“The first rule is to destroy any sense of learning at school. You don’t want to appear to be a smartarse. That’s a fast track to a beating
mercilessly beaten. The first rule is to destroy any sense of learning at school. You don’t want to appear to be a smartarse. That’s a fast track to a beating.”
At any rate, he was smart enough to secure a place at Cambridge. He studied law but, like so many other future celebrities at that university, quickly got lured towards the Footlights comedy club. Indeed, he eventually became president of the society. Decades pass, comedy fashions change, but, in the years since Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller emerged from Footlights, the organisation has continued to exert a weirdly disproportionate influence on British show business. Other prominent Footlights presidents include Clive James, Clive Anderson, Eric Idle, Hugh Laurie, Sue Perkins, and (more unexpectedly) Peter Bradshaw, chief film critic for the Guardian.
“I can’t say why that persists. Enough people go through it for there to be some sort of numbers game. You might get the similar correlations if you look at all the people coming out of Bradford. There are many who go through and don’t do anything later. But yes, there are unfair privileges and advantages in being in a comedy club that has some reputation. You can get bookings.”
So how do you get to be president? “Nobody else stood. Nobody else wanted to do it. Comedy is what you do when everything else fails. David Beckham doesn’t go around saying ‘I wish I was a comedian’.”
He is overstating the case, surely. Aside from anything else, he hadn’t had time to fail as a lawyer.
“Well, I wasn’t doing that well at law either. If you’re good at school you can, without thinking, end up in that sort of stream. There’s never a notion you won’t do A-levels. I was – and remain – massively unrebellious. I’d seen Perry Mason on TV and thought: why not?”
Buoyed up by his Footlights experiences, Ayoade dabbled in stand-up, but his heart was never quite in it. Furrowing his brow, he explains that he couldn’t quite deal with the way a comic must both be himself and live out a manufactured onstage persona. Ever the buttoned-up Englishman, he couldn’t quite cope with the need to deconstruct his own character.
Still, he fast found his feet as a writer and a comic actor. Many comedy fans will have first encountered him as a supporting player in the comedy revue Garth Marenghi (variously subtitled Fright Knight, Netherhead and Darkplace). Later an excellent TV show, the unclassifiable comic oddity that won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival, starred Matthew Holness as a supernaturally pompous horror writer modelled – I’m guessing here – on such pontificators as Clive Barker and James Herbert.
“The strange thing is we’ve never done interviews about that show,” he says cautiously. “I know this sounds Johnny Deppish and arsey, but it feels improper to talk about it. Not least because it would be ridiculous to talk about a show that shows how ridiculous people are when they talk about themselves.”
In the early part of last decade, Ayoade established himself as one of those comic actors you like, but to whom you can’t quite put a name. He lurked in Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris’s series Nathan Barley. He played various roles in various incarnations – radio, stage, telly – of The Mighty Boosh.
But it took The IT Crowd for him to become properly (if not majorly) famous. The series was not an immediate hit. But, over the past five years, it has gradually developed a fanatical following. If you were being pernickety, you could argue that the series offers an unfairly cliched portrait of IT. Moss and Roy (the superb Chris O’Dowd) hammer away at video games, fail with women and spend daytime in a dingy basement. The IT community must be outraged. “I think it has never, ever really tried to present itself as a documentary,” he says with a straight face. “It tends very squarely towards silliness. From what I can tell people doing these jobs like it more than most. I don’t think any of them are losing sleep over it.” That’s a relief. It wouldn’t do if IT workers were organising hate campaigns against such an agreeable fellow. But the success must, surely, have caused him some problems. I would imagine he now gets gawped at when buying milk. Random strangers must expect him to be funny.
“The worst thing in the world is being asked to tell a joke. Actually, for some reason I think people don’t expect me to be funny. So we’re on the same page.”
And he can walk the streets unmolested? “I can get out of my house fairly easily,” he jokes. “I am not Justin Bieber. That’s something I have to remind myself of daily.” (Infectious) Heavenly pop hits from our new favourite band from Oz, who won the Australian Music Prize for this album last weekend. (LL) The more we hear it, the more we dig it. Blockbuster, emotional pop from the pouting Swede. (Young & Lost Club) Bumping, bodacious single from the Oxford, Mississipi act who we expect to make a big splash at SXSW next week.