It’s been said that comedy is the new rock and roll, but what if it was the new jazz? Even better, what if it was jazz? Alex Horne and the rest of The Horne Section will be in Leicester this February to answer that very question…
Take it from me – being a musical comedian is a thankless task. I dragged myself and my guitar up and down the country watching people roll their eyes as soon as I would step on stage. I stopped writing comedy songs a few years ago – and then something happened. There was an explosion in musical comedy acts, and acts of incredibly high quality. Tim Minchin achieved the breakthrough it took him ten years to manage, Nick Helm shouted his way into our hearts, and David O’Doherty brought his tiny keyboard to national television and joy to our hearts.
“It was pretty much a case of looking at my surname and thinking I had to do something with that”
Alex Horne, however, did something different. He’s a stand-up comedian who simply had the utterly brilliant idea of combining his deadpan style of humour with a five-piece jazz band sharing the stage. Sometimes they do songs, sometimes they provide backing music, and sometimes they have to improvise whatever the audience shout out. It’s been a huge success, seeing them tour the country, have several series of a Radio 4 show, and guest on 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown in Dictionary Corner – the only six-piece band yet to have that honour. It’s such a strikingly good idea, and I had to ask him how he came up with it.
“It was pretty much a case of looking at my surname and thinking I had to do something with that,” he tells me. “That, and having two jazz musicians for best friends at primary school (they weren’t jazz musicians back then – my childhood was far more conventional than that – but they were well on their way)”. So the seeds of The Horne Section were sown in the classroom? “The three of us reconnected in our early 30s, realising that none of us were having as much fun as we might if we combined forces. Hence, a six-man jazz/comedy-fusion-experience-mess”.
Horne is being characteristically understated in his description – while a five-piece jazz band touring comedy clubs could indeed be a mess, the striking professionalism of the band shines through at all times – they’re well-rehearsed, skilled improvisers and never drop a beat. They are, in short, a damn good band – something that can be incredibly hard to find. According to Horne, though, it’s not as difficult as you may think – especially with two strong musicians on board to begin with. “Brilliant musicians are often left at the back of the stage, unlit, unmiced and unable to show off their occasional flashes of wit. To have the chance to just muck about and actually speak on stage was a fun proposition for all of them.”
In fact, if you attend a Horne Section show, you’re likely to get to know each of the band members as well as Horne himself. They each get a little time on the microphone – the first series of the Radio 4 show featured the section “Spotlight on a Musical Instrument”, where one of the members of the band would try to describe what their instrument is and does, usually with Horne throwing comedy misinformation back at them. There’s some swapping of instruments, with members of the band stepping forward to become the frontman for their own songs, and it becomes clear throughout the show that each member of the band is almost as witty and comfortable on stage as Horne himself.
A regular feature at a Horne Section show is inviting the audience to shout genres for the band to perform. Every time I’ve seen or heard this, the band has handled it as easily as breathing – but is it always so smooth? “they nearly always pull off bizarre mash ups that really shouldn’t work,” Horne assures me. “Last weekend they segued beautifully from Pink Floyd to the Spice Girls, the week before they went from Dr Dre to Iron Maiden in a heartbeat. I wouldn’t want them to ever know this,” he says, conspiratorially, “but I’m in genuine awe of their musical ability.”
This ability has been brought to a much wider audience recently thanks to repeated appearances in Dictionary Corner on 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown. “That show is a lot of fun, and a whole load more fun for me as I have my gang behind me,” Horne tells me. Is he any good at Countdown himself? “If I was trying to spot 9 letter words by myself, battling against my comedy heroes Sean Lock and Jon Richardson, whilst being scrutinised by King Carr I would undoubtedly crumble. But being asked to sing silly songs next to Susie Dent in Dictionary Corner is pretty much my dream job.”
Horne is also a fixture on another TV show, UKTV’s Dave’s excellent Taskmaster. He sits alongside literal comedy giant Greg Davies in the role of “PA”, assisting the assorted comedians with the insane tasks that they have been set (previous examples include “fill a measuring cylinder with tears”, “impress a mayor” and “surprise Alex”) and dealing with the admin of the show. Something people may not notice, however, is that the credits list The Horne Section as providing the theme tune and Horne himself as the creator of the show. How did he come up with the idea, and how many tasks has he set?
“Mr. [Tim] Key inspired it by winning the Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2009. At the time he was my best friend (he’s now my former colleague), and I was unhealthily jealous of his success so started up my own awards of which I was the arbiter – the Taskmaster. For a year I set twenty comedians one task a month before revealing the results and crowning the winner (Man Down’s Mike Wozniak) at the following festival. It was never meant to be a TV idea but someone saw the show and suggested giving it a go, and five short years later it was on the telly.”
Previous guests on Taskmaster include the likes of Frank Skinner, Romesh Ranganathan, Katherine Ryan, Al Murray and Richard Osman, to pick a selection entirely at random. “I have some say and some sway, as do the other producers and people at the channel [as to who is on the show]. To be honest, it’s a healthy, democratic process where we all talk about the balance and sort of people we’d like and gradually put together pieces of our comedy jigsaw. There are SO many people I’d still like to see in the show so fingers crossed there are more of these discussions in the future.” Taskmaster has just finished its third series – no spoilers from me on the winners – and is available to watch online via UKTV’s website.
This February, Horne and the rest of his Section will be bringing a show to Leicester, where they will, if there is any justice, sell out the O2 Queen’s Hall. “It’s a Horne Section special,” Horne tells me, “featuring our greatest hits (both of them) and plenty of mucking about. I’m particularly proud of a section in which I teach the audience how to bleed their radiators through the medium of funk.” This in itself brings back memories of one of my first exposures to the Horne Section, wherein they tell you how to cook an egg through song. Not quite Delia, but considerably more entertaining.
The Horne Section are going from strength to strength, and Alex the Birdseye-like figure at the helm. I’ll undoubtedly be at the show in February along with hundreds of others – but out of his whole career, what’s Horne proudest moment? “I’d say I’m proudest of actually getting up on stage and telling my own jokes of my own volition for the first time back in 1999. That was a terrifying moment and I’m still surprised I ever did. But if I hadn’t I’d have had a lot less fun than I have done.”
Alex Horne brings his Horne Section to O2 Academy Leicester on 23rd February.