something, which is absurdism in a way.” This sounds labyrinthine and confusing.

“That's the joy of it. I want people to be able to walk away from this show saying, 'I have no idea what that was about; that was hilarious'. I'm also happy for people to walk away and think, 'Oh, that's an interesting point of view,' or 'That's a compelling defence of this type of comedy'.

“I go quite a long way to do weird stuff and let everybody in. You can do weird stuff in an open, generous way where you don't compromise what you're doing, but can let people know 'this is for you if you want it'.”

Roberts is showing us that many people do in fact want bizarre character comedy revolving around imagined girl group members – they just don't know it yet. Reaching them is key.

“The title's unwieldy, sure, but it's been quite useful. In the marketing for this stuff you want to put off the people that won't like it as much as you want to draw in the people that will like it. I wouldn't sell this as a mainstream show. You need to come prepared.”

You also need to put your money down in advance, for his current Fringe run signals a move away from the Free Fringe to a more mainstream Assembly venue. Roberts is philosophical when discussing the economics of the Fringe and sees pros and cons to working in both types of space. At the moment, the move seems to be paying dividends.

“The difference is how it's perceived. You need an audience to trust you enough to let you do this stuff and know that it must be good on some level. A way of doing this is to put it in a smarter room and have a [theatre] set there. I think image is important. Anything you can do to make it more beautiful is helpful.”

Not that Roberts is one for taking easy options. Moments in our interview hint at tantalising methods of self sabotage the comedian may wish to explore in the future.

“There was a point where I was trying to slip in some references even I didn't understand. Someone said to me, 'You should have that line from [the science fiction film] Dune: “Let the spices flow” [sic]. And I thought, 'Maybe I should' – because I've not read or watched Dune.”