Comedian Jim Tavaré’s act used to be built around a tuxedo and a double bass, but on his return to the Fringe after a break of 20 years the theme of his show has taken on a darker tone, writes Kate Copstick
Anyone who was around the comedy scene in the 1980s and 90s knows Jim Tavaré. The one who looked like the Addams Family’s manservant Lurch in a tux and had a double act with a double bass. In a loud comedy world, Tavaré was quietly hilarious. But hilarity had never been the plan.
“Always wanted to be an actor,” he says. We are chatting, over a glass of port he is having for “a real treat”, after a preview of his Edinburgh show. He might have had to grow a moustache to avoid being recognised as Tom the Innkeeper from the Harry Potter movies, but Tavaré knows how to keep it real. “When I got to the academy I hated it. They didn’t know what to do with me – I was too much of a weird character. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. Then someone suggested I try comedy at the Comedy Store and when I walked in, there were all these weird people on stage – I’d never seen anything like it, all talented lunatics – and I thought, ‘I think I can do that.’”
And he could. “Originally I was a sort of post-punk person chucking any sound out there. I did crappy comedy with a guitar – you know, when you are trying to find your voice. Happy-go-lucky was one of the things I tried … and failed.”
He finally found his voice at a comedy benefit in Highgate. “I thought, ‘I’ll try putting a tuxedo on and taking my bass out there … maybe if I wear a tux I will look like the kind of a guy who would play that instrument.’ And I suddenly felt it just click. I spoke a lot slower, realised my deadpan, lugubrious dry delivery – which partly just came from being rejected on stage by audiences – gave me a sort of melancholy and that plus the tux and the bass sort of became my trademark. All I was doing was standing on stage and not mentioning it, not playing it … that was the joke … those were fun days. I don’t think if I did it now I would get very far.”
Tavaré, of course, could not play classical bass. “I can play rockabilly,” he says, “I can play it while I am standing on it, play it on the back of my head.” He pauses for thought. “I probably got 25 years out of it. I sucked it dry.”
Tavaré was a big TV presence with and without the bass, he had his own TV series and was part of the Bafta-award-winning Sketch Show with Lee Mack and Ronnie Ancona.
“When the recession came I was lucky to get on Last Comic Standing, I went out to the US and did a couple of big tours and then I fell back on the acting … because I think I had taken that double bass act as far as I could.”
Indie films and screen villains, commercials and Harry Potter gave Jim and (as he refers to her) Mrs Tavaré a nice LA life.
“And then it all came to an end a year-and-a-half ago,” he says. That car crash, which is the stuff of the show, is something best left to him to tell you about. And yes, he has pictures.
“Did you think you were going to die?” I ask, possibly insensitively.
“No,” he says, “but I think Mrs Tavaré did and she just didn’t know from day to day what was happening or what to do.”
Now, you can take the boy out of comedy, but you cannot take comedy out of the boy and so, many months of rehabilitation later ...
“Deep down, I always wanted to do an Edinburgh show but I never really knew what it would be. Then I went to a storytelling workshop by Lynn Ferguson.” And it gave him the skills to do his horror story justice. Although, I suggest, this is quite an extreme way to build a show.
“Yes, it’s not yer first choice, is it?” he says. “But it was good for me. It became a passion project.” It was Mel Brown of Impressive PR who suggested bringing it to Edinburgh.
“She said, ‘We’ll look after you.’ It’s funny coming back. Now it is a young person’s game, but I can fit in with this story because I’m not competing with anybody else.” There is humour in the show, but Tavaré is long past shoehorning in gags.
“I used to be that guy. All my stuff was random. I was insecure if there was too much pause and I don’t think that is the right way to think, so now I’m looking at jokes as a tool rather than jokes for jokes’ sake. Build the story and then add the jokes.” He shrugs. “It’s easy to subvert a sentence, innit? That’s all we do. It’s not difficult.”
After a lengthy spell in hospital –with a broken neck, a punctured lung and much more – it must be, I suggest, wonderful to be back in the land of free healthcare for all.
“I tried to get seen here by a lung doctor to get the all-clear for Edinburgh and they said, ‘Yeah ,you need to see a lung doctor now, but it might be a month and a half to get the results back.’ So I gave up on that. I’ll just get it done in US.”
His US medical bills came to an initial $652,000 (£500,000) just for bed and board in ICU, and are still ongoing.
“I spent so much money on the medical bills that I got free airmiles to fly myself in … so that’s a positive. I think 90 per cent of it all is positive.”
• Jim Tavaré: From Deadpan to Bedpan is at Laughing Horse @ the Counting House until 26 August, 4:15pm