“Your comedy character is called The Herbert,” I said to Spencer Jones.
“Well,” he told me, “I wanted to call him The Dickhead. Dickhead to me is quite a nice term: He’s a dickhead – I like him. It feels like a warm character to me. But Northerners told me it was too strong.
“So then I messed-around with all sorts of names – The Idiot… The Herbert.
“I settled on The Herbert – He’s a Herbert – He’s really clever at one thing. But also Check out this Herbert: quite a London phrase for He’s a bit of a prat. And Herbert Spencer wrote theories on comedy. The name just seemed to fit well.”
“How did the character start?”
“About three years ago, I did a Doctor Brown course for five days and I was awful for the whole week. I loved it but I was awful. I was the worst. But I found it really interesting.”
“Why do a clown course?”
“I don’t know.”
“Because it was trendy?”
“It wasn’t trendy to me.”
“You were no good at it, but you loved it.”
“What I loved about it was realising the magic that goes on in the audience’s head. When you do a clown class with 30 people and they’ve each got to walk on stage within the group three times, you see 90 entrances. It’s a crucial moment when you walk out on stage. Every person in the audience makes up their mind about you in different ways.
“Someone walks on stage and you can think: Ooh. He looks like a builder. Or Ooh. He looks like he’s got issues. Or Ooh. He looks like he thinks he’s a dancer… All these little things. When you are doing stand-up in little clubs, it’s about how you walk on stage and your opening gag: the audience make their mind up about you.”
“So,” I suggested, “like most ‘silly’ acts, you are analytical.”
“I try to be. Maybe. A little bit.”
“What is the elevator pitch for your act?”
“Oh God. I don’t know.”
“When you decided to be a comedian, were you the Herbert immediately?”
“No. Before that, I was a stand-up for a little while. I’m a kind of private person, so I found it kind-of difficult to do good stand-up. Then I did sketch comedy: I put together a little troupe called Broken Biscuits. Then I did characters – builders, Foley artists…”
“Foley Phil. I had seen Chris Luby at the Glastonbury Festival, doing marching sounds. My Phil Foley was a bit like him.”
“The cliché is that performers hide behind characters.”
“Definitely. Though there’s a little part of myself in there. The kid in me.”
“So, getting back to the elevator pitch again…”
“The Herbert is basically physical comedy and props. And some weird music. You know what, John? I really don’t know yet.”
“How long have you been doing it?”
“Three-and-a-bit years. I just take stuff on stage that I think will make people laugh. I never thought of myself as a physical comedian or wanted to be a prop comic, but I found something to take on stage and then something else and suddenly I had props. The key thing is to go on, smile, be nice and make sure I am the biggest prat in the room.”
“Did you study drama at university?”
“I didn’t go to university. My mum always used to encourage me when I sang and when I acted and, when bullies used to bully me, I fought back and she used to say: You’re doing the right thing. But the rest of it – school – she wasn’t bothered about that. I kind of fannied around until I was 30 and then I thought: I’ve got to stop being a dick. And now I’m a professional dickhead.”
“What had you been before you were 30?”
“All sorts, I’d worked in a pastie factory. I was a teaboy and then a producer for TV commercials. I worked for the council in West Ham and Plaistow.”
“It was called New Deal for Communities: I used to teach kids things like radio presenting. I’ve done lots of things. Bar manager. Wedding DJ. Wedding singer.”
“So why choose to go into comedy at 30?”
“I’d done a double act when I was 16 or 17 – three gigs and we got booed off stage on the third gig by all my friends. I wanted to entertain. When I was 18 or 19, I went to Malcolm Hardee’s club Up The Creek and saw some acts get absolutely annihilated and I didn’t have the balls to touch comedy again until I was 24.
“I used to play in a junk band – gas pipes, shopping trollies, kitchen sinks and we used to open the cabaret stage at the Glastonbury Festival for a few years.”
So there you have it.
Spencer Jones is the Herbert.
A surreal, absurdist physical comedy act with lots of props.
“The act is all mumbling,” he told me. “I’m trying to get it down to just mumbling and noises. The occasional well-chosen word.”
“Has your Edinburgh Fringe show next month got a theme?” I asked.
“It’s about my daughter being in hospital,” Spencer told me. “About having no money. Being skint.”
“Autobiograpical?” I asked.
“Absolutely. If you spend five days in hospital with a kid, as a clown, you’ve gotta start messing around with the equipment.”
“What was wrong with her?”
“She’s four months old now. It was full-on for a month. You’ve got to perform what you know and what’s honest to you. I try to do silly stuff, but it always gets informed by what’s going on around me.”
“I dunno. I just want to carry on trying to make people laugh. Just pay the bills. I’ve go a roof that needs fixing. There’s a short film coming out called Showtime, directed by Anthony Dickenson who is a commercials director looking into longer narrative stuff. I play a bit of a cocky stand-up comedian who’s in a bit of a pickle. In the film, I am the Daily Mail Comedian of the Year.
“I’m an actor, really. One of the main reason I started doing comedy was I figured it was a good way to get acting jobs, because I saw it as a meritocracy where, if you’re a good comedian, you get work.”
I told Spencer: “You didn’t say: I ALSO act. You said: I’m an actor. Which implies you see yourself as an actor first.”
“Yes. I’m an actor, yeah. I do quite a few commercials. I’m the current face of Barclaycard. I like an easy life. I would love it if someone just gave me a script and I learn the lines, do the thing, go home and hang out with the missus and kids. That would be the easy life… But…”
There is a clip of The Herbert’s 2014 Edinburgh Fringe show on YouTube.