PROFILE: THE KING’S JESTER
by Helena Handcart
I have arranged with Yorick’s PA to meet him at the Nunnery, a popular vegetarian tapas bar on the outskirts of Copenhagen. The owners market it as the best place in Denmark to see and be seen, owing to their monopoly on candles.
The choice of venue surprises me. As anyone who’s seen his stand-up material will know, the country’s most famous comedian has built up a reputation for gluttony and overindulgence. One comic paroxysm away from rolling in the aisles himself, this is a man who used to end his routines by challenging hecklers to shed the first stone.
He has always been supremely comfortable in his own skin. Skin, he likes to say, which would be loose-fitting on a rhinoceros. It is in part the lightness with which he bears this colossal weight that has earned him such success on the Danish comedy circuit. ‘A fellow of infinite jest’, writes one reviewer, ‘wont to set the table on a roar,’ promises another.
Despite his recent meteoric rise to fame,Yorick still maintains a rigorous gigging schedule which, as he drily puts it, is wearing him to the bone. He has come straight from work, so is simply dressed in a tricorn hat with floppy corners and golden bells hanging from the tips. His shabby diamond-patterned onesie has already started to fade, with tobacco stains clearly visible on the red and black fabric.
He has also naturally brought his famous skull, neatly wrapped inside his famous head.
“What sort of fool wears a onesie at my age?” he asks me as he sits down, forty minutes late with no apologies or excuses. Reaching underneath the table, he adjusts himself in a manner that makes me avert my gaze. First rule of juggling, he says, leering at me through smeared make-up, never lose track of your balls.
The 62-year-old actor, comedian and entertainer has just released his long-awaited autobiography, Jestation Period, chronicling thirty years of loyal service as jester to the Danish Royal Family. It’s become an instant bestseller, with the rights optioned by a prominent English theatrical company with big ambitions for the work.
It is no secret that some of the book’s racier revelations have angered senior members of the establishment, but when I press him on the subject he waves me away with a grimy hand and orders himself a flagon of Rhenish wine.
“Everything in the book is true,” he says matter-of-factly. “And if anyone has any problems with that they can take it up with my lawyers in Wittenberg, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern & Stoppard. People have to remember that I’m a comedian, which means I’d sell my own grandmother for a joke. Of course, if you’d seen my grandmother you know I’d be lucky to get a set-up and half a punchline.” He taps me on the head with a pig’s bladder on a stick.
Sorry, he says gruffly. Force of habit.
By this point our drinks have arrived, and he’s starting to loosen up. The wine disappears at an alarming rate as his delivery gains in confidence, occasionally segueing into moments of well-rehearsed shtick. He’s got a strong surrealist streak running through his material, and one particular joke about two gravediggers has me laughing so hard I nearly fall off my chair.
He sobers up a little when we start to talk about his early days in the industry. His first job was as an assistant producer on Denmark’s leading falconry programme, ‘So You Think You’ve Got Talons’. “That was when I was straight out of school,” he says, “and the presenter wanted me to keep the audience distracted if anything went wrong.” he looks pensive for a moment. “A lot went wrong,” he adds, with a trace of sadness in his voice. “That was the first time I ever saw someone die on stage.”
As we order food, his eyes scroll through the menu with obvious distaste. “They’ve put me on a diet,” he admits through gritted teeth. “It’s like they want me to become a skeleton.” he eventually orders a quinoa gratin with lemongrass confit, as well as a pomegranate terrine with maturated hyssop. I stick to water.
As I ask him about his first full-time job as a comedian, his voice becomes only marginally more enthusiastic. He is particularly dismissive of the monotonous years spent as a regular fixture on the national circuit of panel shows. “People just got tired of the damned things,” he says. I mean, how many times do you want to hear people try and be witty about marquetry?”
Weren’t there any that he enjoyed? He pauses for a second to think, absent-mindedly juggling the cutlery. “Knock the Teak was always fun,” he says, catching a teaspoon in his ear. “As was 8 out of 10 Slats. But my favourite was probably Whose Pine is it anyway. It was always the most relaxed of the lot, really gave you a chance to polish your material.” He hits me on the head again with the bladder,
It was while doing the rounds that he was spotted by Osric, the courtier responsible for organising the annual Royal Variety Performances. “I was on between a man who flew paper airplanes for a living and a woman who could tap into the psychic energy of trees” says Yorick wistfully. “She tried to read a palm on the night and wound up claiming it had been a breadfruit in a past life. It ruined her reputation and got her a lot of hate mail from vegetarians.”
“That was my big break,” he continues, “what comic doesn’t dream about playing the palace?” He does a handstand on the table for emphasis.
What with the full-time jestering by day and relentless stand-up shows at night, he has very little time for his multiple other projects. “All anybody ever sees of me is my foolish side,” he says, doing a little jig while balancing a wine glass on his nose. “But underneath the diamond pattern, believe me, I’m a regular square. I’m writing a screenplay at the moment,” he tells me in confidence. “About the Danish invasion of Lindisfarne in 793AD.”
Are there any jokes, I ask, unaware that I have accidentally broached a sensitive subject. “No there aren’t any bloody jokes,” he says angrily, making threatening movements with a custard pie he has dug out of his pocket. “It’s a serious contemplation of the barbarism inherent in civilised society, not some sort of juvenile pastiche.” What’s it called, I ask, trying to atone for my mistake. He pauses for a second before replying, levelly meeting my gaze. The Pillage People, he says.
By the time I pick myself up off the floor I can see that he is furious, frothing at the mouth, his voice raised with the help of a helium balloon. “I’m sick and tired of always being expected to be funny!” he screams. “That’s all anybody wants to talk about. ‘Where are your flashes of merriment?’ they shout at me, ‘why don’t you give us another gambol?’ No one wants to listen to what I’m really going through on the inside.” He pulls a series of multi-coloured handkerchiefs out of his sleeve and wipes his glistening eyes.
When I put out my hand to comfort him, however, I suddenly feel a clammy palm creeping up my leg. Instincts developed over years of interviewing celebrities kicks in and I hit him in the face with the custard pie. Unperturbed, he withdraws his hand and slowly wipes himself clean. A slide trombone plays from somewhere unidentified nearby. “I do like a girl with timing,” he says mournfully.
In an attempt to get the interview back on track, I decide to delve deeper into his personality. Given how many comedians rely on humour to cover up what can be fairly severe personality disorders, I ask him if there is an inner darkness associated with being funny. Not really, he replies, carving the answers onto his forearm with a butter knife. “These clichés always get trotted out about comedians and it never fails to get my goat”. He rolls up the onesie to continue answering me on his upper calf.
I decide to let the subject drop and move on to safer territory. Although his PA has warned me to stay away from questions about the Royal Family, her sudden trip to the Nunnery’s bathroom proves too good an opportunity to miss.
I am particularly curious about young Prince Hamlet, the blonde-haired cherub whose every action has dominated media coverage since his birth fourteen years ago. Yorick’s book controversially paints him as a dark and brooding child, in the habit of talking to himself at length when he believes nobody is watching.
“Gloomy little bugger,” says Yorick, flatly, “always asking questions like he’s trying to come to grips with the ineffable nature of being. He’s fourteen, for God’s sake, what does he care where we go after we die? I once asked him why the chicken crossed the road – three days later he comes back with a troupe of actors and stages a five-act puppet show called The Mysterious Disappearance of The Chicken at The Hands of Person or Persons Unknown. I’m telling you, that boy wouldn’t know a joke if it stabbed him behind an arras.”
I decide to press my luck and probe more deeply. For some time now, rumours have been circulating of his close relationship with the young prince. In his own book, I tell him, he describes frequently bearing the child on his back and even goes so far as to admit kissing him on the lips.
He falls abruptly silent. I feel like I have made a faux pas. The only sound is of his bells gently tinkling in the breeze.” I don’t think I’ll deign to answer that,” he says with dignity, bopping me on the head on the word Dane. “As I’ve said before, I was playing a comedy character at the time, and I don’t think it’s fair to judge me for what he may or may not have decided to do. Besides, it was only a bit of harmless fun. The kid’s the Prince of Denmark, for Christ’s sake, it’s not like he’s going to display any major emotional trauma in later life, is it?”
As his PA returns to the table, I hastily change the subject and we spend the remainder of the interview talking about the dreadful news engulfing the Danish entertainment industry. Beloved household names from generations past are being arrested in droves on what would nowadays be called a witch hunt; the technical term for a round-up of witches.
“Do you think something is rotten in the state of Denmark?” I ask, turning off my recorder. Yes, he replies, pushing away his plate, half-eaten. “It was probably the quinoa.”