‘Hello, how are you?’ Amos’ voice crackled down the phone, full of the phatic niceties I had been expecting from the charming man I had seen on TV. I had been flustered, to say the least; my technical inaptitude had left me floundering for ten minutes trying to work out how to use the loudspeaker button and my list of questions lay buried under a scattered stack of revision notes.
‘I’m good, thanks. How are you?’
‘Tour’s going well; people are coming out and enjoying themselves. I can’t complain.’
It’s odd how calming the smooth consonants of RP can be.
Amos is just at the start of a nationwidewide tour. ‘I can’t wait! Nothing beats a live audience. You know, when you can’t stop and rewind, you can’t go again, you can’t pause, you have to live in the moment. And you can’t control what happens in the room in terms of what may happen, what may be discovered, what heckles may come. It’s all there. It’s why watching a comic live has such a good atmosphere.’ He buzzes with excitement, and rightly so. With all his material tried and tested during his annual stint at the Edinburgh festival, fans have been waiting eagerly to see what Amos has in store with this latest show, ‘The Best Medicine’, and it’s all about making people happy. ‘Comedy makes me happy. The people who come to my shows are well-read people, who know the state of the planet, know we’re in a financial crisis, know we’ve got a coalition government. They don’t want to be preached at. I can’t stand in front of a thousand people going on about the economic downturn when a thousand people have spent however much to come and see me. The least I can do is try and make people forget their woes. No-one listens to a comedy show for two hours to hear about their life, but for someone to make them laugh and think about other things.’
Edinburgh is old stomping ground for Amos who debuted his first show there ten years ago. ‘Edinburgh is the place to test out new stuff; it’s where most comics have the opportunity to run their stuff for a whole month before you go on tour. You learn so much from other comics being around and you get judged by the audiences and your peers. It’s probably the best arts festival, particularly for comedy, in the world.’ It was also here in 2006 that Amos did his first show where he spoke publicly about being gay. ‘When I first started out, I didn’t talk about any issues at all. I was just trying to be funny, but then you get to a point in your life, every comedian does, when you find your own voice. I never thought I’d tell an audience about personal things in my life because, a, how arrogant is that, and, b, why the hell would an audience want to know anyway? It takes a while, but when you know what funny is, you can find a way of doing that, and thankfully it’s worked.
‘I’ve heard a lot of bad comedy. It’s the nature of the beast. Because comedy is in such a fruitful and vibrant and healthy state in this country at the moment, lots of people think they can do it. I think they’ve got to learn how to do it. I like to go and see the people who there’s buzz about, not big name comics that we all know and love and whatever, but people you wouldn’t have heard of.’ Amos becomes incredulous for a minute, ‘By the way, did you know you can do courses in stand up comedy? Can you believe that?! I mean, you can learn techniques, but you can’t learn to be funny.’
Luckily, funny isn’t something Amos has ever had to work at. Being one of eight children, he blames a need for constant attention on the development of his comic streak, although a career in comedy never even crossed his mind. ‘I was studying law and then I went travelling and I met a woman in America who was visiting the same friend I was. She told me, ‘You’re really funny, have you ever thought of going into comedy?’ and of course I was like, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ I was the class clown, not a comedian. But I wasn’t a diligent student. I didn’t pay attention, didn’t work. I was just having fun, doing stupid things like you should do if you’re a student: spending too much time joining societies; taking advantage of everything on offer in freshers’ week; really making use of the student union bar. You name it, I did it. Apart from studying. This woman said she was going to open a comedy club and, lo and behold, three months later she phoned me up out of the blue, she’d opened a comedy club and she asked me to do some stuff. I’d never even been to a comedy club before, but by the end of my first year I was doing three gigs a week for her. It’s all down to this one woman; if it wasn’t for her my life would have been on a very different course. My philosophy on life is that if I see something in someone, I’ll say it, because you never know that may be all it takes to change somebody’s life. Of course, my parents thought I was a lunatic. They couldn’t understand why anyone would throw themselves into, what they called, ‘an unlikely career choice’. When I started I was just having fun, I didn’t dream of making a career out of it.
Having been on the circuit for nearly 20 years, it’s surprising that Amos is only just receiving the recognition he deserves. Last year, he finally got his own show on the BBC, a refreshing sign considering one of Amos’ best-known jokes is his jibe at the BBC’s diversity policy that he’ll have to wait for Lenny Henry to die before he gets his own show. ‘Hopefully I’ll get a phone call asking us to do another series. The BBC give you certain guidelines about what time it’s going to get shown so we made a show based on those. It turned out that it went out on Friday night at 10 o’clock; I’d have made a different show if I’d known! But hey, it’s a learning curve.’ Considering the boost his profile has received since various TV appearances on Have I got News for You And Live at the Apollo, does Amos feel TV is the way forward for him? ‘There’s a lot of talk from certain sector of the media who have a go at comics, saying they’re a bit cool, in your face, blah, blah, blah, but with freedom of speech, live stand up comedy is where it’s at. With TV there’s compliance forms and compliance issues, but, as a live stand up comic, you’re your own censor and you can literally do and say what you want. Let the audience be the judge. You sort of have to do TV if you really want recognition, but before I did my series we were going out on the road. If you learn your craft and start doing tours, you don’t necessarily have to. I didn’t have a TV series before my last two tours and people knew who I was because of Edinburgh and the club circuits. If you’re good then you can get through. I mean Ross Noble didn’t do that much TV and he’s got a massive profile on the live circuit, and there are lots more like us. Obviously my career picked up once I was on TV.’
Amos and I reach the end of our interview. Is there any last thing, speak now or forever hold your peace, that he has the burning desire to tell the students of Oxford? ‘Yes! Whatever you’re studying whatever you’re doing, whatever year you’re in, if you’re stressed with exams, come and see the show. I guarantee you’ll leave laughing.’
‘Thank you’. And our conversation bows out in an effusive wave of good wishes.