An Interview with Comedian Paul Foot



BY POPULAR REQUEST (!) Here is the text from my interview with Paul Foot, back in the days when I was an edgy and stalkerish student journalist. It was published in Leeds Student at some point in 2009 (I had to salvage the HMTL-stricken words off their website) and I believe it is still the most in-depth interview with Paul Foot to date.
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I like this interview because it documents the first time I properly met Paul. Since then Paul's become a friend and I've become his publicist. One of the many bizzarre and unchartered limbs of my couldn't-make-it-up career in media.
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It seems Paul Foot is a comic of both the margins and the centre. An eccentric and aloof character known for holding secret gigs and subversive tea parties, as he springs onto the stage (with a strange roll-along suitcase never too distant from him) we feel as if we are in the presence of Dr. Seuss’ take on Paddington Bear. He bounds and buckles before the audience delivering his bizarre humour that slips between enthusiastic loud bursts and humble self-musings. There are some impressive facts and prizes tied into the Paul Foot story. Amongst several comedy awards Paul was nominated for a Perrier, and more recently he was a finalist on NBC’s Last Comic Standing, not to mention his thousands of committed fans (or “connoisseurs’ as he calls them).
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But this stage presence of the extrovert recluse is a cleverly constructed identity, and to the fashion-trained eye there is a clue-his exquisite Paul Smith tie.
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I spent an afternoon and evening shadowing this shadowiest of comedians, on behalf of LS, before, during and after his gig at Winston Smith’s Leeds comedy night Gag Hole. I set myself the task of finding the real Paul Foot. How has he come to be on the brink of world stardom four times and always somehow refrained? Who are the inspirations and cultural resources behind his genius humour? And what of his never-before documented past— a confused maths graduate from Merton College, Oxford —
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It is the last day of April, and the sun fills the room with a warm glow from behind Winston’s canary yellow curtains. I am sitting in Winston Smith’s bedroom in Leeds where Paul Foot lies (fully clothed) inside Winston’s bed and looking somewhat like Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother.
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I’ve watched Paul perform three times, at the Edinburgh Fringe, in London and now here in Leeds. Winston Smith introduces us as I sit gingerly on the foot of the bed, rummaging in my satchel for my Dictaphone. Paul smiles with an unsettling mixture of friendliness and knowingness, I am now reminded of the landlord in the Wicker Man. I learn that feeling at ease and also a bit
uncomfortable is an important paradigm of Paul’s act, if not self-conscious.
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I ask Paul to talk about Last Comic Standing, a popular TV show from last year presented by Fearne Cotton in which 35 “international’ comedians took part in a US knock-out tournament. “I was invited to the heats in Miami. One or two of the comedians were from Australia, but mostly from the UK. So it was thirty-five comedians on one jumbo-jet, a massive party.”
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Unlike other professions, say singing or acting, it seems comedians get on well together. “There are probably only two comedians that I don’t like as people. Generally we all bond and get on well together. It’s delightful, you can meet a comedian who has been in the business for fifteen years, or one who has just finished their first gig, and you get along great, you understand each other”.
Last Comic Standing was Paul’s biggest audience to date, with a live theatre of 1100 plus an international TV audience of over 15 million. “I was quite nervous in Las Vegas. There was a difference between getting into the final and, well, not getting into the final”. Iliza Shlesinger eventually went on to win, her humour perhaps tailor-made for an American audience, with reels of jokes about Pizza and fatness.
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I wondered what working with Fearne Cotton was like. “I saw her a lot for the actual finals, but Fearne had a lot to do, I just turned up for my parts of each show. I was having a holiday basically. Fearne’s lovely and very good at her job”.
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Like all comedians Paul started off unheard of. “I remember at first I had one fan. Just one person who would turn up to my gigs. It was sad”. Nevertheless Paul’s fan-base rocketed as a result of the exposure on such a huge show, and he now has an avid following which demands a lot of Paul’s time-delivering video blogs, replying to fan emails and updating his twitter. “The internet can be problematic, I’ve been having problems with Twitter this weekend. Also, there’s another Paul Foot, an actor who is in Equity”.
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A particular cult classic Paul Foot moment is his spoof film proposal, in which Paul plays all the characters. The plot revolves around a trophy wife who accidentally kills her older husband while having sex on an internet-purchased mahogany dining table.
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Perhaps my favourite Paul Foot moment is his routine on how despite Jesus’ many attributes and achievements, was a failure in the field of carpentry.
But I venture into the more sincere side of the interview. What did Paul Foot do for a living before comedy?
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“Well I knew I wanted to be a comedian when I was at Merton”. Where most figures in the public eye that went to Oxbridge flaunt the fact, Paul rarely acknowledges his educational background. “Maths was a tragic degree. I was good at it but it was boring. Upon graduation I took up a job with a recruitment agency.
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"I remember the interview, I told him that I was completely uninterested in the job but that I wanted some money. The guy told me that I was unemployable with such an attitude, but he took me on anyway, in fact I initially didn’t take the job and then he head-hunted me. It wasn’t hardcore, I just fetched cakes”.
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Paul Foot graduated from Oxford exactly when the internet was born. “I had to read manuals on HTML and just write websites from scratch. None of us really knew what we were doing”. It wasn’t long before Paul left bureaucracy for comedy. “I was scientific as a child, although Mathematics was the wrong degree, I should have done English or, um, perhaps Latin. But of course it doesn’t matter now. My interests are mainly comedy and cock”, he looks away at the window with a wry little smile.
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The interview reaches a natural interval and Paul begins to make suggestive comments towards Winston. “He keeps being all sexual” jokes Paul, casting an eye at the unsuspecting and seemingly innocent Winston. “He keeps talking about his cock and saying he wants me to touch it”. They begin to laugh, Paul clearly in his element, Winston sat cautiously on the window-ledge of his own bedroom, picking at the hem of his chequered shirt. I snatch my moment to quiz Paul over his sexuality— does he have a gay agenda?
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“I hardly ever acknowledge it. My material is probably the straightest of any openly gay comics. I sometimes mention sexuality, but often not, there are other things to talk about. When I’m out in the provinces, like Bedford, I’ll do my routine about gay sperm since it causes such a reaction.
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“It angers me to read about homophobia, like people being beaten up at three in the morning in a car park because of their sexuality, so I sometimes use comedy as a learning curve. It’s pathetic when comedians are homophobic and think they’re being cool and ironic, they’re not, they’re just crap comedians who lack imagination. I’m not going to go around telling people not to be gay, and similarly I’m not going around telling people to be gay. I don’t have a gay agenda, just a comedy agenda. I’m a comedian.”
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Sexuality – tick, I move on to more pressing issues like fashion. Where, repeat WHERE, does Paul shop in order to conjure this look of mostly-purple antiquity? He is reluctant to tell me exactly. “Anywhere really. These trousers came from a shop for example. This cardigan was from a connoisseur. He wore this cardigan, I wore my cardigan and we immediately swapped, there was a bond”.
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Fine dining is a topic that Paul will discuss. “I’m self-taught, with a few lessons learnt off my mother. I enjoy cooking game pie, venison omelettes, that sort of thing”. Winston mentions how Paul once made a roast dinner at 4am for a group of friends, but ate the best bits of meat himself. “Well I bought it all” Paul hastily interrupts in mock self-defence. I ask him if he has a favourite restaurant back in London. Paul gives a prompt and definite reply: “Pied à Terre”.
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Paul is adverse to pop culture, “I can’t stand films, there’s too much going on, people walking around, men wearing hats, and women, I just can’t follow them. My favourite film is Titanic. I don’t like it, in fact, I hate it. But it’s my favourite”. On literature he says “I haven’t read a book since I was seventeen”. What about Harry Potter? “Well actually I did try that. It’s rubbish”.
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And so the official interview slot draws to a close as Paul sits up and adjusts the cuffs of his shirt. I leave the house of Winston Smith, anticipated about the evening’s performance, I’m perhaps more confused now as to who Paul Foot really is.
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The evening eventually arrives and I am sitting with my American friend Maggie on the second row. I was beginning to consider myself a quite senior Paul Foot connoisseur by now, afterall, I’d not only seen him perform several times, but I’d interviewed him extensively at his (or Winston’s) bedside, as well as sharing a large icy pitcher of Pimms before the gig.
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Nothing, however, could have prepared me for Paul’s set that night. His comedy started off in recognisable Footian territory, musing on the farcical nature of counselling hotlines pinned to the credits of soap operas. The second phase of his gig took a loony twist as Paul began speculating over the occurrence that is vans—that’s right— just vans, as in the vehicle, and then his invented accessory – vanglasses—.. I just can’t explain…
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My journalistic ability is yet to be formative enough to describe Paul’s set… in fact I question whether I will ever develop writing abilities strong enough to do Paul’s comedy a decent service. Still, the audience of around one hundred Leeds students, were a riotous concoction of laughter fits, gasps of shock and (I’m pretty sure) pissing themselves.
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The final part of Paul Foot’s act was titled “Revenge on a Bed & Breakfast Landlady”. The complex and increasingly elaborate tale spiralled out of control until, somehow, Paul had two men simulating sex with themselves on stage, ululating like Red Indians and pretending to smash imaginary china dollies while he screwed himself up into a ball on the floor and started wailing as if in pain. The audience by this point had lost all sense of reality to their inner senses and to laughter. None of them knew what to think anymore, they just knew that Paul Foot was something else.
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“In my teens I imagined my future self at 48 years old, married, with a Ford Sierra and children” Paul told me quietly as we walked towards the grandeur and noise of Leeds University Union. His career stands testament to how none of us, not even Oxford maths graduates, can predict our futures, but that creativity and humour are enough to be a success, and more importantly – to be happy.
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Students run up to Paul post-gig, asking for info about upcoming gigs, excited girls take photos alongside him while even the most scrofulous of boys offer him their rosy-cheeked praise. He is invited to a handful of parties too. Surely the cool party culture is the icing on the comedian’s cake, it’s the social approval they all craved in school, the opportunity for them to cash-in all that hard-crafted humour for drugs and sex?
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“I’m okay thanks” he politely rebuts. “I don’t really feel like partying tonight, but I’m quite hungry though, I might just get some food”. And so Paul Foot’s off— in his Paul Smith tie, roll-along case in tow, and disappears into the warm May moonlight.
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Follow Paul Foot on Twitter: www.twitter.com/paulfoot and join his Official Facebonk Page.
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1 comment:

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