TV presenter and quiz show host Des Clarke returns to his first love, stand-up comedy, with three different shows at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. He tells Janet Christie why he’s uncharacteristically making life complicated for himself.
Des Clarke is eyeing up sandwiches. Faced with a plain cheese or a New York Deli Style pastrami with mustard dressing, gherkins, and Emmental on rye, it’s a no brainer for the Glaswegian comedian, TV and radio presenter.
“Well the choice is obvious,” he says, going for the cheese. “This one has no mayo and it even says ‘simple’ on the packet. It’s just cheese, unidentified cheese, not Wensleydale or Emmental. I don’t want the gunk, anything extra.
“The other one, New York Deli Style pastrami, that’s cultured beef, beef that’s been to university. New York Deli Style is sophisticated, the sandwich of an adventurous person… and look at the ingredients, it’s War and Peace. ‘Mustard dressing, spinach, gherkin, sauerkraut and rye bread’. And I hate when they give you the journey of it from the farmer that made it. I don’t need to know what time the farmer got up in the morning, how his relationship is going with his wife. I just need to have a nice plain sandwich. There are too many complications in life.” For Clarke, the sandwich is an appetiser, an amuse bouche, though he might baulk at the pretentious description, for his Fringe show, or more correctly shows, plural, entitled Des Clarke 3-D at The Stand next month. It’s lunchtime, but Clarke has been up since 4:30am to host his Capital Breakfast Show on Capital Radio with Jennie Cook, and like a Duracell bunny is still fizzing with energy, chat and banter. Hair standing to attention, eyes bright and cheeky, the likeable 35-year-old says: “You’re getting me at my best, I’m wide awake – this is my evening.”
As well as hosting the daily Capital Breakfast Show and presenting BBC Radio Scotland’s Breaking the News topical quiz show, Clarke is known for helming ITV’s long running children’s television show SMTV Live in 2003, following the departure of Ant & Dec. He has appeared on sports shows Offside and Sportscene, writes a weekly newspaper column, and hosted the closing ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games to an audience of a billion. He’s also a regular on the stand-up scene, his first love, and this will be his 16th Fringe and eighth solo show. This time round he’s doing three different sets, each running for eight days, about the things that matter to him most: Love, Sandwiches and the Apocalypse.
“I had three different hours’ worth of comedy and thought I’d do them all. I wanted to do something no-one else had done, three different shows, consecutively. I like to keep challenging myself. I’ll probably start with Love, progress to Sandwiches, and then, if I’m still alive, Apocalypse at the end.”
We’ve started with sandwiches, because it’s lunchtime, so why the humble piece as a source of comedy?
“Well I’m a really plain eater, I like food simple,” he says.
“Some would say picky. I’m not one of those people. I would say… plain. I don’t like condiments. I don’t like ketchup or mayonnaise. I don’t like coleslaw, curries, anything too complicated. I don’t like hot, I don’t like spicy. So I find it almost impossible to get a sandwich because pre-packed sandwiches very rarely come plain and when they do, they sell out first.”
“So I took up the case on my radio show and found many others were with me on this crusade. They were there on my ‘piece mission’, to get every shop to have a plain piece option and plenty of them.”
It seems Clarke has struck a chord in his frustration with complications and condiments. And as with sandwiches, so with love, as Clarke endorses the straightforward approach in affairs of the heart too.
“Finding a sandwich is complicated and so is choosing a partner. So in the Love show, everyone can identify with my journey of failed relationships and dates. One time I even climbed out of a window, it was that bad. But I’d left my jacket so I had to go back.”
However, the failed dates and relationships are well in the past because Clarke has found his cheese sandwich in the shape of Deborah, who is studying psychology, and after dating Clarke for four years became engaged to him last year.
“Yes! But I’m not married yet, so there’s still time for it all to go sour. She’s not seen the show yet…”
And why are things different this time round? Could it be that Clarke is older and wiser now that he is in his mid-thirties?
“I think so. Yes, I’ve got more desperate. Sorry, more mature, I beg your pardon. She came to see me in a gig and we just got chatting and it was straightforward and easy. Because there’s a lot of nonsense going on in my head, I like simplicity, with sandwiches and life. The more straightforward things are, that’s for me. She was the same age, at the same stage in life and it just felt very easy, very comfortable.”
It’s safe to say that Deborah shares Clarke’s sense of humour, if not his taste in sandwiches (she’s more adventurous, he says, and will probably give the pastrami a whirl) or the relationship would never have lasted this long, but when it came to proposing Clarke decided to get serious.
“Yes, it was a beautiful proposal,” even if he does say it himself. “This was proper. It could have been Millport, but I went all the way: the Maldives. I’ve done so much of my life with an audience, and that time I picked a beautiful remote place with no-one else around.
“I waited till the final night and was panicking because it was a nice ring and I hadn’t insured it. I got her to walk along a little pier and asked her to shut her eyes. The next thing she sees is me on one knee with a ring in my hand. She started crying. I don’t know if that means yes – she’s still not officially said yes – but the picking of a wedding venue two months later suggests it does.
“She had no idea, she thought when she had her eyes shut I was going to drop my trousers. What gets me the most, is the fact she still did it! But that was it and I’m getting married next July. So, it looks like I’ve found love.”
Which leds us to Apocalypse, the third show in the trilogy and right on cue, a bluebottle lands on the pub table next to us.
“Look at the size of that,” says Clarke as we wait for the rest of the plague to arrive. “Yes, the apocalypse is on us. I came up with this because I’ve always had a sense that when things are going well, it’s going to collapse. Like during the Commonwealth Games I had a nagging thought that I’m live, with no script, no autocue, it’s just me, a microphone and a billion people watching. I could just say the word ‘jobby’. I don’t know why I would, but that could just come out of my mouth, and there you go, the career’s gone and there’s guys in Uganda asking what the word ‘jobby’ means and why are we suddenly all watching Lulu?
“That was before 2016, and now it’s already happening. Every brilliant celebrity and artist dies and then we have Brexit, Trump possibly in the White House and Boris Johnson being Britain’s representative throughout the world. The answer to every pub quiz question for the next few years will be ‘2016’, because everything has happened this year. It’s like a fixed point where everything has taken a real 180-degree turn and I feel like I foretold it, like some sort of Scottish Nostradamus.
“Obviously it’s tough for a lot of people and I’m sorry to be selfish, but in difficult times of uncertainty, chaos breeds comedy. And we need the comedy, we need to laugh. I didn’t think the apocalypse would turn out to be so good, so funny,” he says.
Doing the breakfast show means Clarke is up on current affairs and what’s making headlines, which ties in nicely with Breaking the News.
“I’m one of those, I like to know. If I was posh I would say I had a thirst for knowledge, but I’m not. I’m just nosy. And I would like to thank every politician that is currently working in the world at the moment because what’s happened in the last month has renewed Breaking the News for the next ten years.”
He adds: “There’s so much uncertainty, and there are downsides to that, but it also produces comedy. Breaking the News does what Mock The Week and Have I Got News For You do, but from a Scottish perspective. Scotland voted differently on Brexit and it means different things for us, so Breaking the News is a show that’s needed.
“I think Scotland voted for Remain because we wanted to guarantee ourselves another referendum. Let’s make it an annual thing. We don’t qualify for the World Cup or the European Championships and we need something to get excited about. We’ve had the indyref, an outyref, the next one’s got to be the shakeitallaboutyref.”
Brought up in a high-rise in the Gorbals, Clarke describes his working class upbringing as secure and happy for him and his sister, a pharmacist who is three years older. Yet there were no big political debates over the dinner table or am dram classes to foreshadow Clarke’s future career.
“This is where nothing makes sense with me. There was no politics or showbusiness or performance in my family. I think I was just some weird alien that was dropped into a high-rise flat in the Gorbals, like Mork and Mindy – I popped out of an egg. The nice thing about that was I got to form my own view on the world and my own opinions, just by finding out for myself.
“It was a quiet family, it was nice. I almost feel I should sue my parents for not giving me anything to have a problem with. My dad was a builder and my mum helped him in the business. I didn’t know anything else than growing up in the Gorbals. It was brilliant.”
He got nothing but encouragement from home, though, as he says, “My parents had no idea about comedy and said ‘you seem to know what you’re doing, on you go’. And I still had my part-time job in Kwik Save. I still turn the labels round and make sure I take something from the back in shops. I hated it when anyone messed up my aisle.”
Clarke’s path away from shelves and into stand-up started at the age of 12 when he won the school talent competition with his pal Paul McGroarty, doing impressions of Billy Connolly, Chris Eubank, and Rab C Nesbitt, with McGroarty playing Jamesy to Clarke’s Rab.
“I was really shy, but we entered the talent show. That was my first ever time on stage, 600 people in the school hall. I have never felt as nervous performing and never will. Forget the Commonwealth Games and a billion people. Everyone you went to school with and the teachers in the hall, we were first years, it was comedy. The sixth year band were playing Nirvana, and were meant to win, but they didn’t. We did. And that moment is responsible for everything. It still ranks with me as my biggest-ever achievement.”
Once Clarke had heard the laughter there was no turning back and the 12-year-old discovered a newfound confidence and sense of respect from his peers.
“I think what I felt was acceptance,” he says. “And without getting too deep about it, I think a lot of performers crave a bit of acceptance. And the joy you get making other people happy. The sound of laughter, that first time, 600 people, and knowing you created that, there’s no gimmick, no music, you wrote the script and there’s nothing else up there on stage, just you. I think that’s magic. You are using yourself and whatever talent you’ve got. That was the moment when I got addicted to laughter. I became a laughter junkie.”
What exactly is it that Clarke is addicted to? Is it the cortisol rush produced by nerves, or a warm serotonin glow generated by making others laugh?
“It’s both,” he says. “When you get that first big laugh, it’s like ah-hhh, your body just relaxes and it’s warm, a buzz, tingly, and it’s that feeling of yes! You feel accepted, like you’ve achieved something. Then there’s the buzz of ‘I want more’, so you surf the wave, top it up.
“Being on form as a stand-up, that’s the best I’ve ever felt. I’ve been lucky enough to do lots of other things in the business, but stand-up is by far my favourite. By far. I love it, love it, love it,” he says. “It’s the hardest to get right. When it goes against you, you die alone, but when you get it right, it’s all you.”
After school, and one day at his dad’s building firm, Clarke went on to cut his comedy teeth on the stand-up circuit. He played his first Fringe at the age of 20, coinciding with the era of Daniel Kitson, Adam Hills, Johnny Vegas, Ross Noble and Tommy Tiernan in 2000.
“To me these are the Mount Rushmore of comedy. It was a particularly raucous year and very gladiatorial. I saw Tommy Tiernan come on, stand back from the mic, plant himself and within two minutes silence the hecklers with his use of language in telling a story. That was a great moment. The Fringe is full of special memories for me, and hopefully I can maybe create some too. That’s what you hope for,” he says.
After the Fringe, Clarke is as busy as ever, having inherited a work ethic from his parents. With future ambitions to do Live At The Apollo and Mock The Week, there’s panto coming up at Christmas as Buttons in Cinderella. “The costume still fits! And still smells of sweat, desperation and throat sweeties. There was a packet in the pocket,” he says.
Then there’s more Breaking the News for Radio Scotland, breakfast radio and a new stand-up comedy show for STV called Rock Up Stand Up, due to be aired from the end of September on Friday nights.
“You need a laugh after a hard week, sitting down with a drink in front of the telly. With all that’s going on in the world at the moment, people need comedy: to get away from it, or to try and make sense of it, to process things and be comfortable with them. We need serious coverage, but we also a counterbalance,” he says. “We need a laugh.”