Joz Norris is a comedian, actor, and writer known for mixing a down-to-earth approach to comedy with high-concept stagecraft, such as his most recent Edinburgh Fringe show The Incredible Joz Norris Locks Himself Inside His Own Show, Then Escapes, Against All the Odds!!  which is now available to stream on NextUp Comedy.  He also frequently appears as part of the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society.  We spoke to him ahead of the Glasgow Comedy Festival at which he will be performing as his alter-ego Mr. Fruit Salad, ‘an idiot from Pontefract who doesn’t exist.’

Could you tell us a bit about your show?

So the central premise is pretty flimsy – I don’t have a show this year, because I’m dead, or busy, or in the bath or something. Instead, my show’s being performed by a guy I made up called Mr. Fruit Salad. That’s all that’s going on on the surface, but there’s a bunch of other things cooking away underneath to do with anxiety and grief and stuff. Mr. Fruit Salad’s been working quite hard on it over the last year or so and assures me he’s not going to embarrass me, but that he’s got a genuine theatrical tour-de-force up his sleeve. But he also runs the most notorious gang of illegal dog walkers in the local area, so he’s not always reliable.

What’s behind the decision to perform as an alter ego?

I took a kind of sabbatical from performing last year because of some personal stuff I needed to sort out and then did a gig at a very eclectic, multi-disciplinary comedy/music/performance-art night called Depresstival Presents…, which is curated by my amazing friend Lottie Bowater. I decided to pretend to be Neil Young, and hid behind a grand piano with sunglasses and a wig on and tried to play Neil Young songs while wearing thick woolly gloves and rambling about Crazy Horse. It was the funniest I’d felt in months. Something about hiding my face, and hiding my worry and my anxiety behind something so opaque, struck me as hilarious, and suddenly I was just connecting very organically with strange ideas. The Neil Young premise didn’t stick, but the idea of using a disguise and an alter-ego to remind me how to enjoy myself onstage really did.

How did the character of Mr. Fruit Salad come about?

I had bought a beard and some sunglasses for a rehearsed reading of a script by myself and Ed Aczel, in which we play petty criminals trying to steal a vending machine. I then ended up in Leicester for the Comedy Festival watching shows, and had this rudimentary disguise in my bag, and thought it would be funny to wear it while watching the shows and pretend I was somebody else, as I wasn’t doing a show that year. I was eating black jacks and fruit salads at the time, and Adam Larter asked if I was going to call this new character “Old Black Jack.” I said no I wasn’t, I was going to call him Mr. Fruit Salad. The next day John Kearns urgently needed somebody to co-host his and Pat Cahill‘s show 110% with him, as Pat had forgotten to tell him he wasn’t in the country that day. I agreed to do it, but added: “But I will be in disguise and pretending my name is Mr. Fruit Salad, because I’m not in Leicester this weekend, Mr. Fruit Salad is.” John texted back “Why can’t anything ever be easy?”

Are there any differences in the way you approach a show in character, as opposed to performing as yourself?

It makes me feel much more confident. Over the years I’ve sort of incorporated my anxieties and misgivings and shortcomings as a person into my onstage persona, which means I find it hard to be overly confident or assertive onstage, there’s sort of an in-built apologetic quality to a lot of my live stuff, which I think is why I’m often cast as the victim or the outcast or the underdog in group projects like Weirdos or ACMS (that or they all just hate me). But when my face is hidden and I’m lost in this character, I feel I can channel something a bit more carefree and impish from somewhere in my guts, and I no longer feel like I have to apologise for my own ideas, or explain them. I can just let them come out and they can be as incoherent or as stupid as I like because they’re not forming part of a consistent personality onstage, they just belong to this rambling idiot.

Who and/ or what influences your comedy?

I’m massively influenced by music. I write most of my shows by walking around Brockwell Park with headphones in and discovering certain tunes while the beginnings of an idea are starting to trickle through my brain, and suddenly I’ll think, “Right, I want the show to feel the same as this song.” My 2014 show had to feel like “Hot Dreams” by Timber Timbre. My 2015 show had to feel like “The Race For Space” by Public Service Broadcasting. My 2016 show had to feel like “Ancient Highway” by Van Morrison. My 2017 show had to feel like the “Largo” from Dvorak‘s New World Symphony. I think this year’s show will feel like a piece from the Eternal Sunshine soundtrack, or like “Landslide” by Beirut. I’m also currently very influenced by Flowers and Toni Erdmann. Slow, sad, mournful comedy about how nothing means anything, that’s my faaaaavourite.

How do you like the Glasgow Comedy Festival as a place to perform?

Oh, I love it, this will be my third time. Sadly I’ve only ever been to it for one day at a time, so I’ve yet to really properly dive into the festival and fully get to grips with it like I’ve been able to do in Edinburgh and Leicester and a few other places. But the audiences in Glasgow have been absolutely lovely, and the festival guys themselves are crazy friendly and supportive. Considering it’s a big old festival and a huge number of amazing performers do it, I always feel welcomed like a friend, and I think that’s really impressive.

Where is the strangest place you’ve ever performed?

It’s got to be Alexandra Palace Ice Rink. In 2017 Adam roped together all the Weirdos and put on a ridiculous show on ice built entirely around the fact that Tony Law is a good ice-skater. So the story was all about how great he was and how his ice-skating skills were going to save the world, and he was surrounded by the rest of us being absolutely rubbish and falling over a lot (a couple of people broke bones, I flew up into the air and landed on my head and would have broken my jaw if I hadn’t been playing a moose and therefore been wearing an enormous foam moose head). It was utterly stupid.  About 800 people came.  Mad.

You’ve been focusing on acting and film-making for the last year.  Can you tell us about those projects?

I sure can! I made a whole bunch of things in my “year off” – me and Ed made a couple of short films, one where we try to uncover an ancient treasure in a sort of Da Vinci Code spoof, and another which was sponsored by Tiger Aspect and was the aforementioned script about stealing a vending machine, which I’m very excited to release soon. I also acted in a really great play by Roxy Dunn called Timmy at the Fringe, which we’re currently adapting into a web series, and I made a bunch more short-form things and acted in a few sitcom pilot tasters and things like that. A short horror-comedy film I made with Lottie and Lucy Pearman and Sam Nicoresti also played a bunch of film festivals, which was lovely. Hoping to keep the ball rolling on acting and filmmaking stuff this year too, but it’s nice to shift your focus around every now and again and try different things.

It looks like issues over fair pay are going to dominate the Fringe this year.  Do you think the festival is sustainable in its current form and what would you change?

I honestly just think more people need to pay close attention to what Heroes of Fringe are doing. I don’t know the ins and outs of their accounts, but I do know everybody – door staff, bar staff, admin team, flyerers, performers, etc – are paid a fair wage, and nobody loses any money. The performers themselves pay a tiny, nominal fee in order to be able to perform in these amazing venues. The shows get big, busy audiences so the performers make lots of money back. The staff has a nice time working for the company because all the performers are happy and not overly-stressed, and being given an amazing playground to share their creative work. I don’t know whether it’s just because the people who run Heroes aren’t interested in creaming off huge profits off the top of everything that means everybody manages to make money, and the money percolates down through the entire organisation. But anybody who thinks it’s impossible to run a successful venue or organisation at the Fringe without paying people fairly is stupid, or crooked. It works, Heroes have been making it work for years. If everybody who worked at the Fringe was more interested in making everybody within the organisation happy and enthused to work there, rather than in making big profits, I think the Fringe could shift drastically in the right direction. Oh, the Stand team and the Monkey Barrel team are amazing as well.

What other acts should our readers check out at the Festival?

Well, there’s loads of amazing acts this year, as there are every year, but I happen to be performing as part of the line-up curated by Pax Lowey of ARGComFest, which is taking over two venues this year, and in terms of sheer quality of acts, you barely even need to look outside of that line-up, so I’m going to recommend everyone performing for ARG at the Vacant Space and the Hug and Pint. They include the likes of John Kearns, Josie Long, Ben Target, Lou Sanders, Helen Duff, Eleanor Morton, John-Luke Roberts, Sian Docksey, Jonny & The Baptists, Stuart Laws and even more, so you really can’t go wrong.

Joz Norris is Dead. Long Live Mr. Fruit Salad is @ARG at the Vacant Space, Fri 29 March 2019, 20:00.