Cancel culture? It's just a load of ugly, nerdy kids... | Former Comedy Cafe owner Noel Faulkner speaks his mind

Cancel culture? It's just a load of ugly, nerdy kids...

Former Comedy Cafe owner Noel Faulkner speaks his mind

Noel Faulkner, the founder of now-defunct London stand-up institution The Comedy Cafe, lives in retirement in Galway, where freelance writer and poet Kevin Whelan caught up with him last week. Here's the author's personal take on Faulkner, his life story, and his uncompromising opinions on comedians and the circuit... 

I recently had the pleasure of reading in manuscript the autobiography of Noel Faulkner, Shake, Rattle, and Noel. Who is he? He founded the Comedy Café in London’s Shoreditch in 1990, until selling up some years ago.  He now splits his time between his native County Galway and  his boat in the Mediterranean with his wife Martine. At his ground-breaking club he helped some neophyte comics who are now household names get their first start in the industry, among them such singular and protean talents as Lee Mack, Jo Brand, Tim Vine, Milton Jones, Daniel Kitson, Alan Francis, and others. 

 Noel has non-verbal Tourette’s, something he was only diagnosed with in his thirties (‘Everyone thought I was on coke – I hate the stuff’, he says with some venom); as a consequence, his face is in a constant state of flux as if very light electric shocks are being passed through his body via a malign but invisible tormentor. He is also dyslexic, though you would never guess it from his book, which reads like an evening with a hugely gifted raconteur: one hilarious and often hair-raising yarn runs seamlessly into another, the story of a nice middle-class bank manager’s son from the west of Ireland who ran off to the sea to discover the world and himself. 

He has a shock of white hair and high cheek bones; in his youth he bore a more than a passing resemblance to the late Brad Davis during his Midnight Express fame; now, at 76, there is a hint of Jack Nicholson about him. (Indeed, he did an impression of Nicholson à la The Shining in one Edinburgh Fringe show); he possesses the wiry build and big hands of a flyweight (in the parlance of his beloved North London, he looks ‘handy’) while his hazel eyes dart about, full of enquiry but not calculation; his overall facial expression, between tics, is one that accepts life can be ridiculous and unfair but savagely funny too, and much too short to be bitter or vindictive.

He had a reputation among the comedy cohort as abrasive, unfiltered, but never knowingly malicious. He seems to be one of those rare people who truly lives in the moment (‘I was miserable for years. Then one day I woke up and decided to be happy. And I am’).

 Like many Irishmen of his generation, he had a very bad experience with the educational system as administered by the Christian Brothers. I had my own experience with this infamous cohort in a Catholic prep boarding school in Wiltshire in the early 1970s and can vouch for everything Noel writes about their methods: every single one was, to a man, a complete bastard, though they could occasionally, if rarely, be kind. 

That didn’t put me off Catholicism – I’m still very much of the faith, thanks largely to my parents’ loving example – but not so Noel. While he is not ‘religious’, he is not without a spiritual approach to life. It’s all about karma – everyone gets what’s coming to them eventually, good or bad. He is one of those people it is almost impossible to categorise, a personality that is truly sui generis, with a soul animated by a joyful, benign mischievousness: he wants you to get the joke as much as him. 

And what is it? Everything. Everyone. He is not laughing at you but with you. No doubt, much of this hard-won philosophy comes from the various ups and down of his life as chronicled in his autobiography, and too from his close study of Buddhism. He appears to have taken to heart Seneca’s advice (‘It better befits a man to laugh at life than lament over it’) and Rabelais’ (‘For all your ills I give you laughter).  He makes no claims that he knows better than anyone else; your take on life and its mysteries is just as valid as his or anyone else’s. He is without the smart-arse’s knowing smirk. There is humility there.

 I sat down with him over a coffee last week, keen to hear his opinions of the current British comedy scene, about which he has a few trenchant remarks in his book, and his life now.

What are his earliest memories of London?

 'In 1990, when I came to London, all the comics were characters. Some of them had been small-time pop singers in the Sixties. All the London-based guys – Frank Skinner (‘a gentleman’), Malcolm Hardy (‘loved him’), Jeremy Hardy (‘always true to what he believed in’), Tim Vine (‘Great fun. He had a sold-out show in Edinburgh but insisted I get a seat. I liked that. Nice to feel you’re not forgotten’), the media recluse Daniel Kitson (‘For a great evening out, for a great surprise, it’s got to be Daniel. Incredibly funny and incredibly moving. He has a huge following but can walk down the street and no one bothers him"), Jo Brand (‘Jo always made sure that the support acts were well paid, even over-paid. A huge heart’), Milton Jones (‘I told him I can’t retire until you make it. The day his daughter was born I sent him flowers—the only one who did! I barely knew him. Now on her birthday they drink to my health’).

In his book he writes about living in San Francisco, painting houses and making his home on a boat, when a young man who had been expelled from Julliard appeared in his life (‘How does anyone get expelled from drama school?’). It was Robin Williams, trying to get his first break in showbusiness (When he became a star ‘he would always insist that ten homeless people would be employed as extras on his movies’). 

There was also the period when Faulkner smuggled hashish into the States from Mexico, as a kind of Lenny Bruce meets Howard Marks figure.

I asked him about his reputation on the scene with comics generally.

‘They were all scared of me. I’d tell them if they were shite.’ He was always uncompromising in his approach to his work and those who appeared on the Comedy Café stage, but comics knew they could trust him, that he would tell it like it was because it came from a place without envy or malice, his ‘career’ the very definition of serendipitous, a kind man in a business not generally known for the virtue.

What would he advise younger comics trying to make the break in the capital?

‘Learn you craft in the provinces, try stuff out, see how it works.’

All the same, he’s been around the comedy scene so long that nothing much surprises him anymore. He’ll watch an act and be able to anticipate gags. ‘I’m laughing before the punchline’.

Faulkner was the first comedy club proprietor to showcase evenings exclusively for emerging black talent. and one up-and-coming comedian he has a huge amount of time for is  Jimmy James Jones. ‘He’s a beautiful human being.’

I asked him his opinion of cancel culture. I said I thought it was disgraceful the way Graham Linehan had been thrown under the proverbial bus –  ruined both financially and reputationally –  for thought crimes such as believing that girls and women deserved separate spaces in the public realm from men.

If Father Ted: The Musical ever goes ahead I believe it will find a huge audience, that people would come in their thousands to watch it as a way of supporting Linehan whether they were fans or Father Ted or not. Noel agreed. He offered his own typically trenchant opinion on cancel culture and its woke absurdities.

 ‘It’s a load of crap. It’s very ugly, nerdy kids who don’t have a chance in life with people like me. The people who entertain them are sicker. Schmucks!" he added with real feeling.

 On the off-chance that Linehan might be reading, what would you say to him?

  ‘Look, Graham, this is all going to pass over. Of course that’s not going to help now", he admitted sadly. He said he would like to write with Linehan, as he had invented a pair of cantankerous Lighthouse Keepers who engage in madcap Pete Cook and Dudley Moore-style dialogues. ‘I hope he wouldn’t find it too Father Ted-ish. He could write it under a pen name.’ Noel had a working title: Lamp. 

He would like to see the Scottish comic Alan Francis cast alongside him as one of the priests. ‘He’s fucking great. He has the talent to be a superstar and just hasn’t been recognised. I’ve seen that with a few comics.’

 To sign off, did he have any message for his friends in London? ‘Send me some money!’ he said, and laughed. 

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Published: 13 May 2024

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