‘Let’s get ready to grumble!” Where comedy meets nit-picking, Jon Richardson has carved a niche – and he’s not budging from it. Why get out of his comfort zone when, in his view, there’s always something stopping him from getting wholly into it? His touring show, The Old Man, is a two-hour whinge – tongue always slightly in cheek – at all that’s bothersome about his peevish life, from the barber’s to the internet, from weddings to cohabiting with his new wife. And it’s constantly enjoyable, rising to occasional peaks of near-heroic comic fastidiousness.
What it isn’t is novel: the 8 Out of 10 Cats man pitches his camp in the traditional, ever-relatable territory of who does the washing-up and why men don’t pee straight. But I was happy to meet him there. TV viewers may be familiar with some of his worries from the Channel 4 documentary How to Survive the End of the World. There, he dealt in the world’s macro anxieties: Trump, terrorism, air pollution. Here, recalling the earlier autobiographical broadcast A Little Bit OCD, he operates on the micro level – even if, through Richardson’s eyes, an unwashed tagine can feel like a matter of earth-shattering importance.
Until relatively recently, the idea of spending two hours laughing at the symptoms of someone’s mental health problem might have seemed unattractive or outright offensive. But then came the new wave of comics using humour to weaken the stigmas surrounding mental health, and Richardson might, at a stretch, be counted among them. But whereas Felicity Ward on anxiety, Sofie Hagen on depression and Mark Watson on alcoholism, are explicit about their awareness-raising, solidarity-building agenda, Richardson takes the old-fashioned approach. Like Robin Williams and Lee Evans, he downplays (on stage, at least) the degree to which his eccentricities might be a disorder, and foregrounds how funny they are.
This is mouse-that-roared comedy, in which a small man gets wildly exasperated in Evans’s case, and persistently irked in Richardson’s, about things most of us manage to keep in proportion. From the opening business with his cardigans onwards, it’s clear Richardson has this brand of neurotic but lighthearted fussiness just where he wants it – comedically, if not emotionally. It can’t be fun being this uptight, but it’s fun to watch, as our host frets about the groin-level “porthole” in the robe he’s given at the barbers, or depicts his worrisome après-gig life in roadside motels.
The latter snapshot is offered to counter Twitter trolls who assume Richardson’s life is all celebrity glamour – and whose low opinions of him are quoted for self-abasing laughs. But Richardson turns social media back on his followers tonight, surprising selected members of the crowd with full-spectrum knowledge of their online lives. I was reminded of Sanderson Jones’s memorable 2011 show ComedySale.com, a stunt-comedy happening that demonstrated to aghast audiences how much of their lives they’d given away online. Richardson doesn’t go that far. But even the small treasures yielded by his online digging go a long way, tilting his whole audience giddily on to the back foot and sending up Richardson’s nerdiness.
Act two engages with our host’s home life – with fellow standup Lucy Beaumont and their new baby. A hefty portion is dedicated to the time Richardson spent massaging his pregnant wife’s perineum, and you can’t blame him for dwelling on it. With its indignities, quaint terminology and touching-distance proximity to sex and smut, this lurid ritual would be a gift to comedy, even without the fact that the owner of the massage cream company is called Jan Bastard.
But it’s not just a cheap gag about intimate body parts. As ever with Richardson, it’s a window into his turbulent emotional life, as pride in his exemplary husbanding becomes shame at his selfishness, and love for his wife and child becomes volcanic frustration at the things they do differently from him. His passive-aggressive way of addressing tiny domestic disharmonies is delightfully done, never more so than when – cue feigned puzzlement – “she talks to me when the telly’s on!”
A closing dishwasher set piece revisits a favourite theme, but the gag – itemising his wife’s poor loading technique detail by excruciating detail – still feels fresh. It’s all deviously designed so that the joke is on Richardson. But only after he’s struck a liberating blow for anyone who’s ever winced at a dropped apostrophe or at a loved one who has an injudicious way with shutting car doors.
- At Anvil Arts, Basingstoke, 23 February. Box office: 01256 844244. Then touring until 23 May.