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Profile: Tim Vine
The master of the one-liner chats to Dave Rose about 80s hymns, puns and his personal faith.
‘I’ve just been on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday. I tell you what, never again.’ This is the type of gag you quickly get used to when you spend time with Tim Vine. You also get used to laughing. A lot. If you’re not at least smiling after hanging around with him and his many puns, you may need to check whether you’re clinically dead.
Winner of the funniest joke at the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe (the aforementioned holiday gag), and runner-up in three other years, he continuously fires out one-liners like one of those contraptions that spits out endless tennis balls. He delivers them with such childlike enthusiasm, I’m not sure he can stop. Not that it matters; hearing him tell jokes is so enjoyable, that I don’t want him to.
You’ll know Vine from one of his many stand-up shows, or as the (imaginatively named) Tim in Lee Mack’s sitcom Not Going Out, or perhaps even as the butler, Sebastian Beach, in the BBC’s PG Wodehouse adaptation, Blandings. If you try very hard, you might even recall his early evening quiz show, Whittle, which helped launch Channel 5 in 1997. Or perhaps not.
Vine grew up wanting to entertain, and decided he was going to be a pop star. And although that plan didn’t quite work out, he is clearly still a huge music fan. We started chatting about 1980s church choruses, and every few minutes he would burst into song as he recalled another one.
I’ve just been on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday. I tell you what, never again!
His comedy career began in his 20s when he decided to give stand-up comedy a go at a friend’s party. He was largely ignored that night, but it was enough to make him want to keep taking to the stage. Speaking to him, you realise that he is driven by wanting to make people laugh. His mind works quickly, constantly hunting down the next gag opportunity that might get a response, or even make himself laugh. But despite his manic, joking nature, he’s a man with a solid faith at the core of his life.
Have you always been funny?
I still wonder whether I am at times. I think everyone is funny to a degree. Comedy follows most people around, even if they’re not aware of it. I was talking to another comedian, Milton Jones, about this. I said, ‘The fact of the matter is, I don’t know how to write a funny joke. I know how to write a joke, but I don’t know how to write a funny joke.’ So it’s a bit of a mystery, really, how the ‘funny’ comes into things. You just have to write, and now and again one of them is funny.
So how do you write? Do you just decide it’s joke-writing day?
Yeah, or a joke-writing hour. I don’t necessarily have to put a whole day into it. I’m supposed to be enjoying this! I sometimes go to a coffee shop and I sit there with a pad of paper and a coffee and I’ll write some jokes. I went to a coffee shop the other day. I said, ‘Can I have a cappuccino?’ He said, ‘Is that to sit in?’ I said, ‘No, I’m going to drink it!’
You have a very high joke rate, because it’s all one-liners. Would you ever like to tell longer stories like other stand-ups?
I do aspire to telling long, meandering stories, but whenever I’ve tried, I tend to shorten them back into one-liners. I’ve always said that I get a bit nervous when the length between laughs is particularly long. Mind you, you don’t get comics who do a story that lasts three minutes and there’s only one laugh at the end of it – normally there are laughs all the way along.
Let’s talk about faith. Were you brought up in a Christian family?
Absolutely. My mum and dad are very strong Christians and I went to the Church of England church that was a stone’s throw from the house. I used to do a joke about that and say, ‘I was born only a stone’s throw from here. In fact, I remember my first words, who threw that?’ But, yes, it was a regular part of life on Sunday mornings. I remember thinking that it all felt natural and that I did believe in God. I always enjoyed singing, ‘Oh, how good is the Lord’, and all those great ones. ‘When the road is rough and steep, fix your eyes upon Jesus’ – all that. I’m actually thinking of doing a gig: ‘Tim Vine sings his favourite Christian choruses from the 70s and 80s’. You know, coming on in a tux…(sings) ‘“I will enter his gates with thanksgiving in my heart”...Come on ladies and gentlemen!’
"I remember thinking that it all felt natural and that I did believe in God" - Tim Vine
Maybe an accompanying album?
Maybe, yeah! Then I think people would possibly say, ‘Is he taking the mickey?’ But I used to love all that stuff.
How important is faith to…
(Sings) ‘Freely, freely, you have received’…remember that one?
‘Freely, freely give’. Do you not know that one?
I don’t think so…
This is great, you don’t know any of them! (Sings again) ‘Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing into Zion’, do you not know that one?
Well, I love all that anyway… I made a decision about faith for myself when I was about 12, at one of those Pathfinder camps. We were singing such great songs as (breaks into song) ‘Sing unto the Lord all the earth’, I think that’s it. All the earth, yeah, it can’t be another planet, can it? ‘Come on, put your hands in the air, Neptune!’ That one never took off, did it? (Laughs uncontrollably.) Well, we don’t know of course, there may be a thriving Christian community on Neptune.
So, how do you see faith now? A lot of comedians seem to be quite cynical about religion.
Cynicism is something you have to battle when you get older anyway, I think. I do get a little bit cynical at times. There are certain things you hear people say in church where you inwardly roll your eyes. I always chuckle when people think they’re telling you something you don’t know. It’s the way preachers talk really, really slowly. ‘It’s – not – money – that’s – the root – of all evil. It’s – the love – of money.’ Like it’s the first time! ‘Of course it’s not, my goodness me, he’s absolutely right!’ It’s something I’d like to do, a send-up of a preacher, but I don’t want to rock the boat.
Is your faith important to you?
Yes, it is. But I am a little bit suspect about people who appear to have all the answers – and jealous as well. I saw someone on telly the other day actually and he said, ‘I never have any doubts about my faith.’ You think to yourself, it would be lovely to be that cast-iron all the time because that must utterly transform the way you live your life.
"I am a little bit suspect about people who appear to have all the answers – and jealous as well" - Tim Vine
So, you do have moments of doubt?
Listen, I’m a normal human being. As Elvis Presley said, ‘Cut me, I bleed. I get into my pants one leg at a time like everybody else.’ I think that’s what he said. Love Elvis.
But you’ve never had like a major crisis of faith?
No, it’s always been there. I find any time that I feel like I might have doubts about things, I pray about it.
To what extent does your faith affect your comedy? The one thing everyone notices about it is how clean it is.
I think there’s a bit of a Christian hang-up about swearing that I can’t get my head around; there are more important things to worry about. It just so happens that my act is silly and doesn’t have any swearing in it. But then there are other acts like that, like Harry Hill. I just prefer it. I do sometimes come up with a rude joke by accident and, this is probably wrong, but I give them to other comics. I haven’t actually given away lots of incredibly rude stuff, just once in a while I’ve thought of something that doesn’t quite suit my act. I remember giving a joke to an act called Ian Cognito. He’s very, very edgy. I gave him a joke once which never quite worked for me which was, ‘I got drunk last night on vodka and Red Bulls. I woke up at four in the morning doing press-ups in the gutter.’ That’s a stalwart in his act, he loves it.
Is there anywhere you, personally, would not go as a comedian?
What I normally do, and this is a bit daft, really, because it means that sometimes I drop things that are not really that rude, is if I find I’m asking myself the question: ‘Should I or shouldn’t I?’, I tend to drop it. I’d rather keep it just silly and harmless. You could argue the same things with politics; I don’t do anything political in my act. In fact, I’m doing the Edinburgh Festival this year and we were talking about what to call my show, and for a time we were going to call it, ‘Scottish Indepundence’. And the idea was I would dress in a kilt or something, really only to put the word pun in independence. I was discussing it with another comic and he said, ‘Well, what I like about your stuff is it kind of exists in a bubble outside of all that.’ The other one I thought was, ‘Punarama’, and then again someone said to me, ‘Well, is it a political show?’ Well no, it’s not. It’s just got the word pun in it.
“Any time that I feel like I might have doubts about things, I pray about it” – Tim Vine
Is there anywhere comedians in general shouldn’t go?
No, I think people should be allowed to do what they want. I think it’s great that, particularly in this country, we’ve got an array of different comedy styles. Considering we’re quite a small island, I think that’s brilliant. That’s what you want – something for everyone.
Why did you leave Not Going Out? That show must have given you a big profile.
I did five series of it and I think I just wanted a change. Really, it’s Lee [Mack]’s thing and although I absolutely love it and I’m very proud to have been in it, I just didn’t want to do it forever. I don’t think I’ll go back.
Obviously that’s a sit-com and you’re playing a character, but some of the material in Not Going Out was certainly more adult than what you would naturally want to include in your stand-up.
Yeah, but I don’t have a hangup about all this, though. When we finished filming a series, I used to say to my mum and dad, who it would probably have bothered, ‘Right, there are eight episodes; you’re going to like episodes three and five. Forget the rest!’
Tim in Not Going Out is quite a serious character, as is the butler you play in Blandings.
Yes, I’ve always wanted to do something where you dress up in some sort of period piece and it’s set in the 20s. I had a fantastic hairpiece. I wanted to take that home with me. You’re right, though, I need to get away from all that. I’d like to play someone like Frank Spencer. I’d like to play an idiot.
Would you like to do more acting, then, moving forward?
I don’t think about moving anything forward. Sideways, I always think sideways. I’d like to do films really, but I’d like to do my own film. I did do one just for my own entertainment once where I hired a crew and we filmed for 12 days – cost an absolute fortune. It’s called Library Altitude Zero. It’s basically a story about this guy who discovers that someone’s highlighted words in the library – each book has got one word highlighted and there is some mystery involved and all that. It’s not available.
That’s a shame. It sounds marvellous!
Some of my friends think it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever seen but I think they might be saying that ironically. I hired the Curzon cinema in Soho and 80 of my friends were forced to come along and sit through this thing. I have got other ideas for films…
I have got one about a giant moth that attacks a village, and I’m the manager of the light bulb shop, so I get blamed for it. But I need someone to build this moth for me and swing it in on a crane. I’ve actually got the whole film written on postcards, so I know what would be in every scene. It’s much the same as I did with Library Altitude Zero. I never wrote a script as such, I just had it all on postcards. If there were any actual speeches, I’d write it out on card and make [the actors] look sideways and read it. I’d give you a copy, but my agent doesn’t like it. Let’s put it that way.
Can I be in the moth movie?
Of course you can. You can be Mayor Blueberry or whatever his name is. There are a couple of odd people in it.
Dave Rose is head of programming for Premier Christian Radio, where you can hear The Profile every Saturday at 4pm. Listen to past episodes here.