Friday, 7 October 2016

Comedy: Tom Allen & Suzi Ruffell

One of my total guilty pleasures is watching 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown. A few weeks back I watched an episode where Tom Allen was in dictionary corner and his jokes made me cry. So I did a bit of Googling, watch a few clips of his stand up, and discovered he's on a UK double headline tour with Suzi Ruffell. Read on for an interview with these two.

Given that Tom and Suzi will be spending a large part of the autumn in each other’s pockets for their Hit The Road tour, it’s somewhat fortunate that they happen to be good pals. Having bonded after a particularly difficult charity gig, they now record their own weekly podcast, Like Minded Friends, and are positively thrilled to be sharing a number of British stages together over the coming months.

First, a potted comedy history of the pair: Tom Allen has been performing comedy for over a decade and in 2005 took home the prestigious So You Think You’re Funny and BBC New Comedy awards and recently supported Sarah Millican on tour across the UK, Australia and New Zealand. You may also have seen him in such TV shows as 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown and this year’s Channel 4 Comedy Gala.

Suzi Ruffell has been in the stand-up game since 2009 with Edinburgh Fringe shows such as Let’s Get Ready To Ruffell and Social Chameleon under her belt, and has been the warm-up act for the likes of Kevin Bridges, Alan Carr and Josh Widdicombe in very big rooms indeed.

In this Q&A, we hear about their respective new shows (Tom’s Indeed and Suzi’s Common), find out what method they’re using to decide who should be the headliner act and, most importantly, what they really think of each other . . .

So, what are your new shows about?

Suzi: Common is about me being from a very working-class family, and how I feel about it and how I’ve changed. I’ll ask the audience at the start who thinks that they’re working class to bring people in from the first minute. People will say that they come from a working-class background or area, but are you still working class if you’ve been to university? In the writing of it, I realised that I’m actually middle class. I live in north London with my partner and we have a pedigree cat, both work in the arts and sometimes cook quinoa.

Tom: Indeed is partly about escape and feeling like you want to be different and elsewhere, and always feeling that you’re destined for bigger things and not quite getting there. That’s the essence of the show. I also talk about a pseudo-sexual experience on a water-slide. It’s got something for everybody, I hope.

Do you enjoy being on tour or can it be something of a grind?

Tom: I enjoy going to different places even if I am quite disdainful about them on stage. Different towns have different quirks and have something really interesting about them: Stockport has a hat museum and Hull has a thriving gay scene, which I really had no idea about. The world is full of surprises. And I spend a lot of time on trains which luckily I enjoy, travelling around in pastel colours just like Michael Portillo.

Suzi: Touring is still a bit of a novelty to me and I love it. And to know that people are booking to see us in advance is going to make my autumn very exciting: I can’t wait. I’m sure touring can get quite hard and you might get bored of it, but the novelty certainly hasn’t worn off for me.

Given that this is a joint double-bill, how will you decide who goes on first?

Suzi: What we’re thinking of doing on the tour is compering together at the top of the show and at the start of the second half and what we’re thinking of doing is getting an audience member to flip a coin to decide who goes on first.

Tom: That coin-toss will provide an element of chance. You don’t want things to be stale and that’s the great thing about live comedy: you don’t know what’s going to be said or who’s going to come through the door and what they’re going to laugh at. In that regard, stand-up can be very electrifying.

What have you learned about yourself and your comedy having been on tour with some household names?

Tom: I’ve been friends with Sarah Millican for about 11 years and it’s been great to open up for her on tour. She’s been very generous to me and given me the most wonderful opportunity to get better in front of larger crowds. There was a point when I was nervous performing in front of two or three thousand people but now I can have a nice relaxed time in front of people who essentially are not there to see you. You can learn those important skills of going, “well, I know you don’t know who I am but I’m going to prove to you that I’m alright”. It’s been a great learning experience and I feel I’ve collected a whole set of new followers.

Suzi: Every person I’ve toured with I’ve learned a different thing, but what you start noticing is that each comic is good about talking about a specific thing. With Josh Widdicombe, it’s all about observation, with Alan Carr it’s personal storytelling and camp comedy, with Romesh Ranganathan he’s just angry about everything. What I’ve discovered about myself on the circuit is that it will start rocking when I’m talking about family stuff, which is why I’ve written this show.

In this era of tabloid and social media outrage over the things that comedians say, do you ever worry that something you might mention on stage gets taken out of context and used against you?

Suzi: I have a few rude bits in my show that I particularly enjoy doing because I’m not very rude. I love stand-up because we’re not censored, and I like to choose what I talk about. I’m not massively into nasty comedy or picking on people, but when people come to see me, I want it to be a fun hour where you laugh and there’s silliness and maybe you think about things differently for a bit.

Tom: We’re in quite an age of outrage, aren’t we? We look back at the Victorian era and think, “oh, aren’t they prudish?” but I don’t think we’re any less prudish now. People like to feel sanctimonious and moralistic, and are desperate to direct some anger and ire towards something. My stance has often been to be snobby and disdainful of people around me, and I’m sure that some people would not enjoy that. But in this earnest age, I think it’s quite nice to offer an alternative point of view.

How did your podcast Like Minded Friends come about?

Tom: We met during a gig for a gay charity that will remain nameless: they were awful, dreadful people and we had a miserable time. They didn’t seem very grateful that we had given up our time for free. Suzi had the same experience and we bonded over that and kept in touch. In the last nine months we decided we’d do a podcast together; it offers something on the queer spectrum of things and largely we discuss a topic from our point of view and go off on tangents. We’ve had a lot of hits and people seem to enjoy it.

Suzi: I remember the audience for that gig was very hostile, too. There was a drag act and then me, and another drag act then Tom, and the audience was standing rather than seated. They were encouraged to chat to us: it was all very bizarre. With the podcast, I didn’t really know if I wanted to do one as there are so many podcasts about stand-up comedy out there now and people have got it nailed. But we realised that there isn’t a British gay podcast, and we wanted to offer something different. And all of a sudden, the site has 45,000 hits, and we’ve set up an email account for people to get in touch with us and it’s all really lovely.

Here’s the 64 million dollar question: what do you like about each other as people and as comedians? 

Suzi: Tom is the person I would ring if things have gone horribly wrong with my day or if I’ve made a bad mistake. He’s very calming because he’s really affirmative about everything being OK. He has a very reassuring and measured voice whereas I’m a bit of a loose cannon. We’re still and sparkling. As a stand-up, I just think he’s so funny and I love the subjects he takes on and the way he uses language. And I love how he uses silence and quiet moments.

Tom: I enjoy a lot of things about her as a person but I’d say that I really do enjoy her laugh. And her comedy is quite punky; it’s sometimes angry, sometimes not angry. There are explosions of anger which become reduced down and she has a great mettle as a stand-up. I enjoy going off on tangents and talking about marmalade, and she seems to enjoy taking an issue apart. We’re a good contrast.


Tom and Suzi will be in Bristol tonight (can't wait!) with their tour continuing next week in Pontradawe, before taking in Cambridge, Wolverhampton, Sudbury, Banbury, Brighton, Nottingham, Birmingham, Salford, Wrexham, Bridport and Brighton over the next couple of months. Find out more and book tickets here.
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