Interview: Rich Hall talks to Janet Christie
With his face like a chewed toffee and voice that's been kippered then dragged behind a pickup truck along a dirt track, US comedian Rich Hall has been a welcome presence on our screens of late, talking us through the US election with radio shows, TV documentaries and appearances. His latest on Have I Got News for You following the shock victory of Donald Trump saw him issue a blanket apology on behalf of his country.
A fixture on TV panel quiz shows, especially QI, Hall has had four TV series, and written and presented documentaries about film and US-themes for the BBC. Since winning the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2000 in the guise of his country singing ex-con uncle Otis Lee Crenshaw, Hall’s star has risen and he regularly sells out venues from Oklahoma to Orkney to Auckland.
Hall voted early, for Hillary, his opinion of Donald Trump being summed up in his song, The Ballad of Donald Trump: “How can a man control the people when he can’t even control his hair?”
Before the vote, Hall had suggested that if Trump won he’d be spending all of his time in the UK.
“Yeah, I might have to back down,” says the 62 year old in his trademark rasping growl. “All those people who said they would leave, the celebs, they’re all backing down too.”
Hall spends most of his time in the UK anyway, living in London with Karen, his film maker wife of 11 years, and their two children Hayes, three, and Dixie, 11. That’s when he’s not holed up writing at his ranch near Livingston Montana or on the road.
“I’ll go back to Montana, definitely,” he says. “It’s a different kind of state. It voted Trump, yes, but they generally elect an opposition party governor. It’s a very rural place and politics takes a back seat to the outdoors because nature can just shrug and bump you off the planet. That’s what the election came down to, city versus country. The city wasn’t engaging with the country. And I guess I wasn’t engaging either.”
“I was shocked Trump won and shocked I didn’t see it coming. I don’t think I’m any great oracle, but I travel around a lot and I did not see this story. But Trump supporters don’t come to comedy shows or congregate in coffee houses. We didn’t see them coming.
“In retrospect it starts to make sense. It wasn’t just Hillary, it was the House and the Senate and people had had enough.”
Hall is just getting started, so buckle up because we’re in for one of his excoriating tirades.
“People are led by their phones. You sit in a coffee shop and watch people out of the window, walking past looking at their phones. They’re following tweets, and tweeting themselves, and that’s how stories get inflated into a big deal.
“The media is throwing out clickbait and that’s the way we get news now and form opinions. Newspapers used to report news, but now tweet about the things people like to talk about in the pub.
“Last time I was in North Carolina, the entire week was dominated by debate over transgender use of bathrooms. All over the news, talk shows, Twitter, and at one point it focused on the bathrooms at a stock car racing event. I mean, how many transgender people were there at a stock car racing event? This isn’t news, this is just a tiny speck in the ocean of problems going on in the world.
“Anyone in the toilet stall next to me is disgusting, I don’t care what gender they are. After a week of listening to that, you think that is what my government is doing, wasting its time arguing over who is using which toilet. And the voters think what a lot of crap. Let’s vote ‘em out.”
As far as Hall is concerned, a Trump victory is comedy gold and he’s looking forward to turning his wit on the shenanigans over The Pond.
“The next four years will be great comedy picking. It’s a harvest. There won’t be any shortage of material.”
“Is Trump going to build the wall? Well, it’s not going to help. I was just in York and there are three Mexican restaurants inside the wall. It hasn’t stopped them.”
As for being scared and hiding under the nearest table until it’s all over, Hall is resigned to what will be.
“People are overreacting,” he says. “He’s this crazy guy, but the narcissistic part of him wants to be the greatest president ever and that’s great. He’s going to learn to work with people and he might be good at negotiation. He’ll surround himself with people who will show him the way.
“It’s the temperamental side of him that worries me. They probably won’t tell him the nuclear code, they’ll just say ‘It’s 1234’. He’s not the most dangerous man in the world. There’s a guy in North Korea and another in Russia who’re way more scary than Trump.”
Despite his grumpy curmudgeon persona, Hall is in chipper mood, taking time out from his current tour Rich Hall: Live which runs until December, and looking forward to this week’s release of his latest DVD, 3:10 To Humour. A recording of a show on last year’s tour, the gig features his trademark mix of observational humour, audience participation and musical interludes. A highlight is where audience responses become the inspiration for his off the cuff country meets bluegrass songs.
“That’s a really fun bit,” he says. “You just throw yourself into it. Keep your mind flowing and improvise. Even if you stumble, it’s still funny. Next tour will have a full five-piece band.”
Hall is also about to release a CD, entitled Working Dog, which features the brilliant titular song about a Montana neighbour’s border collie and its strong work ethic, and a song entitled Rose of Hawick.
“I wanted to do a Texas swing version about a Scottish woman and a difficult to pronounce place name. What rhymes with Hawick?”
So why is the DVD called 3:10 to Humour?
“Well I had to call it something,” he growls pleasantly, “and there’s an old Western starring Glenn Ford called 3:10 to Yuma, so it’s from that. But in the Isle of Wight, they all turned up at 3:10pm because they thought that was the show time. At night they’re all in bed, Dignitas Island. I’m not goin’ back. I can see why Jimi Hendrix played the Isle of Wight then killed himself.”
Hall has kinder things to say about some of his further flung Scottish gigs after visiting Orkney, Shetland and the Hebrides last year.
“Amazing. Once a year I try to go somewhere that’s out of the way, places you have go in and out of on a little plane. It was me and a load of schoolkids flying in for school.”
So is the shouty sourpuss the real Hall, or just a persona, exaggerated for effect on stage?
“Whadda you think?” he rasps.
That he’s more upbeat and cheery offstage.
“Yeah, I’m much more cheery than people give me credit for. Optimistic. But I’m having a good time on stage and I think people can see that.”
Hall is delighted, if modest, about being the inspiration for Moe Szyslak, the bartender in The Simpsons.
“I like Moe, he’s hilarious, but it’s not like someone sat down and said I’m going to use Rich Hall’s voice. It comes down to someone trying to figure out a voice for a character and saying put in a little more Rich Hall, ra, ra, ra, ra”, he rasps. “But my wife says I look exactly like him. I think I do a bit in profile.
“The character is based on a bartender in New Jersey that pranksters used to call and get to shout fictitious names. ‘Is there a Mantu Hugmee in the bar?’ He fell for it every time.”
Hall might be the inspiration for the unlucky in love Moe, but tell people you’re interviewing Hall and there’s a flurry among the females. No doubt they’d be intrigued by his advice on how to treat a woman: “Never shout, take her for an evening stroll, help her up the stairs at night …” So far so good. Then, “She may never have seen them before” and he reveals he’s borrowing from a greyhound rescue organisation.
Apart from subjects like relations between the sexes, Hall loves to turn the spotlight on his homeland, and gun control is often in his sights. His position is that America is intrinsically violent and it’s not going to change. “Getting rid of guns is like trying to deal with obesity by banning spoons.”
Does Hall have a gun himself?
“I’ve got a .22 rifle. Haven’t really fired it in 10, 12 years.”
What did he shoot with it?
“Critters. I used to live way out in the country and it was a useful thing to have. I used it on badgers, prairie dogs, pack rats, things that were trying to get into my trailer and kill my cats. I had a bunch of cats and a badger killed one so I shot it, then a hawk came and killed another cat, and I learned you can’t fight the natural cycle.”
Hall was born in Alexandria, Virginia in 1954, and raised partly in Kentucky, but moved around as his dad was in the military. His father was “Scots Irish” and he’s part Cherokee through his grandmother and birth mother.
“I traced my dad’s side back to stealing pigs around Newcastle. And the Cherokee was my grandmother who I never met. I barely remember my mother because she and my father split up when I was two, and my step-mum raised me. I never felt the need to track her down. There might be a cut off point at two and a half where you’re not affected. I didn’t really think about it.”
Does he think constantly having to make new friends and fit in might have honed his comic talents.
“I don’t know, but it gives you a wider perspective. You’re not tied down to any one place or thing emotionally. But I wouldn’t say I was funny to make friends, because for me comedy is more of a business transaction. They pay, I make them laugh and they go home happy, I go home happy. It’s a win-win. People just want to be entertained. That’s why you get Tupperware demos.”
Because he’s moved around a lot Hall’s accent is a cocktail: a shot of James Stewart, a slug of Walter Matthau, topped up with a dash of Tom Waits, shaken with a handful of gravel, and pour.
“I grew up in the south, lived in Seattle, New York, LA, Montana, so it’s a generic American accent.”
After school Hall studied literature, before getting a job on a newspaper in Seattle. At the same time he started doing stand-up and success on Comic Strip Live in New York led to writing and performing on the David Letterman Show, winning him two Emmys, then Saturday Night Live. Then came the Perrier in 2000 and TV and comedy circuit success followed.
As well as his comedy, Hall has written plays that were performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, but he probably won’t be writing any more.
“Stupid idea,” he says. “Very experimental and self-indulgent. Apart from the last one, Campfire Stories, which was good. But you need financial backing.”
Hall will be back on tour next year in Scotland, a country he regards as already independent.
“As far as I’m concerned when I’m there I’m in another country. So in terms of Scotland being recognised as Scottish not English or British, I’ve already done my part.”
He’s similarly phlegmatic about Brexit and future referenda.
“I didn’t have a vote. If I had, I don’t actually know… probably Leave. I would probably vote for Scotland to leave the UK, and the UK to leave Europe. But the whole thing’s a bureaucratic nightmare,” he says.
“I definitely try to address Scottish material when I’m in Scotland. I’ve got tons of songs about Scotland, including The Rose of Hawick,” he says, returning to his earlier theme.
Ah yes, what does rhyme with Hawick? If you can think of anything, give Hall a tweet or head along to one of next year’s gigs and it might find its way into his song. n