London-born standup Hal Cruttenden has been quietly crafting his comedy niche away from the main frame; suburban, somewhat camp, unapologetically middle-class and slightly tubby, winningly bitchy, verging on a midlife crisis, with a background in drama - he had parts in EastEnders and Kavanagh QC in the 1990s and has charmed on all the big panel shows from Have I Got News For You to Live at the Apollo, he has also written for such comedy gems as The Rob Brydon Show.
But his first love is the hair-raising baptism of fire that is live standup comedy before an audience, a process he describes as having caused him to “die several times, after which you realise that you will survive no matter how painful the first or second humiliation of an audience finding you totally unfunny. You sit there and realise that once you’ve survived that and realise it isn’t that bad, then you lose the ultimate fear and understand how exhilarating it can be when it goes well and you have an audience laughing at your lines with real abandon.” “That’s always the best thing ,” he adds, “and every single comic will want to come back to standup no matter what else they do. When it goes well it’s absolutely the best thing imaginable.”
Obviously, new show Straight Outa Cruttenden has been inspired by the kind of onset of a midlife crisis that has seen him fall in love with the music of NWA once more. “Here I am, driving along, listening to aggressive rap on the maximum volume. That’s just the headspace I’m in at the moment, “ he laughs, sounding measured and gentrified and not at all like the kind of man who might rhyme off a few verses of expletive-ridden rap. “I do worry, indeed, that if I cause a car crash people will question why I was listening to something so unspeakable. I’m just this moody, suburban, middle-aged man. I’m well-behaved usually, I’m always very well-behaved in public.”
His new themes on the current tour which will arrive at the Waterfront Studio in Belfast on October 27, the Millennium Forum, Londonderry on October 28 and the Market Place Theatre, Armagh on October 29 include having a go at the young and how profoundly irritating they can be to those who are older and wiser. They think that they are messed-up and interesting, but what we need to do with young people, really, insists Hal, is mess them up so that they can actually go and have interesting lives overcoming the setbacks inflicted!
“I spend a lot of time having a go at people for being so self-indulgent via social media, while at the same time acknowledging just how self-indulgent I am myself,” he quips.
“These days people turn something like a celebrity dying into their own personal tragedy and that just drives me mad. Most of these people will never have met this person or even really know anything about them but yet when they die they are apparently just so absolutely devastated that they can no longer function. It’s just so much self-indulgent semi-detached grieving.”
Cruttenden is adamant that standup is his first love, far ahead on the list of what he enjoys.
“You go through so much in order to be good at standup,” he confides. “Playing dodgy clubs, travelling all over the country, facing the humiliation of dying on your a*** when it all goes wrong. There is so much slog involved in learning how to win over hostile crowds. It’s the best thing you can do as a comedian and the dream is always about learning to be a good standup and touring with your own stuff.”
Hal explains that on account of being what he calls a “massive neurotic” he didn’t try standup until he was about 27 and hadn’t really considered trying it before then because it seemed such a difficult form.
“I went through something like my tenth death on stage standing in front of an audience who just did not laugh at all and also looked quite angry.
“When you realise that you can go through the very worst humiliations as a person without actually dying, and you feel like everybody hates you and sneak out the back but you survived, crucially, that allows you to become ever more fearless as a performer.
“I actually began to find it quite exciting that you could go home having really upset a roomful of people and be OK.
“It’s a really interesting thing death, really, because you experience it less and less the more you do comedy.
“You can reach a point where even the kind of criticism people will throw at you on Twitter for not being funny, you just feel well, ‘so what?’, I’ve overcome much worse and survived.
“All comedy is subjective so of course some people will hate somebody whom other people think is bloody brilliant.”
Most comics don’t need taken down a peg or two, Hal assures me, because they’ve already been taken down many pegs on their route to comedy glory.
“If anything, it’s character-building,” he laughs. “I think comics are probably the most clued-in of any kind of celebrity because most of them will have been mercilessly slagged off at some point for not being funny enough on social media or wherever, and if they are determined they’ll have learned to come back with better material time after time.”
Cruttenden is looking forward to his forthcoming Northern Ireland dates as his wife Dawn, with whom he has two daughters, is a native of the province and the comic is a regular visitor to these shores.
“I just think Northern Ireland is one of the oddest parts of the UK because of everything that has gone on here. I always feel conscious about how I present my material here and I love the audience reactions because generally people here will make it clear very quickly if they love or loathe you. You have very reactive audiences here I think.”
I note that his love of wading straight into things, particularly sensitive issues, is more than slightly in keeping with what we might call our rebarbative national character. Catch him talking about breakdowns in suburbia soon.
Oct 27 , Waterfront, Belfast; Oct 28, Millennium Forum, Derry ; Oct 29, Market Place, Armagh.