Josh Widdicombe knows how to be a team player. He’s co-host of Channel 4’s The Last Leg, co-presents Parenting Hell, a lockdown-born podcast started with Rob Beckett, the most listened to in the UK, has appeared on countless panel shows and came up with his own, Hypothetical, which has just returned for its fourth series (co-presented, of course – this time with James Acaster).
Wearing an old Plymouth Argyle shirt circa 1991, he talks to The Big Issue about how the pandemic has changed comedy…
The Big Issue: Launching a chart-topping podcast, writing a book… you had a pretty good pandemic?
Josh Widdicombe: I wouldn’t want to use those words. I would say I’ve got nothing to complain about. It did change my approach to comedy. It really was quite nice to go, ‘Blimey, I’ve got my evenings to myself for the first time in a decade’. I think a lot of comedians were thinking maybe I need to find a better life work balance, not just go out every night and feel like I need to be working. To run still to be in the same place.
Have podcasts become a substitute for gigging in order for stand-ups to grow an audience?
The great thing about podcasts, you literally go upstairs and do it. Then you go downstairs and make a cup of tea. You can’t believe that’s your job when you used to go to Shrewsbury to do that. No disrespect to Shrewsbury but it is a long way. With comedy you get to do loads of different things. If I only did panel shows or stand-up or podcasts, I would get so bored so quickly. I’m very lucky being a stand-up comedian and that people give you the opportunity to do other things you’re hugely unqualified to do.
Have comedians had to evolve? To be a comedian now it seems like you have to be nice and warm and able to talk for hours on a podcast or chummy panel show. Weren’t the old school entertainers from the 1980s and ’90s a different breed?
It’s weird. You imagine that your youth is A) yesterday and B) nothing’s really changed. Then you go back and watch stuff and it feels like it’s from a different era. Things are a lot more tightly edited now, a lot more pacey and the whole podcast thing has had a huge impact on the comedy industry. You’re not answerable to anyone, you just put stuff out there. And people either like it, or they don’t like it; they listen or they don’t. That’s hugely freeing. The great thing is it’s made comedy more conversational. You’re not just chasing the joke. That’s why audiences respond to podcasts so much, because they feel like they know the people on the podcast, far more than you ever would know someone from the more traditional ways of comedy, whether that’d be stand-up or television.
You’re back on TV with a new series of Hypothetical. What was the elevator pitch?
I originally worked up the idea with Matthew Crosby and Tom Crane who write the show. We took it to the production company and I think the elevator pitch was pretty simple: comedians answering hypothetical questions. The elevator pitch was: surely this has been done before. And if not, let’s do it.
Hypothetically, if we knew aliens were arriving tomorrow, who would you pick to greet them?
Everyone else would go David Attenborough. That’s the obvious answer. But maybe someone hard, just in case… Jason Statham? You don’t want to lull them into thinking that we’re all a bunch of old people. You want someone that’s going to make them worried. Maybe Tyson Fury? Someone to let them know we’re not to be messed with early doors.
Hypothetically, who would you want to switch lives with for with a week? Same answer you’ve just given maybe.
Tyson Fury? Absolutely not. Just a footballer. It’d be really exciting to see what their week was like. As boring as that is, I’d just love to know. I’m not even saying I want to be Mo Salah. I don’t want to have to play because I wouldn’t be good enough. So the reserve goalie at Liverpool, someone like that. A bit of training, get to go to the match. See what it’s like in the dressing room. Job done.
Do comedy panel shows have to try hard – you just need to gather some funny people together and let them get on with it?
Exactly. The best comedy entertainment shows are ones where people are reacting in the moment, improvised. They’re not just delivering prepared stuff. It’s allowing that kind of framework for people to be as funny as they can be. People having fun together, making each other laugh. Low pressure, that’s what you want.
How long does recording take for each show?
We do two episodes in a day. I’d say each episode takes about two hours for an hour-long show, which isn’t too bad. I’ve got to tell you that there’s some far worse ratios going around. I won’t name them but I’ve done shows that film four hours for a half hour episode, which is just not acceptable.
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