Joseph Morpurgo on his inventive world of mash-up comedy
Joseph Morpurgo

Fresh from a dazzling Edinburgh show that we declared “unpredictable, uproarious, enlightening and enlivening”, Joseph Morprurgo is one of the most acclaimed, innovative comedians on the circuit right now. 

He spoke to Jay Richardson about the power of vinyl, his former life behind the scenes of a beloved panel show, and his distinctive ‘found material’ approach to stand-up. 

As a production runner on Have I Got News For You, it was Joseph Morpurgo’s job to fetch Ian Hislop’s tie, not get too starstruck when meeting his comedy heroes, and find guest publications for the show’s Missing Words round.

“I was scouring very strange nooks of the internet.”

However, after 40 plus series of decidedly niche hobby periodicals and arcane industry bulletins, it was a challenge to find yet more publications on the esoteric and mundane. Thankfully, the eccentric and obsessive British public kept him in gainful employ.

“In the earlier series, they were boring but respectable trade journals,” he explains. “Now you can easily find things like Scalp Powder Monthly. I’d always thought some of them were mocked up. But they’re all real.”

Amusingly, the 27-­year­-old has lately become a kindred spirit to the sort of people producing Modern Ferret and Potato Storage International. Although a member of the phenomenally popular improvised Jane Austen novel show, Austentatious, and a former music journalist, his current professional status is less full­time comedian, “more unemployed person with a productive hobby”.

That’s a rather modest assessment of his vinyl hoarding habit and a performing career that peaked this year with an Edinburgh Comedy Award nomination for his surreal and innovative show Soothing Sounds For Baby.

A bravura hour of offbeat characters and multimedia mischief, it playfully yet “perversely and disrespectfully” mashed up the sounds and cover art of obscure LPs with heavily sampled snatches of Desert Island Discs to contrive a heated interview between its host Kirsty Young and a defensive Morpurgo as her guest. It was a tale of sound and furious recriminations told by a talented idiot.

Currently being reprised in London, Soothing Sounds is Morpurgo’s third show in a loose trilogy prompted by “found” material. It follows Truthmouth, which used stock images as inspiration for a series of unrelated characters, and the audacious Odessa, which wove a David Lynch-style whodunnit from a random VHS recording of a two ­minute US television news item from the 1980s.

With regard to the composition and editing software it uses, Soothing Sounds is cutting ­edge in its “technological vernacular, to use a horribly wanky phrase”. But it also looks back, beyond the modern digitisation, miniaturisation and dissemination of music to an “embedded nostalgia or even sadness … a kind of pathos” in “the physicality of vinyl”.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on in my last two shows, they’re densely packed with sight gags, verbal gags and all kinds of multimedia things going on, they’re cluttered in the way they were written and presented.

“I do wonder if there’s a link between the way I write and the clutter of all that vinyl.”

Although the internet has made virtually all music instantly accessible, making any rooting through the racks of second-hand record stores into an anachronism or hipster affectation, Morpurgo has elevated the unfashionable, crap and discarded beyond “ephemeral trinkets or cutesie little novelty things you find, laugh at and then forget about”, spending “months and months meditating over them, listening, considering”.

Thus, naff seventies soul albums, recordings of golf tips and the collected speeches of Idi Amin have been reconstituted as part of an unlikely folk art tradition.

Some of these LPs are less obscure than Morpurgo’s comprehensive music knowledge appreciated. But his ignorance affords him greater licence to depart from reality, and as with Odessa, there’s a “phantasmagoric” aspect, something slightly “seance­-like” about the way he captures, embodies and distorts the real, often largely forgotten artists behind them.

“It’s a bit like bringing the dead back to life. But it’s less about bringing forgotten heroes back to life than stripping them for parts.”

Joseph Morpurgo

Providing the “heart” and narrative stakes in this rather macabre sounding process, is Morpurgo’s interaction with Kirsty Young, whom he’s taken the greatest liberties with.

The presenter actually came to see the show in Edinburgh.

“She said nice things afterwards, whether they were out of polite commiseration or actual enjoyment would be up for her to say.

“I don’t want to cram any words into her mouth because I’ve been doing enough of that already.”

Ironically for a supposed Desert Island Discs guest, he tries not to reveal too much of himself, at least not in his work. A distant cousin of War Horse author Michael Morpurgo ­(“we’ve never met”) his solo shows are informed by his background in improv comedy, of being inspired by constraint and refining his authorship out of existence.

“Often, if I’m deep in the wormhole of writing a stand­-up show, particularly one that requires a lot of editing or making visual gags, those are extremely laborious, time­-consuming, focused processes that require a lot of consideration and effort. So it’s great to suddenly throw yourself out on stage and get that rush of ‘Christ, anything can happen!’”

Even so, the methodology is very similar.

“You’re given or find something relatively arbitrary as a starting point, then see where your brain takes something that specific and unusual, going deep into that one thing.

“Hopefully by doing that, you get to a place that’s more idiosyncratic than if you stuck to a conventional subject.”

Joseph Morpurgo’s Soothing Sounds for Baby is at The Invisible Dot, London until October 31, more info

Main Photo: Mark Dawson