In a windowless North London rehearsal room on the hottest day of the year, Rich Hall is, quite literally, turning not being funny into an art form. As he and his co-stars Mike Wilmot and Rory Keenan play out the spiky tension of his latest project, a stage production called Levelland, it becomes clear there’s scarcely a laugh to be had. It’s all deadly serious – and for those accustomed to Rich Hall as a Perrier Award-winning peddler of uninhibited hilarity, worryingly serious. But, then again…
“You have the right to choose!” Hall’s character bellows in exasperation towards the end of a scene. “Choose! You know, what Cubans wear on their feet!”
It’s not even that good a line, but after half an hour of highly-strung melodrama it’s something of a relief to be reassured that Hall can still crack a joke.
Ten minutes later, and dreamily twirling his cigarette lighter, his “serious” switch is very much still engaged. Rich Hall in person is far more quiet and whimsical than he is in his stand-up routine or on TV panel shows such as QI. Perhaps it’s just the stress of having two very different Edinburgh shows to prepare. As well as his perennially popular stand-up show, returning after a one-year absence, he’s bringing Levelland, his first ever play, to the capital. Set in a near-future Texas when petrol prices have reached $10 a gallon (which is even more expensive than it is here, goodness to gracious), it stars Hall as a radio talk show host who is taken hostage on air by a man who claims to be able to divine oil.
If it doesn’t sound like a laugh a minute, that’s because, Hall assures us, it isn’t. “There’s no gags,” he drawls. “It’s not funny at all. I don’t like theatrical comedies, I can’t think of many plays that have made me laugh. So I purposely decided I would write a serious play. And if people show up thinking it’s going to be a big gag-fest, then that’s understandable, but I hope within about ten minutes they get over whatever disappointment they might have had.”
But does that make Levelland one of those dreaded “issues-driven” pieces? “Nah, there’s no message,” he drawls. “I mean, there’s political undertones to it. But I hope people don’t come and go, ‘Oh, that was a very biting commentary on America’s current megalomaniacal relationship with oil.’ It’s more about how people would react in that situation.
Hall promises that his comedy set will contain “lots and lots of new material and lots and lots of half-baked ideas”. But you get the feeling that more and more, stand-up is simply Hall’s day job. Levelland, it seems, is his little pet project. “Except it’s turned into a massive fucking project. It’s easy, when you’re writing something: ‘And so-and-so goes through that door…’ As soon as you’ve written the word “door”, you’ve just cost yourself £500. So I got a pet project that’s costing a shit-load of money.”
Hall, who won the Perrier Award in 2000, is a regular, if not necessarily familiar, face on our screens. There are the panel shows, a format which Hall reckons “has seen its day. It’s starting to cannibalise itself now. I get, like, two or three offers a week to make a pilot for a new panel show. It’s gotten a bit ridiculous.” Then there’s the free-wheeling, surreal-wheeling Rich Hall’s Fishing Show and, more recently, Cattle Drive, both of which reached a BBC4 audience of about seven. “I have this feeling,” he says, “that the BBC let me make programmes for them, but they’re not going out of their way to promote me, cos I’m not really home-grown talent. I’m not gonna be the next big thing.”
Next up is a BBC documentary about westerns. “Might not be funny either,” he muses. “Maybe my funny days are over...” But by and large he shuns the limelight. “I don’t really wanna be a mainstream star, ’cause mainstream stars aren’t really that funny. If I was a huge star and I was putting on a play, there’d be so much speculation. I kinda just like slipping it under the radar.”
Hall rises. He’s just popping across the road to get a sandwich, before hastening back to his stuffy rehearsal room where director Guy Masterson is waiting impatiently. There’s definitely a spark of enthusiasm at returning to a city he considers a second home. “I’ve done Edinburgh so much now that I don’t know where else I’d spend August. Last year I didn’t do it, the first time in about eight years, and I felt a bit weird. I like smelling the yeast, the crowds. It’s great. Edinburgh’s probably the only place I could pull off a serious play. Getting people to come see it could be a disaster, but I’m ready for a disaster. It’s about time I got involved in a train wreck, really embarrassed myself. If the play sucks, at least I have a show at night that I know will do well. People come up to me and say, ‘I really liked your stand-up,’ and then they might see the play and come back and say, ‘I really liked your stand-up.’ So that’ll be good.”