THANKS to his nerdy specs, cropped hair and Scottish pallor, Frankie Boyle is often mistaken for one half of The Proclaimers, an issue he has tackled in the past by growing a beard. Only once the beard gets to a certain length, he says, do people stop chanting "da da da-da!" at him in the street, replacing it with an altogether different catcall: "Paedo!"
"What is it about that look," he ponders, "that children find so sexy?" And so the 37-year-old Glasgow-born comedian sets the tone for his stand-up routine: dark, offensive and very, very non-PC. Boyle is one of a breed of stand-up comics for whom nothing is out of bounds. He will happily tackle topics including rape, paedophilia, the disabled and HIV, to the delight of fans who pay to watch him lower the tone further than anyone thought possible.
A gag about Princess Diana, for example, ends with the words "a gangbang in a minefield". Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond, who nearly lost his life in a car crash in 2006, has been the butt of more than one of Boyle's jokes, and Heath Ledger, Baby P and Michael Jackson are also targets. His critics could say that he might as well bring a barrel of fish and a shotgun onstage and be done with it.
It's shock-jock humour at its most shocking, but setting aside the question of how offensive Boyle's jokes are, are they particularly funny or clever? Commentator Nick Cohen doesn't think so. In a recent attack on Mock The Week, the popular BBC2 show on which Boyle is a panellist, he describes the stand-up as "a gaunt, aggressive, slit-eyed Scotsman with a neurotic determination to be heard first and always, he seems to have grasped that the critics will hail him as 'edgy' if he courts the porn market".
Boyle is not the first stand-up to push the boundaries of taste for entertainment value, nor is he the first to insist that there should be no limits on humour: "I think most people believe that," he said recently. "They might say to me, 'That was unacceptable, I didn't find that funny', or whatever, but ultimately they believe in freedom of speech – I've only had one complaint in 12 years. As long as you're not trying to solicit murder, there's no line that you can't cross."
Boyle's jokes, however, are nothing if not predictable. Women are too old or too ugly or both (many of his jokes are about women who are too unattractive for him to have sex with/masturbate to), straight men risk being sodomised if they befriend gay men, Amy Winehouse "looks like a campaign poster for neglected horses" and Camilla Parker Bowles "looks like Diana if she'd survived the crash".
When asked on one episode of Mock The Week to suggest a line unlikely to appear in a superhero movie, Boyle responded: "Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Whatever it is, it's heading straight for the World Trade Center." A joke where surely half the audience easily guessed the tired punchline.
Last week Boyle was forced to pull out of the recording of Mock The Week after being rushed to hospital with what has so far been described as a "mystery illness". The episode may be the only juicy one of his career not to be included in his autobiography, the amusingly titled My Shit Life So Far, which is released on Thursday, and is described on his official website as "his second attempt at being published after having wasted many years on his porno version of the Bible".
Playground stuff it may be, but Mock The Week regularly pulls in three million viewers, and Boyle enjoys an impressive following in his own right. In 2007 he played more than 100 dates in a UK tour that was extended after enjoying a sold-out run, and his podcast, titled Mock The Week Musings went straight to the top of the iTunes podcast chart when it was released in July this year.
Dark humour, it appears, sells by the bucketload, and Boyle's rather dark upbringing might very well have inspired his un-PC approach to comedy. Born in Glasgow to a labourer and a dinner lady, he attended St Conval's Primary School in Pollokshaws then Holyrood RC Secondary School in the city's Southside. Shy while growing up, he has described his childhood as "pretty grim", saying: "There was nothing to do, so me and my friends started drinking whenever we could."
Pollokshaws was, he says, "an aching cement void, a slap in the face to childhood". Growing up teetering on the poverty line, he has described feeling cold as a major recollection from childhood. "The only heating was a three-bar fire in the living room that went on for the Six O'Clock News." He loved primary school but loathed everything about high school and was something of an outsider.
Leaving school, he studied English at the University of Sussex and trained to become a teacher before dabbling in stand-up at the age of 23, promptly quitting the teaching game. Honing his act in pubs and clubs in Edinburgh and Glasgow, he quickly became a comedy-circuit regular.
He attributes his dark sense of humour to his tough Scottish upbringing: "I think my humour has a very Scottish voice – Scottish humour is a negative, dark thing. Billy Connolly is really unusual – and he's always got a mixed reception in Scotland because of that. He talks about how great and brilliant stuff is. That's not something you hear a lot in Scotland."
Boyle's television break came when he appeared on BBC Scotland's Live Floor Show, before rising to fame when Mock The Week first went on air in 2005, and by 2007 – after a groundbreaking stint as a Scotland on Sunday columnist – his Fringe show Morons I Can Heal You sold out before it began its run. His critics will be delighted to hear that he plans to retire from comedy before his 40th birthday, believing few comedians sustain their edge after that age.
A rest may be long overdue. Today he lives with his partner Shereen in Glasgow and has two young children. However, he has spoken in the past about his battles with drink and drugs and how he spent much of his career burning the proverbial candle at both ends. A recovering alcoholic and former drug user, he is now a teetotaller and completely clean, but spent years drinking heavily on the stand-up circuit, behaviour which he blames, in part, for the destruction of his first marriage (a relationship throughout which, he says, he was drunk).
He began drinking at 15 and says he regularly drank in the pub by himself as a student. He has said that he needed dope to help him write the gags on the Live Floor Show, and has spoken of regularly drinking up to ten pints a night, and 20 on one occasion.
He chose to change his ways and climb on the wagon when he woke one morning aged 26 to find that he couldn't see. He wasn't wearing his glasses and had a vague memory of vomiting out of the window. He peered out of his bedroom window to see his specs, two floors below, standing upright in a puddle of his vomit. An emblematic moment, for sure.
YOU'VE BEEN GOOGLED
• Boyle joined the Labour party when he was 16, leaving within a year.
• He attended relationship counselling with a former girlfriend – and went to one session on acid.
• Boyle may be fearless in his comedy – but he is chronically afraid of air travel.
• He cites his local library as inspiring his comic career: "There was nothing to do in the part of Glasgow I came from so I'd go to the library and get comedy records out… All the Monty Python albums, all the Goon Show albums."
• The avid football fan travelled to Seville in 2003 to see Celtic compete in the Uefa Cup Final. Unable to find a vacant hotel room, he wandered into a five-star hotel and slept in its garden in the shade of a cactus.