‘I really don’t think I’m cool’
With acclaimed roles in Garth Marenghi, The Mighty Boosh and The IT Crowd, Richard Ayoade is one of Britain’s brightest young comedians. He’s also found success directing videos for Arctic Monkeys. So what’s behind the loser act? Patrick Barkham meets him
Richard Ayoade, comedian, actor and filmmaker at Warp Films’ offices, 2008
Richard Ayoade, 2008. Photograph: Teri Pengilley Teri Pengilley/Guardian
Thursday 2 October 2008 00.01 BST Last modified on Thursday 2 October 2008 08.04 BST
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Cowering behind thick black spectacles and quavering in his extraordinarily soft, old man’s voice, Richard Ayoade is forced to describe the embarrassing successes and unmerited achievements of his life so far. His school band was “the worst ever”. He became president of the “very uncool” Cambridge Footlights because “there was a big shortage of people” and performed “massively mediocre” comedy. After “wasting everyone’s time” with stand-up, he began directing music videos thanks to a “fortuitous” meeting, and his first ever video – for Arctic Monkeys’ Fluorescent Adolescent – was only nominated for the inaugural UK Music Video Awards “because the song is so good”. He is best known for his portrayal of uber-nerd Moss in Channel 4’s The IT Crowd but has a “miniscule range” and no other acting offers. “I’m not sure I’d hire myself in anything. I certainly couldn’t be an actor. That would be terrible. For everyone.”
In short, this 31-year-old actor/writer/director would have you believe he is a hopeless loser. “This probably illustrates why I haven’t done many … um, you know,” he tails off. “I’m just terrible. At talking. With words.”
The trouble is, despite Ayoade’s protestations, he is probably the coolest man in London right now. His film of Arctic Monkeys in concert will be shown in cinemas this month. He has directed videos for Vampire Weekend and the Last Shadow Puppets. He is adapting a novel for a film and shooting the third series of the IT Crowd. Women adore him (he doesn’t tell me this; they do) and he reluctantly admits to being friends with Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner (“partly because he lives in London now”) and the Mighty Boosh, in which he appears (“Everyone in the cast is their friend, really”).
It is hard not to prod someone who so shyly plays everything down. You are one of the coolest men in the capital, aren’t you, I say. He shifts uncomfortably. “No. I really don’t think I’m cool. I’m not.” He scrabbles around desperately for evidence. “I don’t know anything about computers. I resisted getting the internet for a long time. Even saying, ‘Getting the internet’ …” You’ll soon be in various style magazines’ “cool lists”, I prod. “I don’t think I’m in danger of that,” he replies with conviction.
Ayoade is an only child. His Norwegian mother and Nigerian father met in London and the family moved to Ipswich when he was young. What was it like growing up there? “I have no particular ill to speak of Ipswich. It was fine,” he says. “I just apologise in advance for being very unexciting, which will continue.” As a teenager, Ayoade discovered grunge – “lots of people going into guitar shops and playing the first four chords of Smells Like Teen Spirit” – and would patiently wait for “indie week” on the Chart Show, which came around every three weeks with 30-second clips of Nirvana or the Pixies. Aged 15, he went to Brixton Academy to see his heroes, Dinosaur Jr. “I was standing in what I thought was a really good position, quite close, and everyone just started jumping up and down. I lost half a tooth immediately. I didn’t know everyone jumped up and down. Because I was from Ipswich.”
There were no drama classes at his Catholic boys’ school but Ayoade volunteered to do some comedy with the Footlights when he pitched up at Cambridge to study law. It was the proving ground for John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Sacha Baron Cohen and so on, although Ayoade insists he is not being “disingenuous” when he says it was not popular at all – although Peep Show’s David Mitchell was a member when he was a first-year student – and he became president by default. “No one wanted to do it, so it wasn’t like having to fight through swaths of people,” he says with typical hesitancy. “I don’t think this is a lie.”
With co-writer Matthew Holness, Ayoade took his spoof horror comedy stage show, Garth Marenghi’s Fright Knight, to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2000 and won the Perrier comedy award there in 2001. Two Channel 4 series – Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and Man to Man with Dean Learner – followed, alongside roles in Nathan Barley and The Mighty Boosh after Ayoade met and performed with Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Since then, he has become best known for The IT Crowd. To play Moss, the director pointedly instructed him: “He’s the geekiest person in the world. Just do it in your own voice.” Ayoade’s unique style of speaking elevates Moss above the Mr Muscle stereotype as does his understanding that true nerds are completely unselfconscious (unlike Ayoade). He based Moss on stage-show technicians. “The main attribute that they seem to share is an enthusiasm for life. They are all very positive. You go, ‘How are you?’ and they go, ‘Great! I’ve just bought a dog!’ and it’s very charming and not mean-spirited in any way.”
Things took a more unusual turn when Ayoade had a meeting with a film company, Warp, to discuss script ideas and mentioned that he would love to direct a music video. Through Warp’s connections, he met Arctic Monkeys in Sheffield and created the video for Fluorescent Adolescent, a funny and surreal clown fight in the style of The Sweeney. Since then, he has made a flurry of videos, including Vampire Weekend’s Oxford Comma – a one-shot video of “revolutionary farmers” that “looks Wes Anderson-y and was meant to look more Godard-y but not in a po-faced way” – and Super Furry Animals’ Run Away – “like a Serge Gainsbourg TV special, a very melodramatic story”.
Old cars are an Ayoade trademark. “I like people playing guitars leaning up against cars or in a field. It’s a bit like Monty Python being in a field playing instruments,” he says. “Cars are good for entrances and exits. And there is something about driving that is quite cliched in a funny way. I like Roy Orbison’s video for I Drove All Night because it’s so literal. It is just a man driving throughout the night. I like that silliness. To be in a video is a ridiculous thing. It’s almost impossible to do it without any humour.”
Despite his meticulousness (Ayoade listens to a song “about 500 times” to match his vision to its pace and music) and esoteric references (his smoky, atmospheric video for the Last Shadow Puppets’ My Mistakes Were Made For You was inspired by Federico Fellini’s cult film Toby Dammit), Ayoade’s videos are playful and funny. He particularly admires Spike Jonze, who made the videos for the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage and Weezer’s Buddy Holly. Apart from Dinosaur Jr and Kings of Leon, he would most like to direct “a nunsploitation” for Girls Aloud “with them as nuns but in a horror setting. The nun chainsaw video. But I’m sure that’s probably not a direction they are going in,” he says.
He certainly has a winning pitch based on the success of Fluorescent Adolescent, which failed to reach No 1 unlike most of their earlier singles. “Arctic Monkeys’ song was so clearly brilliant,” he says, “so I’m able to bring a unique brand of commercial failure to the most successful people.”
Ayoade is now adapting Submarine, the acclaimed debut novel by Joe Dunthorne, which tells the darkly comic tale of an intellectual teenager who tries to solve his parents’ marital difficulties. He hopes to direct the film next summer. Until then, he may have to cope with winning some awards and getting recognised on the street. He gets approached a bit, which is fine, he says, because “there’s a level of slight justified contempt that you can have for comedians”. He shifts awkwardly. “If I am introduced to anyone, I find it incredibly embarrassing – and that’s quite an immature position to have arrived at, at my age. It’s obviously awkward but I don’t mean that in an ungrateful way”.
• Richard Ayoade is nominated in the Best Director and Best Rock Video categories at this year’s UK Music Video Awards on October 14