Fans of Friday night comedy on Channel 4 will be used to seeing Alan Carr in tandem with his good friend and fellow comedian Justin Lee Collins as hosts of The Friday Night Project. The two have been compared to C3P0 and Chewbacca – Carr all long-limbed camp, Collins an enormous, warm-hearted hairball. It will come as a shock, then, to discover that Carr has gone solo for his latest foray onto our screens, as host of the wicked, tongue-in-cheek new Friday night show Alan Carr’s Celebrity Ding Dong.
Unlike C3P0, Carr is affable, charming and warm – not to mention human. And real. Ahead of the launch of his new six-part series, he opens up about comedy, the nature of celebrity, and saving lives on Blackpool Pier with Lionel Blair. As you do.
When did you first realise that you were funny?
Well, it’s a bit presumptuous to think that you’re funny, though it’s very sweet of you to say so. I reckon if you start thinking about it then it becomes a problem. People used to laugh at me, I suppose, but you never knew if they were laughing at my voice or at what I was saying. I never wanted to become a comedian, though. I didn’t even like stand-up. It never really appealed to me.
So how did you end up doing what you do?
I had a really dead-end job working in a lost-and-stolen credit card call centre. It was really getting me down. So I’d tell people about the weirdoes that rang up, and they would laugh and tell me it was really funny and I should go on stage and say it. So I entered the BBC New Comedian of the Year, and I won it, just talking about call centres.
Thank God for the day job!
Exactly. Back then, in 2001, call centres were a big deal. Every company was introducing a call centre, you know, “press one for this, press two for that”, and for the first time in my life I was seen as this trendy comedian who was talking about Zeitgeisty issues and stuff, and it was my job! If I’d died on my arse the first time I’d done it, I wouldn’t have continued doing stand-up. I didn’t have a passion for it. I have now, but I wouldn’t say I did back then.
What have been the experiences that changed that, the things that really meant a lot to you?
I think appearing on The Royal Variety Performance. And winning Stand-Up of the Year at the Comedy Awards. That was amazing.
Talking of stand-up, comedians do a lot of touring. You did a British tour at the end of last year – which are your favourite and least favourite places to perform?
I think it’s true what a lot of comedians say – the further north you go, the better the audience. I think a lot of London audiences can be a bit blasé. Birmingham’s one of my favourites, Manchester of course, and Scotland’s always a laugh. I just think London can be a bit ‘Okay, so, next please…’ I think London audiences are a bit spoiled for choice. My heart always sinks when it feels like a bit of a London gig.
Do you ever do gigs which turn out to be complete disasters?
I did one on New Year’s Eve ages ago, which will be my last ever New Year’s gig. I’d never do another. Everyone was pissed, they’d been drinking all day. It was dreadful. At one point I was halfway through a joke, and this woman came on and took off her top and flashed everyone. It was like Bedlam in there, the comedy was almost irrelevant. It was a shame, because some people had come along to watch comedy and have a good night.
One of your more memorable days at the office happened with Lionel Blair on Blackpool Pier, didn’t it?
That’s right, yes. We were doing a pilot for Channel 4, which never made it to telly. And we were having a glass of wine to celebrate, in a bar on Blackpool Pier. And a man runs in and says ‘There’s a man trying to kill himself at the end of the pier.’ So we followed this man, and there was a guy who had taken his shirt and his shoes off, and was hanging there half naked off the end of the pier, saying “I wanna die, I wanna die.” So Lionel Blair said “I’m Lionel Blair off the telly, come on darling, come and have a brandy.” And I think the man was in so much shock that we just pulled him back onto the pier. It was a shame – but we got a good anecdote out of it in the end!
You’ve been on all sorts of comedy panel shows as well as your own programmes. Does any of it ever make you nervous?
It’s easy to get a bit blasé. Once you know the workings of television, it doesn’t terrify you. You know that any awful bits will be edited out, they can put canned laughter on if you don’t get a laugh! Once you know the mechanics of it, it’s fine. Obviously performing live still terrifies me. Justin [Lee Collins] and I did something for Comic Relief, and all I could think of was ‘Don’t swear, don’t go into Tourette’s mode,’ you know? Actually, Celebrity Ding Dong made me nervous, because it was my show, so I was worried about doing that.
What’s the concept of Alan Carr’s Celebrity Ding Dong?
It’s a very tongue-in-cheek look at the world of celebrity, through the medium of a game show. I’m fascinated by the whole fascination with celebrity. It’s got ridiculous. I was reading one magazine which talked about ‘Angelina Jolie’s Wardrobe Hell’. She’d trodden in some chewing gum, and the back of her trousers had split by about a millimetre. That is hell! Not someone who can’t afford to pay their mortgage. So I just wanted to really exploit that absurdity.
So what form does that take?
Well, we have a show in which a team of celebrities plays against a team of ‘civilians‘. Civilians is a term I love – it’s what Elizabeth Hurley used to describe people who weren’t on television. And they play a series of rounds against each other, all about celebrity life. And we have a lot of fun with the teams. We kind of play up the differences between them. So the celebrities we have giving the impression that straight after the show we’re all getting in a helicopter and flying out to St Tropez to stay in Elton John’s summer house. And the civilians are all getting the night bus home when they’ve finished nicking everything from the dressing room. I make fairly wicked comments to the celebrities as well as the civilians. The tone I wanted was Dame Edna in the good old days, when she’d have big stars on and would be really cutting to them. It’s a chance for the stars to show they’ve got a sense of humour, that they don’t take themselves too seriously.
So what kind of games do the teams play against each other?
There are several rounds. There’s Kiss-and-Tell, where I get in bed with a kiss-and-tell girl, and ask her questions, and the teams have to guess who she had the kiss-and-tell with. That’s good fun. And then there’s Crypts, which is a pastiche of Cribs: Me and Derek Acorah go down into a crypt, and he becomes possessed by a dead celebrity, and the teams have to guess who he is becoming. That was one of my favourite ones. They’re all really off-the-wall, silly games. If anyone tunes in expecting a documentary on the nature of fame, they’re going to be very disappointed.
Which celebrities will be appearing on the series?
Oh, it was my wish-list. It was everyone I wished for: Paul O’Grady, Davina McCall, Louis Walsh, Chris Moyles, Johnny Vegas – they were just the team captains. We’ve got Connie Huq, Peter Andre, Jermaine Jackson, Sarah Beeny – it’s just a brilliant line-up. That was a real high point of the whole experience, having all of those people agree to come on the show. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking, when you’re doing your own show, and they’re ringing around, and no-one knows what the show is, but it’s so lovely that they said yes, they’d do it. It shows that they have faith in the show, or that they like me, so that was great.
What were other high-points?
I’m just pleased that it’s a really funny show. I had a viewing of them the other day, and I really find them funny. I hope that the British public find them funny, because it’s my sense of humour. I had a real hand in it. It’s a lot more personal than something like The Friday Night Project, which was already up-and running when Justin and I got involved. This is a bit like stand-up comedy – there’s nothing to hide behind; if they don’t like you, they don’t like you, you can’t go and blame someone else.
Did you invite Justin on, or did you think it was important to show that the two of you aren’t halves of the same person?
Well, he didn’t invite me to do Convention Crashers, so I thought ‘why should I invite him along to do my show?’ It’s a bit of a sore point at the minute!
Do you think of yourself as a celebrity?
No, no. I’m a stand-up comedian, that’s my main job. You have to keep your feet on the ground when you’re doing that, so that you can write decent material. No-one’s going to find it funny that Clara, your maid, came in and dropped your quails’ eggs down the back of the settee. I don’t think the British public would take too kindly to heirs and graces, or if I started name-dropping. That’s not my kind of schtick, really.
Alan Carr’s Celebrity Ding Dong is on Channel 4 at 10pm from Friday 1 February.
Interview by Benjie Goodhart