Culture

Jon Richardson: 'My first gig was terrifying'

Jon Richardson overcame teenage anxiety to become a successful stand-up, but there’s one person he’d love to make laugh again

Jon Richardson

Image: KERRY SPICER

Jon Richardson was born in 1982 in Lancaster. He went to University in Bristol to do a degree in Hispanic Studies, but left after a year and a half to pursue a career in comedy. He lived with fellow funnymen wannabes Russell Howard, Mark Olver and John Robins.

Richardson’s show first solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Spatula Pad, saw him earn a Best Newcomer nomination at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards. The following year, he took his new show Dogmatic to the Fringe and later round the UK in his first solo tour.

Since then he has become a regular face on the comedy circuit, as well as regular face on our TV screens. He has appeared on many panel shows, most notably as a team captain on 8 Out of 10 Cats and 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown. He is married to fellow comedian Lucy Beaumont, and together they star as fictionalised versions of themselves in Meet the Richardsons, which has just begun its third series.

In his Letter To My Younger Self, Richardson reflects on his early anxieties, how his career has developed and how he got a bit of advice from his hero Billy Connolly.

I was a very, very anxious 16-year-old. About school, my body, getting thrown out of pubs, everything really. Sixteen is the age that your peers are starting to go out and I was delaying that as much as possible. My mum did quite a lot to try to get my sister and me to socialise a bit more because we were both timid. My sister got into it eventually, but I never really settled into that adolescent period. I was so anxious to achieve something, to get going. I’d gone from the little primary school next to the housing estate we grew up in to a grammar school. It was an opportunity, but also a sudden intense pressure to get good A-levels and go to a good university and get a mortgage and all of those things. That was on my mind from age 16. I remember thinking, “What if everyone else in my class passes their driving test, and I don’t?” 

Jon Richardson in 2009
2009: After being nominated in the Best Comedy Show category of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

I put a lot of pressure on myself not to waste my opportunities. My family were happy for me to do whatever I wanted. I remember telling my mum I was dropping out of university and it just wasn’t a big thing. But I felt a financial pressure – we didn’t own our own home and we didn’t have foreign holidays, things like that. So that pressure to get a mortgage and to have a pension, that really was weighing on me. “Am I taking a risk by doing this creative thing when I could get a decent job? Am I making a mistake, even if I’d be depressed for my whole life doing that job?” When you’ve grown up with the threat of things being taken away from you if you don’t own them, a massive part of your security comes from knowing if the washing machine breaks, you can afford to fix it. Rather than panicking about having to get an unsecured loan.

I don’t think of myself as a performer at all, as flamboyant or confident. It’s been such a gradual climb for me. But even when I was very young, I did love making people laugh. And once I knew that was something I could do, I really studied it. It was torture for my mum and my sister because it was like living with someone learning the recorder. I tried every joke out on them. It was my version of banging out Three Blind Mice for seven hours on a Sunday morning. And I watched everything – Billy Connolly, Lee Evans, Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, The Fast Show, Shooting Stars. I would watch something like Have I Got News for You and think, “What would I have said in that situation?” But I was into my 20s before I realised there were gigs in pubs and you didn’t have to start by releasing your DVD. That’s when I decided, “That’s what I’ll do then. It doesn’t matter whether I earn 10 grand a year or 50. If I can pay my bills by telling jokes, I’ll feel like I’m living the life I should.”

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My first gig was terrifying. Because I knew what was at stake. I’d dropped out of uni. And I was thinking, “If this goes badly, I’ll never try it again”. Because if you love stand-up, the thought of doing it badly is unbearable. It was at The Comedy Cabin in Bath, exactly 20 years ago in May this year. It was the perfect room for comedy – a small, dark, low-ceiling basement room. I was in a New Act competition which I thought meant that nobody on the bill would have done comedy before. Then I found out some people had been gigging for two years. I was shocked because I’d literally written out a set longhand and recorded it onto a cassette in my kitchen, and sent it to this competition. God knows what they thought, there was no laughter on it or any atmosphere. I hope that tape has been destroyed because it was horrific. I don’t really remember the gig. It’s like learning to ski by being pushed off the top of a mountain. I just know I got to the bottom and I hadn’t broken any bones. I remember the first laugh and thinking, everything’s gonna be OK. 

Jon Richardson on That Sunday Night Show
2012: Appearing on That Sunday Night Show alongside Frank Skinner and Alexandra Burke. Image: Ken McKay/Shutterstock

When I was on holiday in New York my friend and I were playing a game of lookalikes. “Oh look there’s David Cameron’s out in his shorts in the supermarket”, that kind of thing. We were walking down this avenue in New York and my friend said, “And there’s Billy Connolly out doing his shopping in a puffer jacket”, and as we got closer, we were like, “Fucking hell, that actually is Billy Connolly out doing his shopping.” Luckily, my friend Matt had the confidence to go up to him and say, “We just wanted to say hello, we’re both stand-ups.” He was everything you would dream of him being – so kind and enthusiastic. I was very embarrassed about doing panel shows – I thought he might be sniffy about panel shows because in my eyes he’s the god of pure stand-up. But he couldn’t have been further from that, he was so generous. And he shouted to us as we were walking away, “Boys, pay the bills and it’ll happen!” It was a really special moment.

Having a secure marriage gives you confidence in every aspect of your life. It’s knowing you can be loved by someone (Jon’s marriage to comedian Lucy Beaumont forms the basis of their sitcom Meet The Richardsons). Now my main role is to protect my daughter (six-year-old Elsie), so that she inherits a better planet and is prepared emotionally and financially. So I do things I wouldn’t have done 10 years ago, when I was a more pretentious sort of comic who wanted to be liked by the comedy fraternity. Now it’s all about whether what I’m doing is going to make people who live a hard life laugh. Life is so hard for so many people. We’re all under such pressure. So I want to make the kind of stuff that’s an escape from that. And when I do stand-up I aim to be pleasant company so people look back on that time they spent in the theatre as something that they really enjoyed and made them feel happier to be alive.

If I could go back to any moment in my life, it would be finding out I had been nominated for the Comedy Award in Edinburgh. That was the first time I felt I’d had acknowledgement from my peers. I remember I went around the back of Edinburgh Castle to take a phone call from my agent and he told me. I wanted to just enjoy it on my own before I told anyone, so I disappeared down the street away from the Royal Mile – I wanted to be away from that area focused on the festival and covered in posters of comedians who’ve won nine Perrier awards.

I went into a little pizza restaurant and had a beer. I had never drunk before my shows in Edinburgh before, but I had one beer and a pizza. And when I was in there, Frank Skinner came in to have dinner and I thought, “Oh, that’s a sign.” Because he was one of my comic idols. And of course, he had no idea who I was. I would never dare say I was on his level, but for the first time I’d done something he’d done; I’d sort of succeeded in Edinburgh. If I could talk to that younger Jon now I’d say, “Try to enjoy being in Edinburgh.” There’s so much at stake when you’re starting out as an unknown there, financially for a start. But I wish I had been able to find a way of enjoying it too. Because it’s unlike anywhere else on the planet.

Jon Richardson and Lucy Beaumont
2023: With wife and co-star Lucy Beaumont on Meet The Richardsons. Image: UKTV

If I could have one last conversation with anyone, I would probably pick my nana Elsie. I talked earlier about practising comedy on my family, and when I did that, a nana Elsie laugh was hearing the ball hit the back of the net. She had this almost silent laugh, almost undetectable. But she would vibrate, like a mobile phone on a coffee table, she’d vibrate across the couch. She came to live with us after my grandad died and she’d had a heart operation – I’d come running home from school and it was like my homework to make her do that laugh. So yeah, it’d be nice to hear that again.

Meet the Richardsons is on Dave and UKTV Play on Thursday nights

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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