Gary Raymond was at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to catch the Welsh comedian Rhod Gilbert’s first full length stand up routine in over seven years, The Book of John.
Rhod Gilbert is back with his first stand-up show in seven years, and as he points out in the opening gambit, a great deal has changed in that time. The world has changed, he has changed; but has comedy changed? Certainly, it feels a long time ago in so many ways since he went viral with a perfectly tuned rant about togs. Middle-class consumerist anxiety seems quaint now in this day and age, something from a simpler time, when audiences creased at having the perplexing science of duvet-shopping reflected back at them.
To an extent Gilbert showed his chops in that routine as a mainstream comedian, his unhinged rage at the scenario coated in the soft furnishings of the subject matter. He felt dangerous, but not really. Gilbert has always been a comedian that straddles the divide. He is very likeable, and has the sort of glint in his eye your mother would approve of. But then he also has the edge of a man you fear just as likely to bottle you as cut you with a comment. For that reason Gilbert was always one of the most interesting of that upper-echelon of TV-friendly comics working the circuit.
And tonight, with his Book of John material, you see just why he was as successful as he was. Gilbert is an excellent comic, working the cavernous soulless space of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre like it’s a sweaty night at Cowgate Underbelly. His pacing, his peaks and troughs, do not miss a beat. If he was worried some of his skillset may have grown rounder edges during his time away from the stage, far from it, he seems sharper, more focussed, perhaps even more mature in his command of the stage. But what shines from Gilbert, deep inside the mainstream gags, is his subversive attitude to the material.
Gilbert has always teetered on an exhilarating brink. His live brand is the high-octane, bursting-from-the-skin frustrated rant, delivered via the persona of a man on the verge, perhaps just one traffic jam away from going full Michael Douglas in Falling Down. The tog routine, after all, was never about togs. It was about life anxiety, about the futility of life, about the crippling idiocy of one man’s attitude toward duvet-shopping, something to which masculine culture would never attribute importance. In that skit he asks, “Did you ever wonder where bedding comes from?” A 2019 audience would answer, “The women have never wondered, Rhod.” In The Book of John Gilbert seems much more aware of these answers, and his material has evolved. He keeps coming back to this idea of the social cages of masculinity, and it forms the basis of the most successful routine when he’s sent to give sperm at a fertility clinic. The tog routine went viral because watching Gilbert flip out is enormous fun, but beneath the vein-popping frustration of his performance, something more interesting was happening, and now it seems to have come to fruition.
And it is the issues that mark Gilbert out from the other Live at the Apollo comedybots. His recent television documentary about shyness and anxiety in men is one of the more important in the recent trend of commissioning editors assigning subjects of vital social importance to celebrities. His Work Experience programme never fails to have a message at its heart. He is a thoughtful, compassionate man, and it is there in his live comedy too, even if you have to delve beneath the surface to find it.
The Book of John, as a structure, is perhaps an acquired taste, but one that the mainstream comedy audience will undoubtedly lap up with wide eyes. Gilbert uses the pretence of a chance encounter with a driver he hired (John). John was to get Gilbert about after a minor stroke left him unable to drive himself a few years ago, and their interactions, noted down at the time by Gilbert, form the backbone for the show. Ironically, however, it is this backbone that is the weakest element of what might have been a searingly honest 70 minutes of comedy from a master.
And honesty is the issue. Gilbert is at his best when laying himself bare. But the suspicion that is impossible to shake is that John is a comic creation. We are told that John is so stupid that Gilbert felt compelled to commit his “wisdom” to a book. It’s intimated that in the character of John we are in the presence of a somewhat familiar ignorant blowhard often seen in BBC news voxpops whenever questions about Brexit or immigration come up. John is “thick as shit”, and the subjects about which he knows nothing but on which he has unshakeable opinions knows no borders. There is a hint that John is the type of masculine arrogant ignorant who has helped propel the country toward its awaiting apocalypse, but Gilbert is not going to rant about politics, or even hold John up as the villain. John is, in the end, simply Gilbert’s foil. He is in the tradition of Baldrick, of Hugh Laurie’s Prince Regent, a figure so mind-numbingly stupid it is easy to believe he is comedy gold. The problem here is that Gilbert wants us to believe John is real. And he may well be, and every line might be verbatim, but as long as there is doubt, then John is a comedic creation, and if he is a creation, then he exists only as a series of set ups for Gilbert to become increasingly, rabidly infuriated. The problem here is that when Gilbert ranted about togs, audiences connected to the recognisable reality of the subject. The ferocity of the rant was incongruous to the smallness of the subject. We have all blown up over something small. However, with John, if we suspect he is fictional, what is it we are supposed to be connected to? A recognisable oaf? A stereotype? A straw man? Gilbert might tell us that we recognise John, but the more John’s unsolicited opinions go further beyond the reaches of plausibility, the more we are left with Gilbert just setting himself for zingers. The difficulty is we can enjoy Baldrick because there is no pretence that he is real. What is John? If we are to believe the words attributed to him, he is stupider than Baldrick, and I’m just not quite sure how funny that is.
Gilbert’s brand is never off point, though. As his blood pressure boils, the enjoyment of the material runs in correlation. When he is indulging his mainstream skills, he is much better at it than the megastars ahead of him. Comics like John Bishop, Michael MacIntyre and Peter Kaye quite often don’t even bother with jokes, they have just acquired the mesmerising trick of making their voice sound like they’re saying something funny, a crackled intonation here, a scousey smirk there, and people piss themselves in the aisles. They are magicians, not comedians. Gilbert always has a joke, crafted and deployed. He is the real deal. But his best stuff in this set is when he puts John away. When he rolls and flows and rants and looks the audience in the eye, Gilbert shows himself to be one of the best around, and it’s great to have him back on stage.
Rhod Gilbert’s Book of John is on at the Fringe until August 25th.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, and broadcaster.