Ivo Graham: ‘I don’t think I said a single funny thing at Eton’

'Why not really run myself into the ground?': Ivo Graham on taking three shows to Edinburgh - Rii Schroer
'Why not really run myself into the ground?': Ivo Graham on taking three shows to Edinburgh - Rii Schroer

Sitting down to talk, Ivo Graham pulls out a white plastic box. “Ooh, I’ll tell you what I’ll do, as a delicious show of commitment – or a damning indictment of, erm, something…” The comedian trails off, mid-sentence, as he tinkers with a digital timer, pops his mobile inside the box, and snaps the lid shut.

“It’s my new phone jail,” he explains; a gadget to stop him fiddling with his phone while we chat. “I’m embarrassed to have it there. But, as I fear has been evidenced quite badly on Taskmaster, I am able to focus but it is, uh, a problem...”

Starring in the new series of the Channel 4 game show, the 32-year-old has become a favourite with fans – easily distracted, apologetic, at times hilariously incompetent, but with moments of lateral-thinking genius. Yet as funny as he is on panel shows (he recently waffled about tog ratings for an impressive 55 seconds on Just a Minute) he’s much better on stage. His stand-up combines the verbose, fogeyish pedantry of Miles Jupp with the put-upon frazzlement of Mark Watson.

He’s self-aware about his gilded Eton-and-Oxford background; his conflicted relationship with it is the source of some of his funniest material. “I felt a certain pressure – mostly in my own head – to tread a line between being grateful for the opportunities I’ve had, and acknowledging that background [can be] a very insular and I think potentially quite dangerous bubble.”

In his touring show My Future My Clutter – which he records in London tomorrow night – there’s a splendid routine about his boycott of Soreen malt loaves, despite knowing he’s hardly the best figurehead for any kind of political action: “I’d love to pop my head above the parapet of Left-wing political satire, but not so far that you can see my bowtie.”

Graham was born in Tokyo, where his parents worked at a bank together. (“It was a very romantic period in their young lives, which I ruined.”) He spent a few years in Australia, but he grew up mostly in the UK, and was sent to boarding school aged seven.

He was never the class clown. “I don’t think I said a single funny thing in class between 2004 and 2008.” Nor was he the most popular. “When you’re a teenager, particularly at boarding school, the place you get in the food chain when you’re 13 is still the place you’ve got at 18… It built in a certain shyness.”

When he discovered stand-up at university, he realised: “Oh, there’s a place where you can plan how to be funny… to squirrel all these thoughts away, and later do them in an appropriate environment.” When he started performing he would “just mumble into the floor… Someone at the Fringe thought I was blind in the first year because that was how little I had my eyes open onstage.”

Graham is currently cooking up not one but three new shows for this year’s Edinburgh Fringe festival. “I thought, why not really run myself into the ground?” One is an autobiographical one-man theatre piece. “It might be an absolute mess. I must emphasise: people need not and should not come.” Is he just being self-deprecating? Apparently not. He’s booked the smallest venue he could, and doesn’t know what it’s about yet. It’ll be written “in the slightly deranged panic of the last few weeks” before August.

Meanwhile, he’s hosting a late-night comedians’ DJ battle, and also his largest stand-up show yet, called Organised Fun. “If I have a silly thought, it’s going in that show, and if I have a slightly darker memory I want to tap into, that’s going in [the theatre] show.”

Putting all the frivolous stuff in one show and the personal stuff in the other is an odd change of tack. Graham usually blends the two. One critic described his comedy as “torn between honesty and diplomacy – as interesting for what is withheld as revealed.”

My Future My Clutter touches on raising a daughter with his ex (they split up in 2019) and meeting her new boyfriend. His debut show in 2013, meanwhile, both was and wasn’t about sex. “I sort of didn’t have my cake and didn’t eat it – I spent a lot of time talking about the (at that time) very recent and very exciting loss of my virginity, enough time for people to think ‘what an uncomfortably personal show’. But then, having built up to it for the first 40 minutes, spent the final 20 talking about living with my grandmother and buying her discounted rice pudding… I went wildly off-piste into the world of two-for-a-pound Ambrosia.”

Ivo Graham: My Future My Clutter is at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London WC1, tomorrow and touring to June 22. Ivo Graham is at the Edinburgh Fringe from Aug 2-27. All details: ivograham.com