'I'm not that guy' - Phill Jupitus reveals why, after 35 years in stand up, he's going to university to study Fine Art
“I was having a chat with a colleague of mine the other day, who I won’t name, but a very famous television comedian, and I was saying to her, ‘Do you ever get the feeling we’re just distraction? And maybe all of us in entertainment should take five years off while the world sorts itself out?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, I feel like that.’”
Poet, stand-up, improviser, actor, artist, radio presenter and TV star Phill Jupitus is contemplating the role of comedians in the current political climate. He's been doing stand-up for 35 years, starting out with social commentary comedy, reciting poetry about the hot political topics of the early 80s from Thatcher's second term, to the miners' strike, impending nuclear war, and the Berlin Wall. These days he avoids politics, because, he admits, "I just get angry".
"When you’re young you’re discovering how the world works and the unfairness of the world but you think in a very naive youthful way, ‘oh we can fix that, just do this’. Well, no you don’t know how the world really works, do you? That’s why you think you can fix things," he tells Independent.ie
"It’s only when you get older you realise everybody needs to fix things and getting everybody on the same page is what is impossible, and that’s why things are so horrible today.
"I think it’s being done quite deliberately. What the powers that be have done is realise there’s more money to be made in a time of conflict so, quite deliberately, very, very rich people have decided to polarise the general population into two camps who fucking hate each other. Divide and rule. Laozi (Lao-tzu) used to talk about it. The Romans used to do it. It’s an old, old thing. What you gonna do?" he shrugs.
While he may not be up for tackling the political issues of the day on stage, he is embarking on changes in his own life, namely taking four years to complete a full-time degree in Fine Art. He's not abandoning comedy altogether, but he will no longer be such a ubiquitous presence on the touring scene, or on TV.
Jupitus is probably best known for 19 years and 28 series of the BBC's hit comedy panel show, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, which wrapped in 2015, and, more recently, regular stints on Channel 4's QI. He will continue with QI but he has no interest in doing another version of Buzzcocks. Asked if he misses it, he says his "bank manager misses it".
"At 56 you start to think, 'let a young lad do it'," he says. "I want to go to uni. I've done telly. I've had a great time doing it but it's time for something new. There's always time for something new."
He never went to university. He went straight into a job after school because he says he did not apply himself academically.
"I think learning, putting stuff in there [he points to his head] is good for you. I think 56 to 60 should be more of an adventure than worrying about my blood pressure and cholesterol levels and getting stents put in."
His eyes light up when he talks about art. He's not a religious man but says he feels 'that very odd feeling of quiet reverence people feel in churches' when he's in an art gallery. Making people laugh has proven to be a fruitful career but he says he's "not that guy".
Having done 70 gigs in a month in Edinburgh, he says he came to a realisation.
"I realised that you've come to see me do this but this isn't really me. This is me doing my job. I've been trying to work out why people, when they meet me off stage, they look disappointed, and it's because I'm not that guy," he says. "I'm fascinated by that, by what we choose to project in a fake environment. 'Oh Phill's a lovely bloke!' No, I'm sullen, quite a grumpy man, prone to temper, outburst."
He rejects the notion that all comedians are tortured souls. He says it's simply down to the contrast between the job, which is laughter, and real life, which is not constant laughter.
"It's where that slight misnomer of the tears of a clown comes from, that all comedians are tortured souls and cry themselves to sleep at night. But I think so are plumbers, so are typists, so are bakers, everyone.
"When you're alone in the introspective, long, dark night and you're not distracting yourself with novels, the internet, pornography, alcohol, drugs, whatever your medicine is and you stop and ask yourself, 'why are we here?' you can't let that in or you'd never get up again."
When it comes to touring he says he deliberate makes himself uncomfortable so that he gets out of the holding pattern. It's why he does three shows a day at Edinburgh. He says he does not drink during the festival.
During his gigs he spends the interval with his audience. "They know I'm here, I know they're there, why don't we have a chat?" he says.
As a child he thought comedians stood and read a list of jokes, but once he realised it could be observational he was drawn in, and once he got his first laugh - at a gig in London - he was hooked.
"I had an office job at the time. I didn't want to work in an office. I remember my regional manager saying to me - I'd been doing poetry for about a year and was loving it, it was feeding me, but I was hating work - and he said, 'Phill, this job, it's not really you is it?' I went, 'No, it's not' and I left a year later."
Despite more than three decades in the game, and the change of direction with uni, it's clear he still loves comedy.
"Comedy is a smoke and mirrors game. It's lies, it's bigness, it's exaggeration, it's googly eyes, it's loud noises, it's shouting, it's being quiet. I'm like The Pixies. That's why I used to like poetry - for the loud, quiet, loud. The dynamic of stand-up is you're always discovering things about it, you're always playing with rooms and I like that. I like that a lot."
Phill Jupitus plays the Vodafone Comedy Carnival - he'll be reciting poetry as his alter ego Porky The Poet, DJing, improvising with Steve Frost's troupe, and presenting festival radio.
The Vodafone Comedy Carnival, Galway October 23rd- 29th. Check out the full line-up on www.vodafonecomedycarnival.com