Laughter Lines: Welsh Comic Rod Woodward Returns To His Roots With Cardiff Show

AFTER stealing the show at the Royal Variety Performance last year, Cardiff comedian Rod Woodward returns to St David’s Hall on Saturday 2 March.

Rod performed at the venue as part of The Journey Starts Here tour in April 2015 and brought the house down with his support slot for Max Boyce in February 2017. Now, he’s back with his hilarious new show I’m Not Being Funny, But…

Neil Collins chats to Rod Woodward about perilously scaling the Magic Roundabout, mingling with royalty and potentially penning a new footy song for Cardiff City!

This is your second UK tour and you’ll be performing other Welsh gigs Neath and Blackwood in the coming weeks, but there must be something extra special performing in your hometown at St David’s Hall?

Yes, it’s certainly a buzz. It’s a place I always used to go when I was a kid, and I’ve seen Bob Hope, Norman Wisdom, Frank Skinner and Jack Dee there. I thought if I’m ever lucky enough to make this a career – which was my childhood ambition – then it would be a place I’d love to play. It was a thrill to do it last time, and there’s an extra special excitement about playing a hometown gig there.

Will there be a few extra butterflies in your stomach with all your friends and family watching?

It’s a weird one because when you know that everyone that you’ve ever met since you’ve been a foetus is going to be there – well, it feels that way anyway – there’s a bit of extra pressure. Most audiences as a collective you’re never going to see again, which is a bit of a safety blanket. But when you know that you’re Auntie Agnes is going to be there, and she’s a bit of a prude you find yourself rethinking your material sometimes!

Hopefully they won’t heckle you!

Exactly! There’s a bit of a worry that some of them may have heard a few of the punchlines before and some may even feature in a few, so that’s always a worry if they recognise themselves. Most of the time though they don’t, they’re like “Who’s he on about there?! That can’t be me!”

What are your memories of supporting Max Boyce at the Hall?

He’s part of the comedy heritage and it’s always an absolute pleasure to work with legends like that. That word gets bandied about a lot, but he certainly is. He goes right back to the dawn of alternative comedy. It seemed like every region had an alternative comic, who came out onstage in their jeans and t-shirt rather than a spangly suit and bow tie. You would have Billy Connolly for Scotland, Mike Harding up north, Jasper Carrott for the Midlands, Richard Digance down south and Max Boyce in Wales. So to see someone who’s had that longevity in his career, it’s quite inspirational. To enjoy even half of that appeal for as long as he has, you must be doing something right.

You’ve toured with the likes of Paddy McGuinness and Russell Brand. Were you the support for Russell on the night he didn’t show up in 2007? That must’ve been a tough crowd!

I was! He had been to a West Ham game earlier that day. They had a bit of a ’mare and he had some transport problems afterwards. My slot was cancelled as well just as I’d been about to go onstage. The venue announced Russell would be back at a later date, and I think a lot people thought it was a wind-up.

By then the people were desperate to see Russell, but he’s a force of nature and has such a charm about him that when he went on he grabbed a copy of the Cardiff Post and just ad-libbed the first half-hour. From there he had the whole audience eating out the palm of his hand. He’s a special kind of talent.

The new tour is titled I’m Not Being Funny, But… It strikes me as one of those great contradictory expressions where people do the exact opposite of what they are saying like “No offence, but…”

A lot of people in Wales use the expression “I’m not being funny, but…” and when you hear it you should really brace yourself for an insult or an unsavoury comment like “I’m not being funny, but I think you’re putting on some weight!” A few mates of mine use that idiom all the time, and as I was fashioning material on a lot of people I know, that had a special meaning.

Also with an extra ‘t’, there’s the special Welsh meaning of “I’m not being funny, butt” as in “mate”. I do realise I’m leaving myself wide open for critics with the title I’m Not Being Funny, But… “Yeah, he wasn’t lying when he said that!”

As such a big Bob Monkhouse fan yourself, it also reminds me of one of his classic lines – “When I first said I wanted to be a comedian, everybody laughed. They’re not laughing now…”

I’m a huge Monkhouse fan – always have been – and that was one of his great gags.

Will your Italian alter-ego Mario De Niro be making an appearance this year, or will it just be yourself up there?

It will be all me this time. I’ve laid Mario to rest temporarily. I daresay, like a lot of good Italians he’ll be making a Sinatra-esque comeback in time though. There was an Italian barber and a restauranteur that we know very well that he was based upon. Those guys still feature in the set in some way, so Mario may be there in spirit!

I think back to gigs with Mario and some of the stuff I used to get away with. I would turn up for gigs and I would go “Mario, do you want to do this?” And he would be like “I can do this, you have the night off!” So when you put on a stupid accent and a wig like I used to, it gives you licence to do all sorts of things. I remember doing one dinner at Manchester City when I was sat with Franny Lee and then I went on wearing this ridiculous wig with a pseudo-Italian accent, and he genuinely had no idea it was me. He turned to me at the end of it and said “I don’t know what happened to the lad who was sat there earlier, but he would’ve enjoyed that”. I took the wig off and he nearly had a thrombosis!

Did you find the comfort blanket of the Mario character gave you extra protection to hide your nerves behind in the early days?

 Definitely, and if for any reason it hasn’t gone well you can take off the wig and come back out and nobody recognises you, so you don’t accosted on the way out by bouncers, secretaries and hookers! It was definitely something to hide behind, but now I’m on the front-line and if I’m going to fall; I’ll fall on my own sword.

Do these people know you based the character on them?

Yeah, they do actually. When I went to up to Edinburgh Festival for the first time in the early 2000s, I took the Mario show up there and we did a video where the barber was involved in a mock-Godfather set-up, and he loved all that. He had a bit of publicity and we had a bit more authenticity. I think basing characters on real people is the best way because the source material is endless, so it’s inexhaustible.

You had originally been interested in a career in media before an opportunity came calling as a warm-up guy for HTV Wales. What were those early experiences like?

My old man was chief soccer writer for the Western Mail, and I had been brought up following the fortunes of Cardiff and Swansea City. I did my work experience covering grassroots football with Inter Cardiff, and non-league teams. But I had always fancied a career in stand-up, which got a bigger laugh than I expected from the career’s advisor at school. He said I could do that in my spare time as there’s no hard and fast career path for that, so I resigned myself to that was what I’d have to do.

By chance, I got spotted by Arfon Haines Davies. I was the chairman of a local children’s charity, and I was chairing an event in Cardiff for the Welsh boxer, Steve Robinson. We were having a celebratory dinner before he fought Prince Naseem Hamed for the world title, and I used that as an opportunity to get up and crack a few gags and get rid of some of my angst as a frustrated stand-up comic.

Arfon was in the audience and asked if did much stand-up. So I said I’d done a few open spots and competitions. He said they were looking for a warm-up man at HTV Wales and asked if I wanted to come along and try out for that. I ended up doing several series with them and your perspective changes when you’re a kid with a bit of money in your pocket and you start thinking “This is the way forward for me”. I took a year out, and never really went back, which is just as well because there wasn’t much to write about for the next 10 years of Welsh football!

Was that the turning point?

It was a baptism by fire because I was turning up and had very limited material to fill 20 minutes. I was desperately cobbling stuff together.  I didn’t realise that the audience turn up for the entire series – it’s not like The Graham Norton Show where they’ve got a massive turn-out, so the same people were turning up.

I was really thrown into the deep end and thought “it can’t get any harder than this” and I was right. Once I had been on TV a bit and got a bit of a name, I started getting bookings and sports dinners, gigs at Jongleurs and student unions. Once you have two or three good gigs, you get a bit of a reputation and all of a sudden, you’re thinking “Wow, I can actually make some money out of this!”

Welsh comedian Rob Woodward headlines his own stand-up show at St David’s Hall on March 2.Welsh comedian Rob Woodward headlines his own stand-up show at St David’s Hall on March 2.

Welsh comedian Rob Woodward headlines his own stand-up show at St David’s Hall on March 2.

In 2008, you won BBC’s Funny Business. The must’ve been incredible to win a competition like that and receive nationwide recognition?

That was about 11 years after I’d started. It’s a very, very gradual process and I don’t think you can ever be too experienced in stand-up. I think anyone who says they haven’t had a difficult nights, or a bit of a struggle haven’t been doing it long enough. Funny Business came along and was great for me. You can never have too much exposure of that kind especially with TV stuff. It’s a simple equation – if people have seen you on TV and liked you, there’s always a chance they’ll come out to see you live.

Were you pinching yourself to receive plaudits off huge names like Bob Monkhouse and Peter Kay?

Bob Monkhouse has always been one of my biggest heroes and sometimes when you meet people you’ve really looked up to, they let you down. But he was everything I expected him to be. He was so generous, had a brilliant brain and was such a student of comedy. He was so welcoming for someone like myself just coming into the business, and was very forthcoming with nuggets of information. I still follow those must dos and must don’ts. That was massive for me meeting him – it was like meeting Santa!

With Peter Kay, I think it was on my first trip to Edinburgh I was in the final of So You Think You’re Funny the year that he won it. I was quite new to the game, but he was the finished article. I was a fan of his from the start. I got to know him through touring with Paddy McGuinness and found out what a nice guy he is, so that was a real thrill as well.

You famously write and sang Do the Ayatollah to the tune of Macarena when Cardiff City reached the 2008 FA Cup Final. Where does it rank against classic football songs like World in Motion?

Fair play to the Cardiff fans, they really got behind it and it got 300,000 hits on YouTube – although I would love to have had the monetary gains of World in Motion! There’s still a lot of legs in it, so perhaps we could do a rehash or a rap version. It’s something I would like to re-visit.

Maybe you could do a new version if Cardiff stay up?

That would warrant it! It’s been some year for Cardiff this. Just going up was an incredible achievement and staying up is going to be unbelievably difficult. But after the year they’ve had and this awful tragedy with Emiliano Sala; staying up would be the ultimate tribute to him and Neil Warnock, who has been hit for six by the news. He’s been through everything in football, but to go through two moments that were so similar in the same season in the immediate wake of the Leicester tragedy and this unthinkable tragedy with Sala. Staying up would be so special for the fans and Sala’s family.

You were recently invited back to perform on the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium. How was it?

It was an absolute delight. The first time I did it back in 2014 was such a special experience. Playing in the Royal Variety Show is kind of like being in a cup final for a comic. My dad had been diagnosed with a terminal illness at the time, and the specialist said that he wouldn’t be able to come up and watch the show, but he made it his own personal mission to get there and not only that, he was still holding court at the after-show party at 3am!

I remember the first night for so many special reasons and it was always going to be a tough one to top, but the audience the second time were just fantastic. Harry and Meghan were there, which gave the evening an extra shot in the arm. My mother and sister who live in Spain flew back for it too, which was lovely. Hopefully, one day I’ll get to do it again and get my hat-trick. Perhaps I’ll get a floorboard at the Palladium – I don’t know what happens if you do it three times!

Did you find yourself minding your Ps & Qs in front of royalty?

A mate of mine, Dennis Gethin – who is the head of the Welsh Rugby Union – is a big friend of Prince William and they always have banter about the rugby. William is obviously a big patron of the Welsh rugby team, so the first time I met him and Kate, I started him off about rugby. He got quite animated with his arms flapping about, and it was great.

So as it worked before, I used the same approach this time with him and Harry. Meghan was there too and she’s like a Disney princess. She’s so demure and kind and she’s become that princess-like character like Elsa from Frozen! I was expecting her to go “Let it go, let it go!” Harry got animated for different reasons to William though as he’s a big England fan. He was like “I only ever support one team!”

What do you think of Wales’ chances in the Six Nations?

I think the Wales-England game at the end of February will be the decider, and it being in Cardiff will give us a massive advantage. If we had capitulated against France, we wouldn’t even be in the conversation for winning the championship, but now we’ve got confidence and are used to winning. Ten years or so ago, we didn’t have that in our DNA, we were always expected to lose in the last 10 minutes, but now we really believe that we can do something special. Most importantly, it sets us up for a big World Cup, so I’m going to say we’ll win this Six Nations.

You started comedy way back in 1997. Did you ever think you would still be here 22 years later making people laugh?

I could never see myself doing a proper job now to be honest. It’s the ultimate drug. Sometimes it doesn’t go to plan, but when it does that’s what keeps you coming back for more. Peter Kay’s named his book The Sound of Laughter, and it’s as simple as that – if they’re laughing, you know you’re doing something right.