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'For a long time, having to do a stand-up gig would ruin my day'

HE'S FRANKIE the Machine, Glasgow's comedy hardman, strafing his audiences with 130 gags an hour.

The last time I saw Francis Martin Patrick Boyle, a Catholic who has lapsed with a vengeance, he was relaxing in a hot tub with a cigar and two beautiful, bikini-clad girls. Raised in Pollokshaws, yet more often suited and booted like he's rolled off a Motown production line, the man billed as The Voice of Black America at last year's Edinburgh Fringe is, he says, "gigging every night till January. I feel like I should be going into the studio or something".

Today, though, Boyle is wearing a nondescript anorak. Softly-spoken and dryly funny in person, this 34-year-old recovering alcoholic admits to being a reluctant socialiser and maintains he hated performing comedy for the first nine years of his career.

"I was always nervous," he admits. "I just dreaded it. For a long time having a gig ruined my day. It was such a tough time and I only kept going because it was a way of earning money."

From performing "one-off jokes" at Glasgow's Blackfriars pub and winning the Daily Telegraph's Open Mic competition in 1996, Boyle cemented his reputation as a writer on BBC Scotland's Live Floor Show. After contributing to the Jimmy Carr vehicles Distraction and 8 Out Of 10 Cats, "a year of losing money in London and nearly a dozen try-outs" earned him a residency on "the brutally competitive" Mock the Week, currently airing on Thursday nights on BBC2. The positive notices for Boyle's barbed contributions on the panel show have prompted a move to London, a hectic commute back and forth for recording expected during the Fringe and a UK-wide following that he intends to capitalise on by touring theatres next year.

Even so, he still spends at least ten days a month in Scotland, visiting his three-year-old daughter in Stirling and trying out new material before our "more honest" audiences. A former teacher-training student, Boyle is now expecting a child with partner Shereen Taylor, a visual artist, in October, and would prefer his offspring to receive a Steiner education, with its emphasis on developing a child's imagination and questioning faculties.

"Holyrood Secondary Glasgow was one Catholic f***ing school," he recalls. "From age nine I just thought, 'This is complete nonsense. Whenever the bell rings you have to leave. So obedience is more important than the Big Bang?' That whole philosophy is about communicating dogma, trapping them to think. I'm really anti-education. It's totally where I learnt to take the piss and remain sane by doing it, though."

He's already penned a poisonous postscript to his schooldays, yet while it languishes in "development hell", he's working on another comedy drama, even as his provisionally titled The End of the World Show has been confirmed for a six-episode run on BBC Scotland next spring.

Featuring Boyle as host, "it's supposed to be like [US series] the Daily Show, but it's far too harsh and gaggy for that". And he sees the chat segment as reminiscent of The Clive James Show, "a really generous interview where you get someone funny and let them talk about whatever they want". His generosity in the pilot episode extended to inviting comedian Richard Herring and the aforementioned female company to linger in his hot tub.

Even now though, Boyle remains wary of the spotlight. And with his second solo Fringe show looming, he's still adapting to larger audiences.

"My natural inclination is just to take the mic out of the stand, read all the jokes off a clipboard and then f*** off," he laughs. "I should just do a voiceover and put a scarecrow on stage. I've never really developed my stagecraft. I'm more of a writer and have to push myself to come out of that thing where I'd rather just write. Obviously the gags must work at some level though, because I'm never going to connect on charm alone."

Criticised by some reviewers for his verbal assaults on individual punters, he maintains it's all for their own benefit.

"I do that deliberately in club gigs sometimes," he admits. "It can feel like stand-ups are too respected now. And in general, my stuff tends to be more challenging than the other comics I'm on with. So if everyone else is quite crowd-pleasing, I'll come on and try to tense them up with material that they don't really want [as with his rarely glimpsed character Arthur Kestler, academic and serial rapist], so that I've got that edge of nervousness to work with. If you did a slick set every gig you'd never really develop, you have to be dead disciplined about mixing it up and not retreating into the same old material.

"I can see how someone watching might think, 'What the hell is he doing laying into that guy who's obviously terrified?' But it's an attempt to make it feel like a comedy club used to be, rather than after-dinner entertainment. I like a bit of interaction. I get quite a lot of people shouting out. But it's not the 'you're sh*t' sort of heckling, it's almost like they want to be put down."

Hence the title of his new show, Morons, I Can Heal You, which, as with Black America, is informed by the brash, brook-no-argument styles of comics such as Richard Pryor and Chris Rock.

"I loved those comedians and I suppose my jokes are a bit like that, but people don't see it as a character," he reflects. "I'm not really like that, I'm quite quiet. The suit and that persona was to give me some oomph, because you've got a big stage and you can't just stand there, it won't fly. In the UK, people think it's a really ranting kind of performance, [what Bill Hicks defined as] 'the comedy of hate'. But what I do isn't quite that."

Indeed, as Boyle becomes more successful, he's striving to relax more. And his stand-up could best be described as the comedy of insult rather than hate, because you instinctively sense his delight in the stupidity he perceives.

"My kind of intense perspective will get you headlining clubs, but to actually connect with larger groups of people, and the population as a whole, what the really successful comedians do is let loose."

And so for Morons he appears to be channelling the conviction of Malcolm X, whose autobiography he's been reading, through the freewheeling morality of the Reverend Obadiah Steppenwolf III, the character creation played by his erstwhile writing partner Jim Muir.

"We don't write together so much anymore, but we're going to produce some abuse together for the Fringe," Boyle states proudly. "On a big stage, I just thought it would be quite good to do something insulting but upbeat, with a preacher-style vibe, that sort of reaching out atmosphere to try to connect with the audience. There's going to be some engagement and a big screen that I'll have showing a couple of sketches, maybe a wee interview too. But I've got loads of jokes and it's going to be a hectic show in the revivalist spirit. With me arriving onstage to gospel music."

Collaborating with Muir on Live Floor Show helped Boyle overcome his performing fears.

"Once you've externalised the humour for somebody else, it becomes easier to repeat it yourself," he says. "Jim made me realise that comedy doesn't have to be mediocre, you can have a bit of vision and actually do something interesting. That tail-off in expectation from when you were a kid and your idea of comedy was Richard Pryor and Billy Connolly to the actual f***ing reality of clubs, the f***ing grind of it. It was just really inspiring.

"We'd be writing and I'd go, 'We can sort of cheat this bit, use a line we dropped from last week.' And he'd say, 'No, we've got to do it properly, because all we've got to look back on is this.' Similarly, I'd hate to look back on my Fringe show and think I didn't go for it or try to sell it enough."

After Live Floor Show started being broadcast across the UK, Boyle was relegated from performing to simply writing, but it was only then that he realised he could compete with the very best English comics. And ironically, it was his breakthrough on television south of the border that established him as a Fringe performer in a city he'd already played thousands of gigs in.

"Yeah, pretty strange isn't it?" he reflects. "You don't even think of doing a solo show because you think it's just not for me. If we had a really self-confident comedy and media scene it would be different. But that's a very Scottish thing of finding people who go to London more glamorous, which is quite an illusory thing because there's a lot of neglected talent here and I think it comes from a low self-image, a lack of confidence."

• Frankie Boyle's Fringe show Morons, I Can Heal You previews at the Stand Comedy Club, Edinburgh, tomorrow, before its run at the Assembly Rooms, 2-26 August.

 
 
 

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