Fringe interview: Comedian Rob Delaney
Rob Delaney was a car crash waiting to happen – now he’s a laughter addict, he tells Jay Richardson
ONCE, when you searched for Rob Delaney online, the top image to appear was him in a Nazi uniform. The American has been through several dark episodes in his life, including a regional production of The Sound Of Music.
Today, though, most people picture the 36-year-old with his hirsute, 6 ft 3 in, 217lb body stuffed into a bulging pair of neon-green, budgie-smuggler speedos. His Twitter avatar can seem ubiquitous on the social networking site, synonymous with pithy, offbeat bawdiness. Approaching a million followers and hailed in various quarters as Twitter’s funniest poster, he flies into Scotland for the first time this week with considerable tailwinds of expectation.
As such, it’s easy to overlook the fact that, as he says, “three years ago I worked in a telemarketing call centre in a warehouse near the airport, making less than minimum wage, screaming inside and dying to get my comedy to a larger audience”. Delaney soberly recounts this over the phone from his car in Los Angeles. A stand-up since 2002, he was headlining clubs, submitting speculative skits “for every late-night show going”, but making no money, prior to joining Twitter in 2009.
Even then, it wasn’t until The IT Crowd creator Graham Linehan retweeted him that his popularity exploded, his unashamedly lusty, feminist and occasionally corporation-baiting 140-character dispatches tickling something in the Zeitgeist. His “reach”, which he’s employed to passionately champion President Barack Obama’s proposed healthcare reforms, is, he says, “insane, unbelievable and arguably, wrong. But I’m very happy to have it and it was fun to build from zero”.
He has released a board game based on his tweets and a memoir, Naked And Bloody, is coming out in early November. (“I was in a McDonald’s parking lot, hiding from my wife, eating junk food when I got the call… I sobbed ‘yes!’ through greasy tears…”) He rates British actor Peter Serafinowicz as Twitter’s finest wit and is a confirmed Anglophile, contributing ideas to The IT Crowd’s abandoned fifth series and a family sitcom pilot script to the BBC with Pulling creator Sharon Horgan, who he describes as “the funniest person I know”. The pair previously starred in a sex fetish sketch for the channel’s website, a handy primer for his often abrupt, disorientating and kinky stand-up. “I’m always trying to strip away and get deeper into my own psyche and prejudices,” he says. “I might get to the bottom one day and realise I’m not very interesting but I haven’t plumbed those depths yet.”
A father-of-two, his children are “endlessly fascinating to me. But I’m not just talking about sleepless nights and changing diapers, I’m talking about existential dread and fear. Everything becomes much harder, finer and diamond-like once you’re a parent and every decision you make has consequences. So I feel more alert, more passionate, more angry, excited and happy. But I’m still a filthy scumbag with a diseased mind.”
Sex, he blurts, is “just so pervasive”. “The way it’s spoken about in the media, mostly in advertising and from the government, is very confusing, weird and sick… I try to begin with an approach or perversion or even creepiness or something bizarre, then try to scratch the surface further and dive into this fundamental human urge, that isn’t evil, that isn’t wrong.”
Growing up in repressively Catholic Boston, with “a tremendous stuffiness in that part of the world”, he was raised by his mother after his parents’ divorce. “God Almighty!” he barks. “It’s 20 times worse for women with the roles they’re supposed to fulfil.” Broadcast comedy needs more women writers, because “creatively, it just makes for better, more well-rounded stuff”.
Part of the reason Delaney supports universal healthcare is his experience of a near fatal car crash when driving blind drunk – it was only thanks to charitable Kansas nuns that the former MySpace ad executive could pay his medical bills. After waking up in jail in a wheelchair, he vowed to quit drinking and drugs to focus on comedy.
He still shares his low moments on stage – as an alcoholic, he confesses, he wet the bed. But he’s successfully replaced his addiction with competing in triathlons and “getting to snort up my laughter fix”.
Penning articles about his depression, he will admit: “I need those blasts of serotonin. Certainly, I suspect it’s an addiction, and if I don’t hear laughter for a while, I lament its absence. It’s vital for me.”
There’s a destabilising dichotomy to stand-up, he reflects. “You’ve got to have distended, swollen, unbelievable confidence, to the point that it’s like a disease. But you’ve also got to be open, vulnerable and affectable so that the world can get to your heart and mind.” He advocates therapy, “particularly for comedians who are always seeking to make light of things. Sometimes it’s good to give the jokes a rest and talk with a disinterested party so you can get at what’s eating you. The more comfortable I’ve got in my own skin, the funnier I’ve become. But I’m still a weirdo. Anyone who’s afraid therapy will remove their edge, I’m hairy, smelly, brazen, living proof that that’s silly.”
Consequently, his car crash has become a cornerstone of his material. “My accident was 11 years ago and I started talking about it on stage three years ago,” he explains. “It was critical I waited that long because I want there to be nothing therapeutic about it.
“I want it to be funny and interesting, but I don’t want it to be quote-unquote ‘healing’ like some asshole doing a one-man show about his journey. Barf! I’ve been on a journey but I did it in private, with people I care about, in the woods, under my bed covers. Then I processed it and I can deliver it as a professional comedian, entertainment first, any lessons a very distant second,” Delaney says.
“Anyone who thinks they’ve got a story to tell that happened two weeks ago or even two years ago, give it a rest. I don’t want to see you crying on stage. I want to see you crying into your mom’s skirt and doing the show a few years later.”
For two nights this week, then, festival-goers can “hear horrible stories from a bright-eyed, happy person, who is not in danger. I don’t want you to feel fundamentally scared, like ‘Jesus, am I going to watch this guy unfold on stage?’ I want people to know that this is the assured hand of someone who knows what they’re doing.”
MORE INFO: Rob Delaney is at Underbelly