Known for his sharp brain and quick wit, Matt Forde is one of the country's most in-demand satirists.
In 2020, he joined the rebooted Spitting Image voicing the likes of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, he has performed sell-out runs at Edinburgh Festival and regularly plays host to some of politics' most significant characters for his podcast turned live show, 'The Political Party.'
In our exclusive interview, we learn about Matt's former political career as seen from inside a chicken suit, the art of perfecting an impression and comedy in a virtual world.
Watch the full interview here or read the transcript below.
In conversation with Matt Forde
I never had a grand view of comedy, I just thought it's really good, I love having a night out laughing, it's probably the best thing you can spend your money on and isn't that great.
Now, having gone through Covid, I do take it a bit more seriously in terms of, laughter actually means the world to people, and in dark times, my god, when you laugh, psychologically, it is the best medicine, it really is. I always just thought that was a glib comment, but when you think of the trauma that people go through, and when you laugh, you forget all that rubbish, you forget all the crap that's going on. You do then feel you're in a glow afterwards. You think, well if I'm the person who can give that to someone, my god, what a privilege.
What sparked your interest in politics?
I've often asked myself this question, why did I get so obsessed with it and my sister didn't. My mum was a Labour supporter, but wasn't a member of the party or anything. We didn't have political books in the house, but I remember I always thought the news was important. I guess I'm right. It felt like oh god, that you should know what's going on in the world, I sort of felt that.
And then I remember the day Margaret Thatcher left, and we were walking into town with my mum, and this punk rocker walked past us and he went, "she's out, she's out, she's fucking out." And I thought, well, my mum often is out of the house, it's not big news. And he hugged my mum, and I was like, what?! And as he walked off, he'd cut the arse cheeks out of his leather trousers and he had an eye tattooed on each bum cheek, and I knew at that point I had to join the Labour Party, but I just thought, oh my god.
So I say to my mum, what was that all about? She said, "oh, Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister's gone." I thought, whoa, that it created this moment of chaos in the street between this bloke, literally with a pink mohawk, ghetto blaster, just looked like something from another planet, and it brought him and my mum, who to me was like a sort of older woman, it just, that was almost like seeing a firework display.
So, I was like, oh my god, what's this thing that's going on that everyone's talking about? So, that made me aware, and then you sort of pick a side, and my mum was Labour, and I felt that society felt a bit unfair, and I thought that Labour were more bothered about that. Then as I was growing up, coming into my teens, Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party and that just made it really exciting.
Are there any stand-out moments from your time as a Labour campaigner?
I remember dressing up as a chicken and having to follow Charles Kennedy around Leicester South, and I never questioned it. I was just like, well, if my party is asking me to dress as a chicken, I will humbly serve.
And it was in the middle of summer, it was 2004, so England had lost to Portugal in the quarter-final, that was all going on, I think. And I was just in this suit, this chicken suit because our strapline that by-election was Lib Dem, soft on crime, soft on thugs, soft on drugs. They were chicken on crime, right? Whenever Charles Kennedy was in Leicester South, we'd find out, I'd have to get out this van dressed as a chicken. These chicken things, you can't see where you're going because you're looking through the nostril of a chicken suit, and the nostrils like a pinhole.
So, you're just pissing sweat inside this suit in the summer and they just would boot you out, and I would fall out in a chicken suit. Just in front of you, I'd sort of run towards a group of people, and then Glenis Willmott who then became the leader of the Labour Party in the European parliament, at that point, she was a union person on a loud speaker would go, "Lib Dem, soft on crime, soft on thugs, soft on drugs," and I would sort of cluck along to this beat. I didn't have a clue where I was, sweating, and Charles Kennedy, who was a hero of mine, he was so nice about it.
Have you ever received any backlash for your impressions?
I think it's more that it freaks them out, that it's almost like a caricature because if you notice like a kind of verbal tick that they've got that they haven't noticed, in a way, they feel like they've been analysed. It's almost like you've spied on them in a way I think.
With Blair, [Tony Blair voice] obviously as time goes by, the impression changes, and obviously, his throat has got sort of dry with age, and therefore, it's only right that it changes along with it. And there's also mannerisms that you kind of, the big stuff and the little rub of the head, and the shake of their head. [Own voice] So, there's a lot to do with Blair.
I remember him saying, [Tony Blair voice] “first time that I saw it, I just thought, I didn't really recognise that. But my kids said, no, dad, we've seen him and it's a really good impression.” [Own voice] So, yeah, yeah. It's like oh god, it must be so weird. I remember doing it. I could sort of see him looking at me like that kind of just taking it in, almost like, god, do I do all that? But he must see himself so often.
Who else have I done to them in it? Motson, I remember as a kid, my mate said, "do your Motson impressions to Motson." I was just getting his autograph, and to this day, I don't know whether he understood what I was doing or not. I said, [John Motson voice] "interestingly enough, John, this is the third time we've met each other in as many years. Remember the first occasion when Nottingham Forest needed just a draw in order to qualify for Europe?" And he just went, "is that so?" [Own voice] And I thought, is that him going, I know what you're doing, or was he just so away with it, he didn't know?
How do you perfect an impression?
I think what happens is in time just more gets added. So with Trump, obviously, everyone does the kind of, you sort of start with the pucker. And I started with a very, a lot of people started [Donald Trump voice] with the very beautiful, the very gentle, very sort of whispery way. [Own voice] I always did the kind of big, [Donald Trump voice] we're going to build a wall, and we're going to do great, great things. [Own voice] the kind of, almost like Eric Cartman, and I always thought that was a funnier sort of noise.
So, I would start up there, and then as time wore on and I watched him more and more, I would notice, and then you just add. It's almost like, redecorating a house. You start with the undercoat and the underlay, and then you add the carpet, and then you add a light, and then by the time you've lived in the house for 20 years ago, you've got it exactly how you want it because you added, you've moved things, and it's like that with it, you're always adding, and you notice little extra bits.
And the thing that he did that really tickled me that I loved was his little, I only noticed it right towards the end, a facial movement because obviously it's the big words and very beautiful, and he would sort of grimace a lot, and he was clearly very insecure, and I just loved it.
I just found him so fascinating to watch, but there was one he did, it was kind of like a little I told you so facial twitch that he would do and it was this. He would sort of go, it would often be after stuff that didn't even require that. He'd go, [Donald Trump voice] "and I know that France is a very, very, I think it's very European, I think, they tell me it is. I think it's still, I don't know if Europe's still going on, but I think it is, and probably should, but I don't want to get..." [Own voice] He'd sort of meander around the place.
He'd go, [Donald Trump voice] "I've been to Paris which is the capital of France." [Own voice] I was like, everyone knows this. This is a crap thing to be like... that was one of those things where you kind of notice it. I noticed that really late, and then when you throw it in, it's one of those things where people haven't noticed it until you tell them. In a way, that's how observational comedy works really, it’s just about noticing someone's face or the way they move. They go, oh my god, he does do that, and that's very satisfying.
Aside from political figures, do you impersonate other celebrities?
Yeah, I mean, I love doing... I think I'm one of those people that impersonates the people that they watch a lot. I never thought, oh, I should do an impression of that guy, and then went away and worked on it. I'm just like, I watch a lot of politics and the news and sport, and then I end up impersonating those people because they're the voices that I'm just hearing all the time, and other comedians.
So, I mean, the problem is with doing other comedians is it's kind of weird because you're like, how do you get a Michael McIntyre impression into a set. Sometimes, I just think I really enjoy doing Michael McIntyre, Billy Connolly, Kevin Bridges. I'm just going to do a little section of comedians, impressions in the show, and then you're like, it is a bit weird to impersonate people that you know.
So, I'd always try and find a way of going, I think Russell Brand talked about politics a bit, and then you go, oh god, are we going to get everyone else doing it now? And then that gives you a sort of way to go. You couldn't have Michael McIntyre, [Michael McIntyre voice] hello, my fellow Americans. We are now at war, and my children don't like war. They say, no, daddy, we cannot have war. We cannot have war with Iraq. I said, well, what if they have weapons of mass destruction? [Own voice] You kind have to find a way, and then like Josh Widdicombe, [Josh Widdicombe voice] I don't think we want to go to war with France Adam. [Own voice] You find a way to do it then, just like Kevin Bridges, [Kevin Bridges voices] good evening, Hammersmith Apollo. You try and just do a run where you're like, right, I'm going to get these all out my system, do a gratuitous kind of like Billy Connolly, I used to love doing because, [Billy Connolly voice] hey...listen here. [Own voice] There are physical ones, they're always very satisfying ones to do.
What is it like being part of the re-booted Spitting Image?
It's the closest thing I can imagine to what it's like to get an England call up because you know what, it's like people say like with Jack Grealish. They're like, oh well playing for England is totally different, it takes them to a different level, and you're like, you do play the Premier League. So, you are used to it, but I get what they mean. There are certain things and I don't mean that I feel like, oh, I'm at a different level. What I mean is I know what it means to other people. Other people go, "oh my god, you're on Spitting Image." I've never worked on a show before that has that cache where people go, “oh my god, they're bringing it back.”
The affection that the British public has for that show is real and it's deep. It is seen as like the gold standard of satire, and in a way, it's the closest thing we ever had to South Park because it's disgusting. It's outrageous. It's grotesque. It's offensive. But also, people are so fond of it. It's so weird. You're like, the most offensive show on telly, people are like, oh, Spitting Image. Because it does, it touches so many things. I'm not saying the work that I do is genius. Its original incarnation, the idea behind it is so clever because the puppets are works of art. They look like them, but they're grotesque recreations. The voices are great. You're then lampooning real people, but you're creating fictional versions of them. Such a clever way to do satirical comedy.
How did you feel when the events world went virtual? Did this create new possibilities?
I loved it, and I think it absolutely opened up a lot of possibilities because for particularly what I do, I find it a lot easier to do more tailored, bespoke stuff about the industry or the company that I was performing for, and I find it easier to do it in character. So, I got myself a green screen. I got a Boris wig. So, obviously, if you're doing a 25-minute set, at an awards do, you can't be putting wigs on and off. That's just not practical. But for these ones, it was. It was a lot easier to just put the wig on and then take it off, and that didn't look weird or strange. So, I just thought actually on Zoom, I got myself a decent camera and light, green screen so I can make it look like I was in Downing Street or the Oval Office, do it as Trump, and then I was like, actually, it's far easier on Zoom to do industry-specific stuff, take the mickey out of some things, go on the company website and write tailored stuff.
For me, it felt more appropriate in that thing. What it allowed me to do, if I just did it as Boris and Trump, so I would do five minutes of Boris, five minutes as Trump. Do it like it was a Zoom call and they were addressing a particular company or a particular industry, that gave me license to then rib them a bit. So, I could do Boris, go, [Boris Johnson voice] I’m pleased to be joining you on your Zoom call. I gather the last, well, your website. I've read your website. Got no idea what you people do, but I'm sure it's very good, and your CEO... [Own voice] And you find stuff out and they were like, “oh my god. It's not like being ribbed by a comedian, it's like being ribbed by Boris”. The extra touches of the wig and the green screen made it way more realistic. They're like, oh my god, this is like the prime minister.
Then I'd go, [Boris Johnson voice] I'm going to hand over now to Donald Trump, [Own voice] I make it as a Zoom call. I'd cut the feed, but not the audio, and then change wigs, change the green screen, bang in the Oval Office, [Donald Trump voice] You people are losers. You're the worst. You're the lousiest business ever. I don't know what you think you're doing. You're total losers. NMP are part of the fake news media. [Own voice] People are like, “wow, we got roasted by Trump.” This wasn't a comedian standing up at an annual dinner night. Also, I think it made it easier. I think when you're sometimes at the big dos, not online, people do kind of look to the chairman a bit and go, ooh, is he liking it? They do take their lead from the leaders in the room sometimes, whereas on Zoom, people watching it in their own homes. They're like, I'll laugh.
I just think it made it a lot easier to kind of do some of the not ruder stuff, but the teasing was a lot easier. They're like, “oh my god, he's getting roasted by Trump." So, it was like this isn't even me doing it. It looked a lot riskier than it was. Actually, it was kind of an easier thing I thought creatively to go, well I’m going to do Trump and if you want Trump to insult you, you do it like that. I think that just made it feel really special, and I think particularly at a time where people hadn't seen anything live at all, and then all of a sudden on their laptop, they've got the president and the prime minister. They're talking about their business and their colleagues. I just think that was a real treat to be able to do that for people, and I really loved it.
How do you choose material for an after dinner set or awards ceremony?
Whenever I do a corporate, it's basically the best, however long I'm doing, it's the best 25 minutes I've got. It's the best 15 minutes I've got. The biggest voice, it's the biggest laughs, and just bang. Treat it like you are doing live at the Apollo and just do the best stuff you can. And also because not just for the audience, but you're getting to perform in beautiful surroundings. Do the very best, do the very best you can. So, if I've got a new topical bit that really works, I think that's quite nice as well. So, we go, oh my god, that just happened yesterday, and that's quite a nice thing if it's something that's new. But I think maybe a sort of sprinkling of a newer bit for topicality, but on the whole, just the best, just do the very best set you've got and try and understand people as best you can.
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