In conversation with Mock the Week’s Rhys James

Rhys James is surprisingly familiar. Years after he graduated from Manchester University, he still has the air of a student pursuing a zany hobby.

His irreverent but clever comedic style is not dissimilar from something you’d hear on an evening with friends in The Courtyard. It’s not surprising to find out he started his career whilst studying Politics at Manchester. “I’d done a couple of gigs before I went when I was about 17. So I pretty much went to university and only cared about stand-up comedy and just wanting to be a comedian.”

Rhys’ student-like nature is when he considers his actual experience at Manchester: “I barely attended any lectures or anything like that. When I walked into the very first lecture of day one the guy was like ‘don’t worry, I’m filming these, and they’ll be live streamed and will available on the internet like it’s iPlayer afterwards, so you don’t have to get out of bed and come.’ So why would I ever go. It was it was all available. It was like having Sky+”.

Despite his lax attitude towards academia, it was Manchester that transformed Rhys from a fledgling comedian into the more mature comedian which now is a mainstay on Mock The Week: “I would just go into gigs in the evening and it just wake up late, and then sometimes watch the lectures on catch up”. Going from open mic nights in London to Manchester was the genesis of the comedian performing at York’s Basement on November 16. “When you start out in London it’s great, but you got to do a load of open mics really. Whereas in Manchester, you can relatively quickly, if you show some competence, you can get some unpaid spots on professional gigs.

“You learn so much more from being on a gig with those people and then having to kind of like try your best to live up to the standard of the night rather than just being an open mic night where everyone is brand new.”

But, in his own words, Rhys’ development didn’t really kick off until he stopped trying to imitate the comedians he admired. “I was always writing because I was a Jimmy Carr fan when I was brand new. So I was writing those one liners and not doing them justice, nowhere near close to what the sort of stuff Jimmy Carr was doing. But in my head when I was 17 this is exactly what Jimmy Carr was doing.

It took Rhys his time at Manchester to develop his style and find out more about himself, just as it does many students. Whereas before his style was attempting to imitate the inimitable, university taught him that “you can only really get anywhere if you’re authentic… You spend that time at uni figuring that out.”

Despite his rise to a recognisable face in the UK comedy scene, Rhys still has lingering insecurities about his career. “There’s still the element of doubt.” he told York Vision. “It’s a constant battle between thinking you’re the best comedian in the world and thinking you’re the worst person who’s ever lived and attempted the art form. That existed when I was one gig in and exists today. There’ll be a minute where I’m like “God, I’m good at this” and then there’ll be another 23 hours, 59 minutes where I go “I need to stop doing this. Why does anyone listen to me?

“I was 17 when I started, I imagine that’s a pretty arrogant time in everyone’s life, isn’t it? I imagine I was this like, I’m invincible. I can do anything. It was more just like being jealous of other comedians’ material and how good it was and how impressive it was and going “how do you do that? How do you learn how to write like that?” It takes years to figure out. Not for everyone, but for me, it took years to figure out what my best writing process was, and the best way to approach thing. Even just the environment of writing that I work best in.”

“I don’t know about me as no one would care about ending my career at the moment. So it would have to be 10 years down the line. I’ve never done a Justin Trudeau and blacked up or anything but I’ve probably tweeted something dodgy in the past. We’ll see.”

Despite obvious anxieties about the journey of his career, he does not share the anxieties which colleague Jack Whitehall has expressed about the supposed ‘cancel culture’ which has lead to the demise of many an ‘edgy’ comic in recent years. Surprisingly laid back at such a question, he said “I think Jack Whitehall probably has already told the joke that will end his career. I do agree with him on him.

“I don’t know about me as no one would care about ending my career at the moment. So it would have to be 10 years down the line. I’ve never done a Justin Trudeau and blacked up or anything but I’ve probably tweeted something dodgy in the past. We’ll see.”

Rhys is now a regular on the BBC’s Mock the Week.
Credit: BBC

Much like many who have joined us in York this month, Rhys began his genesis as a comic in his last year of sixth form despite not being the traditional “funny guy” in the preceding years. Rhys recalls: “I certainly didn’t stand out until I ran for head boy of the school entirely so I could do the hustings speech. I just wanted to do something fun, essentially stand up, but really contained because it was just jokes about teachers. That was when maybe people start going, ‘all right, he’s the funny kid’ because no one else had done that. That was very late in the day and I did not get elected as head boy.

This brief brush with politics still impacts Rhys to this day. “They wouldn’t take me seriously enough. It was all rigged because the guy who did get elected as head boy, his dad was one of the school’s governors. So I have a mistrust in politics comes from that exact moment. I’ll never trust it again.”

Football fans may recognise Rhys from the Tottenham Hotspur podcast Spurred On and his support for beleaguered manager Mauricio Pochettino is unwavering.

“I used to watch us finish 11th and now we have a few bad games in a row at the end of a cycle where some of the players have been very disrespectful. This is the man who got us to a Champions League Final for God’s sake, got us top four finishes for a number of years in a row. How could you possibly be Poch Out, it’s ridiculous.

“Spurs fans have such short memories about this sort of thing. It just it’s so ridiculous. Just because Arsenal are above us for a bit in the table. Chill out. Don’t worry about it. Poch In. What’s the alternative? We get Mourinho?”

When pressed on his plans for the future, Rhys’ was noncommittal. “I think I will be the Prime Minister. That I will be dead before 40. In the immediate future, I am doing a Radio 4 series soon which I’m currently writing and then I mean, it all starts on tour. You know, I couldn’t I wouldn’t dare predict beyond that.”

Rhys James will be performing at The Basement on November 16 as part of his UK-wide tour. More information can be found here.