COMIC KING OF DEAD­PAN

Mas­ter cur­mud­geon Rich Hall, soon to per­form at Mel­bourne’s In­ter­na­tional Com­edy Fes­ti­val, prefers to ar­tic­u­late his an­ar­chic rage with a straight face, writes Jane Corn­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

Rich Hall walks into a bar wear­ing a cow­boy hat and a quizzi­cal look. “If you re­ally want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll want to know is where I was born and what my lousy child­hood was like,” he says in his grav­elly voice, the same growl that in­spired Matt Groen­ing’s cranky bar­man Moe Szys­lak on The Simp­sons. “I got kicked out of Pencey Prep, this school in Penn­syl­va­nia with the ads show­ing hot-shot guys on horses jump­ing fences. You prob­a­bly heard of it.”

I have, as it hap­pens, since Hall has just para­phrased the open­ing of Catcher in the Rye. “OK, so there’s my 17 years of metham­phetamine abuse, nine re­habs, four mar­riages, 16 kids and short stint with the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers,” he tries, which isn’t true ei­ther. The co­me­dian, head­ing to Aus­tralia next month for the Mel­bourne In­ter­na­tional Com­edy Fes­ti­val, can’t help it: Hall, 61, has carved an award-win­ning com­edy ca­reer out of mak­ing things up.

We’ve met in east Lon­don, the other side of town from where the North Carolina-raised Hall lives (since 2004) with his English wife, Karen, and 10-year-old daugh­ter, Dixie-Rae, to chat about 3.10 to Hu­mour, the stand-up show he is bring­ing to Aus­tralia this month. He’s ar­rived 45 min­utes late, un­able to phone since he doesn’t own a mo­bile, all apolo­gies and twin­kleeyed hu­mour. The cur­mud­geon stuff is an act.

An act that has won him such gongs as the Per­rier at the Ed­in­burgh Fringe and the Barry at the Mel­bourne Com­edy Fes­ti­val, and seen him in de­mand since he first stepped on to the stage of Comic Strip Live in New York in the 1970s, armed with a mega­phone, a hoop of fire and a can­dle shaped like a gi­ant toad. His ob­ser­va­tional hu­mour is acer­bic, fre­quently ab­sur­dist and evolves on the fly: ran­dom au­di­ence mem­bers be­come sub­jects of coun­try-and-western songs. Top­i­cal is­sues — gun con­trol, the US elec­tion race, Bob Dy­lan’s late ca­reer lameness — are skew­ered on to walls.

Time and again Hall’s ex­pertly crafted tirades and can­tan­ker­ous de­liv­ery have proved com­edy gold, whether he’s guest­ing on pop­u­lar BBC panel quiz shows, head­lin­ing fes­ti­vals in the guise of his coun­try-mu­sic-singing, ex-con un­cle Otis Lee Cren­shaw (a char­ac­ter he re­tired five years ago) or play­ing a pub on one of Scot­land’s windswept Orkney Is­lands, which he did last week.

“I just wanted to go to the Orkneys so I put a date in the [ 3.10 To Hu­mour] tour. It’s bar­ren and kinda beau­ti­ful in a bleak way and the Orka­dian peo­ple are kind of bleak too, but they loved it. Those are the best gigs,” he says when I ask. “The ones where you sur­prise your­self with how funny you are.”

The younger of two brothers born to a welder and a shop as­sis­tant at JC Pen­neys, Hall grew up in the Amer­i­can south watch­ing co­me­di­ans such as Jack Benny and Jackie Gleason on TV, read­ing JD Salinger’s teenage opus (“That book had a pro­found ef­fect on any­one of a cer­tain age”), shrug­ging off religious stud­ies and want­ing to be a jour­nal­ist. Af­ter two years at Western Carolina Univer­sity (“ma­jor­ing in Lynyrd Skyn- yrd”), he went to Wash­ing­ton to study lit­er­a­ture and got a job on a news­pa­per in Seat­tle, writ­ing fluff pieces (which he hated) and opin­ion col­umns (which he loved).

Stand-up com­edy was tak­ing off, and Hall wanted in: “Steve Martin was fill­ing sta­di­ums. Ge­orge Car­lin and Richard Pryor were on Satur­day Night Live. It seemed like the thing to do but I didn’t know how to do it. So I be­came a street per­former, a pre­tend movie di­rec­tor with a mega­phone, claim­ing I was mak­ing a cheap Ja­panese mon­ster film and needed crowd scenes.”

He puts a fist to his mouth, side­ways, and tips his head back. “Whad­dya have to do to get a drink around here?” he booms as ev­ery­body in the bar does a dou­ble take. “Putting peo­ple in un­com­fort­able sit­u­a­tions and yelling at them from a foot away with a mega­phone is al­ways funny,” he says with a shrug.

Th­ese elab­o­rate out­door rou­tines let Hall ex­er­cise his off-the-cuff wit and re­fine his heck­ler han­dling; he was so good he was even re­cruited as sup­port act for an art-punk band named Talk­ing Heads.

“When­ever I go down Run­dle Mall in Ade­laide I’m re­minded of how good a street per­former I was,” he says. “They [liv­ing stat­ues] stand there painted all day with their dad in the crowd, weep­ing, say­ing ‘ Don’t pre­tend it’s not you, that’s paint from my garage, you’re killing your mother …’ I mean re­ally. What is the least amount of per­for­mance you can pos­si­bly do?”

Any­way, then came New York and Comic Strip Live, where co­me­di­ans such as Larry Miller and Jerry Se­in­feld ruled the roost.

Open spots led to reg­u­lar slots, and then to writ­ing ma­te­rial for the David Let­ter­man show (for which he won two Em­mys). There were reg­u­lar ap­pear­ances on Amer­i­can net­works in­clud­ing in the satir­i­cal com­edy se­ries Not Nec­es­sar­ily the News, where he pop­u­larised the ne­ol­o­gism “sniglet” to de­scribe newly cre­ated words, and in­deed Satur­day Night Live, for which he also wrote.

By the late 90s he’d be­come a pop­u­lar fix­ture at com­edy venues and fes­ti­vals ev­ery­where from Belfast to Bos­ton, Manch­ester to Mel­bourne (“I be­came a street per­former and even­tu­ally a comic so I could go places,” he told The Seat­tle Times in 1994). He still breaks up his show with mu­si­cal in­ter­ludes.

Also, he still lam­poons each town and coun­try he vis­its, sav­ing his harsh­est wit­ti­cisms for his home­land. That he does so with a poker face only makes him all the fun­nier.

“In com­edy there has to be a tar­get, and the dead­pan schtick helps me ar­tic­u­late that rage,” says Hall, who first played Aus­tralia in 1998 and has re­turned ev­ery other year since, in­vari­ably to sold-out houses. “It’s an ex­ag­ger­a­tion. It’s theatre,” he says. He has writ­ten sev­eral plays, semi-ironic pieces that tell of right-wing talk show hosts and oil-di­vin­ing religious cults (2006’s Level­land) and the own­ers and res­i­dents of a Mon­tana ho­tel about to be razed to make a free­way (2007’s Best Western).

Both were con­sec­u­tively staged at the Ed­in­burgh Fringe Fes­ti­val. Nei­ther was fi­nan­cially vi­able.

“You’d be bet­ter off tak­ing your money, sta­pling it to the out­side of your jacket and go­ing for a walk through the dodgi­est part of town.” He puffs on his va­por­iser. “I wanted to write a western drama ’ cause I love Sam Shep­ard and all that stuff. I got it right in 2009 with Camp­fire Sto­ries, a play I made with [North Amer­i­can co­me­dian] Mike Lo­mack, about trout fish­ing.”

Which some­how brings us to that famed trout farmer, Roger Dal­trey of the Who, and the small ranch cum writ­ing re­treat Hall owns in

Rich Hall has built a ca­reer from mak­ing

things up

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