American comedian Rich Hall brings his hoedown to Rhodes Arts Complex
Rich Hall’s Hoedown comes to Rhodes Arts Complex next Thursday (Mar 7) – and never has there been a better time to be an American comedian in the UK. Hall’s precision dismantling of the tenuous relationship between the two countries is as freewheeling and deadly accurate as ever. The Hoedown tour begins as a withering dissection of Trump’s America and all of its twists and turns, but ends up in a celebration of Americana. There’s stand-up, improvised ballads, cracking good musicianship and ultimately a hilarious, foot-stomping good time to be had – even if you don’t own a hoe. Hall talks to James Rampton about his new show.
Even though he is widely loved by British audiences, the modest Rich Hall can scarcely believe how well this tour has gone.
“The response has been astounding,” revealed the 64-year-old comic, born Richard Travis Hall in Virginia, who also enjoyed huge acclaim and won the Perrier Award at the 2000 Edinburgh Festival as his bourbon-soaked, country and western-singing Tennesseean alter ego, Otis Lee Crenshaw
“I’m enjoying doing this particular show so much. The reaction has been very rousing. People come up to me afterwards and say, ‘I’d seen you on TV, but I didn’t realise you were this funny’. That’s the most satisfying response. At the risk of turning into the Willie Nelson of comedy, I don’t want to stop doing this show!”
The critics have been equally enthusiastic about Rich Hall’s Hoedown. The Guardian called it “blissfully funny” while The Scotsman declares that it is “as close as it gets to a guaranteed good show”.
Rich has had a successful TV career, shining in comedy shows as QI, Have I Got News For You, Live at the Apollo and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, as well as producing such lauded documentaries as Rich Hall’s Countrier Than You, Rich Hall’s Presidential Grudge Match, Rich Hall’s Cattle Drive, Rich Hall’s Gone Fishing and Otis Lee Crenshaw – London Not Tennessee. His most recent documentary, Rich Hall’s Working for the American Dream, aired on BBC Four in July and was met with the same acclaim as previous documentaries.
For all that, stand-up remains his first love. “I just love the live experience. On stage, you get much longer than you do on TV to do a completely thorough performance piece," he said.
“On shows like QI or Have I Got News For You, you’re just part of the process, and next week someone else will be on. You try and keep your head above water on those programmes, but after they're finished, viewers just wonder what’s on next. A panel show is a commodity and people have forgotten it half an hour later.
“If you've gone out of your way to go to a live show and spent two-and-a-half hours in the theatre, chances are you’ll be talking about it on the way home.
“It’s no different from going to live music. Watching a musician live is a completely different experience from listening to his song on the radio. You have more of an artistic and emotional investment in the live performance. That’s what I love about it.”
The comedian, who has also made Rich Hall’s (US Election) Breakdown for BBC Radio Four, has no time for those comics who think that TV takes precedence over everything else.
“A lot of comedians can’t wait to get off the road, leave behind the crappy dressing rooms and the long drives, and get back to the TV studio. But in the TV studio you just aren’t in control in the same way.
"People like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock always want to get back to stand-up. They still want to be out there on the road, where you can be a one-man performer, director, writer, producer and editor.
“It sometimes sounds like a crime to go on the road all the time. But for me it’s the proof of the pudding. You hone your show every night. The great thing is, people who come out to see you enjoy the show and then they come back. They trust you that the show is going to be good when they come to see you again. That’s really gratifying.”
So what can audiences expect from Rich Hall’s Hoedown? The first half is an examination of the catastrophe President Trump is wreaking on the world on a daily basis. The comedian joked: “I love the fact that Trump is President. It’s great for comedy, even though it’s dreadful for the rest of the world and humankind!
“But people expect me to talk about it. You can’t avoid talking about Trump because he infiltrates every part of our world like a weevil. He’s like an egg sac which has bored into every aspect of our lives.”
Rich said he had to be fleet of foot when tackling the subject of Trump. “My material keeps changing because the guy changes every day on a whim. No Trump joke has any shelf life at all. It’s good for three hours – then it’s out the window. Jokes about the wall, for instance, are so last year. But at least it keeps you on your toes.”
The second half of Rich Hall’s Hoedown is a riotous tribute to the delights of Americana. With his excellent band, the comedian performs 10 to 12 songs, many of which he improvises, using material he has gleaned from the audience in the first half.
Rich joked: “The people in the front row realise that they will be targets, but they will also be serenaded. I like to find a couple who have been married for a long time and write a song about how they first met.
“You have to keep your mind open to improvise. The best moments come when the audience say to themselves, ‘I didn’t see that coming’. You paint yourself into such a corner that the audience think, ‘How is he ever going to get out of that?’ And then you escape. It’s a real challenge, but that’s what makes it funny.”
He admitted: “Sometimes I stumble, but that can be funnier than when you nail it. It’s very disposable material. It’s funny in the moment, but you can’t do it tomorrow.”
What makes Rich’s music so compelling is that he performs traditional American country and western songs with a distinctly British tinge. He admitted: “I can write a song about any car now. It’s much better if it’s a terrible car. It’s funny to romanticise in a Springsteen-esque way a rubbish car that doesn’t deserve it.”
One of Rich’s most memorable songs is called “Eritrean Trucking Buddy”.
“It’s about the habits of British truck drivers. In America, a song about truck driving would be very romantic and all about women in halter tops hitch-hiking. But in Britain, it’s far less romantic. The drivers have to get out and look underneath their truck for human cargo.
"This song is about a British driver who finds a refugee from Eritrea under his truck and gives him a lift. It works quite well – unless you’re from Croydon. It doesn’t show Croydon in a good light!”
Rich Hall’s Hoedown is the most fun you’ll ever have with your cowboy boots on. It is only fair to point out, though, that one thing has disappointed the stand-up about his audiences.
“No one is bringing any farm implements of any type. I’m very disappointed. Hoes are welcome.”