Nestled on the hillside of a lush valley in Dartmoor is a predictably-picturesque Devon village called Widecombe-in-the-Moor. It was from this landscape that the (aptly-named) stand-up comedian Josh Widdicombe emerged, albeit from the tiny hamlet of Haytor Vale, just down the road. With hair like the curls of the local White-Face Dartmoor sheep, the 33-year-old comedian is instantly recognisable on our screens, but he seems to have combined his past (a light Devon accent) and his present (the non-stop life of London) comfortably in recent years.
I ask for his thoughts on growing up in this isolated corner of rural Devon. “It felt normal to me, but then you move away and you realise it was a bit weird.” But Widdicombe plans to make the most of this intriguing upbringing, bringing the stories into his new stand-up tour, What Do I Do Now. As he tells me more about his youth, I realise how well-suited his observational style of comedy will be to the landscape of his past. “I had four people in my year at school, and lived in a village with just a Post Office and nothing more. It was like growing up in Postman Pat — although I never got any mail.”
The comparisons to everyone’s favourite postie are, I suppose, actually quite appropriate. In the recent blockbuster film, Postman Pat enters a talent show, and quickly sees himself whisked away from the narrow country lanes of Greendale to find stardom in the capital. Oddly enough, Widdicombe has seen a similar rise to success since his early performances in 2008, and now lives in London. “I’m never leaving,” he joked on the radio a few weeks ago, and I can’t help but think he’s serious: he’s clearly suited to the fast-paced life of the big city.
Nowadays, Widdicombe is a regular face on the vast array of talk shows and panel games that bless our TV screens. From The Last Leg to Mock the Week, QI to Would I Lie to You?, he’s probably done them all. But he still sees his work on the stand-up circuit as his “proper job”, and it’s clear to see why when he’s back on stage, clasping the mic against his chest in his trademark fashion: like a comforting pint of ale.
Every routine covers a vast array of society’s flaw
Widdicombe has been skilfully riding the wave of observational comedy’s popularity to new heights. It’s reminiscent of Michael McIntyre, but less simplistic, with each concept taken to its exaggerated conclusion until his voice reaches that trademark high-pitched peak. Every routine covers a vast array of society’s flaws, from contactless payments (using what he calls “touchy-downy debit cards”) to receiving homemade jam as a gift (“the worst thing is, it always comes in a jar that used to contain proper jam”).
This style quickly found traction on his first tour at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2010, and it hasn’t changed much over the years (if it ain’t broke…). Does Widdicombe miss his time performing in the capital of comedy? “I miss spending a month getting drunk with all my friends,” he admits, “although I think my liver is happier these days.” It’s definitely an apt sentiment for Freshers’ Week, and Widdicombe confesses that “being a comedian is probably my way of keeping the student lifestyle, though somehow I work more hours than a normal job. Stick to being a student as long as you can, guys.” This is advice I plan to stick to.
Widdicombe has been skilfully riding the wave of observational comedy’s popularity to new heights.
The idea of Widdicombe having “a normal job” is probably hard to imagine, but his life nearly went in a completely different direction: he started out working for Dora the Explorer magazine. Even his university days studying Linguistics at the University of Manchester didn’t exactly suggest a future as a comedian. Nonetheless, he’s effusive in his appreciation of Manchester: “loved it – I think it is a great city to go to uni in (though Exeter is obviously also great)”.
“Stick to being a student as long as you can, guys.”
In an ideal world, though, he’d have probably been there twenty years earlier: Widdicombe originally chose the city thanks to his love of Manchester icons, the Smiths. Music is clearly an important part of his life; he used to present a radio show for indie station Xfm, and he won Celebrity Mastermind in 2013 with a chosen subject of Blur. When I point out that driving around on tour must be a pain, he’s happy to contradict me. “It’s great, you get to sit and listen to Spotify for hours and not feel guilty about it.”
So I offer a twist on the classic desert-island scenario, asking what song he’d choose to have permanently playing in his car. “I think that would slowly send me mad… so it would have to be something I could block out, maybe something off Brian Eno’s Music for Airports. That or ‘Mr Loverman’ by Shabba Ranks.” Both these references go straight over my head.
Sport is another key passion of his. He’s one of the co-hosts of Channel 4’s The Last Leg, which started life at the Paralympics in 2012 and has been a runaway success: thanks largely to the electric chemistry between Widdicombe, Adam Hills and Alex Brooker. With Top Gear arguably dead-and-buried, they might even be the strongest presenting trio on TV at the moment — although they’re a lot less controversial.
Rio 2016 is a special anniversary for the show, and although the Olympics are now over, Widdicombe is clearly looking forward to The Last Leg’s Paralympic special. I asked him which events he was looking forward to watching, and he responds jovially: “I didn’t get to go into the athletics stadium in London as I was so busy, so that is my one aim this time. That, and avoiding the Zika virus.”
“The Imperial in Exeter is definitely the best Weatherspoons [sic] in the world”
When Widdicombe isn’t jet-setting off to international sporting events, he’s busy touring the country. On the last leg of his tour, he tweeted that “The Imperial in Exeter is definitely the best Weatherspoons [sic] in the world” (quite right, too). So is he a fan of the city? “I went to sixth form in Exeter, so I associate it with the personal trauma and excitement of being a late teenager. I killed a lot of time there, some of that in The Imperial, and the rest of it in record shops. Maybe that is why I had to fall back on comedy.”
The British public is certainly lucky Widdicombe chose comedy in the end. Now a household name, as confirmed by his status as the headline act for Live at the Apollo’s Christmas special, the BBC recently took a gamble on his debut sitcom, Josh, based on his life four or five years ago. The plot revolves around the constant blunders and gaffes of Josh and his flatmates, as they live out their twenties in London. The sitcom was recently renewed for a second series, and Josh hints that things won’t really be looking up for the trio: “far funnier that way, no one wants to see someone be happy!” Widdicombe and the team clearly have a knack for pulling in impressive celebrity cameos, having instigated the return of The Chuckle Brothers to British screens, so I ask Widdicombe if he could reveal any new faces. Sadly, he keeps his cards close to his chest: “Jennifer Saunders is back, and there are others I can’t tell you about, but they made me very excited.”
From his humble roots in Devon to headlining Latitude Festival’s comedy bill, Josh Widdicombe — still aged just 33 — has seen his career go from strength to strength. The logical next step is filling up Wembley Arena, but I get the impression he’d be just as happy going there with his mates to watch England play (until they lose, of course).
Finally, I ask him how he introduces himself these days. “I always say I am a stand-up comedian when people ask… Wish I was still a student, though.”