Comedian Spencer Jones on his return as alter ego, The Herbert

With a broad grin, Spencer Jones is scrolling through photos on his phone, showing me random objects and eccentric eBay purchases.

Comedian Spencer Jones will be playing his alter ego, The Herbert. Picture: Contributed.

“Coconut,” he notes, before pausing on the image of an odd-looking gadget. “I’ve upgraded from ping pong balls,” he says of his latest rudimentary prop. “I don’t quite know what to do with this yet but it fires tennis balls.”

As the fourth clowning show to feature his alter-ego, The Herbert, a semi-
coherent, hunched Cockney nincompoop with a pudding bowl haircut, The Audition features Jones screen testing for Steven Spielberg’s latest sci-fi blockbuster, as a sad and angry robot. “I don’t have anything going on in my life apart from auditions and looking after my kids, so it has to be about this” the 41-year-old confesses.

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Next, a mask he’s “made from all the scripts I’ve ever failed”, then a vaguely humanoid figure his son built from cardboard and clutter. Four-year-old Sonny performs too. “You sit down, he’s got some gaffer tape and he’s taped a doll’s arm to a ball and is just walking around like an idiot” Jones chuckles, paternal delight etched across his face.

With its inspired physical “dickheadery” incorporating musical loops, his 2015 breakthrough saw him hailed as the Fringe’s best performer by his fellow comedians. The demands of reprising that hour, along with a new show, almost jaded him into retiring The Herbert last year. He is, however, “easily bored”, and took five months off live work to get reacquainted with his comedy mojo. He uses countless props, cues and set-pieces, not to mention daft audience interaction, and something always goes wrong in his shows. So he’s developed “five different ways to perform each skit, based on when they laugh. And when they don’t.”

Television has been less forgiving. Beset by technical difficulties, The Herbert’s Live at the Apollo debut at Christmas drew a decidedly mixed response, ranging from those who saw a 21st century Mr Bean or Tommy Cooper, to complete and utter bafflement.

Fortunately, the BBC, at least, retain faith that Jones’s bumbling manchild act has mainstream appeal. Against type, he pastiches Ricky Gervais as the smug actor Will Kempe in Ben Elton’s Shakespeare sitcom Upstart Crow. But after following Rowan Atkinson into Barclaycard adverts, as an accident-prone family man belatedly committing to marriage, he fulfilled a similar role in the sitcom Still Open All Hours. He pops up in the corporation’s knockabout new sitcom pilot Tim Vine Travels In Time and piloted his own, The Jonah Man, for Sky, based on a Christmas short in which he played a panicking dad contriving presents from last-minute ironmonger purchases after the family’s gifts were stolen.

“I reckon I’m just an average man who’s willing to show I’m a bit naff. That’s what’s getting me work,” he ventures. “As a generic character, you know that guy. He’s trying but he’s a bit crap. Look at him dancing, look at him trying to be cool.”

This rather undersells Jones’s goofy likeability. And a modern reworking of Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em ought to turn this cult rubbish upcycler into a household name. Airing soon on BBC One, in Mister Winner he plays Leslie Winner, a well-meaning but hapless chap perpetually landing himself in strange and dangerous situations. Written for Jones by Matt Morgan after seeing his 2015 show, the pilot is “a broad, family thing with some good visual gags”.

A former junk band musician and wedding singer, Jones enjoyed fleeting success with the 2010 children’s television series Big Babies, in which he and collaborator Jon Riche’s faces were superimposed onto newborns’ bodies. Counter-intuitively commissioned by the BBC after they’d sent the corporation a video belittling its output, Big Babies was then just as oddly dropped following their Bafta nomination. Jones fell into becoming a conventional “mediocre” stand-up, reliably “terrible” in acting auditions. Then in 2012, on an inexplicable whim, he signed up for a five-day clowning course with Phil Burgers, aka Dr Brown, who had just won the Edinburgh Comedy Award. We’re chatting in London’s Soho Theatre, where he took that course and wrote “life-changing” in a thank you card to Burgers afterwards.

He recalls: “Nobody laughed at me for the whole week. Then on the last day, there was an exercise where you have to do what you think the audience wants you to do. So I’m looking at them and I started to bend my back. They started to laugh a little. So I bent a little more, my legs started to bend and they laughed even more.

“Before you know it, I’m on my bum and I’m dragging myself along the ground like a dog with an itchy arse, making noises. They were laughing more at that than anything I’d done before. So I thought ‘OK, this is the thing then’.”

Three weeks after that nascent Herbert, Sonny was born. “That silliness that kids like, the things he was doing to get a laugh out of me, it all coincided.”

They were “skint” when The Herbert arrived at the Fringe for the first time in 2014 and “still are”. Since then, amidst all their absurdity, Jones’s shows have increasingly alluded to his playful bond with his son. But also to concerns about his arrested development and precarious career, from his more straight-laced brother, ever-patient wife and late father.

So while Sonny is constantly gives him ideas, his “geezerish” father, a former undercover policeman, was something of a closed book. Jones still tries to talk to him sometimes. After a gig and a drink, “when I’m feeling emotional”. When he was alive, the old man never discussed his “crazy job” or tough orphanage upbringing. “The classic phrase was ‘it’s not up for discussion’”.

Yet ahead of last year’s festival, Jones was chatting on the phone to fellow comic Daniel Kitson, when a painting of his father and stepmother spookily fell in front of him. “And when Kitson says ,‘Put that in the show’, you go ,‘OK’.”

There’s no obvious reason for Jones to include such personal detail in his otherwise off-the-wall comedy, perhaps beyond humanising The Herbert. “It’s weird, isn’t it?” he says. “I never thought I’d make a good stand-up because you’ve got to be open and I’m quite private, so I hid behind a character. Yet somehow, I’ve ended up laying it all out anyway.”

Mocking the BBC got him Big Babies. So could namechecking the director of Jaws open up a film career? Working on a television vehicle for The Herbert, Jones is also developing a movie idea that’s “partly about undercover coppering”.

Right now though, “everyone just wants smiley, happy idiot”. Everyone. He’s hoping to spend more time with his son and two-year-old daughter. “It’s been five months without me doing bath-times because I’ve been out previewing and they are getting proper naughty,” he says. “I don’t want to be sat with them, distracted about whether a tennis ball is going to stick to my ear or not. I want to be a proper dad and let Ruth get her life back.

“That said, if I get a call from Spielberg, then we’re all going to America and no-one will stop me!”

Spencer Jones: The Audition is at Heroes @ Monkey Barrel, 6:20pm, until 27 August