Arts: Clown prince of daft

On the eve of a national tour, the award-winning comedian Harry Hill tells James Rampton why he's glad to be back on the road - and how he plans to take the audience out on to the street
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For his national tour - entitled Hooves - Harry Hill has invented a great new sport. "It's called inter-species swingball," the comedian says, beaming. "I invite a member of the audience on stage to take on Abu the Hamster - geddit? He's only got one paw. Of course, he's only a glove puppet, but I flag it up as a test of self-esteem - `Can you beat a one-handed hamster at tennis?' If they shy away from playing against the hamster, there's a bee they can challenge. The irony is, the bee is actually bigger than the hamster. It's a hot-water-bottle cover I got in the chemist's last week for pounds 9.99."

Hill's tour starts on Friday in Leicester, and he has planned a grand coup de theatre. "I want to lead a parade out of the theatre. The American stand-up Andy Kaufmann once arranged for coaches to meet the audience outside Carnegie Hall in New York and took them all off to his favourite restaurant for cookies. I love the idea of parading out of the theatre like a carnival, with as many people as possible in stupid costumes."

As if all that weren't barmy enough, Hill is also preparing a show-stopping musical section. "From a factory in Germany, I've tracked down a set of 25 bulb-horns that go over two octaves. So in the second half of Hooves, I'm planning to do a horn disco. The only problem is, the horns are extremely loud, and as we had a baby in the summer it's been very difficult to practice at home.

"But I've still managed to work up a medley of songs, including White Stripes, Herb Alpert, EastEnders and the theme from Animal Hospital - that will please the punters! In the warm-up gigs, I've been trying to encourage people to dance, but they've just sat there open-mouthed thinking `can this really be happening to me?'."

Hill quite often elicits this sort of dumb-founded reaction from people. "Some people are annoyed by my act," says Hill. "Sometimes you see in the audience a husband who has brought along his wife to the show, and she just doesn't get it - `when are we going home, dear?'. But everyone has different tastes. Comedy is very personal. I remember sitting stony- faced through some comedians and thinking `why is that funny?' when everyone else in the audience was laughing their head off."

Hill recollects performing on bills in clubs "when people hadn't come to see me specifically. They'd come up to me afterwards and say, `you were shit, mate'. The other one I get from passers-by is `you're all right, but I'll tell you who is really good - Lee Evans. He's naturally funny'. Every now and again, I do corporate gigs. They're pretty soul- destroying - even more so when, just before you go on stage, the managing director says to you, `we had Lee Evans last year - he ripped the roof off!'."

But it does not serve much purpose to compare Hill with other stand-ups; he is that rarity in comedy - a genuine one-off. Who else could dream up such inspired ideas as inviting Nigel Havers on stage and asking him to carve into a radish the face of every British prime minister since the Second World War - in just 30 seconds?

Hill's work has always been informed by a weird and wonderful vision. Indeed, the American chatshow host David Letterman - on whose show the comic has appeared many times - says he adores Hill because there seems to be "something wrong with him". In the same way, it does not pay to dissect Hill's comedy too minutely. It is best just to give in to the bombardment of seemingly meaningless routines and catchphrases - "back me up on this", "you've got to have a system" and "am I right?". The act has a mesmerising, cumulative effect - and sitting in the audience at a Hill gig, you soon find it bizarrely compelling.

Hill, who turned 40 last October, is married to the artist Magda Archer and has three young children. Best known for his daffy ITV1 programmes The All-New Harry Hill Show and Harry Hill's TV Burp, he has become a big mainstream ITV1 draw, but is adamant that he has not had to knock off the wacky edges and make his comedy more user-friendly for a mainstream audience. "I haven't really compromised the gags," he says.

So what is it that appeals to Hill about the strange universe he conjures up on stage? Why is he so drawn to a world filled with sild, badger parades, Savlon, a stuffed cat called Stoufer, and mythical creatures which are half-newsreader and half-Dr Who villain?

Hill reckons his love of outright battiness may stem from something as simple as a desire to stave off boredom on stage. "Stand-up these days tends to be just one bloke with a microphone, but for two hours that's too much. It's boring listening to your own voice droning on for that long. Comedians don't tend to tour with a band or props or personnel, but I do. It may be more expensive, but it's also much more fun."

Hill, who cites as his inspirations such timeless (but not always fashionable) acts as Morecambe and Wise, Benny Hill, the Two Ronnies and Bruce Forsyth, harks back to a golden age of variety. A stand-up who has never been fussed about being trendy, Hill relishes "old-school" stage business.

"I love all that," he enthuses. "Look at Bernie Clifton. He does a prop act, which includes a 20ft inflatable sausage that he throws out over the audience. A lot of that sort of stuff - prop acts, ventriloquism, eccentric dancing, falling over, dressing-up boxes - originated in music hall. No one does those things any more, they've fallen from memory. But they're still terrific."

Hill picked up the coveted Golden Rose of Montreux last year, but success does have its downsides. For example, when he is making Harry Hill's TV Burp, his inspired collection of telly spoofs, the comedian has to spend every waking hour glued to the goggle-box. "It's like a form of torture," he sighs.

"It's quite a painful process because there is no limit to the amount you can watch. Every week, I get in over a hundred tapes, and there just aren't enough hours in the day to watch them all. If you've got workaholic tendencies, you can always say, `yeah, I've got an hour to spare, I'll watch another Wife Swap'. It's very boring for my wife. She sits in the kitchen a lot of the time. When the series comes to end, I need a complete break. TV Burp has even turned me off EastEnders. I used to be a genuine fan, but now I've even lost the will for that."

Born Matthew Hall in Surrey, Hill was brought up in Staplehurst in Kent. He remembers being awfully shy as a young lad. "Despairingly, my mother used to send me down to the corner shop for a paper, even though she'd already had one delivered. I was to interact with the newsagent, I suppose." On leaving grammar school, he trained at St George's medical school in south London and by 1988 had qualified as a doctor. He savoured the black humour of the medical profession. On one occasion, he recalls, "an old woman had a stroke at the top of her staircase, tumbled down and landed on her alsatian, who died instantly. Of course, none of us wanted to tell her, in case she had a second stroke."

However, he did not otherwise feel suited to being a doctor. Finding himself enjoying the medical revue more than the work, he jacked in his job, changed his name to Harry Hill and resolved to try his luck as a stand-up. His decision was soon justified when in 1992 he won the Perrier Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Festival. He hasn't looked back since. "I'm glad I did a proper job before comedy because it's made me grateful for not having to strap-hang for an hour into work every day. A lot of comedians are really whiny about their lives, and I hope I'm not like that."

A self-confessed perfectionist, Hill is always searching for ways to improve his act. "You have to do things to find out what is funny," he says, "but I see a lot of acts that haven't. Success can make you a bit lazy.

"There is a difference between a comedian doing his act and a comedian on a roll. Then it is `whish!', and off you go. The worst thing is that sort of staggering, trying and failing. You may not be aware of it in the audience, but I am more aware of it than anybody. I always compare everything to my best, not my worst. In the old days, I'd be happy with two laughs and a clap at the end. Now I want hard-won hysteria and to be lifted shoulder high by the audience and out into the street!"

The one thing Hill fights shy of is analysing his humour too deeply. If you let in the light, he seems to be saying, you destroy the magic. But when pushed, he does in the end come up with a description of his work. "I've been labelled as surreal," he reflects. "People have latched on to that tag because it's easier. But most of my comedy isn't surreal - most of it is just silly.

"One critic dubbed me `the floppy-collared clown prince of daft'." He pauses for a moment, before adding: "I think that pretty much defines my whole act."

Harry Hill's `Hooves' tour starts on Friday at De Montfort Hall, Leicester (0116-233 3111);