The Naïve Clown: how to find humanity in a Welsh cyborg

From Rik Mayall to pressure cookers, Ashley Hunt reveals how he used training and TV to find the humanity in Oblivity’s (arguably) most clownish figure: Officer Howell Lowell.

How do you play a Welsh cyborg that lives on a space station on Pluto? Throughout my life I’ve always wondered this, and it wasn’t until Rob (the creator) gave me a purpose to fully think about this, that I came up with an answer. You approach it like any other character. You find the humanity.

At its core, for me, Oblivity is a comedy about people who just want to be listened to and loved.

Not just a punchline

When I spoke to Rob about Lowell we both agreed that he needed to be more than a punchline. It would be easy to fall into that trap with him, and I was fed up of the “Welsh” character just being a one-dimensional comedy device. Luckily, Rob felt the same way, and when I read the scripts I realised that Lowell just wanted a hug and to be listened to.

We all feel lonely from time to time. Feelings of loneliness are personal, so everyone’s experience of loneliness will be different. One common description of loneliness is the feeling we get when our need for rewarding social contact and relationships is not met, and with Lowell I think this is true.

(Spoilers: Lowell has no memory of his life before Pluto, an absent father-figure, and at best lower than average intelligence of engineering, and a massive desire to be listened to. No wonder he loves Cybergerbil so much.)

And yet he’s so positive in much of what he does! All he wants to do is barge things, ride space icebergs in the shape of Danish pastries, talk about haunted buckets and show off by hitting his head with a wrench. Sometimes I wish I could be that easily pleased.

So how do I create this?

Last night I sat down to watch a documentary about the life of Rik Mayall, and as I watched it, it was hard not to think of my childhood growing up and how much joy that I had had watching this rubber-faced clown. To me, Rik Mayall represented a freedom and bombastic quality that I don’t think I’ve seen in another comedian. By all accounts he was as loud, funny and confident in his personal life as he was in his professional career, but everyone always said how sweet he was as a man.

I vividly have memories of watching The Young Ones, Bottom and The Comic Strip. These comedies I feel shaped and defined my humour to what it is today and were definitive of the time they came from. These comedies were the equivalent punk revolution to comedy that the Sex Pistols were to music. It was a shot in the arm that was needed. And if Johnny Rotten was the poster boy for punk music, Rik Mayall was the poster boy for anarchic punk comedy.

So why am I talking about Rik Mayall in a blog about Oblivity?

Comedy characters work best when they have someone to play off, and Rik Mayall had the “straight man” in Adrian Edmondson. For all of Rik’s off the wall flamboyancy, you had Adrian Edmondson’s more grounded (if you can call them that) characters that served to highlight the ridiculousness of the situations. It comes from a clear line of straight person/funny person comedy. Laurel and Hardy, French and Saunders, Morecombe and Wise, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Vic and Bob, the list goes on…

But a trick I learnt at drama school was realising that the straight and funny relationship isn’t defined as funny and boring. They are both equally as dim or intelligent as each other, except that one has higher status about it. The way I was taught was as Auguste and Naïve clowns. The Auguste (or the variation I learnt) was a higher status clown that was arrogant and looked down on others, one that felt they were in control of the situation and was always right. The naïve clown was more childlike, incredibly dim, but loveable and wanting to please. But essentially, they were equal.

I took to the naïve clown like a duck to water.

I found that acting out the first thing that came to my head without filtering it was easy for me to do. Trusting my gut and instinct felt natural. I learnt that I enjoyed doing things that elicited a laugh and that, actually, I rarely felt shame or self-consciousness doing so. My clown was called Kenny Tidgemore; he carried a hulk toy around and had an unhealthy fixation with cats. I loved playing him. He allowed me to be impulsive and not worry about what people thought. I was given permission to be the most primal version of myself I could find and I loved it. (note: I’m not really a pet person in real life, so don’t worry.)

The trick though is not using it too much. Keep the audience wanting more and use it like a weapon to cut through the drama. Anyone who knows me has probably heard me say this a thousand times, but drama or comedy or any form of storytelling is like a pressure cooker. If you just let it boil and boil and boil, it’ll just explode in your face and everyone will die and not remember it for the good reasons.

But if you just let out the pressure every once in a while, everyone will survive and probably enjoy a nice stew or goulash at the end of it and say “wow, that was a lovely meal, I’m glad I’m not dead or maimed in an explosive pressure cooker boiling explosion scenario”.

I’m hungry now. Great.

Which brings me full circle to Lowell

I love playing Lowell. He is a side of me that is impulsive, loud, brash, attention-seeking and basically all the things that you can’t socially be all the time. He’s my new naïve clown who has a pet Cybergerbil and can balance a table on his head. And he’s awesome.

And yet, there is this humanity in him that is just desperate to be accepted by others in his group. I hope he finds it, I really do. But in the meantime, I’ll enjoy just saying the words and bringing a bit of Rik, Kenny, myself, a massive pinch of my dad and anyone else who makes me laugh as hard as they do.

I think he’s the funny person waiting to find his straight person, and he’s almost there with the rest of the crew.

Especially Bumface.

Thank you for reading. We want to give Ashley more opportunities to seek out Lowell’s humanity, and set his inner clown free!

Please back a second season of Oblivity by helping us meet our crowdfunding target before Thursday 17 October. And if you can help, we’ll send you some fantastic rewards! Find out more here!

Read more of our blogs here.

Rob Stringer