Paul Foot – eccentric comedy from a Merton mathematician

Miranda K. Gleaves talks to ex-Mertonian Paul Foot, ahead of his new tour, which comes to Oxford on September 30th

Paul Foot. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Eccentric is barely strong enough an adjective for Paul Foot, with deliberately misleading show titles, surreal and innovative wordplay and a resolutely nostalgic dress sense characterising his unique style of comedy. Since reading Maths at Merton College in the 1990s, he has been a stand-up comedian for over twenty years, working with Noel Fielding and Russell Brand during his ascension to international acclaim. In addition to touring extensively across the UK and Australia, his appearances on the likes of Russell Howard’s Good News, Never Mind The Buzzcocks, and 8 Out Of 10 Cats has brought him further recognition and praise.

Rather than fans, Foot has a Guild of Connoisseurs. The reason for this, he explains, is simple: “they are Connoisseurs of my comedy, not fans of me. They enjoy the comedy I do, and always come back each year to see the new humour I have created, but if I were to get hit by a bus tomorrow they wouldn’t really mind too much. Well, they would, but only insofar as that would mean there would be no more comedy for them to appreciate.” Such surreal but compelling logic is typical of Foot’s work, and perhaps offers further explanation for his continued success – in a field often dominated by straightforward stand-up anecdotes about families and relationships, Foot’s insights offer a refreshingly off-piste take on the world, and how we interact with each other within it.

Beyond this, of course, his primary aim is to entertain. “I am a comedian, after all; and those who are familiar with my comedy will know that a lot of the information I give to the audience is absolute lies. I often have to point this out for legal reasons, to avoid particularly litigious piglets and other chancers. Having said that, this show is different: this show is carefully laced with a greater meaning about society and the world we create ourselves to live within. The humour is very surreal, but hidden just beneath the surface ye may just find a bit more.”

Foot rarely talks about his time at Oxford, but was happy to discuss his methods of choosing a college. While I picked Merton (perhaps not the most obvious college) on the admittedly bizarre basis that ‘it shares its name with a Womble’, Paul Foot’s application was inspired by more material concerns. “They said it had the best food. And it did. A 3-course meal for dinner was £1.70 and it was ever so posh. I remember we’d see the menu and be saying things like, “Oh no, not partridge again!” while most of the other colleges were stuck eating pasta bake every day. Also, lunch was £1.30 and breakfast was 90 pence. What a bargain! Nowadays you couldn’t get partridge for under £16.30.” Foot can be reassured that Merton continues to have excellent food – including game – at insanely affordable prices (Formal Hall for just over £4!), and it’s cheering to find out that the main attraction for him remains one of Merton’s biggest attractions to prospective students today.

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In addition to this, anyone who has met Merton’s legendary barman David Hedges over the last few years will no doubt be delighted to discover that Paul Foot remembers him fondly – “he was a lovely man. He was my Scout too.”  Shockingly, however, Foot cannot remember ever having a PowerPint in the bar. Perhaps this is something that needs to be corrected in the future.

Foot’s new venture, as with his past tours, has an offbeat title – “Tis Pity She’s A Piglet” – and his latest tagline declares that “The show that offended 1,000 piglets is back.” Back from where, Foot does not say. “I happened to stumble across a play by John Ford, entitled “’Tis A Pity She’s a Whore”, and I thought that seemed a bit rude. Being a whore doesn’t seem like much of pity. However, if one were a piglet, that would be terrible. Imagine the stress. And that is why it offended a thousand piglets. They didn’t think it was a pity they were piglets at all. Poor, silly little beasts, they had no idea what was coming to them.”

While Foot seems to be keeping the contents of the show quiet, he is excited at the prospect of bringing it to the masses. “When I’m on tour [in the UK] the atmosphere is extra special because I go to a place especially and all the people there are so happy that I’ve come to visit their home. I always feel like a guest. Sometimes they even bring me cake (Battenberg), and once even someone brought me a quail egg. It’s like that in Australia too, because I’ve gone all the way to the other side of the world to visit my Connoisseurs there.

“Edinburgh is special in a slightly different way, because there it’s like my Connoisseurs have come to see me. They are my guests and I am their host. But I’m often too busy performing the show to give them cake or egg. And there’s a show every single night, so I’d have to spend the whole month baking friggin’ battenberg. What a palaver that would be!”

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While he might not have time to bake cake for his Fringe audiences, Foot’s devotion to his Connoisseurs is nevertheless impressive, and impeccably in keeping with his surrealist style. When Cambridge student Annabel Pigdon dressed up as Foot, for example (see inset photo), Foot’s comments were effusive and laudatory. “Oh my Gadddd! That is top quality! I’d give her 10 out of 10 for result, but only 3 out of 10 for effort because it wouldn’t be that hard really. She’s already got the right hair, and all those clothes are normal clothes apart from the tin foil. So really all she had to do was wrap some tin foil around herself like a turkey. That’s actually what I call my fashion-style: Turkey-casual.”

To see Paul Foot’s ‘Turkey-casual’ style for yourself, and perhaps even grab some Battenberg (you never know), catch his show “Tis Pity She’s A Piglet” at Oxford’s Old Fire Station on 30th September. Tickets available here for what is sure to be a memorable pre-term treat: https://oldfirestation.org.uk/whats-on/