Phill Jupitus, no really it’s Phill not Phil, brings something extra to the table, whether it’s an extra ‘l’ in his name or an extra discipline of entertainment he has decided to master. Best known as a comedian, he has forayed into the world of TV and radio presenter, DJ, guitarist and performance poet. Spending almost 15 years as a team captain on ‘Never Mind the Buzzcocks’ and making regular appearance on ‘QI’, he has become a household name, although there’s no arrogance about him; as a plane overhead drowned out our interview, he remarked ‘that’s actually my private jet. I want you to know that comedy reaaallly pays’. Obviously it wasn’t. He’d in fact just got lost following his Sat Nav through the ever-confusing Oxford one-way system.
Jupitus isn’t known for mincing his words; he has openly fought with the BBC and exhibits brilliantly cutting wit on the Buzzcocks, taking no celebrity prisoners. Yet the man I found at the Union, wearing a jaunty hat and sitting opposite me on a small wooden picnic table, was happy to share his time, muttering to me conspiratorially as the press officer tried to hurry us up: ‘Don’t listen to him, do a couple more questions. He’s just trying to control me!’ And so it was that we delved into the world of a comedian and the difficulty that is inherent with the public persona versus the private.
‘It’s that failure to meet expectation, which isn’t a pressure so much as an encumbrance on occasions, because people are expecting you to be the guy off never mind the Buzzcocks 24/7 and that’s the weird part of it. But also from a personal point of view, I actually used to be very sort of gobby and chatty among my mates and used to do jokes all the time when we were in the pub and everything, and now I don’t. I just don’t do it because it’s my job- it’s a bit of a busman’s holiday to sort of be larking around when you’re with your friends now.
‘As a parent now you’re just aware of changes more and I think as a comedian, I hate to think that people are disappointed when I meet them that I don’t give them something that they’re expecting. But I think if you keep an open mind it’s cool and if I relax enough then maybe something funny falls out, but I tend to not do comedy on the nod as it were, I only do it under controlled conditions. I’m a lab comic.’
His argument of comedy needing the right conditions is no better illustrated than by the story of his own inappropriate stand-up, when he was put on with ‘The Who’ at the Royal Albert Hall. Although Jupitus hasn’t done full-on stand-up comedy for years now (through choice, not due to this trauma), he charts this as his number one stand up nightmare – the stuff of sleepless nights: ‘I thought that I’d just be introducing bands at a benefit gig, but as it turns out, he wanted me to go on in the middle of a Who gig and do comedy. Now, if I can just say, in my defence, I was booed off, but if I’d have been in that audience, I’d have booed me off. It’s comedy out of its box. It’s a terrible terrible thing, and it doesn’t work and is wildly inappropriate on occasions.’
Jupitus’ work with the celebrity world, despite the distressing experience above, only developed with his role on the Buzzcocks. He has encountered the sublime to the ridiculous – with recent panellists such as the internationally-renowned Mark Ronson to the identity parade which has featured the likes of DJ Tommy B aka Tom Beasley from Blazin’ Squad (who?). He emphasises the bottom line of Buzzocks: ‘It’s a show where you check your ego at the door’. Yet this hasn’t stopped celebs in the past taking issue; Preston from Ordinary Boys (and Big Brother) fame stormed off the show after the the host Simon Amstell’s teasing got too much. But following my question of who Jupitus found the biggest diva to date, I was a little taken aback; I was thinking along the lines of an internationally-renowned songstress. I remember seeing Bonnie Tyler appear on the show a few years back, and quite frankly, if I had sung ‘Total eclipse of the heart’, I’d definitely be a diva, no questions asked. But no.
‘Oddly enough the most diva-ish person we had on was Vanessa Feltz, and she just was, I hate to say it, she just was quite ungracious. Could dish but couldn’t take. And it’s got to be a two-way streak when you come on that show. And she just really took issue with Simon, the host, I mean really, and suddenly I just felt this icy chill on my right hand side and she became quite angry sort of about half way through the show. It’s a comedy show ultimately and you can’t. If you’ve got somebody as high-profile as Vanessa Feltz, and you’ve put as much of your personal life in the public domain, then when that comes back at you, you should at least, at the very least, be prepared for that. Whereas she was acting like, ‘Oh my god what’s this?’ But all of it was out there; he was using stuff that was in the papers, interviews – stuff from her own interviews.’
The arrival of presenter Simon Amstell did undoubtedly bring a new level of controversy to the show, and a marked depature from the days of Mark Lamarr – Jupitus is now the only one of the old guard to remain. Both the original presenter and the other team captain, Lamarr and Sean Hughes respectively, started their careers in the same field as Jupitus, as performance poets.
Jupitus toured the student scene, travelling around universities, colleges and student unions supporting bands such as Billy Bragg, The Style Council and The Housemartins. And there’s certainly a fondness that is evident in Jupitus’ words about Bill Bailey, the absurdly creative comic who took over from Sean Hughes as the opposing team captain for 10 series. We discuss the most prominent of Bill’s features, naturally his groomed beard and mass of wizardly hair: ‘Well it’s that cling-on look.’ But Jupitus isn’t threatened – he backs his facial-growing prowess to the end: ‘Well I can, if I wish to, grow a similar thing. It’s not a big Hemingway beard, Bill’s, it’s that close-manicured beard, which is a bit like mine when I bother to grow one so I don’t envy it. I can rock one. When the need takes me, I can rock one.’
Jupitus certainly didn’t let us forget Bailey’s departure from the show with his musically questionable, but hilarious duet of Jordin Sparks’ ‘No air’ with Amstell, the presenter at the time. Years of practice in the ‘Intros’ round was put to great use with this performance in which Jupitus expanded from imitating various instruments to a full blown vocal performance. We muse over the innovative scientific question raised by Jordin Sparks’: ‘How are you supposed to breathe with no air?’
‘Well in essence it’s a vacuum. Jordin Sparks has violated a basic precept of physics there surely… And of biology at the same time. If there is no air then you suffocate, but is that not what Jordin Sparks is saying in the song – I am dead because there is a lack of air. And no matter how much I try to breathe, there is still no air. And so how am I supposed to breathe with no air? Well that’s surely rhetoric in its purest form.’
To summarise the life of a comedian, Jupitus shared with me a recent conversation he’d had with fellow comedian, Sean Lock: ‘The way he describes what we’re doing is, as a comedian, you are mining a facet of your own personality, which is an incredibly introspective thing to do and a weird thing to do. You’re pulling part of yourself out and selling it, which can make you feel a bit whore-y’. But there was nothing whore-y about Phill Jupitus; he didn’t plug his work or try to force his humour on me. He was light, casually humorous, and surprising. He didn’t tear my questions apart with the wit we so often see on TV, but revealed himself as a ‘Who’ concert gate-crasher, beard growing, groupie of Jordin Sparks (albeit a sarcastic one).
Follow Phill on twitter: @jupitusphillip