Romesh Ranganathan: “What do you do, say to a headteacher, ‘I wanna become a comedian’? It sounds f*cking insane”
It’s been a busy few years for Romesh Ranganathan. Starting the decade as a maths teacher who’d rush off to Birmingham for a ten-minute spot instead of marking homework, Romesh is now one of UK’s most prominent comedians. He sold over 100,000 tickets for his debut solo tour in 2016, soon becoming a regular on TV panel shows such as A League of their Own and Mock The Week. His BAFTA-nominated BBC series Asian Provocateur received critical acclaim, which he successfully followed it up with equally well-received shows like The Reluctant Landlord and Just Another Immigrant. As Romesh himself puts it, he’s well on track to becoming “the most in-demand overweight vegan Sri Lankan comedian in Britain”.
Unsurprisingly, such a growing profile has led to the release of an autobiography, Straight Outta Crawley: Memoirs of a Distinctly Average Human Being, a self-penned account detailing the comedian’s difficult upbringing, his struggles as a teacher and now parent, as well as life experiences of grief and self-doubt. The book is an honest, reflective account and, as you might imagine, incredibly funny.
We chatted with Romesh before his appearance at last month’s Off The Shelf literary festival in Sheffield. His trademark deadpan humour proved to be in fine form as we discussed his route into comedy, the pitfalls of social media and a longstanding obsession with hip-hop.
Loved your new book, Romesh. How long had Straight Outta Crawley been in the pipeline for?
Maybe about two years, I think. I was writing a chapter here and a chapter there so it came together over quite a long time. Eventually, we thought it was a good time to put it together and get it out.
What was the main idea behind it? Was there something you wanted to share?
It wasn’t a situation where I felt like my story was a burning tale that I needed to get out there – nothing as inspiring as that, unfortunately. But the best books I had read by comedians felt like you were getting an inside track and becoming mates with them almost, just from reading their stories. Do you know what I mean?
You’re getting something that you don’t get from their stand-up or their TV work. I read Frank Skinner’s book and loved it, so that’s where the inspiration kind of came from.
Did you find you had to adapt your comedy to make it work in written form?
The only thing I had to be careful of was falling into “book-speak”. I didn’t want to suddenly get incredibly verbose or whatever. I binned the first couple of bits I wrote because they were all, you know, “Jamie looked at me quizzically and I found myself pontificating on the issues of comedy vis-à-vis…” – I had to get rid of all that shit and just write it like I was talking. Once I clicked into that, then it was a piece of piss really.
The bigger challenge for me was getting the tone right. There are some bits in the book which are funny but there are also details from more challenging aspects of my life. So, it’s that thing where you want to give a full picture but you also don’t want to darken the mood too much. I still wanted to keep those bits in because they’re part of my… I really don’t want to say journey. They’re part of my trip.
You manage to balance it really well. You’re quite honest about the problems you faced as a school teacher trying to make it as a comedian, like when your bosses found out you were playing the Edinburgh Fringe on A Level results day. Do you miss teaching?
*Laughs*… Yeah, I actually do. Teaching has become an increasingly difficult profession to remain in; the workload is just so massive these days. But putting that to one side, I really did enjoy being a teacher. If comedy hadn’t come about, I would have been happy carrying on.
Do you think some of your hesitancy to tell the school about gigs stemmed from embarrassment around trying to make it as a comedian instead?
It is embarrassing to commit to comedy. It’s something that you expect from a nineteen-year-old – I’d just started a family! What do you do, say to a headteacher, “I wanna become a comedian”? It sounds fucking insane. It’s also financial concern. I had a family and I needed to keep my day job going as long as possible. If you give up your day job, you start making poor decisions with your comedy because you’re desperate for money. You might end up doing gigs that you shouldn’t do, or take a step up too soon; you could just make creative mistakes. Keeping the day job going keeps your decisions about comedy pure. It’s those kinds of concerns that I had. But mainly, it was just embarrassment.
Your love for hip-hop is frequently touched upon throughout the book. The hip-hop inspired chapter titles are genius, not to mention the tales from your illustrious freestyling career as “Ranga”. You say you’re more of an East Coast fan, right?
I think I’m a bit more open-minded now. When I first listened to hip-hop, I got really into East Coast. It got to a point where I’d only listen to music that was recorded on one particular street in Brooklyn. Gradually, I became more open, then started listening to stuff that wasn’t even hip-hop.
It is embarrassing to commit to comedy. It’s something that you expect from a nineteen-year-old – I’d just started a family! What do you do, say to a headteacher, ‘I wanna become a comedian’? It sounds f*cking insane.
There’s a hell of a lot to explore.
The sounds are completely different. Without even starting to talk about British or worldwide hip-hop, the American South has a really distinct sound. The amount of variety makes you suddenly realise that you can be more drawn to stuff from a certain area because it sounds like what you’re used to. When we went to the California for Series 3 of Asian Provocateur, I explored LA in a lowrider – with my mum, which sort of takes the gloss of it. But we were playing West Coast hip-hop at the time, and it made complete sense. In the same way as listening to country music in Nashville would make sense.
Context is so key with music.
Yeah, I agree. Although I don’t think you can only enjoy The Cure if you’re from Crawley.
Are you enjoying any new hip-hop at the minute?
Loads! I’m really into Denzel Curry’s album, Taboo. Ocean Wisdom’s Wizville is great – I listen to a lot of stuff by artists on the UK label, High Focus Records. Oh, and there’s an American artist called Noname with a brilliant new album called Room 25. A lot of mumble rap is popular at the minute, but there’s so much more to dig into. Hip-hop’s in pretty good health right now.
You mention in the book, “I’ll stop talking about race when I stop experiencing racism”. What do you think of those individuals who want you to stop discussing these issues?
If you are not the default setting as a comedian, then people have a go at you for talking about your point of difference; whether that might be on account of race, gender, or whatever. They have a prejudice that you talk about it too much. So once you say it, you’ve confirmed their suspicions. Then they say, “Oh, that’s all you talk about”.
They’re waiting for you to say it.
Exactly, exactly. I don’t get it so much now, but still sometimes… There was a League of their Own episode recently when I mentioned [race] and I got a flurry of tweets going, “That’s all your act is”. If I’m being honest, I just think those people are pricks. I’m not going to change what I say because of that. The truth is it’s not a problem for the majority of people. Also, the audience will tell you very quickly if you really are going on about it too much: they’ll just stop laughing. That’s the main barometer really – if you’re keeping the audience laughing.
How do you feel about today’s increasingly digital world, where social media gives those people a 24/7 platform for abuse?
Social media brings out extremes in people. When you don’t have eye-to-eye contact with someone, people feel like they can be bigger arseholes. If somebody doesn’t like something I’ve done, they won’t say, “I didn’t like that very much today” – they’ll go to you, “I didn’t like that at all and I hope you die”. I remember when I first got Twitter and to said to myself, “Fucking hell, this is a bit harsh.” I don’t know if this is a bad or a good thing but I’m completely desensitised to it now. Somebody could tell me they’re going to set me on fire, and I literally wouldn’t give a shit – unless they’re stood in front of me. With a match.
Trolls aside, do you feel like you still get something out of social media?
Yeah, definitely. If I have a thought about something, I can just put it there and people respond; it’s a nice way to interact with people. It provides an inside track on what you’re up to. It also gives you access to people who you admire and like. You know, I’m an Arsenal fan as well as a hip-hop fan and it’s a chance to chat with people who share those interests.
Would you have liked the chance to interact with your comedy heroes via Twitter when you were starting out?
I don’t know actually, I kind of think it’s a bit of a blessing and a curse. Before social media, if you saw somebody turn up somewhere, that’s a properly exciting thing. You haven’t got any prior contact with them, you don’t know what they’re up to on a day-to-day basis. So when they drop in at a gig, that’s amazing. Being able to see what they’re doing every single day takes a bit of the intrigue away.
Do you have any advice for somebody taking their first steps as a comedian?
I would tell them to embrace failure. Die on your arse. You just have to keep writing and keep writing – and keep dying on your arse. You have to be prepared to take risks, so you might as well just go for it and try everything. You’ll be rubbish for a while, but you’ll never regret experimenting. You learn so much from it. That would be my advice. Oh, and also, please don’t do it – there are too many comedians and I need to stay in employment.
Straight Outta Crawley review
Romesh admits that writing his autobiography was no picnic. As well as the obvious difficulties involved in deciding which stories to include, the comedian had to strike the right tone – one that chimed with his memoirs’ more poignant moments. Luckily, Romesh’s hard work paid off and his famous self-deprecating humour shines through in this honest and reflective book.
Straight Outta Crawley mainly focuses on Romesh’s upbringing and years as a struggling comedian, although the latter chapters take you behind the scenes on his more recent televised adventures in California and Sri Lanka. The book meanders at times – Romesh warns early on that he likes to go off on tangents – but you happily follow him, eagerly anticipating the next bizarre anecdote.
Romesh brings moments of depth to the book that make it an absorbing read. He reflects on not knowing all the answers as a parent, his experiences of racism, and the days when he almost pulled the plug on his stand-up dream. Packed with laughs, Straight Outta Crawley provides a brilliant insight into one of the UK’s biggest comedians.
Straight Outta Crawley: Memoirs of a Distinctly Average Human Being is out now. Head to romeshranganathan.co.uk for details of the comedian’s upcoming 2019 tour.