On 10th January, I got an e-mail from British comedian Matt Roper. It said:
“Albuquerque, New Mexico? Or Tuscon, Arizona? I’m at truck stop in New Mexico and I can get to either place to get to where I need to be. But I can only choose one. Your thoughts?”
“The Wikipedia entry on Albuquerque,” I told him, “has sections on Freight Service and Sanitation. If the only thing they can write about Albuquerque to make it sound interesting is its sanitary arrangements, the town has not a lot going for it.
“As for Tucson, Wikipedia says: The Arizona Daily Wildcat is the University of Arizona’s student newspaper and the Aztec News is the Pima Community College student newspaper. The New Vision is the newspaper for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson and the Arizona Jewish Post is the newspaper of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. You can’t go wrong. It has everything.”
Matt decided to go to Tucson and, on the Greyhound bus trip, he got talking to a bounty hunter. But that’s another story.
When I talked to him two days ago, Matt was in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“I flew into New York and managed to do everything by train up until Texas and then I ended up doing car shares and Greyhound buses,” he told me. “I really like them, because you really meet the real characters on the buses.”
“Who’s the most bizarre person you met?” I asked him.
“Maybe the bounty hunter. Maybe the pimp’s nephew. There was the 18-stone Baptist preacher who tried to convert me to Southern Baptism. And the guy who coached Bobby Fischer, the chess champion. I think that guy is living in abject poverty in New York; he’s in his seventies, drinking quite heavily. He never received any money. Bobby Fischer went on to make loads and loads and he never gave the guy any.”
“But now you’re in Buenos Aires,” I said. “I’m green with envy. You’re just basically meandering around the world.”
“I’m always writing and trying stuff out, doing gigs here and there,” said Matt.
He performs as the rather greasy, slightly lecherous but strangely charming Spanish lounge lizard singer Wilfredo.
“I got connected with some local comics and ended up doing a gig here last night,” Matt told me on Skype. “It was interesting doing a Spanish character in Buenos Aires. I felt as if I was being fed to the lions. But it went well. It’s been really inspirational.
“The Argentinian comedy scene isn’t huge, but I met some local comedians. There’s a group of four young Argentinian comics who flyer every weekend. Their work ethic is so inspirational. They hire this little room above a pub like we do in London – 60 capacity. They flyer all day and night on a Friday and Saturday and do three shows a night every weekend – a 10.00pm, 01.00am and 03.00am show – because no-one goes to bed here till gone dawn.
“I have a blessed life. I support myself with writing commissions and gigs.”
“Yes,” I said, “You write these promo scripts, which is sort-of like what I used to do. But I had to go to places like Salford. You get to travel the world and work via the internet.”
“You’ve been to Tibet,” said Matt. “I haven’t been to Tibet. I’ve never seen the Potala Palace.”
“You’ve come to my home,” I said. “You’ve seen the picture.”
“I’ve seen the Dalai Lama,” Matt said.
“I’ve only seen him talk at Wembley,” I said. “You’ve been more exotic.”
“I was an English teacher in China for six months when I was about 27,” said Matt, “teaching adults. I used to wind them up. I would play Odd One Out with them. I’d put the names of four towns on the board and get them to pick which one didn’t belong, say: Lhasa, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen. Beijing! they’d say – Why? – Capital city! – Good, but wrong. It’s Lhasa, cos Lhasa’s the only one that’s not in China! They’d go ballistic. I’d been with the Tibetan community in exile at Dharamsala in northern India.”
“Have you seen the Iguassu waterfalls yet?” I asked.
“No,” said Matt. “I fly out of Buenos Aires in five hours. Basically, I’ve come all the way to Argentina, rented an apartment out in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, miles away from anywhere, and mostly what I’ve done is sit here and written, drunk a few bottles of wine and taken a taxi into town every now and then. It’s ridiculous.”
“So you haven’t seen the pampas,” I said. “You haven’t seen men on horseback with large balls. None of that?”
“None of that,” agreed Matt. “But I’ve seen cockroaches. I don’t mind insects and I love animals, but cockroaches! Buenos Aires is one of the great cockroach cities of the world. You can see them all weaving in-and-out of the human traffic on the pavements. But there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s not because the place is dirty. It’s the heat and… I just can’t fucking cope with cockroaches. I don’t want to cook. I lose my appetite.”
“How do you sleep at night?” I asked.
“I just leave the light on. They don’t like lights and they don’t like noise. So I usually keep some music on.”
“So why,” I asked, “did you want to go to Buenos Aires?”
“Because I had to leave the States cos my visa was up and I’ve always wanted to come to Buenos Aires. But I’m going back to the States now… LA and New York… I have to leave the apartment in 35 minutes. Cockroaches can survive nuclear holocausts, you know.”
“And you’re back in Britain in May?”
“Yes. And then I’m doing a tour of Central Europe in June with your Facebook friend Alex Frackleton, because he’s keen to get back into stand-up. We play Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Prague, two dates at an arts festival in the Czech Republic and I’m hoping to play Martin Soan’s Pull The Other One club in Leipzig as well.”
“I saw the first show there,” I said. “It was full. They had to turn people away. Alex Frackleton told me there was a story about you and him meeting up in Prague.”
“Yes, we went to the big Gay Pride event in Prague,” said Matt, “and were photographed with an enormous transvestite. Alex was looking up: Can we have a photograph? – We’re not gay! We’re comedians! – We’re not gay! We’re comedians!”
“Why might you play Leipzig?” I asked.
“Because it’s Martin Soan and because it’s close to Prague and because my dental technician is in Berlin. She’s the woman who makes Wilfredo’s teeth.”
Yes, dear reader, Matt Roper wears specially-constructed teeth when he performs as Wilfredo.
“Have you got two sets for safety?” I asked Matt.
“Yes, I always keep one set in my pocket, just in case the first set fly out and break. You gotta have spare teeth, John!”
“No embarrassing questions at Customs yet?” I asked.
“Not yet,” said Matt. “But, when I got to Buenos Aires, I unzipped my bag and the owners of the apartment saw this pair of big teeth and a black wig. Because I don’t speak much Spanish and they didn’t speak English, there was nothing said. Just this silence.”
“I always think travelling makes people better people,” I said. “But has it made you a better comedian?”
“I think the States has given me tons of material,” said Matt. “Not so much Argentina. I think Argentina is more similar to Britain than the States is. It seems to me that Argentinians enjoy nothing more than to see somebody fail. Like the British. They’re very pessimistic. Whereas, in the States, they love to see people succeed. They nurture success and I find that quite attractive. All this Have a nice day! stuff wound me up at first. Have the best day of your life, sir! But, after a while, with everybody saying it, it’s actually quite nice. It’s better than calling somebody a cunt.”
“I don’t know Janey that well,” laughed Matt, “but we were both on the Nicholas Parsons show together in Edinburgh and, when she looked across at Wilfredo, she said: Fucking hell! 25 years ago I would have fucking married you!
“Me, half my family is Irish Catholic. My dad’s family is Liverpool, which is naturally like a Celtic city. All the religious suppression, all the guilt is good for comedy. I think that’s why Liverpool is such a great comedy city. And Glasgow. From that religious suppression comes a lot of humour. How else are they going to get through the day?”
An extract from the documentary Wilfredo Comes To Town in which Matt’s character sings Moon River is on YouTube.