Helen Rutter and Rob Rouse appear to have found a way to work together without completely ruining their relationship. A married couple with two children, she's a playwright and actor who's just written her first novel, while he's an established stand-up, perhaps best known for playing Bottom in the BBC's Shakespeare sitcom Upstart Crow.
The pair have collaborated on two Edinburgh Fringe plays. And at the start of the first lockdown, they revived their Date Night podcast, in which they embark on a new activity together, supposedly whilst their children are at school. Sadly, coronavirus has disrupted that as much as everything else. So our interview takes place as they try to manage homeschooling their kids, Cleo and Lenny, along with Rouse's withdrawal symptoms from mothballed live comedy, as he climbs the walls of their home in the Peak District.
Rather than his father, it's Lenny that directly inspired The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh, Rutter's hugely compelling new children's novel. His attempts to master his stammer are recreated in Billy Plimpton, the 11-year-old, wannabe stand-up of the title.
Rutter, who briefly performed comedy herself, recalls how her now 13-year-old son found that telling jokes helped his confidence, allowing him to put other people at ease about his affliction.
"We'd been to speech therapy" she explains. "And he started to find this lightness dealing with it that was quite new. He started joking around and it felt really different, it felt quite refreshing. Often, comedians put themselves down and allow the audience to laugh at them. But that wasn't what Lenny was doing.
"In the book, I was trying to find that fine balance of making yourself vulnerable on stage, or in real life, laughing about something, popping the tension. But not turning it into something that other people are allowed to laugh at you for."
She recalls discussing the book at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe with Daniel Kitson. Arguably the most revered stand-up of his generation and himself beset with a stammer since childhood, the former Perrier Award winner offered to speak to Lenny at any point if the boy wanted to chat to him.
For Rouse, who hails stand-up's diversity in terms of the performers it attracts, and its capacity to handle difficult subject matter with a lightness of touch, the instructive lesson of Kitson's stammer is the ease with which he acknowledges it.
"We started out at a similar time to each other, doing lots of funny little back rooms in pubs, getting in the luggage racks on the train out of Waterloo" he recalls. "And Daniel always had that thing where he owned who he was. Sometimes [the stammer] would kick in during a gig. But he'd just go [adopts Kitson's voice] 'fuck me, that was a big one!'. Or 'yep, yep, I fucking know!' And that was enough. He's always been minimalist in the way he's handled it, because he clearly doesn't want his comedy to be about it. It was just a part of him that we were all accepting and he wanted the audience just to accept. By owning it like such a champion he made it a non-issue."
Other high-profile stammerers who've had success as public speakers include the new president of the US, Joe Biden, Rowan Atkinson and rapper-cum-actor Scroobius Pip. That's in addition to Musharaf Asghar, whose appearance in the 2013 Channel 4 documentary Educating Yorkshire, delivering a speech in front of his entire school's assembly, is echoed in the climax of Billy's story.
"That show was just incredibly powerful and emotional, you couldn't have had a more filmic ending" Rutter reflects. "It's funny where your inspirations come from - whether it's seeing Lenny perform in a school play or having that similar feeling watching Mushy in that documentary.
"Obviously, speaking in public carries a lot of power to it dramatically. But Billy wasn't a comedian originally, it wasn't in my head when I first started writing. The element of performing only came after my first draft."
As with Lenny, Billy is also a keen drummer and "at first it was just about this gorgeous little character who was into music. The character was amazing, the plot was terrible" she admits. "So I had to think about something this person wanted more than anything and how his stammer was going to get in the way of that.
"Standing on stage was just the device I needed. Mushy, Joe Biden, all those stories, they fit a similar pattern. As humans we need those triumph against the odds tales."
With immediate relatability for anyone who's ever struggled to fit in, especially at school, one of The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh's other notable achievements is that Billy is genuinely funny. But he's no fully formed stand-up, often losing confidence, occasionally losing faith in his dreams and only belatedly shifting from straightforward gag-telling to a more personal type of storytelling.
"You want it to work for kids. And kids love jokes, real dad jokes" Rutter reasons. "Once I had the idea of sticking his favourite joke book jokes at the top of the chapters and him learning them off by heart, which is what kids do, I knew that would appeal to them.
"But I definitely also wanted to get that dawning realisation that there are other ways to be funny, that you don't have to tell jokes and can just tell stories. But not go too far into that because it's the start of his journey. It definitely helps living with a ..."
"... comedian" Rouse interjects.
"... 11-year-old boy" corrects Rutter, who previously taught drama to children and affords Billy a sympathetic ear in the form of his kindly teacher Mr Osho.
The book's acknowledgments close with ironic thanks to Rouse for his commitment to reading, when in reality it was Lenny and Cleo who were the novel's initial proofreaders. Beginning in the initial lockdown, the literary-disinterested comic has managed to get a quarter of the way through Animal Farm. And he hasn't yet managed to post an online review of his wife's debut, though "rest assured, I'll give it an absolute kicking".
The pair have divergent senses of humour. Rouse likes to share their most private and potentially humiliating moments together on stage, "he has no shame". Rutter, meanwhile, prefers to jump out and scare her older husband when he's least expecting it, "potentially giving me a heart attack. She thinks it's hilarious, it's like living with a copy of Loaded". Even so, she appreciates the first-hand glimpses into a stand-up's mentality that her puppyish spouse presents her with. "I've turned her life around basically" he proudly boasts.
When they lived in London, Rutter was in a double-act with Natasha Joseph through 2008, performing a sketch show, Gas and Hot Air, for other new mothers, before briefly going solo in 2010. But "I would never have done comedy if I'd not met Rob" she concedes.
"I was an actress beforehand and that psychology of wanting to make yourself that vulnerable, it's there to a degree with acting. But you can always say 'well, these are not my words, this is not my play'. Seeing Rob put himself out there, it felt like a completely different world. That clearly rubbed off on me and I ended up doing it. But I wasn't quite prepared for the adrenaline and what it does to your brain afterwards. It was quite overwhelming and a little bit too much for me."
"Oh God, I'm missing it" Rouse howls. He's recently set up a Patreon account to keep his creative juices flowing, sharing daily videos, songs and articles online.
"I'm really missing that excitement of taking a risk every time you step on, the buzz of being in the moment with a bunch of strangers in a random room, anywhere, losing our inhibitions and having a laugh together" he says. "It's about the connection. Filming a bit of stand-up is never as much fun as just doing it in a room, because you're locking down something that's constantly changing. Even if it's the same routine, in the same room, on a different night, it's going to be different. That's what's so thrilling about live comedy.
"Stand-ups have a little hole in them, a need" he continues. "And it depends on how big the hole in you is as to whether you need to keep going for the parachute jump."
Available on the Patreon is a recording of Funny In Real Life, the comic play that the couple took to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019 and had planned to tour until coronavirus intervened. Their second theatrical piece together, after 2018's more dramatic The Ladder, it reflects genuine tensions in their relationship, with Rouse as the stand-up mining every aspect of his family life for material and Rutter taking him to task for sharing intimate details of her home birth experience and plenty else besides.
Rouse admits that "a lot of people warn you off doing this, there's a terrible legacy of negativity around doing stuff with your partner, a cynicism. And it is a massive risk. But ultimately, we just trusted each other. That we'd cover for each other whatever happened.
He was "by the sink" when The Ladder's casting call went out. "Right place, right time. You put yourself near the target enough times, you get hit by a dart."
Originally a solo production, Rutter realised that having her playing the husband character "felt skewed, I was playing him from her perspective and it didn't have the balance it needed. So obviously the person to ask was Rob. Getting an actor in would have been really odd."
"Woah! Are you saying I'm not an actor?!"
"A different actor."
"It's very difficult working with your partner, you can see how easily wires get crossed."
"Genuinely though, the only times when we've had conflict is about creative stuff.
"And housework. But because ..."
"The bins ..."
"Oh my God!" she cries exasperatedly. "Because it's important. When another person has different ideas and different needs, they're coming from a different place, that's when they clash.
Doing a podcast together laid the foundations. "We'd had to get into it beforehand, what we were willing to talk about, who was in control" Rutter explains. "And it changed from being our real life into something creative, even if that line is definitely blurred. We're making something, elevating it beyond being a fly-on-the-wall documentary, even if it's just to make people laugh with no real depth. It's curated."
Rouse agrees. "There's been a couple of times when we've had to stop recording the podcast or just binned it entirely, when we hadn't properly worked through what we were getting into" he admits. "When you're busy and you've got family and the pressures of life and everything, if the first time you go into any depth in a conversation is when you press the record button, that's a recipe for disaster. There needs to be trust, confidence and emotional resilience to make jokes about each other, to be playful. Otherwise it feels like you're attacking each other."
He recalls that With Funny In Real Life, "we wanted to do a proper two-hander. And it was good fun, because Helen's discipline as an actor, I had to pick up on that. Whereas she had to cope with not always knowing what was going to happen. Being nervous but just running on and doing it anyway, putting yourself in a corner and fighting your way out of it."
Indeed, so authentic was their onstage friction that when fellow comic Jayde Adams witnessed Rutter shouting at Rouse from the audience, she began cross-heckling her.
"Will you shut up, will you shut up, he's trying to do a show up there!" mimics Rouse in Adams' Bristolian accent, sniggering "brilliant" when Rutter recalls that "she was so, so angry".
Happily, the couple, Adams and her boyfriend, stand-up Rich Wilson, went for lunch in Edinburgh immediately afterwards. "I hadn't known who she was and she hadn't known who I was" Rutter explains. "She'd had no idea. Rich knew of course but he just let her carry on shouting at me! It was really funny because I was shouting back at her as well. It was really lovely to get to know her afterwards and I went and saw her show."
Rutter and Rouse are now developing a follow-up play, currently titled Added Depth, for the next Edinburgh Fringe, whenever that may be. And he's cautiously optimistic that the Upstart Crow stage show could return to London's West End soon, "though like all comics, I've been putting gigs in my diary over the last ten months, then taking them out soon afterwards."
Meanwhile, and after 18 years, he's reunited with his former Big and Daft sketchmates Ian Boldsworth and Jon Williams, providing the music and voicing a character for the pilot of a new family animation series, Rocky Robot, about a mechanoid who wants to be a YouTube influencer.
Mostly though, alongside building his wife a fine looking writing shed, Rouse has been "doing online stuff." The Patreon, "performing to a small bunch of people on a daily basis has been an absolute lifeline. And in terms of writing, it's been one of the most fecund 10 or 11 months I can remember, having a deadline and going 'right, I've got to put a post out, a video, I've got to write an article, make a film or write a song'.
"Having been in a creative field for 20 years, I've had to find a creative way though it, even if it's not in the ways I would have thought. I've done a little bit of building work for people, to pay the gas bill but for fun too. Something I adore, that has been a career for two decades, maybe for a while needs to be an unpaid hobby. But that's just a test of whether you're doing it because you love it."
Now, he's "absolutely put my hat into the ring" to record The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh's audiobook. "Many times" sighs Rutter. "Every hour, on the hour, for the last year. I don't think I get a say in making the decision on who does it."
She's currently busy writing her second children's novel. "It's a little bit based on my own childhood if anything" she discloses.
"It might change dramatically, because it's an early, early draft. But it's about a kid who's going through a really tough time, his mum's really ill and they've not got much money. Then he bangs his head and his wishes start coming true. And he doesn't know whether that's really what's happening or it's just a really weird coincidence. I'm really excited about it!"