Open the Floodgates: John-Luke Roberts, absurdist prince
The man with the bafflingly-long show titles and equally inventive comedy, John-Luke Roberts is back with a new twist on his particular brand of absurdism
John-Luke Roberts, the 'critically acclaimed idiot' as his Fringe blurb memorably described him, has made a particular departure from his past work. Not in the sense of abandoning his uniquely and gleefully bizarre sketches and characters, but in his resolution to perform his latest show without the physical props he usually utilises to bring them to life.
Given his training in clowning, this presents him with a particular challenge. Although it’s a challenge he’s set himself, he’s not concerned it will impact the show. When asked if this altered the way he wrote After Me Comes the Flood, he replies confidently that “if a joke is funny, you can always find a way to do it.” Instead, the challenge proved to be a benefit to the show’s writing, pushing him to establish how he would bring the characters into the room with the repertoire reduced to simply himself and a salmon pink suit. In fact, he mentions that he's “not sure people would notice” the distinct lack of props. “It’s still very much my comedy,” he says reassuringly.
Roberts clearly understands the mechanics of his craft well. Although known for his impeccably crafted one-liners, that’s not the only skill on display; he observes “there’s a certain level of miming that most comedians rely on” which in fact only makes sense without visuals. However, there’s a new(ish) visual challenge that’s here to stay. As someone recognised for his quickfire comedy, what’s his view on social media comedy, given there seems to be a swing towards non-comedians carving themselves a niche in that medium?
“I think the issue with it is that you can have a joke, or a joke format, which works really well on Twitter,” stating memes as a good example due to their building of familiarity and layers of jokes with new voices and new hot takes. “The key is to tell a joke that can work without performance, and what you’ll find is when someone tries to translate the joke to a live performance it doesn’t work in that context,” he adds
From here we find ourselves, perhaps inevitably, discussing the role of social media in keeping us relentlessly aware of the increasingly depressing skip fire of current affairs, but Roberts is thankfully quick to reassure that “absurdism can be a great release when the world is horrible, as it undoubtedly is at the moment.”
With that in mind, does Roberts feel like he’s done anything to nurture the current wave of alternative comedy through the regular London night he co-founded with Thom Tuck, the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society? Rather than an alternative comedy showcase, he thinks that ACMS is more an exercise in the relief of absurdism which “challenges the whole idea of things making sense, which can be very comforting in a climate like this.” ACMS largely involves acts testing out new material, and more often than not, comics end their set by shouting ‘Failure?!’ and the audience responding with ‘A noble failure!’. If nothing else, this seems a good metaphor for more or less every political endeavour of the last few years.
Certainly, what now calls itself alternative comedy seems worlds away from the genre that sprung up in the 80s, the last time we were all pretty much convinced the world was about to end. Roberts touches on the mooted return of Spitting Image and musing that perhaps in its final days there was nothing of consequence left to satirise. "When you’re stuck in that obsessional news cycle and feeling there’s nothing to be done, it might be good for comedy to move away from that, and focus on stupider things," he says. "Surrealism might hopefully get you looking at the world a little differently.”
Roberts, thankfully, steadfastly refuses to be defeated by this. “If all you do is think about how horrible things are, life isn’t really worth living," he says. "Comedy is hopefully a really good way of getting you out of that. If you challenge the very idea of things making sense, you can hopefully smile at things not making sense.”