By James Rampton
In his live shows, Jack Whitehall likes to begin with a bang. Take the way he started the show on his last arena tour.
“I love a big entrance,” the hugely popular comedian explains. “So last time I came on stage on a horse. In the first show, it did a sh*t on stage as soon as it came on. The audience were in absolute hysterics – especially as I had to clean it up before I could start the show.”
“Because it was so funny, I thought, ‘We need that to happen every night. Either we feed the horse extra before we come on or we plant a sh*t on stage.’ We opted for the latter. So we planted sh*t on stage, and every night it got a huge laugh. The downside was, I also had to clean it up every night!”
You can expect similarly brilliant comic moments from Whitehall’s new show, Stood Up, which is touring the UK and Ireland this autumn – his biggest such tour ever. Justly feted for his superb work on television, the comedian is, if anything, even more at home in the live arena.
Whitehall is a dazzlingly funny stand-up. Often making himself the butt of his jokes, he generates wave upon wave of laughter in the auditorium. But be warned, he has a really loyal following, and his shows sell-out very rapidly – with many of the original dates already sold out and additional dates added to cater to demand, so you are advised to book early. It is very easy to see why he is perhaps the best loved comedian in the country.
That is not just my opinion. Newspaper critics have been queueing up to pay tribute to Whitehall’s stand-up. The Times asserts that, “If you’re going to do arena comedy, this is how to do it”, while the Daily Telegraph declares that, “Jack Whitehall’s refusal to grow up is just what we need right now.”. Meanwhile, the Evening Standard enthuses that Whitehall delivers what, “may well be the most spectacular arena stand-up show ever.”
You will no doubt be very pleased to hear that Whitehall is just as compelling off stage. In person, he combines wit and warmth in the most magnetic fashion, and it is a sheer delight to spend an hour in his company. It is like being treated to a command performance – to an audience of one.
Having been away from the stand-up arena for a while making hit movies and TV shows, Whitehall is very happy to be back doing what he adores above all else.
Most recently seen in Lasse Hallstrom’s film, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, opposite Keira Knightley, Helen Mirren, and Morgan Freeman, alongside Rosie Perez in the second series of Sky One’s Bounty Hunters (which he co-wrote), in Amazon series Good Omens with Jon Hamm, David Tennant and Michael Sheen and as the first-ever guest host of The Graham Norton Show, the comedian outlines why stand-up gives him such a buzz.
“I love the rapport you get with a live audience.
“It’s great that I’ve built an audience over the years. It’s very exciting that they know me and have seen the progression of my stand-up. They shout things out and that becomes part of the show.
“I love the thrill of stand-up – it’s really immediate. It’s so exciting to be able to go on and get an instant reaction from the audience. I also love the fact that anything can happen – it is different every single night. You can change things on the spur of the moment. You’re totally in control.”
Whitehall, who has also starred in such lauded TV shows as Decline & Fall, Fresh Meat, Bad Education, Backchat and A League of Their Own (which received a BAFTA Award in 2014 for Best Comedy Entertainment Programme), continues that, “It’s great making film and TV and writing scripts. But often you wait months before it goes out.
“There is something so appealing about being able to get up on stage in front of an audience and have a very authentic, instantaneous and organic experience with them. I love that element of stand-up. When you go away and do writing and acting, you miss that. You get the itch to return to stand-up. It’s a bug. I’d find it very hard ever to quit it. I’ll always come back to it. It’s my first love.”
The other terrific aspect of Whitehall’s stand-up is that he thrives on creating a show with a capital S. He is always determined to give his audience wonderful value for money.
The comedian, widely celebrated for the travelogue series, Travels With My Father, which returns to Netflix for a new series in September, observes that,: “Doing an arena show, you have to make it feel like it belongs in an arena. So you have to do stuff that could only happen in an arena. I really like big production values. You want put on a proper show in an arena. Musicians do it, so why shouldn’t comedians?
“If people come to arena shows, they have made an effort. They have paid money for the tickets and got a babysitter, so you want to give them a real show. I love a bit of a fanfare and throwing in a few surprises that make it feel like a big event. It’s the musical-theatre fan inside me. How close is that fan to the surface? He’s out and proud now! You have to embrace it.”
It is fair to say, however, that Whitehall’s production values do not always go according to plan. When they do go wrong, though, it simply adds to the hilarity of the evening. Remember the incontinent horse?
The stand-up, who has hosted The BRIT Awards for the last two years, welcomes such moments of unscripted comedy. “It’s great when something unexpected happens in the moment. My stage caught fire in Leeds once, and that suddenly became the show. I have pyrotechnics on stage because I always try to make my shows like a Beyonce gig.
“But that night in Leeds the pyrotechnics went off in the wrong direction and part of the stage caught fire. The audience were laughing so hard because they thought it was part of the show. They didn’t know that something had gone seriously wrong and that I was in peril. But they were just laughing away, totally oblivious to that.”
“At first, I didn’t even realise what was going on because I had my back to the fire. Suddenly, the stage manager rushed on stage, grabbed me and dragged me off. I said, ‘What the hell is going on?’ He replied, ‘Look, the stage is on fire!’ It was all quite dramatic, but the audience really loved it.”
Whitehall, who next year will be starring opposite Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt in Disney blockbuster movie, Jungle Cruise, proceeds to reveal what subjects he will be addressing in Stood Up. “You’re always reflecting on what’s going on in your life. I’ve been travelling a lot with my dad recently, so I’ll be talking about going around the world with him.
“I’ll be discussing stuff about being in America, too, and how different I find that from the UK. I’ll also be talking about the sensitivity of the world at the moment and how it is very easy to cause offence and end up in trouble. Skirting that line can be very difficult.”
The stand-up also discloses that he may tackle the hottest topic in British politics at the moment: Brexit.
“I’m trying to find some fun in Brexit, but it’s quite hard. It’s like a dirty word. The whole audience clenches up when you mention it. That’s a challenge in itself. How can you do Brexit material and make people laugh about it?”
Whitehall will, of course, also be dreaming up another grand entrance for Stood Up. “This show will definitely have some party tricks. In my first arena show, I came on stage on a Segway, and then the next time it was a horse. So God knows how I’m going to top that!”
Finally, what does Whitehall hope that audiences will take away from Stood Up? “I love to make my shows really fun and silly. On stage I like to create a lot of joy and silliness, as I think the world is a depressing enough place as it is. I hope my show will be a fun distraction. I will be trying to get people beaming as they leave the auditorium at the end of the evening.
“We are living in troubled times. Without wishing to give what I do any higher meaning, I think it’s really good to be distracted and laugh like an idiot for two hours.”