If the rise of Romesh Ranganathan has been both frictionless and irresistible – and from the outside it certainly looks that way – it owes a great deal to his knack of portraying himself as an entirely resistible source of friction. He’s no genial observationalist, but a proud pain in the arse; one who knows just how far to nettle an audience while keeping it laughing.
It’s only seven years since the former maths teacher became a professional comedian. Seven years is, it’s true, no blink of an eye. But it’s still on the rapid side to have gone from scratching a living on the circuit to near household-name status. In that time he's amassed an impressive set of TV credits that, as well as the customary panel show appearances, includes format-spanning vehicles constructed around him: comic documentaries, sitcoms, travel shows and whatever Judge Romesh is supposed to be. You’ve been more likely to see Ranganathan on screen than stage in recent years; he returns to touring as a major draw.
Comedy is kinder than many forms of show business to late beginners. Had Ranganathan got started sooner than his 30s, it’s hard to imagine he would have developed the persona that serves him so well. His forte is domestic humour, and the travails of the ageing paterfamilias; his USP is giving this very traditional form a misanthropic acid bath sufficient to freshen it up and eliminate any whiff of the cosy.
He’s perhaps the most irascible male British stand-up to hit the big time since Jack Dee. If he has an ingratiating bone in his body, it’s well concealed by the fluctuating physique from which he derives abundant material (“I’m the comedy Luther Vandross,” is one of the first things he told the audience on Saturday night).
In character, Ranganathan does not do chumminess. He does not want to be your mate. He does not care if you like him. He’s a kind of anti-panderer, and he sells it with combative panache. This son of Crawley arrives in Brighton, by repute the hipster capital of the South coast and all but a homecoming gig for him (he speculates his immigrant parents settled near Gatwick for convenience in case they were deported), and affects to hurl the chip on his shoulder into the crowd.
“Get over yourselves," he snarls, much the audience's delight. "Just because you’ve got a bunch of OAPs riding unicycles you’re not better than everyone else. Bunch of p_____. Can’t stand you. Let’s get this over with.”
The show really gets moving in the second half. Ranganathan’s shorter pre-interval set is enjoyable but scattershot. With the better part of an hour to dispose of, he can work up a head of steam; he’s astringent, assured and imposing, his command evident in throwaway gags funnier than lesser comics’ punch lines (“My fitness goal is not to have t__s”).
His principal topic is his wife and children, and the contempt bred by familiarity. Ranganathan’s twist on what would otherwise be a threadbare theme lies in refusing to play the underdog, just as he always has in his near-the-knuckle bits about race, which appear here largely in passing.
This is no cowed father at the mercy of his mate and brood. He is bracingly unapologetic about his role in a sullen, tacit conflict between people who love but can scarcely tolerate one another. He notes that his wife became more amorous when he accidentally shaved his beard off: “It’s not because I’m more handsome without it. It’s because I gave her two weeks of sex with a stranger.”
When he published an autobiography last year, the blurb billed Ranganathan as “the most in-demand overweight vegan Sri Lankan comedian in Britain”. In his new show, he often does self-loathing, but such wry self-deprecation doesn't get a look-in. If he continues so effectively to hit the sweet spot where hip and mainstream overlap, he may soon be able to drop the qualifiers.
Touring until May 2020; see romeshranganathan.co.uk/tour/