Who's laughing now? Alan Davies
If Jonathan Creek/Qi star Alan Davies hadn't made a career of comedy, he might well have become a cat burglar. Not stealing cats, you understand. I mean creeping about in the dead of night, with feline stealth and grace, nicking other people's stuff.
Davies started early. By the age of 7, he was, by his own admission, an incorrigible kleptomaniac. Only thing is, he specialised in swiping pointless items. He remembers shoplifting a free water pistol that came with The Beano comic. He made off with the complimentary pair of plastic binoculars that arrived with his dad's Reader's Digest.
He even swiped shopping lists from the purse of the woman that looked after him after school.
"I was pretty hopeless" he says with a sigh from his North London home.
"To be honest, I never really suited a life of crime. I would have made a terrible criminal. I mean, I used to nick free stuff! What an idiot! Only a fool would do that surely, but there you go."
It might be worth hiding the family silver, because as well as a new season of Qi coming to Prime on Monday, this comedic kleptomaniac is heading our way for a standup tour, poetically entitled Life Is Pain.
"There'll be a bit of nostalgia for the 80s, and a few jokes about sex toys and social networking. There's some stuff about my lesbian dog. My young children are also paying their way by providing me with material. Really, there's something for everyone. We can safely say that all thematic bases are covered."
A cricket nutter, Davies discovered the England team were playing here while he was touring, and added a new date so he could attend a game in Whangarei. "I said to them - is there a theatre up there? Can we do a gig? And they found this little 300-seater called the Capitaine Bougainville, which I understand is named after a ship that sank, so that might be a bad omen."
Davies hasn't done standup in 13 years, which strikes him as far too long to be away from the comedic coal-face. "It's great fun to be back on stage. It's not like TV, in that no-one can cancel me after one series. Really, it's the thing I do the best, too. I'm much funnier doing standup than anything else, and it's an eye-opener for audience members who've only seen me in Jonathan Creek or Qi."
A Twitter-happy semi-vegetarian who "dabbles in light atheism", Davies began his standup career in the late 80s, rising quickly through the ranks to take out the Critics Award for Comedy at the Edinburgh Festival in 1994. He has since appeared extensively on radio and TV, fronting everything from short-lived sitcoms to travel and science shows, and showed he had passable acting chops as the titular crime-solving illusionist in Bafta-winning TV series, Jonathan Creek, a show so popular it ran for 14 years.
Jonathan Creek always struck me as a bit limp, if I'm honest, but Davies is superb on Qi. As the comedy quiz show's only permanent panelist, he's the amiable buffoon sidekick to host Stephen Fry's droll and learned leader. The show plays to Davies' strengths as a snappy improviser, a short-order surrealist, gleefully interrupting guest panellists with wacky observations at every turn. Qi has a very personal connection, too. Davies met his future wife, writer Katie Maskell, backstage in 2005, and Qi regular Bill Bailey was best man at their 2007 wedding.
"The great thing with Qi is that you're free to go wherever you like, and the whole thing rapidly degenerates into one mad conversation between comedians. Also, Stephen is a very good host, and it's great fun to play the class dunce alongside him. It's virtually a sitcom within a panel game, with him the disapproving headmaster and me the stupid boy. And we've gotten very good at those roles. I think it's been a few years now since Stephen was genuinely irritated by me."
In common with many comics, Davies comes across as somewhat melancholy in conversation.
He has a quiet, breathy sort of vocal delivery, as if he's always mid-sigh, and readily admits his life has been far from a barrel of laughs.
In past interviews, he has described himself as a strange, introverted child who was "too dysfunctional to be the class clown", something he puts down to his mother's death from leukemia when he was 6. His accountant father was left to raise three young children alone.
Davies struggled with anger and depression through his teens and early 20s, and by the late 20s, was living something of a double life. His standup career was going stellar, but behind the scenes, Davies had been deeply unhappy for years, debilitated by a deep-seated fear of loss.
He had terrible eczema, couldn't sleep, was smoking a truckload of dope. In the end, fellow comedian Jo Brand, a former psychiatric nurse, recommended counselling. Eight years of therapy followed, and he's a good deal happier these days.
"The ‘Life Is Pain' title of my new show is intended to be ironic, but I do talk about some of the painful things that happened in my childhood within the show. At 46, I'm more able now, with some distance, to wring something a bit funnier from some of that stuff. But there's not much sadness in my life these days. Fatigue, yes, because I have little kids that are 17 months and 3, but there's so much love and happiness in my life these days that I can't complain."
He still has occasional anger issues, it seems. In 2007 Davies attacked a man who was allegedly swearing at him outside famous London comedy venue, The Groucho Club, biting him on his ear. Several newspapers reported Davies had drunkenly attacked a homeless man, but Davies saw things slightly differently; the incident was regrettable, but the man had been abusing him, and he'd responded as any good comedian should - by doing something unexpected and funny. "He wasn't a tramp," Davies told The Times in 2009.
"He was a raging, horrendous arsehole. And, yes, I went for him and, yes, I did it in what turned out to be an amusing way."
Qi, Monday, 9.05pm, on Prime.
Alan Davies' Life is Pain national tour: Town Hall, Auckland, February 1; Bruce Mason Centre, Auckland, Feb 2 (sold out); Capitaine Bougainville Theatre, Whangarei, February 3; Founders Theatre, Hamilton, February 5; Aurora Centre, Christchurch, February 6 (sold out); TSB Theatre, New Plymouth, February 7; Opera House, Wellington, February 8; Aurora Centre, Christchurch, February 9.
Sunday Star Times