Features Q&A and Interviews Published 30 July 2013

Jonny and the Baptists

On comedy songwriting, political engagement and their new Edinburgh show.

Stewart Pringle

‘Basically we’re supply teachers with an iron rod.’ They don’t look much like supply teachers. Well, Jonny does. A bit. But there’s an undeniable drive to educate in almost everything that comedy musical duo Jonny & the Baptists do. They want to make people laugh, of course, but as Jonny explains, to do that you’ve got to engage with the world around you. You’ve got to make them engage with the world around them. You’ve got to put a bit of stick about.

We’re backstage at Latitude, in the not-so-glam pavilion behind the Literature tent. Men in beards yellow lycra onesies mill-about, sorting microphones and urinating in portaloos. Jonny Donahoe (that’s Jonny) and Paddy Gervers (he’s the Baptists) are having a quiet Sunday in the scorching heat, having played a storming set last night that managed to tempt a fair crowd away from the inexplicably resurgent Kraftwerk. Jonny looks hot and a little bothered, Paddy never looks anything other than Cheech and Chong zen. I’ve known them both for a couple of years, and saw last year’s show enough times to memorise the words to most of the songs, but we’re not here for a social today. We’re here to talk about their brand new show, Bigger Than Judas which they’ll be launching at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

Last year’s show was a raucous statement of intent. A tight hour of blues-tinged musical comedy that saw an impassioned plea for Scotland to defer devolution, a knees up about fucking in the library, and the terrifying tale of a murderous rampage by children’s author Quentin Blake. It was peppered with politics and more than a little righteous fury, but there was no unifying message tying it together – more BBC Bitesize than a full lesson, if we’re going to try to keep this teaching metaphor afloat.

On the surface, this year’s show is similarly diffuse, but as Jonny explains, it’s about probing the background of one of this year’s most eye-watering political issues, the ascent of UKIP. ‘It goes from the acknowledgement that I have been to so many weddings in the last year’, explains Jonny. ‘Like 17. 17 weddings. And they are horrible, OK Magazine shambles, with people spending a lot of money when the world is really struggling, on someone that they’ll probably leave anyway. What is the root of UKIP? Well that seems a good place to start.’

They originally planned to title the show ‘Ten Songs About UKIP’, in the end they decided that sounded a little niche, but the shadow of Nigel Farage’s populist shower of dickheads still hangs over the new material. There’s the sunny pop rock of ‘UKIP’, their paean to good times in the purple party, but it’s also present less explicitly, through the recurring theme of careless thinking, of good people focussing on the less important things in life and leaving political engagement to the cranky extremists. That’s where the weddings come in. Jonny’s talking to ‘those of my friends who’ve decided to spend all they money on a wedding, and who say things like ‘Oh, I’ll vote when I’m 40.’ Those of my friends I have come to think of as abject morons. They’re the root of the problem And that’s the angle we go in from. How do we deal with you? You’re lovely, but my god are you thick.’

If it’s not clear by now, there’s something of a left-leaning slant to Jonny & the Baptists, but Jonny’s keen to make sure that they’re not preaching to the choir. There’s no assault on the EDL or the BNP, ‘The BNP and the EDL frighten people and that’s reasonably, but essentially they’re much less frightening than UKIP. Because essentially those are incredibly disenfranchised, extraordinarily unintelligent people, who don’t have a voice, and therefore they do fall into a category of thinking that that kind of Neo-Nazi group could be a voice for them, even though of course it really couldn’t.’

Jonny’s not playing down the importance of addressing the problem of that sector of the disenfranchised white working class who flick Sieg Heils at the weekends, he admits it’s ‘a far bigger problem than I think we can address in this, any anyway there isn’t any chance any of them will come and see us.’ Jonny & the Baptists are here to talk to the middle classes. To the secret UKIP voter, to the sleeper cells of racism or intolerance that lie dormant in the apathy or lazy thinking of the liberal middle. Jonny again: ‘The people who vote for UKIP aren’t that thick and they aren’t poor, they’re middle middle middle, and they’re not disenfranchised, and they don’t have any problems, and their life is fine, and so that’s what’s really interesting to us. How have they got to a point of irrationality?’

Though much of their material works to skewer the foibles of the middle classes, built on stomach-crampingly funny observational humour and a keen eye for unquestioned assumptions, there’s often a rage, a sharp edge, beneath the surface. ‘BOOM!’ a highlight of their new show, punctures the British tendency to allow racist and homophobic comments to pass unchallenged, but it’s that same attitude of embarrassed acceptance that’s the first step towards sticking your cross into a racist, racist box. Paddy chips in, ‘It’s like, think before you act. And not even a lot. Just a little bit. Just take a second.’

Jonny’s bringing his own solo show to the fringe this year: Jonny Donahoe: Class Whore. He’s not giving too much away about it, but it’s clear that his experience of the British class system, and moving through it, is a major inspiration for his comedy. He and Paddy went to the same school (though some years apart, as Paddy is still only 21, which seems a trifle unfair when you consider what a talented bastard he is), the fee-paying Abingdon School for boys, where Jonny had his fees paid ‘by the Conservative government.’ ‘They’re allowed one impoverished Jew a year as part of their quota’, he explains.

As on stage, it’s Jonny who does most of the talking, he’s like a bear of energy, really heartfelt and visibly making himself cross as he talks about the impossibility of separating the personal from the political, or of finding comedy in one without acknowledging the wider impact that has. Paddy is more relaxed, but there’s a rage there too, a refusal to just let the world get away with being a bit shit to people.

It’s maybe not a surprise, however, that Paddy’s chosen to find another outlet to natter away on, and he recently began recording Podshambles with another funny fucker named Laurie Havlock, who Paddy describes as ‘the most brilliant person ever’. It’s a rambling, extremely funny stagger through video games, comic books and any other fragments of geek culture that wander through their excellent minds, and an opportunity for Paddy to keep building his ‘repertoire of doing’, as he charmingly describes it. ‘It’s an outlet for a part of me that only gets briefly displayed in the Baptists, because I guess I’m quite shy about that kind of thing on stage.’

This could be a very big year for Jonny & the Baptists, and there’s a palpable air of ‘breaking on through’ to the new material I’ve heard. They’re going up to Edinburgh with a mission, with some teaching to do, though Jonny can’t help wondering if there isn’t some kind of Spenglerian cycle to this whole UKIP malarkey: ‘Because it’s Farage at the moment, but then things will be fine and we’ll get out of economic crisis and people will stop being absolutely devastated obsessed with the Royal Family and normal things will happen again, and then in 20 years there’ll be another idiot with a gong, who tells people that he’s going to save British politics, and he obviously won’t, he’ll be another moron.’

‘And then we’ll get a reunion tour.’ offers Paddy.

‘And then well get a reunion tour. To stop them.’

Jonny and The Baptists: Bigger Than Judas is at the Pleasance Dome, Edinburgh, from the 31st July -26th August 2013.

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Stewart Pringle

Writer of this and that and critic for here and there. Artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre.

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