He's the Isambard Kingdom Brunel of absurdism - the absurdismbard. Co-founder of mighty institution The Alternative Comedy Memorial Society (ACMS), qualified clown and busy writer behind the stage curtains, John-Luke Roberts is taking to Soho with a typically elaborate hour, and title. We've seen Look on my Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair! (All in Caps) and it's absolutely splendid, and often bewilderingly clever, although JLR describes it as...
"An hour of pure silliness. I play a bunch of characters, and do a bunch of stupid things. In case that sounds flimsy, don't worry: it's very good. It sold out at the [Edinburgh] Fringe, and Derren Brown tweeted that it was 'phenomenal' and I don't even know him. I mean, I know who he is, he's very famous. But he's famous for smart things, so he's the sort of famous person you should listen to."
Indeed, and a few weeks after these Soho shows Roberts will be heading to the 2018 Fringe with a show called All I Wanna Do Is [FX: GUNSHOTS] With a [FX: GUN RELOADING] and a [FX: CASH REGISTER] and Perform Some Comedy!
"It's a cogent defence of absurdism," he explains. "I'm planning on having far too many things happening in one hour and still have it work. It'll be too much. Far too much. There's already about forty characters, and one of them's a it-turns-out-very-niche hybrid of Wario [from Super Mario Brothers] and Morrissey, called Worrissey."
"The aim is that the audience will be so overwhelmed, shaky and disoriented that they leave the show with an entirely different relationship to reality and I'll prove beyond doubt that absurdism is of value."
Also at the Fringe, Roberts will be following up 2017's "catastrophic attempt to stage Francis Fukuyama's discredited political treatise The End of History with three more terrible ideas for stage adaptations," he says. "Once a week I'll get an all-star cast of the Fringe's best comedians and worst idiots to do it. Texts adapted will include the iTunes Terms and Conditions; Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse; and a double edition: Ulysses and Á la Recherche du Temps Perdu (couldn't decide between them so decided to do both)."
Bloody hell. Right - back to simpler times.
I don't remember much at all. It was almost certainly at university, at the stand-up society that had just been set up, which is quite an artificial environment for a gig. Outside of university I think it was a So You Think You're Funny? heat, which is a differently artificial environment for a gig. I had a really dry style for a while - very silly one-liners delivered in a very arch way. No audience wants a 20-year-old white man in a suit doing that.
I got it into my head that the writing should be strong enough to do all the work, and performance should be kept to a minimum. It took me years to realise (through clown training, starting with a workshop with Doctor Brown) that I'd got it all upside down, and that a joyful performance which shares pleasure with the audience is everything, and the joke writing comes a distant second. But you may as well make the jokes as good as they can be.
Favourite show, ever?
Probably the first time I did Set List, the improvised gig where you're given your set live on stage. I was so scared ahead of time, that to do it gave me a huge adrenaline rush. I imagine it's a similar feeling to skydiving or righteously killing an enemy.
The most typically horrendous ones generally look like each other - rooms of drunken people who weren't aware or were only half aware there was comedy even on, and most of those happen early in your career. But the hardest gigs were probably later in my career.
I did a show called Stdad-Up where I dressed up as my dad (who's dead) and performed as him. During the period of building any show you die reasonably often, and dying is never really fun fun... but dying while mocking my dead dad was very hard. It felt hard to justify, and much more disrespectful than when there was laughter.
What's the oddest thing you've seen someone attempt at ACMS?
It's either Adam Larter's Weirdos doing an actual sprinting bleep test across the stage and one of them drinking whole milk while doing it, or whenever someone's done straight down the line observational stand-up. Actually, it's probably the second.
I think we've succeeded in creating a home for odd stuff to such an extent that not-odd stuff seems weird and alien. My fondest memory was when some guy was doing some quite macho, unpleasant stuff and the audience started up a chant of "Whimsy! Whimsy! Whimsy!"
Who's the most disagreeable person you've come across in the business, and why?
Is there one idea/routine/joke you loved, that audiences inexplicably didn't?
There are a whole bunch - but I've generally found an audience hating a bit you love is a great way of stopping loving that bit.
I once wrote the joke "What is a fitted carpet but a rug you cannot wear as a cape?" and it was greeted with so many blank faces that now even I can't work out what I thought the gag was. Generally though I think there's almost always a way of getting an audience onboard with a bit you love, you just might have to present it in a different way.
Show titles: any advice, from the renegade master?
My favourite titles I've come up with have always been the ones where I've thought of them and immediately laughed and simultaneously thought "there's no way I can do that". So I guess my best advice would be the same for writing titles as it is for just about any creative endeavour: you don't have to make it look like you think titles are supposed to look like.
Just like when you write a joke it doesn't have to look like what other jokes look like; or if you set up a comedy night it doesn't have to look like what other comedy nights look like; or when you make a novel, architectural design, film, play, soft toy, painting, poem, etc, etc.
It's a lesson I have to keep re-learning and re-learning myself (the most recent re-learning was when I read Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders and went "wow, novels are allowed to be like this". But of course they are - things are allowed to be like anything.
The only exception to this is carbonara. You fuck around with that, you're an idiot.
The most memorable review, heckle or post-gig reaction to Look on my Works...?
A review from an audience member (who hated it) said "I love absurdists... but this didn't make any sense". And it made me sad like anyone not liking it does, and then it made me really happy. What an amazingly unaware thing to write.
How do you feel about where your career is at, right now?
Fine. Why, what have you heard?