Frankie Boyle: Fierce, fearless... and (expletive deleted) funny
The foul-mouthed Glaswegian comedian is in trouble with the BBC over his joke about the swimmer Rebecca Adlington. Does he care? Andrew Johnson meets Frankie Boyle
Sunday 25 October 2009
Frankie Boyle doesn't give a flying... If you're familiar with the angry Glaswegian comedian best known for his fierce rants on BBC's satirical current affairs show Mock the Week, feel free to add your own expletive. But he wants you to know that he doesn't give one: not about his career; the human race or the controversy over his comments about the young Olympic gold medallist Rebecca Adlington. In fact, the only thing he admits to caring about at all is his young family.
Boyle has made his name with the kind of acerbic comedy that takes no prisoners and leaves those of a timid disposition gaping, slack-jawed. He was in trouble over Adlington, for example, because he hypothesised that the 20-year-old could keep her attractive boyfriend only by being "very dirty", adding: "I mean, if you just take into account how long she can hold her breath..." That earned him a rap last week from the BBC Trust as part of the corporation's new campaign against "humiliating and derogatory" remarks.
The problem, however, is that when you meet him you can't help thinking he does actually give a... let's use the word damn. In fact, he probably cares a little too much.
"If someone said you have the choice whether man gets off the planet to explore the stars and colonise or you press the button and we stay here, what would you do?" he says. "I think we'd just do the same shit to the other planets that we did to Africa and everyone else. So I'd press the button that said we have to die here."
Unlike his stage persona – a kind of inverse "outraged of Tunbridge Wells", in which Boyle splutters with fury but is witty and bitingly insightful – the comedian, in person, is softly spoken; polite and almost mild-mannered. He is also very cerebral and serious.
That's not to say his views tone down with his demeanour. And they are liberally sprinkled with Anglo-Saxon adjectives (excised here for reasons of space – just assume that every other noun is preceded by one).
"I don't give a shit about the Nick Griffin stuff," he says about the British National Party leader's appearance on Question Time on Thursday, for example. "I watched it, and I just thought 'this is boring'. He's just a stress ball for people who really caused the problem. Jack Straw is sitting there. You've got essentially a racist government with a racist immigration policy and you've got a scarecrow to point at and say: 'Here's the racist – ooooh, you terrible racist.'
"I don't think I'm angry," he adds. "I'm horrified – powered by horror. I think we've really got to change."
Boyle is promoting his autobiography – My Shit Life So Far – which he admits he wrote for the money because he wants to quit stand-up, having never really enjoyed it. What he really wants to do is write – and spend more time with his two young children. He is concerned about missing them growing up.
"It's that pram in the hallway thing," he says. "I haven't lost creativity, but that's by a certain amount of neglect of family life. I did a massive tour last year, and I'm writing a tour for March, and that's only been done by not being around the kids very much."
He admits that his life is far from bad. As well as the family he has, at 37, sold out one massive tour last year and is due to start another next spring – called I Would Happily Punch Everyone of You in the Face. ("I would," he says. "As they file in and as they file out.") He has moved back to Glasgow, escaping the "dehumanising" life of London; has a happy family life; is working on a pilot for Channel 4; and is planning a novel, having now quit Mock the Week.
"There's a fine line between doing series eight and suddenly it's series 16 and you've not done any of the stuff you wanted to do," he says. "It's going up to 20 episodes a year, so you'd take the cheque and be sat there creatively dead, clinging on like a barnacle."
Not that life has always been sweet. Boyle says that for much of it he has been bored, and in his twenties escaped that by drinking and taking drugs. He was an alcoholic, but hasn't touched a drop for nine years.
"My life was shit, pretty boring for a lot of it," he says. "To be honest, the whole time until my daughter was born [in 2004] I was quite bored. I had a lot of time, especially after I gave up drinking. Drinking filled the boredom. I just had all that time on my hands, and that wasn't healthy. Then when your kids come along you don't have any time at all.
"Drugs make life a lot less boring," he adds, however. "If there were safer, better drugs ... why don't they work on that?"
Boyle's gift, as he sees it, is to see things as they are and to be unafraid of saying it out loud. It is a role uniquely preserved for the comedian, from the medieval court jester to controversial American greats such as Bill Hicks, Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, all of whom Boyle cites.
"Comedians shame people," he says. "Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks were living on the fringes of society, taking drugs, and coming back and telling people things they didn't particularly want to hear. So it's an important thing. You want people to see through bullshit, to be able to decode things."
He admits that a lot of his jokes are "pointless gags about sex", but that's all part of the job. "You have to unite big rooms, and now it's got to the stage I have to unite a room of 2,000 people," he says. "It's very hard to do that with 10 jokes in a row about Afghanistan. You have to leaven it out and come back."
Which is perhaps how he got into trouble over Rebecca Adlington. Not that he cares, however.
"Rebecca Adlington – it's nothing," he says. "You can't be right all the time. You do stuff on the spot, particularly when you're improvising.
"I don't care. What are they going to do about it? I've said jokes where I thought people might get up and hit me for this. A couple of people have thought about it. But they didn't. It gives you a lot of power, because if you're on shows where people are worried about getting sacked and you're not, then you're transcendent because you say what other people would like to say."
Boyle's big break came after Ricky Gervais's great success with The Office, which left normally nervous TV executives looking for more comedy that flew in the face of political correctness. He was writing for Jimmy Carr at the time and realised that things might open up for him. Not that he finds it all plain sailing. He rages against the timid executives, whose first eight rules, he says, are to keep their jobs, and whose ninth rule is to please the audience.
"A lot of it is a case of 'don't frighten the horses'," he says. "Let's not lose our job. You meet some people and think: this person would have the whole show replaced with half an hour of soothing music, so what's the point of arguing the finer points of whether a joke is sexist or not?"
Boyle's problem – if it is a problem – is that life, or society, is too bland for him. He doesn't really admire anyone on the mainstream comedy circuit, believing comedy has become a career – "There's a lot of banality about" – and, despite his need to promote his autobiography, he rages against the fact that everything has become so PR-driven.
"Everything is so mediated," he says, and swings into an amusing story about a contribution he was asked to make to The Culture Show.
"They wanted 10 celebrity inserts about 'what is culture'," he recalls. "And my thing was culture is a war of ideas. People such as stand-ups and artists and alternative thinkers are on one side and you're fighting with pea shooters against these giant summer blockbusters that are designed to have this numbing ideology.
"They just looked at me and said, 'What? We really can't show that at all.' So I said what do you want, and they said, 'We had Patsy Kensit in today and that was good.' She said, 'Culture is buying my daughter an ice-cream at the Natural History Museum.' So that's what you're up against. That's the level of banality that's desired."
Biography: Drink and drugs and vitriol
Born 1972 in Pollokshaws, Glasgow – "a slap in the face to childhood" – to a labourer father and dinner lady mother.
1983-90 Holyrood Secondary School, Glasgow, at which he starts drinking, aged 15.
1993 Graduates from the University of Sussex with a degree in English. Works in mental health before beginning teacher training.
1994 Performs his first stand-up gig as a drunken bet. He is tracked down by the comedy club owner six months later and asked to do more.
1995 Packs in teaching to concentrate on comedy. He also marries for the first time. "I was drunk for the courtship, proposal, wedding and most of the year-long marriage."
1996 Wins the Open Mic award at the Edinburgh Festival.
1998 Gives up alcohol after waking up one morning, unable to see. He eventually discovered his glasses outside, in a pool of vomit.
1996-2005 Becomes a regular on the comedy circuit and makes his first TV appearances on BBC Scotland's Live Floor Show and 8 Out of 10 Cats.
2004 Has a daughter with a "close friend".
2005 Becomes a permanent panellist on Mock the Week.
2007 Has a son with his partner, visual artist Shereen Taylor.
2007-08 First national tour. All 100 dates sold out.
2009 Quits Mock the Week, and is rapped by the BBC Trust for his joke about Rebecca Adlington.
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