TONY Law was training to be a cold-blooded assassin when I first met him, preparing for the play Killer Joe at the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe.
Cast against type, the self-confessed “goofy farmboy”, born in Trinidad, raised in Alberta, Canada, was concerned about making the transition from stand-up. So he channelled the love of his pet dachshunds and a stint working in an abattoir into the role, imagining what he’d do to anyone who hurt his dogs.
I watched him deliver a trademark set of surreal buffoonery to cheers and incredulity at the intimate Stand comedy club in Glasgow, before we hailed a taxi so he could “double-up” at Jongleurs, wryly murmuring “welcome to the Pleasuredome!” as we descended into the disco inferno of stags, hens and office parties. Performing the same set in the bigger, more commercial, venue, ploughing on through voluble, drunken resistance, Law fought hard and eventually won most of the audience round.
Then, as now, he was that damned-with-faint-praise figure, a comedian’s comedian. Acclaim for his 2003 Fringe ensemble The Dinks, which also featured Dan Antopolski and fellow Canadian Craig Campbell, turned to disdain the following year, as reviews dismissed the slapdash sequel as “less than the sum of its parts”. Appearing on the Channel 4 panel show Does Doug Know?, he and fellow absurdist Gavin Webster surpassed themselves as the funniest, least-predictable regulars never to appear on television again, despite Law taking several meetings in Los Angeles. Several years later, Stewart Lee wanted the blond, handsome oddball to star as Thor alongside David Soul as Odin in a Norse god sitcom. But commissioners weren’t interested.
Fast-forward to today, though, and suddenly Law is everywhere, making his Have I Got News For You debut, playing a Dutch action film star on Sue Perkins’ sitcom Heading Out, and advertising Sky’s TV packages in the guise of King Arthur.
Endearingly, whatever he’s in – even when he’s modelling for retro fashion label Baracuta – he’s always quintessentially Tony Law, proudly sporting his beard and increasingly quirky wardrobe across the usual plethora of panel shows. He currently favours the pirate, 19th-century explorer, 1908 Olympian composite look, a catch-all ensemble for portraying everything from a pillaging Viking to an agitated Mayan priest.
“There’s always been nutters like me playing their trade,” he solemnly decrees. “And there always will be.” An aspiring comic’s TV career, he says, “depends on who’s controlling access to these shows, but they seem to be sticking more freaks on now.
“I try to stay close to my stand-up character so people won’t come to my show and be disappointed. I stick to my guns and go down with the ship if need be.”
Law is currently in the most successful phase of his career, after winning a competition to record his debut DVD and scooping the Chortle website’s breakthrough act prize (after 14 years performing), prior to his nomination for the 2012 Edinburgh Comedy Award for his show Maximum Nonsense, which he brings to the Glasgow International Comedy Festival this month.
He may not have changed greatly but tastes have, or at least diversified, as reflected in his fellow award nominees: distinctly alternative comics Josie Long, James Acaster and Claudia O’Doherty, high-energy sketch trio Pappy’s and clown act and eventual winner Doctor Brown.
“I never knew any other way to do it, I’ve only been able to do it my way,” Law suggests. “I hoped a bunch more comedy nerds would get on board and they did. When I started, the nominees were Garth Marenghi, The Mighty Boosh and Simon Munnery, really out-there guys. There was a period when none of those acts made it. But it’s swung back.”
Touring with the dedicated Stewart Lee and having young children taught him to maximise his creative time. “I do much less staring idly out of café windows”. His wife Storm dissects his routines for “heart and soul” and is “always asking how, why and where the nonsense comes from, there has to be a reason for it”. She won’t let him have a night off either, “kicking me out of the house, because on stage at new material nights is where I do my writing.”
Doggedly revisiting Edinburgh (albeit without his dachshund co-stars from 2006’s The Dog of Time and its sequel, Revenge of the Dog of Time) played a part too. “Instead of changing direction or losing faith, I realised I had to keep evolving for my art, I had to keep coming back.”
He’s left the Jongleurs gigs behind, but despite the loss of earnings, looks back appreciatively. “I wasn’t marketing myself in the right way and tried to play other people’s games for too long,” he says. “But I don’t regret doing those clubs for ten years. What I gained from mainstream clubs is understanding how to be punchy. Even if you’re doing surreal nonsense, get to the laugh as quickly as possible. Equally, I learned patience and realised I don’t need to jam them in. Those instincts survive from all the times I died on my hole.”
Increasingly, he’s striving “to come up with broader routines that will draw a bigger audience. That’s my intention, though they invariably end up going the other way. I really don’t want to be in the cult ghetto.”
The auditions he attends are still looking for “a crazy bearded character”. And “I’m still alternative, small-fry really. I’ll just keep ploughing the same fuh … fuh … um, furrow? Damn, I should really know my farming terms better.”
• Tony Law plays the Stand Comedy Club, Glasgow, 19 March, as part of the Glasgow Comedy Festival. He also plays the Stand, Edinburgh, 3 April, and the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 4 April. www.mrtonylaw.com