For anyone that’s seen Tom Wrigglesworth perform will be in no doubt of his wonderful storytelling ability. But originally he choose comedy because people kept telling him he should. After a period of working a job during the day, and gigs at night a job and gigs, he realised one or the other had to go. “I looked in the diary and thought I can pay the rent next month with just gigs,” he tells me. “So I quit! I still have nightmares about having to be at work.”
At the time of our conversation, he’s on a brief break from touring. He probably needs it, as there’s been some solid gigging this year. Even Edinburgh has been given a miss, as he’s not had the time to write the fresh material its Fringe festival demands. “It’s really changed. The perception was you’d go up and work out your show there. Now it’s expected to be tip-top from the moment you arrive.” It could be argued that the original spirit of the Fringe is in danger of being compromised. Audiences are becoming unappreciative that shows are constantly in a state of flux. What appears unfinished is simply being finessed. “Often the fact that you’re just there at Edinburgh means people expect it to be ready..”
Whilst he isn’t really bemoaning the changing nature of the world’s biggest fringe event, it’s obvious he’d appreciate some time to perfect his in-show message. Not that he fears being misunderstood.. It appears he appreciates the danger in comedy of pushing a point too far. Which happens all the time in his industry. “Comedians can be quoted out of context and get accused of holding a position they weren’t holding, if they were exaggerating or making an example of the opposite” Wrigglesworth says it’s very easy to get tripped up as a comedian, because you characterise things, making them bigger to prove a point. “…and before you know it you can be a bigot!”
There’s something earthy and endearing about Wrigglesworth, with his big hair, esoteric dress sense and easy demeanour. You get the feeling something profound is about to be issued. Without realising his career as a comedian, you might guess he was a boundary-smashing architect or an engineering genius. Instead of exploring what’s possible in the physical world, he’s instead looking at the mechanics of our society.
For his current show, Utterly at Odds with the Universe, Wrigglesworth sets his Inquisitive mind to explore the impact his Grandfather had upon him. As a child they would conduct interviews, the tapes of these being unearthed after moving into his grandparent’s house. The long-forgotten tapes of these sessions now provide a launch point for his show. “I realised, when I heard them back, I’ve already become just like my granddad. The show’s based on that really.” Perhaps this is one thing that has been binding so many people to Wrigglesworth’s show. After all nearly everyone has fond memories of their grandparents. “I think they’re a real treat for each other, grandparents and grandchildren. Grandparents are usually retired and all being well they’ve done everything they want to do.”
There’s general air of contentment with most grandparents, whilst the young children in a family are free of responsibility. Often it’s their parents stuck in the middle, bound with their stresses and burdens. So the grandparent and grandchild can offer each other welcome relief from the parent. “Basically when I was growing up it was always great to go round to my grandparent’s house. I’m one of five kids, so it was always chaos in our house. It was relaxing to go round to my grandparents.”
Despite its fondness for the past, his comedy certainly isn’t preoccupied with sentimentally. Whilst it nods to the past, Wrigglesworth still keeps an eye on how we can all learn from these experiences, and use them to improve our present.
His conversion from pure stand-up to master story-teller was an revelatory one. Starting off in comedy with observations and simple jokes, he one day found himself being arrested on a train. He then realised this incident was an ideal framework for a show. Starting with his boarding the train and finishing with his leaving, this left him with an hour to describe the event and its relevance in-between. It’s the perfect narrative trick. Stories in stand-up can be an illusion to have everybody satisfied and make the time fly by. It works even better when a storyteller can make people forget where it all began. “Some people would accuse that of being scatty and going off the point. But it’s funny. You can take me on this little journey and I’ll end up back at the point you’re trying to make forty minutes ago. And I always think that’s nice to watch.”
He does show some concern for how our society tends to infantilise the population, whilst simultaneously demanding it shoulder adult responsibilities. “I don’t want to sound too explosive, but personally I don’t feel old enough to vote now. You should be 50 and had at least two breakdowns or something.” He maintains you can’t possibly have a judgement on what’s best for everybody else, whatever age you are.
Wrigglesworth might not consider himself as overtly political, but perhaps there are more ways to engage in politics than simply declaring allegiance to an ideology. The aforementioned train incident, turned into a peeved letter, railing against bureaucracy. This format of writing an open letter to an industry leader, cabinet member or celebrity he used as a vehicle to rant about what annoyed him on radio. “The last thing I wanted was people to think I could actually do anything about it. It wasn’t a Mark Thomas call-to-arms. What I liked about the train story wasn’t so much the political or the consumer element. It was the story about an old person. So, in this next show I did, it was much more of a return to what I loved about that… which is stories about old people. I really like old people!”
Tom Wrigglesworth plays Brighton’s Dome Studio on Wed 22 Oct 2014, as part of Brighton Comedy Festival