Tony Hawks| Interview | Podcast | Maria Franzoni | MFL Global

Interview with British Author and Comedian, Tony Hawks

This week Maria’s guest on the show is Tony Hawks, who is a British author and comedian and best known for his appearances on shows like “QI”, “Just a Minute”, and “I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue”. His bestselling books include “Round Ireland with a Fridge” which has sold nearly a million copies worldwide. He is not to be mixed up with Tony Hawk, the American skateboarder, who is not as funny as Tony.

Tony tells us about his big hit with his band Morris Minor and the Majors and how through his music, his career in comedy began. He talks about the reason why he hitch-hiked round Ireland with a fridge and how that motivated him to write a bestselling book about it. Also, how he was able to open a care centre for kids with cerebral palsy in Moldova due to a silly bet and how he incorporates some of the lessons from his adventures into his corporate talks.

Maria: 

So, this week, my guest is Tony Hawks, who is a British author and comedian and best known for his appearances on shows like “QI”, “Just a Minute”, and “I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue”. His bestselling books include “Round Ireland with a Fridge” which has sold nearly a million copies worldwide. He is not to be mixed up with Tony Hawk, the American skateboarder, who is not as funny as Tony but is better at doing an Ollie. Welcome Tony.

Tony Hawks: 

Hello, and very nice to be here.

Maria:   

Now, I’ve got to start now. I have to ask the question.

Tony Hawks:  

Yeah?

Maria:

Do you skateboard?

Tony Hawks:

Well I don’t skateboard, although I did do a tour a few years back with one-man show and I entered on a skateboard, my thinking being if anybody had turned up to see Tony Hawk, the skateboarder, that meant they couldn’t have their money back because I’d actually done some skateboarding. So that was the thinking. And I’ve got a section of the show actually where I just read out emails I’ve received over the years that are meant for him and all my rather rude replies correcting them on their grammar and telling them if they spent less time skateboarding and more time paying attention in English, these kind of mistakes wouldn’t happen. So I’m having quite a bit of fun with the Tony Hawk mix-up.

Maria:   

I like that but did your insurance go up when you said you were going to come in on a skateboard?

Tony Hawks: 

I don’t know. It should’ve done ’cause I nearly fell every night. But I don’t know whether it did. I try not to get involved in all that side of thing.

Maria: 

Fantastic. So you began your career as a singer/songwriter. And in fact, you have a bit of a hit with the comedy trio Morris Minor … Sorry, have I got that right? Yes.

Tony Hawks:

Yeah.

Maria:        

Morris Minor and the Majors “Stutter Rap” which got to number four in the UK charts.

Tony Hawks:     

Yeah.

Maria:      

Number one in Australia.

Tony Hawks: 

Yeah.

Maria:    

And I’m going to share a link in the show notes. It’s genius. What happened to Morris and his Majors?

Tony Hawks: 

Well Morris Minor and the Majors, we were an odd setup in that we formed to the comedy circuit in London. I had these comedy songs and I actually applied to get on a talent show called … What was it called? I’ve even forgotten the name of it now. And we got on amazingly, this show. Or I got on. And they said, “Oh, we’ve got enough solo artists, we want a band.” So I said, “I’ve got a band.” And I didn’t have a band so I formed one very quickly with two guys, two actor friends of mine.

And so, we never really wanted to be this act. But we did quite well on the show. We got some comedy bookings and we had a three, four year run and ended up having a hit. But of course, when the second record wasn’t a hit, we sat down and went, “Do we really want to be doing this?” And one of the guys wanted to be a serious actor and he said, “Look, to be honest with you, I haven’t wanted to do this for about the last three years.” So we just went our separate ways. We were one of those things, bizarre thing, where we were accidentally brought together and accidentally had quite a big hit, got a silver disc and it did rather well.

Maria:  

I thought it was genius. I loved it. Thank you for that. So how did you start your career as a comedian?

Tony Hawks:

Well actually, it’s through music. I used to play and sing in pubs. And at this point I did want to be a songwriter. It’s just such a competitive world out there. And I was turning up, to support myself, playing the piano and singing in pubs and wine bars around London. And I had a regular gig on a Monday night at the pub called the Holly Bush in Hampstead. And they were very friendly in there and they bought me quite a lot of drinks. And come about half past ten, I sort of was a bit sloshed. So I started to go into these silly routines. And I’d written these strange comedy poems that popped out of me for no reason, I’d just be sitting somewhere. And I had a poem called “I am an Ingrowing Toenail”. And they loved this ingrowing toenail poem. So people would start coming back and requesting the comedy. So the last half hour of this Monday gig was a sort of comedy set. But I could only do it if I’d drunk about three or four beers.

So, the next stage was the scary bit. People were saying, “You’ve got to do a little act, you’ve got to try this out. You’re funny. You’re good.” And then it’s scary because you got to go from doing it an environment where no one’s really expecting it to a situation where it’s you, you’re on, a tough crowd perhaps and if you don’t get the laughs you can’t just sing another song and move on. So I had a go at that. I did an open spot. This is the time in London when comedy clubs were just starting to pop up. Alternative comedy was the new thing. And I was good enough to get another booking. But I was pretty all over the place. But my personality worked and my manner on stage. My material wasn’t good enough. So then you just start working very hard really. And it is quite a tough process to get the material and find out what works about you.

But my best feature actually was, interacting with the audience. And I got booked to do some warm-ups for TV shows. “Red Dwarf” particularly was one where they needed somebody to warm it up and the director saw me at this comedy club Jongleurs. He said, “Oh, you’re great with the audience. Come and do this.” So I got huge experience of just bouncing off an audience and getting gags out of nowhere, if you like.

Maria: 

You are actually a very good ad-libber. Is that something that’s natural or have you had to learn that?

Tony Hawks:

It’s natural. In fact, I don’t like the kind of standard ad-libs that exist. There’s a kind of catalogue of lines that you can chuck back in different situations, but I do prefer just to keep it very natural and engage with the audience. And you don’t always have to win, I don’t think, as a comedian. Every now and again somebody in the audience says something very funny and it’s actually against you and sometimes it’s best to say, “Okay, one-nil to you, but I’ll get you back.” But I think I don’t like the aggression. The audience are your friend and you want them to like you and you want to like them. When that breaks down, it doesn’t work terribly well. So, in fact that’s why I stopped comparing at this comedy club Jongleurs in the end because I reached this point where I’d been doing it for so long and I looked at this audience on a Friday night, drunk, tables full of people and I thought, “I don’t like you that much at the moment so I just need to have a rest,” and then came back when I liked them again. So you’ve got to like your audience I think.

Maria:  

Absolutely, absolutely. So we’ve seen you on TV with “Have I Got News for You”, “They Think it’s All Over”, “QI”. You’ve appeared on “A Bit of Fry and Laurie”, you mentioned “Red Dwarf”. You’re a regular on radio on “Just a Minute”, “I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue”, “The Unbelievable Truth”. On top of all this you’ve toured theatres, you’ve appeared in film. So, you’ve covered radio, TV, theatre and film. Which is your favourite?

Tony Hawks:  

And music of course and being on “Top of the Pops”, being introduced by people, most of whom are now in prison. No, I don’t know which I enjoy most. The writing was a surprise for me, writing a bestselling book. I enjoy writing. Probably the honest answer to that is actually writing in the day and then going out and performing in the evening. I’m being greedy there. I want both. But you can’t really, I can’t write all day. I can write all morning but I can’t write all day. And then I think you write better when you have a break and do something different. So, it’s lovely to then go and do a performance somewhere and get that different energy and that different feedback.

And I think that performing on stage and the stand-up has really helped the writing. Because it’s got to be funny. You can write something in a book and go, “Well, I assume that’s funny.” And then you don’t feel any pain if the joke doesn’t work. Whereas if you’re on stage and the joke doesn’t work, you feel the pain and you know it hasn’t worked. So I think they work together because the performing hones your comedy skills and makes sure you find the marks. I think that that’s being greedy. I’d like to do some more music again. I still do that for fun. We play, party stuff and covers and play the odd wedding here and there. So that’s great fun as well.

Maria:   

Excellent. So we’ve mentioned your book and you’ve mentioned that you love writing. So “Round Ireland with a Fridge” has been hugely successful. If there’s anybody out there that hasn’t seen the film or read the book, they won’t know why you decided to hitchhike around the circumference of Ireland with a fridge. Could you tell us why you did that?

Tony Hawks:

Yes. Why did I hitchhike round Ireland with a fridge? It’s a fair question, isn’t it? It’s actually quite a simple answer. I had a song in a song competition in a place called Cavan in the north of Southern Ireland. And I’d never been to Ireland before. I was picked up at Dublin airport, driven north to this place. It was getting dusk, and then by the side of the road I saw a man hitching with a full-size fridge next to him. And I thought this was extraordinary. I said to the guy that was driving me, “Did I see that right? Did that fellow have a fridge with him?” And he went, “Oh yeah,” and he never said another word about it. And I thought, “What do you have to do in Ireland to become a conversation point? This must be an extraordinary place.”

So it stuck in my head that Ireland was this place full of eccentrics, in my mind anyway. And also I thought it would be the kind of place where, if you broke down, as I assumed this bloke’s van had broken down and he bought a new fridge … Who knows why he had a fridge with him? It’s the kind of place where people would stop. So I maintained it. I put this argument forward at a dinner party, where I’d drunk a bit too much wine, and I ended up saying, “Ireland’s the one place in the world where you could hitch with a fridge and get all the way around,” and made a £100 bet with this friend of mine and decided to try and do it. And went off, bought a fridge, stood by the side of the road, took a month off and had an incredible adventure.

I wasn’t intending on writing a book. There was a possibility of making a program for Radio 4. I had some recording equipment with me. But after a few days into this trip, I just realized this had to be a book. I’d never written a book before but I thought, “What’s happening is so special.” And I think my motivation for the book was really to do justice to the journey and the special time I had. And so I really wanted to make a good job of it. And it seems to have worked. It’s still around all these years later.

Maria:  

You did. You did a marvellous job. And if people haven’t read it, they should go out and get it. And was “Playing the Moldovans at Tennis” also the result of a bet?

Tony Hawks: 

It was. My second book “Playing the Moldovans at Tennis” was a result of another bet, this time with Arthur Smith. I’d been playing tennis, I play a lot of tennis, always have. And I went round his house to watch England play Moldova in the World Cup qualifiers. I was still in my tennis kit. The game, England were winning quite easily and he looked at me in my kit and just, “Oh, I don’t reckon you’re all that good at tennis Hawks. I don’t reckon you could beat all those players we’re watching now.” And I said, “Oh, I think I would. Footballers aren’t known for being very good at tennis. They may be young and fit but they won’t have the technique.” And so we got into a long argument about this.

And then I said, “Well look, can we stop arguing about this now? Because I’ll never be able to prove you wrong. The England players would never agree to play me. They’re sort of Beckham, Seaman, Gascoigne, and they’re not going to turn up.” And he said, “All right, I bet you couldn’t beat the entire Moldovan national team. And what’s more, if you do beat them I’ll strip naked in Balham High Road and sing the Moldovan National Anthem.” So we then went to the pub, framed the terms of this bet, shook on it and that was my next bet. I had to go to this place, Moldova.

At the time, I didn’t even know where it was. I had to look it up. For those of you that don’t know, it’s on the eastern point of Romania and western point of Ukraine, wedged between those countries. Former Soviet country. And boy, was that a different experience to hitchhiking round Ireland with a fridge. Ireland was a place where they positively embraced eccentrics. Moldova was a place where they formerly imprisoned them. So I created a very different book. But I’m pleased I did it and I’ve donated half the royalties from the book to a care centre in Moldova, for a fund and then we opened a care centre for kids with cerebral palsy. It’s been running for the last 15 years. So something good came out of a very silly bet.

Maria: 

Something very good. And, in fact, you got awarded an MBE for your work you did in Moldova.

Tony Hawks:

I did. Last year I got, yeah, to my surprise. I think I can only assume that it was the British Ambassador in Moldova who put me forward. I don’t know. I asked him and he refused to tell me whether he had. But yes, I suppose it’s quite nice to get a little pat on the back, although it doesn’t make much difference to your life. It weighs you down, the M is a bit heavier than I’d like.

Maria: 

And why in particular cerebral palsy? Have you got history?

Tony Hawks:  

No history there. Actually, what it was, the two doctors I stayed with on the original trip were both doctors that specialised in this area. And I went to them and said, “Look, I’ve got this money in a fund. I want to spend it in Moldova, give something back to the country because I’ve taken my story from your country. I owe this to you.” And they said, “Well, what we find is a real problem is that in Moldova if you have a child with any special needs or any kind of handicap, the State takes them off them and they put them in these places that they call orphanages. We want the parents to be able to stay with the children. And so we want to offer day service to kids with cerebral palsy and these kinds of things.” And I said, “Okay, let’s do it. Let’s start it from scratch.”

And we started doing it. We were the first people. And they’re still run the centre. So, it’s these two, down to the two doctors, Diana and Grigore. And I have to say, they’re the real heroes because they’re running a charity in a country which is run by oligarchs, people who are interested in money, and no one cares about charity there. I haven’t managed to get a single Moldovan politician to go and visit this place yet. And yet I’ve had about four British politicians go. So there’s a lot of work to be done in that part of the world before people learn to share and give. It’s pretty brutal what happened when communism fell and the poor people at the bottom are the ones that really suffer.

Maria:  

That’s a fantastic thing you’ve done. It’s brilliant and we’ll share some information about that as well if anybody wants to contribute. So you ended up doing two TED Talks. And one of them was in Moldova.

Tony Hawks:  

Yeah.

Maria: 

So, obviously, when you’re invited to TED, you need to have an idea worth spreading. What were your ideas that you spread?

Tony Hawks:  

Yes. I certainly had ideas. I suppose it’s for the people who watch them to decide whether they’re worth spreading or not. But I’m trying to spread them. I had a ludicrous idea I wanted to try in the Moldova talk. The theme of the conference was Postcards from the Future. They said, “Can you think of something that will make the future better in 50 years’ time?” And I thought really what doesn’t work … We have all these things like Make Poverty History and I thought, “This is the wrong way around. The real problem here is the super, super, super rich, billionaires.” So my talk was called Make Billionaires History. And the only idea I explore in it is the idea of a society capping how much money someone earns. So it’s not going back to communism, it’s not taxing people heavily, but it’s just going, “We’ll have a cap at a certain point, after which you have to, by law, donate to charity.”

So, it’s a bit like the Bill Gates Foundation, all these things. They all do it but it’s a bit like saying, “Well no, we can nudge you a bit as a society. Let’s at least have a debate about whether we should. Is there an amount of money a year that somebody makes that is obscene?” I think if you go to most people and you go, yeah, someone who’s just bought a yacht, Zuckerberg I think bought a yacht for $100 million. I think most people would go, when they’ve just seen very poor people and people who’ve been unable to get treatment for illnesses or buy drugs that will help them, most people will go, “We haven’t worked that out as well as we could’ve done. We could’ve done better.” So the idea of the talk is how can we find a friendly, peaceful way of sharing our resources without it becoming some sort of class battle, and one in which the poor hate the rich and the rich hate the poor. That’s the thing.

The second talk was much lighter and much sillier. It was Germany because “Round Ireland with a Fridge” has done very well in Germany, “Mit dem Kurlschrank durch Irland”. They wanted me to do a talk and say what did you learn from doing that thing? And that’s a talk all about how to keep silliness in your life, to keep lightness and not to take everything too seriously, which really is what I learned from that journey. And not to plan too much but just to get your direction and then allow your day to unfold. I didn’t know where I was going to sleep every night. Fine. I spent a month not knowing where I was going to sleep every night and it was one of the most enjoyable months of my life. So it was passing on that message. So great privilege to be able to do two TED Talks as well.

Maria: 

Absolutely. And so on silliness, I wanted to talk about corporate work. So I’m not sure that’s a very good link there but let’s talk about what you do for corporates. What do you offer corporates? What are the things that they can have Tony Hawks do?

Tony Hawks: 

So I developed a really ludicrous but fun game show called “Trust the Bucket”, which I think it’s drawing on my old skills of working with audiences in the past on the comedy circuit. But the audience do everything. Every seat, wherever it is, it’s the corporate hall or the theatre, wherever, is numbered. And I’ve got a bucket with all the numbers in there. The contestants come out of the bucket, the questions that get asked to the contestants come out of the bucket. I’m in and out of the audience the whole time. Games, different things, everything is suggestive and prizes. And I’ve been doing it around the place, in theatres, what have you. We’re doing a TV pilot. It’s just going much better than I ever could’ve thought. But if what you’re looking for is real fun and real interaction and people in your company getting up on stage, having fun, it’s the perfect thing for it.

Of course, I can do two kinds of after dinner speech in a way. One, I think I suppose which is more stand-up based, going back to my roots as a stand-up comedian on the circuit in London for many years. Another one which is kind of humorous but a bit more anecdote based, so a bit more about adventures, about “Round Ireland with a Fridge” and Moldova and some of the lessons, still keeping the humour very much at the forefront. Of course award ceremonies, which I’ve always enjoyed doing because I love ad-libbing, keeping it light, respecting everything that’s there. But I remember doing the National Flooring Awards for example, and one of the categories was best linoleum with an adhesive underside. Now that’s a battle to keep a straight face when you’re a presenter. And because I’d kind of read the mood in the room, I kind of went, “Oh god, what’s happened to me?” And it worked. You could just have fun with that.

I’ve also done them on occasions where that wouldn’t have been the right thing to do. Just keep going, keep the respect. So I think I’ve done enough of those award ceremonies to know how to read a room. Keep it fun because they can get a bit heavy going. So I enjoy doing award ceremonies as well and linking and presenting.

Maria: 

Okay. So I’m going to ask you something here about audiences. Because obviously when you’re on tour and people come to see you, they’ve bought a ticket. They want to come and see Tony Hawks. They’re a warm, cuddly audience. They’re fans. When you go into a corporate environment, they might not be there for you. They might be there for the event or the award nomination. How do you get them warm and cuddly?

Tony Hawks: 

That’s a very good point. And I think that that’s when you draw on your days when you were a comedian on a bill in a London club where nobody had come to see you. They’d come for a night out. Sometimes at a corporate event they haven’t even come for a night out. They’ve come for a conference or they’ve come for awards and you’re sometimes almost foisted upon them. So it’s very important to establish that rapport with the audience, keep it light, keep it fun. And you need material that’s broad. I think when you do comedy clubs or when you do your own show, you can be a little bit more indulgent sometimes with your material and take some time. You need stronger material that works across the board when you’re doing a corporate. And it’s nice to engage as well with a few people from a few tables. Not embarrassing them but just sort of bringing the people into the room, bringing them into you and creating this fun atmosphere.

Maria: 

Fantastic. So I’m going to ask you now, I’m going to put you on the spot. We’re going to play one of the games you play on one of your radio shows, “Just a Minute.” And I’m going to give you just a minute to talk, without hesitation, deviation or repetition about what you’re doing now.

Tony Hawks: 

I’m going to Moldova next month to go and see the care centre I started. I’m rehearsing, believe it or not, with Chesney Hawkes. We both share the same surname and we’re going to do an amusing musical show with interviews within it. Working too with Barry Cryer the great from “I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue” on a show for Sky Arts about great comedians from our past. “Just a Minute” pops up all the time on Radio 4 and I have a musical which I’ve written called “Midlife Cowboy” which is going on at the Northcott Theatre, Exeter next year. So enough to be going on with. And I’m hoping … My experience tells me that’s probably only about 42 seconds but I can’t be arsed to do any more.

Maria: 

That was really accurate. Yeah, you’ve got about 10 seconds left. That was just genius. I love it. What a true talent you are Tony. Thank you so much for joining us.

Tony Hawks: 

Thank you, it’s been my pleasure too. Thank you.

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