Harry Hill: ‘A lot of stand-up comedy is just a lie!’

Harry Hill. Picture; Ray Burmiston

Harry Hill. Picture; Ray Burmiston - Credit: Archant

Ahead of his Union Chapel show, the comedian tells Alex Bellotti why he couldn’t do stand-up straight.

He’s often been described as a ‘marmite’ comedian, and even among his fans, the endless projects of Harry Hill can prove divisive. At its peak, the television review show Harry Hill’s TV Burp attracted eight million viewers on Saturday nights, but the recent cancellation of his Stars In Your Eyes revival is proof that his high octane, madcap style isn’t to everyone’s taste.

Nonetheless, having broken through on the comedy circuit in the early ‘90s, there is no doubting Hill is now one of the biggest names in the business, as his headline appearance at Union Chapel tomorrow (June 12) will attest.

The show, Experiments in Entertainment 3, will be a typically barmy, improvisational collection of new jokes he’s “trying to remember more than anything”. It promises to tear up the format of a usual stand-up gig in the manner Hill has honed tirelessly since the start of his career.

“It’s not a script; it’s just a collection of stuff,” the 50-year-old explains. “A lot of comedians – and this is the problem for me – they’ll say, ‘Yeah, I was just parking my car earlier’ and then do loads of gags about parking. Then they’ll say, ‘Yeah, so I was driving to see my mum’ and do a lot of gags about their mum, and then, ‘Yeah, so she’s been ill – the health service isn’t what it used to be, right?’

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“They string it all together, which I always thought was just really hackneyed and stupid. It’s all just a big lie! I’d rather just acknowledge that, so I don’t really have an order to it.”

If there’s one thing Hill could never be accused of, it’s playing it safe. Having initially studied medicine under his real name, Matthew Hall, he decided the lucrative life of a doctor wasn’t for him and turned his hand to comedy instead.

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Even after eventually finding huge success with TV Burp, he decided in 2012 to quit the show after 11 years to embark on a serious of ambitious new projects, including 2013’s The Harry Hill Movie and last year’s X-Factor-spoof musical I Can’t Sing.

Looking now at the support for his Union Chapel show – in the form of Tim Key, John Kearns, and comedy duo Natasia Demetriou and Ellie White – he reminisces on how such up-and-coming talent reminds him of the scene when he was starting out.

“Hold on, let me put my hanky down,” he laughs, “but without getting too teary eyed about it, when I started there were acts like Stewart Lee and Simon Munnery. People who are not always necessarily funny, but always doing something interesting.”

The secret to performing new material, says Hill, is having the confidence. “If you don’t have confidence in something, the audience recognise that straight away. Even if something doesn’t quite work yet, you still have to sell it.”

He cites the example of a recent bit he performed about a prayer to defunct audio-visual formats: “The first time I did it, it just died completely – and the second time and the third time. But now I’m doing it and it seems a really funny thing. In the process of doing it over and over again, you find the essence of what you thought was funny to begin with.”

Away from the stage, Hill is typically busy with a plethora of projects for television, including the long-running clip show You’ve Been Framed, comedy drama The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm and the recently-announced Harry Hill’s Tea Time, which will see him try out a surreal ‘Saturday kitchen’-style format.

With a wife and three children, the comedian admits to finding tours “difficult”, but ultimately remains such a workaholic that he’ll rarely be found standing still.

“Nothing that is ever any good is easy and showbiz, almost by definition, is never the most social pursuit. Basically you’re working in the evenings when most people are relaxing or, well, coming to see you.

“I’m passionate about comedy – it’s a job, but I love it. It’s like some people with music when you talk about discovering a band; it’s the same when you discover someone doing something different in comedy. I don’t know John Kearns, but I saw a bit of his TV show the other night and phoned my friend up saying, ‘You’ve got to see this!’ It’s a kind of fandom.”

Live At The Chapel Special, with Harry Hill and Friends takes place at the Union Chapel tomorrow (June 12). Visit theinvisibledot.com

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