Mark Thomas: ‘I’ve no interest in being a politician, I’d probably just nick all the money!’
He may be no fan of the ruling elite, but you'd be having a laugh if you thought Belfast-bound comic Mark Thomas wanted to take charge, as he tells Andrew Johnston
Elder statesman of political comedy Mark Thomas is clear about the type of people who should attend his latest slice of arty mischief-making. "If people watch the Dave channel more than three times a week, don't come to my show, you're not welcome," the veteran stand-up smirks.
"Twice is just about a coincidence. You know, you're p****d, you get back, you're stuck with it, you fall asleep on the sofa. That's just about acceptable. Three times shows intent."
It's a good gag, but you get the sense the uncompromising Thomas means it. The multiple award-winning funnyman's latest work promises another dose of incisive comedy that would likely blow the minds of anyone fond of vegging out in front of "the home of witty banter".
Cuckooed introduces us to a supposedly pacifist friend of the comedian's, who was found to be spying for the arms manufacturer BAE Systems. Mark describes it as "a tale of hubris, planes, demos and undercover deceit", but it would be spoiling things somewhat for him to go into any more detail. The most he will say is that his friend has not seen the show, adding: "I'm not going to tell you if we have spoken, because that's part of the show."
Northern Ireland fans will have a chance to hear the full spiel tomorrow night, when Mark brings Cuckooed to the MAC in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter. The 51-year-old firebrand has been a regular visitor to Northern Ireland throughout his career, and he remembers his formative visits fondly.
"The first gigs I did in Belfast were with a group called Skint Video, over on the Ormeau Road, at the Parador hotel, at the pub there," he says. "I love coming over to Belfast, and I have done so for 27 years. I've always really liked the audience."
And it hasn't just been the shows themselves that have created memories for the comic. He recalls one particular meeting that moved him on an emotional level. "One year, I came over and I got introduced to (the PUP's) David Ervine, who I really loved meeting," Mark recalls. "We kept in touch a little. He was an interesting man, and I was fascinated by him.
"As you know, nice people can always make peace. It's the utter f*****g gits you need to do it. As someone who was involved with paramilitary activity, the journey that David Ervine made was really fascinating to me, and I admired his commitment to the idea that education was a real key component, not just in Northern Ireland, but to life in general and to improvement for working people.
"Traditionally, from the Left, you kind of go, 'Well, I'm sort of on the nationalist side.' There are so many benchmarks, like Bloody Sunday and Internment. But then, someone like David Ervine can come along, and for me, he completely challenged my preconceptions and made me reappraise things."
Having said that, Mark doesn't reckon his friendship with the late loyalist leader has necessarily influenced the make-up of his audience. "I get very, very few members of the UVF turning up at my gigs," he notes wryly.
And you have to feel they're missing out. Cuckooed is the latest in a series of fine, provocative works from the comedian, which has included Bravo Figaro, a touching show about Thomas's opera-loving father, Extreme Rambling, in which he recounted walking the entire length of the Israeli wall in the West Bank, and 100 Acts of Minor Dissent, which saw him enlist the audience in carrying out the titular catalogue of subversive gestures.
So, how does he choose which idea he explores in each show? "I'm a little bit like a frugivore," Mark offers. "I do things that are presented to me. Essentially, I always want to be doing something different, and the shows that I've done over the past six, seven, eight, nine years have always tried to be idiosyncratic, to look at things differently.
"I think the stuff I've done has always been a mix of stand-up, and journalism, and theatre."
Indeed, Thomas wrings comedy from some very serious subjects, subjects that - on paper - would appear to be desperately unfunny. Are there any limits to what he would tackle in a live show? "I've done shows about all sorts of things, and it's about the journey that you make," Mark muses. "It's about being honest to the story, and there's always humour - stupidity - in a story. The subject doesn't stop it being funny.
"But it is a very different beast from stand-up. Stand-up is about finding the gag, and milking it, and then finding as many ways of milking it as you can."
London-born Mark has been challenging audiences with his uncompromising diatribes for nigh on three decades now, predating even alternative comedy. In the early 1980s, that movement attempted to rebrand comedy as "the new rock 'n' roll". Latterly, with Russell Brand penning a book about revolution and Eddie Izzard considering running for Mayor of London, it has almost become the new politics. Does Mark welcome their like getting involved in such activities?
"I feel it would be better if the large number of people who don't vote got involved in politics," he sighs. "I want more working class people in politics. That's the exciting thing for me.
"Brand and Izzard are good stories. I'll be honest. Russell Brand, I like as a bloke. I think he's a nice fella. I happen to disagree with him on the voting issue, but he has got some interesting points. You might not like what he says, you might not agree with what he says, but at least he's engaging with people. I also think it's funny to see him talk about revolution on The Jonathan Ross Show.
"Izzard, I'm just not interested in, in terms of running for Mayor. What you want is someone who knows how to get things done, and neither Boris Johnson nor Eddie Izzard know how to do that."
Warming to the theme, he continues: "I don't know whether you want comedians being politicians at all. I've been asked over the years if I'd be interested in standing, and I don't know. I think I'd just nick all the money. You actually need to be really, really disciplined, and you need to know what you're doing. You need to know how to work things, and if you want to put through an agenda that actually changes something, you need to be incredibly skillful."
On the other side of the political divide, there are comics such as the Right-leaning Andrew Lawrence, who has been causing a storm on social media - and among fellow stand-ups - for his tacit support of UKIP and for blasting television panel shows for featuring, as he put it, "balding, fat men, ethnic comedians and women posing as comedians".
In response, Dara O Briain tweeted that Lawrence is "bitter" and "self-delusional", while Stewart Lee suggested in a Guardian column that the comic may have mental problems. What does Thomas think?
"I'm not that interested," he shrugs. "I can't be a***d with someone moaning about the 'politically correct media' after he's had three or four shows on Radio Four. If you want to moan about the 'politically correct media', go and do it on your radio show that the BBC have been so 'politically correct' to give you.
"It's just a publicity thing for him, and if his dream is to be on a panel show, then his dreams are as tedious as his writings."
But back to his own career, and does Thomas have any ideas for the show after Cuckooed?
"No!" he laughs. "Just let me get this one done first."
Mark Thomas plays the MAC, Belfast tomorrow. For details, visit www.themaclive.com
Other politically-flavoured comedians who have proved popular in recent years include:
Jeremy Hardy - in the words of his bio, "Jeremy Hardy has been a stand-up comic since 1984 and will be one until he dies or wins the Lottery". Best known for his work on Radio 4's News Quiz and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, Hardy has courted controversy with some decidedly edgy remarks
Robert Newman - the erstwhile Newman of Newman and Baddiel early-'90s mega-fame has gone underground in recent years, carving out a niche as a historical novelist and anti-globalisation campaigner. But he continues to perform incisive political comedy when the mood takes him, including this year's rave-reviewed New Theory of Evolution
Mark Steel - a self-described "heavyweight political comedian of a Marxist slant", Steel tours relentlessly, is a mainstay on Radio 4 and has penned a bestselling book, Reasons to be Cheerful. Still, none of this saved him from being jeered off stage by rowdy punters when he played Belfast's Feile an Phobail in 2009