Jeremy Hardy doesn't take Comedy Seriously

Francis Jones meets the controversial comedian

Inside TrackJeremy Hardy is a man on intimate terms with controversy. He is a seemingly rational man, a polite man, all things considered.

Nonetheless the headline ‘Hardy Hullabaloo’ is not unfamiliar to the dapper English comic. He has been caught up in violence in the Middle East whilst making the film Jeremy Hardy vs the Israeli Army (2003), been accused of being an IRA supporter for campaigning on behalf of Danny McNamee and Róisín McAliskey and for his firm belief in Irish reunification.

‘Northern Ireland is part of Ireland, not Britain, as can clearly be seen from aerial photographs.’ What’s more he was fired from his regular column for The Guardian newspaper for allegedly using it to support the Socialist Alliance. The official line was that Hardy ‘wasn’t funny enough.’

There’s more. In 2000 he was booed by members of the audience for BBC Radio’s Just a Minute when he took the subject ‘parasites’ as a prompt to begin a rant against the royal family. When it comes to the BNP, he’s even more unequivocal.

‘All BNP members and supporters should be shot in the back of the head,’ he stated in 2004 on his BBC Radio 4 show, Jeremy Hardy Speaks to the Nation. In short, Jeremy Hardy has opinions and he’s not afraid to air them.

He continues to appear regularly on BBC Radio 4, has featured in television comedies such as Blackadder, and most notably on the panel game If I Ruled The World. In 1996 he even hosted an edition of Top of the Pops.

You’ve played Belfast on a number of previous occasions, how have audiences here reacted to your particular brand of politicised, intelligent disdain?

‘Sometimes it can get a little lively, but generally I think the Belfast audiences have a really good sense of humour. People prefer it if you’re just straight with them, if you deal with the issues that are playing on their minds, so we talk about what’s happening in NI. But then it would be weird if we didn’t.’

Throughout your career you’ve been embroiled in a fair few moments of controversy. Do you feel that is an acceptable consequence of being opinionated and unafraid to expose political folly?

‘I suppose, but it also depends who you’re talking about. I’ve had complaints from the BNP, but then one would expect that. If they liked me I’d be pretty horrified.

'I used to get a lot of complaints about blasphemy, though none of them ever came from God. It always strikes me as odd that people feel they need to speak up for God, you know he’s got plagues of frogs and locusts.

'I actually got the most complaints when I wrote a newspaper column. Yeah, you pick up a few enemies along the way.’

You wrote for The Guardian. Its readers are perceived as being quite liberal.

‘It’s supposed to be, but you’d be surprised who reads it. I would get all kinds of batty letters when I wrote for The Guardian, really quite scary stuff.

'Although you know that if someone has written to threaten you that they’re probably not going to see it through, because you’ve got their DNA on the letter. The Guardian’s not just read by woolly liberals, they’ve got some really odd people read it.’

BBC Radio 4 is considered something of a bastion of Middle England, in the main, it’s quite conservative. And yet there’s you, this rather maverick comedian. How do you feel you fit in there?

‘Yeah, well you can get away with quite a lot on radio. Because things don’t appear in print, because they’re gone in a second, radio doesn’t seem to have as high stakes as television.

'The vast majority of my fans are Radio 4 listeners, however, you do find that amongst the station’s listeners there is the odd retired Colonel, and they’re not always from the British Army, perhaps from the Wehrmacht. There are people who just sit by the radio waiting to complain.’

Would you say that radio is your natural medium?

‘I’d say so, radio more than TV. I mean I like what you can do on TV if you get the chance to explore the medium and use it well, but, for the most part, people don’t get to do that.

'An awful lot of what is on TV could be on the radio and you wouldn’t lose that much. I’m not a very visual person. I work best with words so the radio is perfect for me.’

Has there ever been an occasion when you thought that perhaps you’d gone too far?

‘Only when I’ve said something and someone’s come up out of the audience to tell me that it upset them, that I’d been talking about something that had happened to them or a relative of theirs.

'You talk about some of the bleaker aspects of life and there's that danger that you will hurt somebody’s feelings.

'I’m more concerned with treading on someone’s toes emotionally than I am of offending their politics or religion. If somebody’s suffered something and I’ve appeared to have made light of it, I’ll be much more concerned about that.’

Do you feel that comedy is the best means of getting a serious point across?

‘Oh, that’s a difficult one. In some ways, yes, because if somebody’s laughed at something then you’ve caught them unawares and they’ll have to recognise some truth in what you’re saying.

'On the other hand, a good joke is a good joke, people will laugh whether they agree with you or not. I think in some ways satire allows people off the hook too lightly.

'Whilst we’re mocking our leaders and politicians we’re not really taking them to task. And the fact that they queue up to appear on comedy programmes speaks for itself. I’d rather we really tackled them rather than teased them on panel games.’

Comedy is primarily about making people laugh, about entertaining them. However, would you think you hadn’t done your job properly if you didn’t leave the audience with something to think about?

‘Only because people expect me to say something profound at some point, if they don’t I’ll stop bothering. But, really that’s not my motivation.

'I don’t walk onstage as part of a campaign and I don’t have themes to my shows, that this show will be all about globalisation or bad labour practice. It’s just a bunch of stuff I’ve cobbled together, some of which I remember.’

Who are your comedy heroes?

‘I wouldn’t say I’ve comedy heroes as such. I suppose, from back in my childhood, the people who really made me laugh were Dudley Moore and Peter Cook.

'I loved Peter Sellers and those British comedy films with Bernard Cribbins and all those great comedy actors. I really like the Pythons, though my humour is nothing like that.

'I suppose the earliest stand-up I really liked was Dave Allen. He would just sit there and talk, and make it look so effortless. I don’t really idolise individuals unless they’re musicians, people like Otis Redding, Johnny Cash or Joe Strummer.

I suppose I don’t take comedy seriously enough that I would idolise comedians. Having said that, I do take myself very seriously. I know that’s terrible to say, it’s just that I think humour is so much a part of life anyway, that people find it themselves. Being a comedian is just padding that out.

I suppose because I’m completely unmusical. That’s why I’m much more likely to be in awe of Fred Astaire or Frank Sinatra than I am of Bill Hicks.’

Do you worry that people’s perception of you, 'outspoken and unwilling to toe the line', may have damaged your career?

‘Not so much because of what people believe I might say or think, but the very perception that I might have any agenda at all.

'People think, ‘oh no, that’s gonna be a problem.’ I think it probably closes certain doors, but on the other hand, I think there are a lot of people who want to hear comics who are unafraid to talk about what’s happening in the world.

'I do sense when I’m doing a gig that people want that, despite the fact that they’ve already thought of all the same things, they just want to hear somebody say it in a public place. I think therefore that people’s perception of me both creates and curtails certain opportunities.

'I don’t like to get paranoid about blacklists and people being passed over or anything. At the end of the day, it’s only showbusiness.’