Frankie Boyle: 'Have I Got News For You is everything that's wrong'

… and don't get him started on Mock the Week. In a rare interview, the caustic Scots comic turns his fire on the BBC, Charlie Brooker and reaction to that Jordan joke

I meet Frankie Boyle on a damp Glasgow morning. We head towards his caffeine pit-stop of choice, where the famously offensive comic proceeds to hold forth on everything from northern soul to HP Lovecraft. He does all of this gently; not once does he spit "shit hat, you old hag" at passing Glaswegian grandmothers.

With some coffee inside him, Boyle does start to unleash a little bile, his invective directed against what he sees as safe middle-class comedy. It's been two years since Boyle left Mock The Week, the show that made his name, and a year since his solo programme Tramadol Nights caused tabloid uproar and was investigated by Ofcom over its material. Next year he will return to the live circuit, taking his show The Last Days Of Sodom on tour around the UK. The one thing notably absent from our chat is an ounce of regret about the offence he's caused and outrage he's inspired. There is a sense that, for Boyle, regret or apology would be like editing a novel once it was published or turning up at the cinema to make some fresh cuts. Offence is far from the sole intent of his work, but is a part of it. He's not one to make it easy for those who enjoy his satirical barbs, as they also have to put up with the disability gags and low digs. Whether you call that challenging or childish is up to you, but one thing's for certain: Boyle couldn't give a fuck either way.

Tramadol Nights got a bumpy ride from some critics, did that surprise you?

I was really happy with it. It was supposed to be complete nihilism. If you can accept that, you will like it; if you don't, you'll really hate it. I was always doing a cult thing and I happened to get a mainstream audience. The expectation was high, but comedy doesn't rate like Strictly Come Dancing. We did a show that was like: alternative comedy did happen; for people who'd watched The Young Ones. There was plenty of politics and satire in there.

Frankie Boyle
Frankie Boyle onstage. Photograph: Graeme Hunter Photograph: Graeme Hunter

Was it the wrong kind of satire for some reviewers?

If you're from Oxbridge and upper middle class you're going to get a different reception, as people think you are doing things deliberately. I could do a show that's exactly what they [reviewers] want – that form of satire – but for me that involves taking things too seriously.

Are you talking about Have I Got News For You?

That is everything that's wrong. It brings people on and humanises them. They say, "This is intelligent satire" but it's people laughing at "John Prescott is fat" jokes long after he's retired. They should do what they do in any other emergency and that's form an emergency committee, get some people who are still alive, and work out how to resolve things. The riots were probably a culture thing. Twelve weeks of Show Me The Funny, that would be enough to make you kick a window in.

Do you like anything, comedy-wise at the moment? Stewart Lee, perhaps?

It seems to me [he's] irrelevant and flabby. OK, you don't like Russell Howard; that's fine. But don't put on your posters "a new kind of political comedy". Yeah, without any politics. Crisps? What the fuck is that about? People internalise marketing. You sell yourself and people sell stuff to you. He ends up going, "Michael McIntyre, Russell Howard, not like me." What the fuck is that? Sick of that old washing powder?

Tramadol Nights prompted comments from the chairman of the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee about your use of racial language. What did you make of the row?

Frankie Boyle
Frankie Boyle on Tramadol Nights. Photograph: PR

There is the public culture and the real culture; the public culture has to be a pantomime. People have to be horrified, no one can have indifference and ennui. The thing that really got me was me doing anti-war jokes and it being dismissed as racist. That department of war thing was from Lloyd George. Black people and Asian people come up to me and say they love that joke, they want to talk about it. I am a comic, that is my job. I am not serving you gammon in a supermarket. My job is to take those words and use them in a way that makes them a bit more worthwhile. It's a joke that says we have always been intensely racist and our department of defence underlines that. You would think politicians would have better things to discuss in the middle of three wars and an economic collapse.

Do people miss the fact that you often play an exaggerated version of yourself?

Yes, it's not me. It is not me at all. Fuck them. That Harvey and Jordan thing is funny or horribly offensive depending on whether you're Scottish or English. There is a much broader sense of dark humour up here but also that sense of being able to say things in different voices. In Glasgow that's a standard thing: "Imagine this guy saying that, or this guy would say that." You can do "My dog's got no nose?" and people might call the RSPCA. It's a joke! You can't treat people like idiots. To be honest, 90% of the people get it, the rest are Daily Mail-ers or something.

Some of Tramadol Nights' sketches were longer than we normally see on television. Was that deliberate?

It is that thing of: four minutes, fuckers. Nobody watched that and thought, "What is wrong with me? I can't even concentrate for four minutes." Monty Python was seven, eight, nine minutes. There are gags every two lines, it's just that you can't handle four minutes. I'd cut other gags off really abruptly.

Frankie Boyle
Tramadol Nights poster Photograph: PR

Have you ever tried Tramadol?

I haven't used it. I would like to, but there are a lot of drugs I would try before Tramadol. I would like to try doing more acid and write on that. I have done a little bit, for a story in my book. There's a show called The Game that everybody is watching and I tried to write about what this idea would be like on telly. It's a trippy story about this show. It's about one of the big questions in our society: why nothing is ever enough.

Your book, Work! Consume! Die!, is partly made up of your columns for the Sun, is that paper not an odd match for you?

Sure. That is the whole thing for me: trying to put in jokes and ideas so that people, without noticing, start to adopt those ideas. They are pretty good in terms of what they put in; it's much easier to get a joke in the Sun than on the BBC. It's much easier to mention the war. You expect people reading newspapers to be interested in it, whereas you get Mock The Week in the week of the News Of The World story not mentioning it at all. And [the Jam's] News Of The World is their theme tune!

Has the change of government changed the way you look at things at all?

We are led by the least among us. People are medicated and TV is one of the things that they are medicated with. You are fucking expected to take the degradation you receive as if people are zombies. People are like, "Fuck off I have nothing, I may as well go and nick a plasma." Why wouldn't you? Look at the cultural response to the riots, everyone turns into the Daily Mail. Even Charlie Brooker's column was like "put them in the stocks". He was joking, but that's the general vibe from the Guardian and Observer. Imagine: Tunisia starts with looting and they bring on a Tunisian expert and he says, "It's just arseholes, really." That is what we get here. Get me another expert.

You announced your retirement from stand-up last year. How's that going?

Frankie Boyle
Frankie Boyle on Tramadol Nights. Photograph: PR

I have started back. I'm going to record it for a DVD before I tour, before I have to go and make it work in Hull on a Wednesday or something like that. By the time I finish the DVD and write the next book I'll be 41 and I'll have worked for the last 11 years flat-out without holidays. I'll do the odd thing when I have a good idea. I'm not Russell Brand or Ricky Gervais, but I have enough money that I don't have to work. Most people who've done what I do don't have that.

I want to be a part of a vibrant culture and have a more open culture. But I'm not whinging, I have a platform and I like what I do.

Frankie Boyle's book Work! Consume! Die! is out now, published by HarperCollins


Iain Aitch

The GuardianTramp

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