“We are getting to a point where comedians are worried about how far they can go” – Romesh
Romesh Ranganathan is a full-time comedian. Balance isn’t stating the bleeding obvious there. What we mean is, Romesh has no “off” switch. Within seconds of arriving at our central London photoshoot, the surprisingly strapping (he’s got into boxing training of late) 40-year-old has the entire studio in stitches. The one-time maths teacher is simply imbued with “funny”.
Our photographer, Neil Bedford, happens to say how much he loved the hit superhero film Venom, and Romesh is like a dog with a bone, much to Neil’s amusement. “Seriously?” Rom deadpans. “Are you joking?” It’s a spinning plate Rom keeps coming back to. And, later, when we’re shooting a video, he’s making the digital team laugh as he questions their directorial choices. It’s what he does. Being a comedian is in every fibre of his being. Teaching’s loss is definitely comedy’s gain.
Of course, Britain has a rich history of producing funny people: Charlie Chaplin, Victoria Wood, Billy Connolly and many more have helped shape our cultural landscape. However, a fear now exists we are losing our sense of humour. Such is the hypersensitivity over seemingly anything and everything, do we all need to just… relax?
“I’m a comedian, so by my very nature I am less inclined to be offended,” Romesh reasons. “But I do think we need to calm down. I feel it most when I try out new material. Part of that process is to push it and the audience’s response refines what you do. You go, ‘OK, I’ve gone too far,’ and pull it back. We are getting to a point where comedians are worried about how far they can go, because they’re concerned about what the potential repercussions are going to be. Ultimately what that means is – and I might be being a tad dramatic – comedy will get worse.
“At the edges is where the most fertile ground is; if you’re scared to go there, you’re not going to find that. I know comics who’ve said: ‘I’ve got an idea for this, but there’s no way I’ll get away with that.’ Comedy shouldn’t be like that. I often wonder if it’s cyclical and the pendulum will swing back the other way. I think it will.”
YOU DO ROM, ROM
Romesh has been the hottest comedian in the UK for a couple of years now. There’s Straight Outta Crawley, his new autobiography, which backs up the theory the best laughter comes from struggle (spoiler: his success has not been handed to him); his new Sky One sitcom, The Reluctant Landlord, which is largely autobiographical (the Ranganathans really were left to run a pub after Rom’s father passed away); myriad TV projects, including The Misadventures Of Romesh Ranganathan, Judge Romesh and the show which catapulted him to stardom, Asian Provocateur, alongside his beloved mother, Shanthi; and, of course, his main passion of stand-up (Rom hits the road again from September 2019, folks).
“I started doing all the TV stuff to encourage more people to see me on tour,” Rom confesses. “I didn’t have any ambition to do TV, then that changed when I started doing shows because I thought they’d be good, like Asian Provocateur. But despite all that, my main love would always be stand-up. The phone might stop ringing and I’ll no longer be the person who gets booked, whereas I’ll always be able to do stand-up. It’s my first love and the thing I enjoy doing more than anything else.
“Fame could go at any moment – you just don’t know. Loads of people do stuff and then disappear, and I’ve got imposter syndrome. I’m half expecting a tap on the shoulder to be told I need to pack up my stuff and leave. If that happens, I’ll just keep gigging. I cannot work under the impression this is going to last forever. That is for better or worse in terms of how much stuff I do. I can’t help it.”
So where does the desire to keep grafting come from? Perhaps it’s a fear of returning to financial ruin, something which has twice occurred. Born into a middle-class family, the Ranganathans were plunged into crisis when it emerged some of his father’s business dealings were illegal (Rom likens his dad to Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses). He went to prison, meaning mum Shanthi spent time raising her two sons in a council house. The second occasion was when Romesh quit teaching to pursue stand-up fulltime, which brought enormous pressure.
“I had two periods of my life where we were absolutely broke. When dad went to prison, the house was repossessed. That was a period of living hand to mouth. Then when I started standup, we had that again. I have an inherent fear of there being a third time. For a while during my childhood, my mum believed some people were cursed when it comes to money. She just thought that’s how it is; some people it comes to, some it never does. I wonder if that’s stayed with me. I can’t help it.
“When I started doing stand-up I thought, ‘Sh*t, we’ve done it again.’ I’d be silly to think it hasn’t had an impact on my choices. It’s so fickle, and then we were broke: that is the perfect storm for wanting to make hay while the sun shines.”
This is where us Britons can let ourselves down. Rather than congratulating someone on showing mettle and resolve to achieve mind-boggling success, there is a minority who take to social media to vent their spleen when someone does well. Is Rom supposed to turn down work because ‘Anon from Gloucester’ is upset? “My rule is if I think something is going to be good, then I’ll do it. Then there are things I think will be good, but not with me in. But I haven’t yet done the one thing I think is going to be my defining moment.”
That’s great, right? “But it might never happen!” Rom retorts. “Or maybe it has happened and I’m too arrogant to realise it.” And that mindset is the very essence of Romesh: always striving to be better. “I can’t watch my last tour show. I mean, why the hell would you? It’s insanity. But, when I had to watch it for the edit, it’s difficult because I was just spotting the mistakes. Maybe I’m destined to never be truly proud of anything. God, that sounded w*nky, didn’t it?”
THE CYNIC’S MIXTAPE
Despite his success, acclaim and sold-out tours – complete with eye-watering ticket sales rubber-stamping his status as one of Britain’s best-loved comedians – Romesh simply cannot believe he’s that good. This isn’t false modesty. He positively squirms at anything approaching praise. “It’s you who knows if your stuff is any good, and there is so much good fortune that has its part to play in all of this,” Rom reasons. “I don’t think I’m a ‘bad’ comic, but I’m nowhere near as good as I want to be, or should be.
“I’ve been in the right place and time for stuff, but that’s not directly proportional to my ability. That is because things have just gone right for me. I’d never have got my first Live at the Apollo had it not been for [fellow comedian] Seann Walsh letting me perform at a launch for a TV show where someone saw me. I wouldn’t have got on Mock the Week had the booker not been at a particular gig. I’m grateful for all these things, but that’s not validation of my ability.
“I feel very blessed, but that’s not evidence I’m good. Evidence is me knowing. I’ve been lucky, and I think it could all go away in a heartbeat. And if it does? I’ve always got the stand-up to fall back on. That’s the equivalent of my trade. I’ve never had that, ‘This is it, man – you’re on the right track’ moment. It’s very much, ‘OK, that didn’t go sh*t. Let’s try the next thing.’”
BODY OF WORK
A settled home life – with wife Leesa and three sons – helps keep Romesh sane, and it’s almost exclusively family time when he’s not working. “I’m really into music, go to watch Arsenal, I love films and reading comics… F***ing hell, that sounds like a Tinder profile! ” Rom concludes. But once Asian Provocateur hit the big time, his world changed. While supporting Scottish superstar Kevin Bridges on tour in 2015, Romesh would do his opening set, then go to local comedy clubs to work up his new material. One night in Manchester proved to be near-impossible, as audience members screeched their love of the BBC hit.
“That elevated me to another level of profile,” he says. “And we didn’t expect it. I still get people coming up to me to talk about that show. Something else that shocked me was when BBC Two showed my Irrational tour at Christmas last year. Suddenly, loads of people came up to me to say they didn’t know I did stand-up and they really liked it. That is both a huge compliment and a damning indictment of my DVD promotion, because that had been available for a while. I swear some people thought I was a travel presenter who’d given stand-up a go.”
Romesh even plays down his voracious work ethic, something which has defined his career since he started stand-up in 2010. “It doesn’t feel like work ethic,” Rom bats back. “I just think that I have to get better, and so I do loads of gigs. And you enjoy it. It’s not like I wake up going, ‘It’s hustle time, baby!’ I just think, ‘I’ve got to get a new 20 minutes of material together.’
“The truth is, I am inherently lazy by nature. Extremely lazy. So being self-critical is the only thing that will make me work. My capacity to do nothing is infinite. Absolutely infinite. The fact that I do a gig and think it wasn’t good enough? If I didn’t have that then, trust me, I’d just be sitting at home.” The sofa’s loss is everybody’s gain
Straight Outta Crawley (Bantam Press, £20) is out now. The Reluctant Landlord is on Sky One, Tuesdays at 10pm and Romesh’s 2019 UK tour, The Cynic’s Mixtape, is on sale now. For more information, visit romeshranganathan.co.uk