■ The comic, 32, on hosting tonight’s Children in Need, selling manure to Graham Norton and why he’ll never be a diva
What are you doing for Children In Need?
I’m presenting it, though I don’t exactly know what I’m doing yet. I’m really excited about the totaliser at the end of the show — fingers crossed we can match or beat last year’s amount.
What was the first stand-up gig you did?
Up The Creek in Greenwich nine years ago. I used to go there to watch comedy and I thought I could do the open spot because they weren’t great. I did it and didn’t get booed off. I wasn’t great but I was good enough to get through it. For my second gig I entered a competition and got into the semi-finals. I started doing it for a bit of fun but the people in the semi-finals of that competition were all professional comedians so I thought, ‘If they can do it so can I,’ so I ploughed on with it.
What were you doing for work at the time?
I had loads of jobs — working in a pub, at a flower market, admin in offices, flyering, all sorts. The worst was selling bags of compost at Columbia Road Flower Market. I actually sold Graham Norton a bag of compost. I had to start at 4am and I was standing outside selling bags of s***. Try to up-sell that. You could be the best sales person in the world but a massive bag of compost isn’t the sort of thing someone’s going to pick up on their way home. It’s not like selling someone a chocolate bar with their newspaper. It’s funny that I sold him a bag of compost and now I’m doing Children In Need with him. Although some people would say I’m still shovelling s*** in a different way…
What’s the worst gig you’ve ever done?
A restaurant in Stratford. Everyone was eating and not looking at me — it was quite soul-destroying. And a pub in Peterborough where they didn’t tell anyone there was comedy on, so it carried on like a normal pub with me standing in the corner talking into a microphone. I got no response in either.
Isn’t it expensive doing so many gigs for free?
If you don’t want to be skint, don’t do it. I was skint for four years. I was going all around the UK for no money. I remember sleeping in the toilet in the office — we finished at 5pm and the gig wasn’t until 9pm and I couldn’t afford to go to get a coffee so I slept in the toilet. It sounds quite bleak now.
When did you start earning money from it?
After three years but I was working in an office in central London for £14,000 a year and living in a house share in Lewisham. It was a hovel. My dad was a cab driver and I’d get in at Euston from a gig in Birmingham at 1am and he’d give me a lift. It’s like an obsession. You do one gig and love it and want to do more, and you get better and people then start giving you £10 or £20 and it builds up.
What kept you motivated?
I wasn’t getting paid but people would ask me back to do ten minutes or 20 minutes, so I was progressing and I won a competition. I’d look at Wikipedia pages of people like Russell Brand and Michael McIntyre, and I’d see I was doing similar things to them at the early stages of their careers. And I loved doing it. Even now I’ll go to Up The Creek and do 20 minutes because I love it.
Your last tour went on for over two years…
Yes, we kept adding new dates. The new one shouldn’t take that long because we know to book bigger rooms now. I did Bristol about 15 times, I should have bought a timeshare. I add new material all the time. Other people might think, ‘That’s a good idea, I’ll save it for next time’, but I think, say it and then you can write more. It’s not as if a boxer thinks, ‘I’ll punch you hard but not too hard because I’ll save that for the next punch.’ You’ve got to believe you can constantly do it. There’s no reason I’ll get less funny. You just have to keep working at it — it’s a craft and you just need to practise.
What lessons has your career in comedy taught you?
My mum used to say that just because the situation changes, it doesn’t mean you have to. If it’s eight people in a pub you shouldn’t approach it any differently to doing Children In Need. Just go on and do what you do and don’t let the situation throw you. It’s easy to start doing a bit of telly and turn into a diva but you don’t need to.
Have you seen that a lot?
Of course. There are always people who can get a bit too precious but I’m lucky — I used to sell compost in the street so I’m not messing this up with any unnecessary demands.
Children In Need is on BBC1 tonight at 7.30pm. He tours with his new show, Wallop, next year, robbeckettcomedy.com