“I thought that being famous was going to be great,” says English comedian Alan Davies, a little plaintively. “I thought it was what I wanted.”
Alan – star of the TV panel show QI, alongside host Stephen Fry – is definitely properly famous, by any measure, and you get the sense that he’s finally settled into the renown and all that it means.
But it was a cruel shock at first, in the late '90s, when his role as Jonathan Creek in the eponymous TV drama about a detective/magician catapulted him to fame. But being famous robbed Alan of the ability to do what he’d always loved most: walk into a comedy club and tell jokes.
“There was a period when I was quite down about it,” he says of his hiatus from comedy, “because what happened was I became very, very well-known from television quite quickly in the late '90s…
“I certainly enjoyed the work and the recognition, and Jonathan Creek was hugely popular on Saturday nights and we won a Bafta award, so we were both critically acclaimed as well as popular with the public.
“But what happened was it changed my relationship with the comedy clubs, because I couldn’t really go on for the late show at the Comedy Store as I had done for ten years, without getting an entirely different reaction from the audience, you know, ‘cos they’d recognise me from TV.
“That affected me,” Alan says. “I was quite upset about that. And it took me a while to get over that, and it fact I didn’t go down to the Comedy Store for years.”
What followed was a 10-year period away from stand-up comedy – an end so complete and seemingly final that most of his younger audience will assume he was an actor and TV personality who came to comedy later, when it was actually the other way round.
“Stand-up is the thing I’ve done the longest, the thing I do best, and it’s nice now I can confidently write once again, next to ‘occupation’ on the form, I can write ‘comedian’ again,” he says.
“For a while, I was writing things like ‘actor’ or ‘writer-performer’, or something weird like that… But now, I’m a comedian. It’s been 27 years, and that’s what I do.”
On the phone, Alan Davies is quiet and thoughtful, attributes that have been mistaken for difficulty in some quarters of the press. If you’re actually listening, you can tell that, publically at least, he’s just a fairly careful person; perhaps one who, even having become more comfortable with his fame, doesn’t exactly relish the part where you have to talk to the press.
Although he’s talked about it himself in his autobiography, even the death of his mother when he was just six is flourished at him by interviewer after interviewer, as though trying to evoke some kind of emotional response, without having built a rapport that would invite such a question.
Alan says at school he wasn’t thought of as a funny person. “In fact, I think people I knew at school are still baffled by the career I have now.”
I set out to be as funny as I possibly can… But at the same time I don’t want to be frivolous anymore.
But the aptitude for making people laugh, which he discovered as a teenager, changed the course of his life.
“I enjoyed it, I liked being on stage, I liked showing off, I liked the attention, and all those tragic and narcissistic ego-driven things,” he says.
“But also, once I realised I had an aptitude for it, and it was something I could improve at and do well at – that’s a really great feeling, actually, and it’s something that I’m still grateful for, that I can do the thing that I enjoy, for money.”
It's led Alan Davies to the role he’s perhaps best-known for in 2015 – the TV show QI, in which he plays the bumbling fool to Stephen Fry’s know-it-all quizmaster. On a panel of clever-clogs celebrities all trying to prove their general knowledge, Alan is reliably the one who gets every answer hilariously wrong.
“I was duped into it, really,” he says of the role.
“It was [writer and producer] John Lloyd’s master plan, I think, to have the one regular person… And for that person to be the class dunce, really – the one who knows nothing and gets everything wrong… Alongside Stephen, who knows so much and is fed by an amazing team of researchers who’re all brilliant and clever, and he becomes like a deity…
“And there’s this everyman figure alongside … It became almost like a sitcom, really. And the guests know that they’re not going to look stupid, because I’m going to look stupid.”
Despite the enormous success of the show, getting back into stand-up was a different matter entirely.
“I certainly had doubts that I could do it,” Alan says. “I doubted I could do anything funny. But the process of accumulating material’s quite important, and that process of jotting things down, keeping a little file opened, where you do that… Once you’re back in that habit, as a comedian, once you start doing that, you’re back on the road to creating material again.”
He’d stopped writing things down, but a podcast about football – and his beloved Arsenal – got him back into it, and he realised he had material again.
Then the only fear remaining was the one he’d always had: “That I’ll never think of another one. I’ll never think of another funny thing.”
It turned out to be unfounded.
The show he’s bringing to New Zealand in July, called Little Victories, is his second since his return to comedy. And the jokes have changed. Gone are the 1990s comedy club gags – parsing of Alanis Morisette’s Ironic, etc – and in their place are honest and personal stories about family life and being a dad.
LISTEN to Charlotte Graham’s interview with Alan Davies
“With my age now, there’s a bit more distance from certain events that occurred in my childhood, and I’m a bit more able to touch on subjects that perhaps in the past, I would’ve ignored or shied away from.
“I’m more able to comment on serious things. I set out to be as funny as I possibly can… But at the same time I don’t want to be frivolous anymore.
“There are things in life that are important – things like illness or bereavement or disastrous family stuff, things that everybody experiences. And it’s all the better for me to be onstage and to have an opinion and a point of view, rather than just the frivolity of my 20s.”
His first show back after his break from comedy was called Life is Pain, and he was deterred from calling this one Sex is Pain by his promoters, who confirmed that, “Even though the painful sex anecdote is hilarious, if we made that the title of the show, who knows who’ll turn up in the audience.
“Instead of that, it’s focused on the little victories that life brings as you hit middle age, and you can’t expect any big victories anymore.”
So, still perhaps a little cautious about how full the glass is. But he’s ambitious to see what he can do, and another break from comedy is definitely not on the cards.
“It’s nice to be someone who’s contributing, and doing their own content, rather than just doing someone else’s lines,” he says.
“I think that as a comedian I’m improving, and I’m enjoying that.
“I’m quite interested to see – it sounds quite odd, but I’m quite interested to see what I do next.”
Alan Davies is bringing his show, Little Victories, to a number of New Zealand cities for ten shows in July and August.