Fresh from a successful Edinburgh Fringe run – in which he earned a nomination for Best Show and made Dave’s top – 10 list for Best Joke – Ivo Graham talks to Quays Life about taking The Game of Life on the road in 2020.
Ivo Graham disarmingly describes himself as a “young posh comedian whose shows are plummy-voiced navel-gazing”, but is too modest to mention that he recently made an impressive debut on Have I Got News For You, was the youngest ever winner of the So You Think You’re Funny competition in 2009, and that his latest show The Game of Life was nominated for the prestigious Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2019.
But he says there has been no grand plan for his career – “I take it as it comes” – but given his past shows’ content, it was perhaps inevitable that the new one would be about becoming a father for the first time. As the 28-year-old wryly points out: “My previous shows have had a trajectory of how my domestic and romantic life have evolved: not having a girlfriend/having a girlfriend/we’ve moved in together/we’re thinking about having a baby. Thankfully we were lucky enough to have a baby [his daughter was born in early 2019] and this show followed.
“I was lucky that early on I tapped into a style of comedy describing what was going on in my life, and was able to find funny things to say about it. The Game of Life is about new parenthood and the life changes associated with it – a little bit of the mental process, the admin, and quite a lot of tangents.”
With typical self-deprecation, he explains: “My comedy comes from real life – with some exaggerated or conflated stories, admittedly – because I don’t have the imagination to write fictional characters, as I have found in my pretty disastrous ventures into scriptwriting.”
He says his comedy has been “finding a way to talk about the more relatable stuff as a way to offset the more privileged aspects of my life, which I took a little longer to work out how to do.” By privileged, he means that he was educated at Eton and Oxford. He weighs up the pros and cons of having gone to the school that has, with the election of Boris Johnson, provided 20 UK prime ministers.
“It’s given me a USP to play with and develop,” Graham says. “It was something I relished early on [he started performing stand-up aged 18] because it was a caricature that I could play with, with jokes about bullying, sexual tension or funny uniforms.
“Now that’s expanded to talking about the wider emotional and societal ramifications of going to that school. You know that you are operating in every sphere on a bedrock of good fortune – the education you have had, the contacts you have made, the inbuilt confidence. That’s why I find people complaining about privilege being a hindrance so distasteful because of course it helps.”
Does he feel he is expected to apologise for where he was educated? “It’s a bad time because the political situation is toxic, and a lot of the hot topics over the past few years have been to do with elites and the widening gaps in society.
“So yes, I feel a certain pressure to show at the very least I am aware of the negative feeling towards Eton and those who represent it.”
He doesn’t think he would ever become a political comic, though. “I’m a coward and a compromiser so I’ve never set out to write a political show because it would have to have a political conclusion. I’d much rather have a political tangent in the show.”
And there’s a delicious political tangent in The Game of Life, as Graham describes a bizarre meeting with the Prime Minister’s brother Jo, at – of all places – a boules tournament. A gift to a comic, surely?
“Well you say that, but it was quite late in the process of writing the show that I realised that this story would be in it. Then it occurred to me that it would fit into my awkward Eton shtick, and now it’s a bit of the show I love performing.”
While Graham has a loyal audience from his 10 years at the Edinburgh Fringe, he has also gained fans from the regular appearances he made on fellow comic Josh Widdicombe’s podcast and more latterly on Fighting Talk on BBC Radio 5 Live.
“I love sport and I think I talk a good game [on Fighting Talk],” he says, “and some fans come to the show on the back of that. I’ve recently started doing more Radio 4 stuff, too; I don’t know what the metrics are of who is in my audiences, but I’d love to see them.”
Graham is a Swindon Town supporter and he plans to see his team play if he can while on the road. “But it’s not always possible because of the tour schedule and baby-minding duties,” he says. Although if Swindon aren’t playing anywhere near a tour date, he would be quite happy to turn up to what he calls “random outings to watch a match, as I’m slowly working my way through the 92 clubs in the English Football and Premier Leagues. New grounds always feel like an adventure”.
His family – Graham is the eldest of three – appear quite a lot in his shows, albeit “in slightly blurred versions” of themselves. But, ever the polite young man, he says: “I wouldn’t want to reveal confidences. I suppose as one digs deeper into family life and relationships and how parenthood may put strain them, you have to be careful.
“My dad was a little bit disconcerted by my using his name in one routine. It’s stayed with me and if I’ve been tempted to do it again in a whimsical moment on stage, then I’m aware it can be a slippery slope.”
Mention of his dad prompts the question of why Graham was born in Tokyo, and he explains his father was working there in insurance, in risk assessment. He says drily: “My career is a risk he is still assessing.” One assumes not for much longer.