When the American rapper Nas made a late withdrawal from the British television show Later with Jools Holland in 2004, he could hardly have suspected the impact it would have on a couple of fellow performers. His slot on the influential showcase was filled, famously, by the then-unknown singer KT Tunstall, who mesmerised the crowd by creating her own backing vocals using a voice-sampling effects pedal, and was instantly catapulted to stardom. Less well-known is the effect of Tunstall's innovative set on the musical comedian Rob Deering, an uncredited performer that night who was beginning to find his own guitar-based routines rather limiting.
"I was the warm-up act for that show," recalls Deering, "and I saw her using the pedal and I said 'I'm going to get one of those,' and I did. I was chatting to her and her manager afterwards, they told me what it was, and I went and got one. I'm happy to admit I took the idea directly from her, and it's great, I can recreate a whole band with it. I think it's unique in comedy." Deering's horizons broadened considerably after his act became pedal-powered, and musical comedy as a whole has enjoyed a vibrant resurgence in recent years. The venerable sub-genre was "very unfashionable", he admits, "but is a lot hipper now", due to international talents such as the New Zealand duo Flight of the Conchords, the Australian pianist Tim Minchin, and the Irish keyboardist David O'Doherty, who won the prestigious if.comedy award at the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe, and of course, the granddaddy of them all, the multi-instrumentalist Bill Bailey.
Meanwhile, Deering has spent a decade on the British stand-up circuit proving that a man with a guitar is quite capable of headlining shows. Musicians invariably play second fiddle to regular gag-tellers on comedy bills, but Deering's act is a tough one to follow, as it goes far beyond the regular funny-song format. He'll build up a track using those pedals, add his own backing vocals and even some drums via a spot of human beatboxing, while throwing in gags. Then he'll tell a story and use a guitar riff as the punchline.
"It's a whole show with me," he says. "There's definitely proper stand-up in there, even if people don't notice with all the music. I'm committed to telling proper jokes then indulging my fantasies of being in a band." Born and raised near London's Heathrow airport, Deering, who is visiting the UAE for The Laughter Factory this week, told me he was looking forward to performing a slightly longer set than is usually the case at regular UK gigs. He may be a frustrated rock star but the opportunity to "clown around on stage" is his prime motivation. Indeed, the seemingly accomplished guitarist is surprisingly self-deprecating about his musical talents. A few days before we spoke he was performing at a high-profile benefit gig for the Warchild charity, which proved slightly nerve-wracking.
"There were comedians on but also proper pop stars - Plan B and Madness were on - and I thought 'oh no, that's completely moved the goalposts'. So that night I was trying to be a good musician, and as a result I played a few bum notes, which I never normally would. Basically, I'm a good musician as long as you think of me as a comedian." Deering came relatively late to stand-up, and dipped a toe into several other cultural waters before finally seeing the light at the age of 29. For the previous decade he had worked as a jobbing theatre director, and before that made several attempts at rock 'n' roll success, despite his self-confessed resemblance to the less-than-attractive Chief Wiggum, from The Simpsons. Music fame remained elusive, and the budding star didn't help himself.
"I was really bossy. I had bands but they all had to do what I said and I'd gradually sack all the members. I had the attitude for fame, I just didn't have the recording contract. The first band I was ever in, we stayed together for a while but we all hated each other. We pretended we didn't but everyone was just horrible to each other all the time. But then I think that's true of all bands. Do you ever get the impression that the rest of U2 don't like Bono? They're less like mates, more like family."
Things were very different when Deering took up theatre directing. He was now no longer "striving to be serious" but perhaps had swung too far in the other direction. This potential career also floundered "because of what I'm like - you get to a rehearsal of Othello and I'm still pulling faces and cracking jokes". A more appropriate vocation finally presented itself when he met some stand-ups, and realised the joy and freedom of being silly on stage. It was only several years later that a guitar was introduced into the act, but music did help him fund the new profession. As a sideline he began composing jingles, which worked well, for a while.
"I started doing stand-up and I thought 'I'll fund that by doing TV theme tunes!' So I wrote a couple while I did a few open spots, and the comedy immediately blossomed. But when I became a success as a comedian, the people who employed me to write music stopped taking me seriously. They thought 'oh, he's a comedian' and started employing other people. People don't like you having more than one job. They get very confused."
Thankfully the comedy has proven a more than adequate money-spinner, and adding the guitar and pedals has allowed him to indulge those musical urges along the way. His "big stupid face" - again, Deering's description - has become a familiar sight on British television too, and while he considers himself "too old" to become a household name now, there is one televisual strand that still appeals. Despite his endearingly daft persona, Deering's memory for useless facts has become quite a talking point in the British comedy business. This gift has made him a popular contributor to nostalgic TV clip shows because "I could talk about Knight Rider for an hour, at any given moment," but became more obviously apparent on a special edition of the long-running quiz show The Weakest Link in 2007.
Deering is a great lover of quiz shows, having appeared on several before becoming famous, and that comedians' edition of The Weakest Link proved to be his proudest moment. He remains the only contestant in the show's history - celebrity or otherwise - to have answered every question correctly on the way to winning an episode, and made an enormous sum for charity along the way. Even if the stand-up career suddenly falls apart, he'll always be remembered for something.
"That's not a particularly happy philosophy," smiles the comic, "but it's true. As far as my mum and dad are concerned, I've peaked." He hasn't really. After flying home Deering will head up to the Edinburgh Fringe and combine all of his passions - apart from Knight Rider - in one appealing package. He'll be hosting Beat This, a live comedy quiz about music that is clearly a labour of love and, with luck, should transfer to radio or TV in the near future.
And if it does become a big hit, he really should invite Nas along as a guest. It's only fair. Rob Deering will be appearing in The Laughter Factory in Dubai tonight, tomorrow and on Friday. For more details and the full line-up see www.thelaughterfactory.com.
Published: August 4, 2010 04:00 AM