One of the best exponents of the one-liner in British comedy is on the other end of the phone and I’m braced for a machine gun fire barrage of witty puns and bon mots as Milton Jones limbers up for his Edinburgh Festival run. As well as puns, Jones has a taste for the surreal and the absurd so I’m wondering if I’ll get any sense out of the man responsible for “I’ve got a bad feeling about intuition fees” and “A lot of people like cats. Take the Pope, for example: I read recently that he was a cat-oholic!” or “I went out with this girl the other night, she wore this real slinky number...She looked great going down the stairs.”
With his Mexican wave hair and loud shirts he’s a regular on TV and radio with Mock the Week and various Radio 4 shows. He’s quipped his way through Live at the Apollo and been shooting from the lip on the comedy circuit with stand-up tours up and down the country for over two decades now after winning the Perrier Comedy Award for Best Newcomer in 1996.
“It made a difference to my confidence, knowing that someone else thought I was good as well and it was like putting an advert through everyone’s door in comedy,” he says.
Off stage, Jones is a lot less left-field than his comedy persona. He’s quietly spoken, thoughtful and... he laughs. Well, he’s a comedian you might say, of course he laughs, but watch him on stage and he doesn’t laugh at all, merely gazes askance at the audience chortling away, with a rabbit in the headlights look on his face. It was hitting on his neurotic stage identity that propelled Jones, originally a straight actor with a diploma in dramatic art from Middlesex Poly, into the spotlight, and once he hit his comedy stride, his career never looked back.
I’m not sure how this interview will go as Jones’ view of the fourth estate has been expressed as follows: “I don’t trust the press. Sometimes they wear badges that say ‘press’, but if you press those badges they just fall over all surprised.”
Safely at phone’s length away, I’m reassured there will be no pressing or falling over as Jones tells me about finding his way into comedy.
“I tried to be an actor but wasn’t really succeeding, so turned to stand-up because people could see me perform at least, and it wasn’t until I started playing a character and combined the acting and the stand-up, that it began to take off. I began to be able to write for that character and people began to recognise it. The one-liners combined with the hair and the shirts, it’s a kind of alternative branding,” he says.
“There are two types of comic: ones that have the same personality all the time, who do jokes and material without concession as to whether they are onstage or not, and then there are the two dimensional ones who are one person off stage and another on. Having a uniform – the shirts and the hair – the moment the hair goes up and the shirt on, then I’m in it and go out and do the job.”
Jones has evolved the crucial hair techniques over the years from using wax to volumising powder and his shirts are carefully sourced from retro shops. Don’t be fooled into thinking any old loud shirt will do.
“It’s getting harder and harder to find a good shirt,” he says. “It needs to be not too stylised, just a bit off, the ones where you look at it and think ‘is that really nice or really horrible? No, it’s not nice.’ It’s to the side of good taste, but not too far. People send me them but often they’re just too loud or ‘Hawaiian look at me’. So when I’m away on tour I check out the retro shops. I’m going to New York with my son tomorrow for a few days and I’ll do that. I need a new wardrobe of shirts with the tour coming up.”
With the tour and Edinburgh show rapidly approaching, Jones is frantically assembling his props, and will turn himself into a one-man metaphor for broken Britain, before moving on to his more usual stand-up routine.
“I’ve got a giant map of Britain that fits on me with a harness – I’ve had it properly made at great expense and it’s got mountains and green stuff and all the islands, Orkney, Shetland – and there’s a big hole in the middle for my face, somewhere around the Peak District,” he says. “There’s a detachable Scottish head, yes you can imagine where that’s going… and I’ve got Northern Ireland on a stick.
“I’m a befuddled, divided character with my Scottish head thinking of going it alone, while England is pleading and Wales is happy to go along. It’s me messing about with Europe, Brexit, independence, geography jokes; this one is inevitably more political.
“Coming out of Europe I’m wanting to made deals with long-gone countries I used to know, like Ceylon and Rhodesia and Mesopotamia… if there’s an Australian in the audience, I’ll say ‘oh yes, didn’t we used to know you?’”
It’s not the politics and the writing that are giving Jones cause for concern, it’s whether his Britain will break up before he makes it to the end of the festival. Literally.
“It’s big and comes down to my knees, and I’ve got a harness to strap it on so it takes a bit of doing. I was in a tiny theatre last night and it was a nightmare shuffling up the steps onto the stage. It might need running repairs, but I’m hoping it lasts the whole run.”
Jones is looking forward to audience interaction on his tour and reckons he’ll canvass a variety of views across Brexit Britain, with more jokes in his set supporting Remain than Leaving, a reflection of his personal bias.
“For me Brexit wasn’t black and white but I thought it better to Remain, on balance. But my character is that sort of Little English, slightly sort of mixed up upper class, slightly patronising, out of touch type. I hope the audience get the irony.”
As for indyref he’ll be keeping a hold on his head:
“I’m English, so I can see why you might want to go, but it would be a shame for us, and the whole thing might fall apart. Next it will be Devon.”
Whether his Broken Britain prop ends up shredded or the audience has an irony by-pass on Brexit, when it comes to one-liners Jones knows he’s on safer ground with the British appetite for the plain daft. Example. “If you’re being chased by a police dog, try not to go through a tunnel, then onto a little seesaw, then jump through a hoop of fire. They’re trained for that!”
“I suppose the technical description for what I do is short one-liners which are daft, that’s the best word I can think of. It’s the British tradition of nonsense. My style doesn’t really lend itself to putting the world right, only to a peculiar kind of escapism – which might be a message in and of itself.”
Now 53, Milton Hywel Jones was born in Kew near London to a Welsh father and English mother and his family has long been the subject of one liners such as:
“About a month before he died, my grandfather, we covered his back with lard... after that he went downhill very quickly.” Or, “My Aunt Marge has been so ill for so long that we’ve started to call her ‘I can’t believe she’s not better’”
Milton came by his unusual moniker six weeks into his life, during which he had remained nameless, when his parents decided to turn on the radio and use the next name mentioned. “Yes, I could have been The Shipping Forecast or The Archers instead. It was the 1960s so it could have been after Milton Obote, the Ugandan president, or it could have been something about the poet, I’ve no idea, but it’s a good name to have.”
Nowadays he lives in Twickenham near London with his wife and three children, all now students. Contrary to his quip: “My wife... it’s difficult to say what she does... she sells seashells on the seashore,” she is in fact an illustrator. His son Jeremy is a semi-professional skateboarder, which is why the pair are about to visit New York, and not to pick up his recent New York Festivals World’s Best Radio Programs award (“I hadn’t heard of them but maybe I should drop in” he says) and Jones is proud when it’s his son and not him that attracts attention.
“I was at a do near a skatepark and someone recognised me off the telly, then found out I was Jeremy Jones’ dad and that was a far bigger deal.”
As for following him into comedy, Jones would encourage his children if they were really committed and prepared for hard work.
“I would back them any way I could, but it’s so random who succeeds,” he says. “There’s no point in me saying you need to get a sensible job, because at a certain level I don’t. I encourage them to follow the direction they have inside. But the live circuit is dying off in comedy and the clubs are struggling because so much is on television and people want to see those people – which means people like me are killing it!”
Television has been a success story for Jones, principally because his style suits the medium. Short punchy one-liners fit better than story telling or observational narrative and Jones doesn’t see himself ever changing style.
“Story telling just doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t fit with my personality. I was always jealous of people who can wander onto a stage with three stories and fill an hour, but the converse is it’s harder for them on television, especially on something like Mock the Week, to get a word in. I can chuck a grenade in and get out again quickly, which is great.
“I tend to be the odd man out in the show in that what I say will go clunk, and be sort of slightly off subject. Editors like it because it’s a good way of ending a round, let’s end on that weird note and move on.”
Jones has tweeted about being the odd man out on the show these days, referring to the controversy over the requirement to have a woman on the panel with: “So I’m the token white, English, unshaven male again.”
“There was a lot of fuss around how many women and minorities are on but I think the people who do it are just the funny people, whoever they are,” he explains. “Now any woman who is on wonders why they’re there. There are more male comedians at the moment – lots of reasons for that – but in 10 to 15 years it will have changed a lot.”
“Militant feminists, I take my hat off to them – they don’t like that.”
He’s kidding. He was never one for the sexist comedy of the 1960s and 1970s. Growing up it was comedic actors, such as Rowan Atkinson or Leonard Rossiter that he liked, rather than ‘comedians’. “Comedians told jokes about mothers-in-law and Irish people and that didn’t inspire me,” he says. “Then the whole Harry Enfield Saturday Night Live came along and it was a different world of possibilities. In some ways I don’t think of myself as a comedian, I still think of myself as an actor, which is strange. Comedian to me still says cummerbund.”
It was early exposure to Goons scripts from his father that tickled Jones’ funny bone and prompted a fascination with what words can do and how tone can vary the meaning.
“Here was something that wasn’t like school but was entertaining. For me stories don’t have to be real, you can just have a laugh with them. I was generally more interested in mucking about at school than doing work, busy trying to misunderstand things and doing impressions of teachers, and in the end I turned professional at mucking about. I was lucky that comedy worked out the way it did.”
Not that comedy was his only job: “Years ago I used to supply filofaxes for the mafia. Yes, I was involved in very organised crime.”
According to Jones the secret of the one-liner is misdirection, whether it’s Tim Vine’s cheeky showbiz persona that goes at it 100 miles an hour, or his own “stare-y eyed weirdness that drags you into a world where these things might exist, something that takes the eye off the construction. Hopefully you’re always wrong-footing people, shaving syllables and speeding up or stressing the right word. There’s a limit to how many one-liners people can take – any more than 15 minutes and blood comes out of their ears.”
Something else Jones grew up with, along with a fascination for language, was religion, although he avoids it in his act. “I don’t like perpetuating a sub culture. I think you should just tell jokes and if people smell God off it, it will be in a joy rather than theology. Occasionally I have done Christian festivals but I try to stir it up, shouting things like ‘Christians need to get away from religious clichés – amen?’ I don’t preach at them,” he says.
With Edinburgh in the offing Jones’ wife, the sea shell seller/illustrator, will be catching up with her Scottish links, with the whole family decamping to Edinburgh for the duration.
“We have a sort of open house and kids come and go and people come and stay. The fact I’m doing a show is irrelevant to them. I disappear for a couple of hours in the evening and come back and find no-one’s noticed,” he says, mock-hurt.
After Edinburgh Jones will be straight back on the road on a tour that continues until April 2018 and he is also making another Radio 4 series at the start of the year.
“After that I don’t know. I’m sure something will pop up. I’d like to just go back and do some acting occasionally to get out of the tyranny of having to write one-liners. It’s great when you’ve done it, but at the beginning of a tour, suddenly you feel like you’re at the bottom of the mountain and you’re thinking oh, I could never write another joke again…”
He doesn’t mean it. There’s always room for just one more. What’s his favourite joke?
“It’s often the last one you wrote, and I can’t remember what that is,” he says. “But here’s my most accessible joke, the one that has worked for me best, because it appeals to all ages…
“I was walking along the other day and in the road I saw a small, dead baby ghost. Although thinking about it... it might have been a handkerchief.”
Milton Jones Is Out There, Edinburgh Fringe, Assembly Hall, 3-13, 15-20 August, 7:30pm, £18.
His UK tour visits Dunfermline, 19 October, Glasgow, 20 October, Kirkcaldy, 1 February 2018 and Aberdeen, 2 February, www.miltonjones.com