Rob Auton is a comedian, writer and poet. He has been performing since 2008 and is known for his expansive, philosophical and often poignant shows on themes like sleep, hair, and the colour yellow. He has also had three collections of writing and drawings published. The versatile Yorkshireman is currently touring his most recent full-length show The Talk Show which will be gracing The Stand in both Edinburgh and Glasgow in April and will be bringing The Time Show to the Edinburgh Fringe in August. We talked to him about shows both old and new, the amount of poetry in his poetry, and the motivating power of fear.
Can you tell us about your show?
Yeah, my show is called The Talk Show, and it’s about talking, and it lasts an hour and basically, it tries to explore how I feel about talking. How I do it, where I do it, who I do it with, who I should be doing it with and it’s also about the isolation of live performance and what living in isolation can make you do on a daily basis; like when you’re in a supermarket and you try and speak to people more than you probably should because you haven’t spoken to anyone else. It’s the seventh show in the series of shows I’ve been doing on themes. In 2012 I did The Yellow Show, then The Sky Show, then Faces, Water, Sleep, and then Hair. This one’s about talking and next, I’m doing one about time. And that’s it really. In all my shows I’m trying to explore something that no one else can tell me how I feel about. No one can tell me I should feel a certain way about talking, or tell me what the right answer is. It’s an opportunity to examine how I feel about these subjects. And talking is one of them.
How do you decide on a theme for your shows?
The Yellow Show actually stemmed from me buying a yellow rain mac, and I’d never had a brightly-coloured coat before. It made me feel slightly more upbeat, so I thought maybe I could base a show on the colour yellow and see how happy it can make me. What I want to talk about are subjects that aren’t going to go away any time soon; subjects that have always been the same, from the Stone Age, until now. Like faces and hair and sky, and sleeping and talking and time. I don’t want to talk about temporary things like Donald Trump, because that sort of thing really doesn’t age very well. I can talk about time and faces, and hopefully, when I’m old I can look back at the shows and they will still be relevant to me. My face will still exist. It will have changed a bit, mind.
Is there anybody or anything in particular that influences your comedy style? There’s a lot of poetry and philosophy that goes into your comedy.
The first book I read that made me want to have a go at writing a short story was Slowly Downward by Stanley Donwood, the Radiohead artist. They were short, half-pages, but within about 200 words he paints these little films that are just incredible and it made me want to try that. I also saw Ivor Cutler live on BBC4. He was there with a sunflower on his hat and he just seemed to be someone who wasn’t trying too hard to impress people. He was just having ideas and saying them out loud and letting people make their minds up as to whether they were funny or not. What I liked about him is that he would go from being funny to being heartfelt, and would make you feel a whole range of emotions. It’s something I try to do in my shows. I also like people like Spike Milligan. More recently, there’s Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm. You can see the ideas process in that programme.
How much crossover is there between your comedy and your poetry? Have there been comedy routines that have begun as poems and vice versa?
Maybe. It’s weird. Sometimes I’ll do a gig and say something that’s meant to be funny but people take it as serious, or I’ll say something I think is serious and people will laugh. It’s just about exploring really and it’s all trial and error. I’m doing previews of my new show at the moment and finding out where to pause and what to do with my eyes. It’s really interesting as with The Talk Show I’ve figured out where to speed up and where to slow down, what I need to say loud and what I need to say quietly; whereas with the new one it’s like a bit of dough you put in the oven and you don’t know how it’s going to turn out. With poetry… I’ve always been a bit wary about saying my work is poetry. When I first started, I was just writing things down and just wanted people to see them really. I liked them and I wanted to see if anyone else liked them. I put them on a website called poemhunter.com and a guy sent me a message saying, “I’ve just read your stuff. It’s rubbish. I’ve re-written it for you. It’s still rubbish, but it’s better than your rubbish.” He’d re-written it so it all rhymed and looked like poetry so I’ve never really called myself a poet. I do poetry gigs, but it’s just writing really. If people find poetry in it, then brilliant. I think that’s what poetry is. If you find poetry in something – it can be a piece of art or a photograph. Basically, I just wanted to stand up and see where my ideas fitted in: reading little bits out, and then someone came up to me and offered a comedy gig. I asked if he thought [my work] would go over okay there and he booked me. I tried it, and some of it was hit-and-miss, but it went okay and it’s just a case of trying to find out what you can do and what you can get away with really. It’s a case of going, “Can I get away with saying this at a comedy show?” Do people mind feeling a bit sad at a comedy show? Do people mind hearing about my parents, but not in a funny way at a comedy show? It’s just going off on one and seeing if people come with me or not. Sometimes they and sometimes they do, and it’s exciting the unknown of going into a gig.
You’re now previewing your new show [The Time Show]. Is there a point where you definitively put the old show to bed and focus on the new one?
With The Talk Show, I was previewing it from about March to August, but I’d been writing it from about November or December while I was playing with ideas or figuring out what theme I was going to base a show on. At the moment I’m really starting to preview the new show and write a lot of it. Once The Talk Show was put through – and all the shows get put through – the mill of Edinburgh it’s almost quite fixed. But there will always be points where I add bits in that will be different on the tour show. Now it is definitely fixed. When I finish doing the show in May I will totally stop and focus on the new one. Now I’m in the crossover of having two shows on the go at once. I’ve got The Talk Show to where I want it, but it’s never fully finished. There are always moments where you think, “Maybe I could do this like this, or that like that.” I never go back and do the old shows again, but I like having them as a body of work I guess.
For the Fringe this year, you’re moving from Just the Tonic to The Assembly? What was behind that decision?
I love Just the Tonic but I got the chance to do the show in a room I had wanted to do a show in for a while. It’s more about the room, and I’ve always liked going to the Assembly and watching things there. But I’ve always liked watching things at Just the Tonic and the Free Fringe. It was just a case of the room. The material I’ve got will hopefully fit well in there, and I wanted to do a show in the early afternoon. It’s exciting! I’ve never done a completely paid show before and we’ll see if people come. Fingers crossed, I hope they will. People came when I was in the Banshee Labyrinth, and I did it for five years in the same Cave and people came. Hopefully, people who liked The Talk Show will come, and some new people. I’m going to have to work really hard to get people to come, but I think I’m always of the firm belief that if you make a show that’s good enough you’ll be okay. The good thing about Edinburgh is that there are a lot of people there and they can tell their friends. You can never rest on your laurels too much and think that because people came and saw you last year that you’ll be fine. If you do two or three shows at the start of the Fringe that are stinkers word can get around that it’s rubbish this year, don’t go. Then you’re in kind of a sticky position. That’s kind of a good fuel to have, that fear. It’s a good fear. I like the pressure of trying to make something that I’m proud of and that I want to perform. The good thing about Edinburgh is that you find yourself out quite quickly. If you haven’t put enough work in it becomes quite apparent. I try to do previews as quickly as I can, and do really bad ones in March and April and get them out of the way. Just put myself under as much pressure as I can to make something that I like. If you’re doing a show that you believe in, then it can be really fun and a great experience up there. So far I’ve enjoyed it and the shows have definitely got mixed responses but they’ve been shows that I like. Hopefully, with The Time Show, I can make it something that I look at and think, “You worked really hard on that.” It’s like that bit in Breaking Bad where Jesse made a box out of wood, and he did it and didn’t really care about it. His teacher told him off and then he made a box that he worked really hard on and made it shiny and varnished and it was a real thing of beauty at the end of it. It was a good lesson in that the more work you put into something, the better it will be. Who knows, nothing’s a given but I’m definitely looking forward to it. I’ve done it for the last nine years now. I like the unknown of it. I could trip over tomorrow and break my leg and not be able to get to previews as easily as normal. Things like that. I like the risk of saying, “I’ll do it,” and then see what happens.
It looks like issues over fair pay are going to dominate the Fringe this year. Do you think the Fringe is sustainable in its current form and is there anything you would change?
[After a quick back and forth about the pros and cons of the festival on the local populace and the fallout from the C Venues shenanigans] I can only talk about it from a performer’s point of view. I know some of the people who come every year are Edinburgh locals and I’m guessing it might be kind of split down the middle between people who like it and people who don’t like it. As regards fair pay, I think the staff at those venues work so hard. I don’t like the thought of certain people getting a lot of money from other people’s graft. If you treat people well, they’re going to do a better job, aren’t they? If you go to the Fringe and you’re promised this and that and you find out your schedules different, you’re not going to do as good a job. But if you get treated well it’s going to be better for everyone. It’s going to be better for the performers, better for the audiences. If it’s young people who are going up there for the Summer and working, it can be life-changing from the social side of it. It can really be fantastic. I don’t know how those issues are going to be resolved, whether it’s the Fringe Society that has to take this on or not.
Do I think there’s too much on? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Some people would say yes, and others would say, “No. We need more circus, we need more theatre, more Free Fringe shows.” But I know that people I know up there as punters love it. I don’t know if it’s spilling out there into the outskirts too much. I don’t know anything about that, but I know it brings a lot of money into the city. I understand the locals aren’t fans of the streets being absolutely rammed, and I’ve read the way that Irvine Welsh writes about the Edinburgh Festival, and it’s always funny. If the people who hate the festival could be given something like free tickets, something could change their minds about it, then that would be a good thing. There’s definitely some fantastic stuff. I’m a bit out of my depth talking about the politics of the Fringe, but it’s made me want to know more about it, that’s for sure.
The Talk Show is at The Stand, Edinburgh Sun 14 Apr 2019 and The Stand, Glasgow Mon 15 Apr 2019
The Time Show is at Assembly George Square Studios, Edinburgh Wed 31 Jul to Mon 26 Aug 2019