“This sounds a bit wanky” warns stand-up comedian Romesh Ranganathan, but “the more honest I get on stage, the easier I find it to be funny.”
Ranganathan has been nominated alongside Ant and Dec, and The Last Leg boys in the Entertainment Performance category of this year’s RTS Programme Awards.
“I finally feel like I’ve got the validation I need to continue,” he says, when I meet him at his agent’s office in a hard-to-find Clerkenwell backstreet.
“It’s nice to be nominated alongside them, but I hope I win” he laughs. “And I’m not going to be humble about it if I do win either. I’m going to make sure I visit everyone and really go on about it.”
What does he make of his fellow nominees, I ask.
“The Last Leg,” he begins. “I don’t like any of them. The idea of beating them, I think, is the most exciting thing about this. Seeing Adam [Hills], Josh [Widdicombe] and [Alex] Brooker just really upset is what would drive me on through the evening.”
He laughs, adding “I’m mates with The Last Leg boys and I think [it] is an amazing show, [and] Ant and Dec are an institution”
“I hope people realise that I am the only nominee that is on his own. I’m as good as Ant and Dec put together!”
Ranganathan has been nominated for the second season of his hit show Asian Provocateur which sees him and his mother jet off around the world in pursuit of his heritage. It’s Who Do You Think You Are? but longer and with more nudity.
“The thing about Who Do You Think You Are? is that you only get to appear on one, and we wanted a series,” he laughs.
The idea of the show came from a skit from Ranganathan’s stand-up about his mum thinking he is a ‘coconut’ – meaning he has abandoned his heritage and is, like a coconut, white on the inside.
“I’ve got kids now, they’re part Sri Lankan and my mum was worried because I am not giving them any cultural insight whatsoever.”
Thanks to the show, his mother is finally satisfied. “Doing a TV show that is so centred around our background and our family has really made her happy. It’s such a personal show” he explains.
Shanthi, his mum, has been the breakout star of the series. “I’ve always thought she was going to be good at it,” he says. “She’s just very honest, and that’s funny.”
The fame is suiting her excellently. “I wouldn’t say she’s been shy at taking to stardom,” Ranganathan says sardonically. “She’s embraced it. I think if it was up to her she’d wear a name badge.”
“Although,” he admits, “I’ve got to be honest with you, the constant assertion that she’s the funnier one of the two of us does start to grate after a while…”
Comedy has been a constant part of the Ranganathan household. His brother runs a comedy night in Crawley and the family watched comedy together growing up.
While Romesh and his father watched stand-up together, Shanthi’s passion is slapstick. Although it is not to Romesh’ taste: “I’ve always thought about slapstick that once you’ve watched somebody fall over, once the element of surprise is gone, it’s not funny anymore.”
A particular favourite is from The Pink Panther Strikes Again, where Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau runs afoul of a dog. “She’ll laugh for 10 minutes straight at that,” Ranganathan despairs, “and every time she sees it again, [it’s] like she’s never seen it before.
“If she came to watch me at a gig and I fell over on the way to the microphone, that would be the best thing I had ever done in her eyes.”
Romesh Ranganathan came fairly late to comedy. Originally a maths teacher, he took up comedy fulltime around the time he was starting a family – not something he recommends: “I do think it’s borderline irresponsible. You’re supposed to do that when you haven’t got any ties, but I waited til I had ties…”
After a number of years of struggling to make ends meet, he was on the verge of putting down the mic and returning to teaching. “It’s not like it’s a noble thing to become a comedian,” he explains critically. “It’s not like my wife was going to me, ‘Oh, you’ve got to be a fireman. It’s your calling…’ It’s a project of vanity.”
It was winning the Leicester Mercury Comedian of the Year competition in 2013 that marked the start of his professional turnaround, and the key, he says, is honesty.
“Just try and be as honest as you possibly can … and let the rest take care of itself,” he explains.
Richard Pryor is the stand-up’s hero for that reason.
“I find him inspiring and depressing in many ways,” Ranganathan reflects. “He was so honest in his stand-up and so honest when you saw him on TV. But he’s also depressing because I am never going to be as good as him.”
Romesh explains: “He [Pryor] had such a shitty upbringing and I didn’t. My parents had financial problems and stuff like that, and my mum and dad had their issues, but nothing like Richard Pryor.”
“I’m limited from being truly great [because] I didn’t have a shitty enough upbringing. I’m sort of angry at my parents for trying to bring me up normally,” he laughs.
Despite that inconvenience he is determined to succeed in comedy. “If a gig doesn’t go well, or something doesn’t land, I can get really shitty about it.”
He recalls a time after a particularly bad gig when his wife came home to find him wretched sitting on their bed. “She said to me ‘I don’t know why you’re aspiring to do something that makes you sit on the end of the bed with your head in your hands. It doesn’t look like the most rewarding thing…’”
“I always know that I could absolutely die on my arse, and that’s terrifying but also quite exciting,”
However, that is the cost of creative careers, he believes. “You’ve got to be hard on yourself or else you won’t improve.”
“I don’t think I am a great stand up, but I am trying to be a great stand-up,” he shrugs.
Romesh Ranganathan has been nominated in the Entertainment Performance category at the RTS Programme Awards 2017 alongside The Last Leg and and Ant and Dec. All the nominees have been approached for interviews.