It is never ideal to turn up half an hour late for lunch. And when the man you are meeting is fresh off a red-eye from Los Angeles it’s potentially disastrous; especially when, by his own admission, he lives to make every minute count. But if it says a lot about John Lloyd that there he is, suited up to the nines, glass of white on the table, waiting for me – eventually – to turn up, then it says even more that he is doing almost exactly the same thing less than 24 hours later, albeit just for coffee.
He agreed to our lunch out of a mixture of opportunism – he has a book and a show to promote – and because he hates letting people down. (For the record, his publicist told him the wrong time). But it’s the inner perfectionist that has him asking, after jet lag meant he barely nibbled his fish pie, if we can “pick this up some other time when I’m not wobbling about”. He’s worried, too, that he’s been “too serious”; this from the comedy mastermind behind shows from QI and Blackadder to Spitting Image and Have I Got News For You.
Not that being serious bothers Lloyd. He’s actually joking when, after a particularly intense spell of chat ranging from mulling the point of human existence to hypothesising that the brain’s main function “is to keep you stupid,” he exclaims: “Hell; we’d better make some jokes! On with the jokes!” before adding: “I do feel that good comedy has something to say that’s hidden beneath the jokes so I don’t really apologise for being serious about things.”
In fact, I realise afterwards that laughter be damned, Lloyd, 62, had treated me to a masterclass in how he writes comedy. As with Spitting Image, “when we – Ian Hislop, Nick Newman, and Grant Naylor, who went on to write Red Dwarf – used to sit down on a Saturday and just have a discussion about the news; the jokes came out of the opinions, not the other way round,” he says our entire conversation, hue dark, to very dark, would have been ideal material for a show. Which considering that at the time he was still half an hour short for the script for his own stand-up gig – which takes place tonight at London’s Bloomsbury Theatre – was somewhat handy.
But he might have to ratchet up the giggle factor. “Obviously, I don’t want to go and lecture people on the nature of consciousness,” which for the record fascinates him because scientists don’t know how it works. “That would be ludicrous. But there’s enough in it to ring bells, so if it could be done in a funny way, that’s what I would like to do.”
He’s being modest, of course, given that he’s one of the best qualified men on the planet to harvest laughs out of apparently infertile ground. Witness the success of QI, which for the last few uninitiated out there stands for Quite Interesting and runs round the clock on the Freeview channel Dave. His shows helped to make megastars out of people such as Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Rowan Atkinson, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones – not to mention change the nature of hitherto stuffy broadcasting, for which in retrospect he is perhaps sorry.
Indeed, you could say there’s a simple word to describe Lloyd fans: comics. He exists to make them look good. And they have been returning the favour, with Jimmy Carr, Alan Davies, and David Mitchell all urging people to snap up tickets to his one-man show. The gig itself came out of a memorial event earlier this year in honour of what would have been Douglas Adams’ 60th birthday.
Lloyd and Adams went way back, to Cambridge days, and collaborated on The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy and the bestselling Meaning of Liff books – a dictionary of things that lack words. The upshot of Lloyd’s skit based on new “liffs made up by Hitchies”, which brought the house down, was a new book, Afterliff, and his first ever solo show in August in Edinburgh.
The whole process, which he calls the best month of his life, has him mulling the potential for a stage version of QI. What with turning up so late, I’ve had to bide my time telling him I don’t like the hit show. I won’t even let my husband watch it. To his credit, Lloyd’s fork barely pauses in mid-air, before he insists he’s not fussed despite telling me that more women watch it than men.
He’s borderline defensive on the hoary issue of female guests, pointing out that QI had lots of women in on the first series. “But because we didn’t understand what we were doing and nobody knew what the rules were, the blokes got very competitive because obviously no comedian wants to not get laughs in front of an audience. So they got very shouty and the women shut up.”
Besides, he wasn’t on a quest to solve the gender balance in broadcasting, he adds. “In the beginning, QI was trying to keep Reithian TV alive in some form. You forget in 2003 how low things had sunk. It was all reality shows and music programmes. QI was saying, ‘Surely there can be one intelligent entertainment programme that’s funny and smart at the same time.’ Doing that alone was enough of an achievement. I can’t be expected to fix everything.”
He’s happy if QI, which he calls “a way of thinking,” sparks people’s curiosity, which invariably dies along with childhood. Even better, “all those funny facts about potatoes and kangaroos’ vaginas might make people stop and think, ‘Hang on, of course I haven’t thought about volcanoes or whatever. I haven’t even thought about me. I haven’t thought about what it means to be alive. What’s the point of getting up in the morning?’” Lloyd warms to what is one of his key themes, adding: “We’re all going to die. Has anyone realised that?”
His own mini-death came in his early 40s when winning award after award – including a Lifetime Achievement one from Bafta – tipped him into an intense trough of depression. Young kids (he was 38 when he had his first with his wife, Sarah) didn’t help because he was, he confesses, an “awful” father.
He eventually forced himself out of his depression, which he regards as “a philosophical position. It’s a way of looking at the world which is a depressed way. And it’s possible to look at it in a non-depressed way so assuming you want to not be depressed that’s what you have to do.”
He also made himself be a better dad; a process he says took “blood and tears”. The trigger was realising that he’d become an “angry person”.
“I remember thinking, ‘I might have to buy a small cane so I can discipline Harry [his eldest].’ I thought, ‘I can’t believe I ever thought that. I have to do something about it.’” The “something” was a revolution in parenting style, which boils down to leading by example. He takes it very seriously, sharing a child-rearing tip as the one thing he hopes his audience might learn from tonight’s show.
“Whenever a child comes into your room and asks you to do something, drop whatever it is that you’re doing immediately, and say ‘Yes’. ‘Yes, I can mend the teddy bear’s eye, or look at your blister.’ And after about a year they stop asking. Because if they know that they can get your attention without question then they don’t need it any more.”
The net effect is that his family doesn’t just love each other, but they “like each other,” which he says was an “amazingly difficult” thing to pull off. It’s been so refreshing chatting about bringing up kids with a sixty- something-year-old dad that I can’t help liking him as well. Who knows, my views might even thaw about QI. Which, whisper it, is not just Quite Interesting, but Very Interesting.Reuse content