Tab Interview: Joe Thomas

TABATHA LEGGETT talks to JOE THOMAS from The Inbetweeners about the film in the pipeline, shit clubbing in Cambridge and his ‘illustrious’ days at Varsity…

Cambridge University channel 4 chickens Cindies Fez Film Footlights Inbetweeners joe thomas la raza malia Pembroke simon bird skins Tabatha Leggett the inbetweeners Varsity

It was a Monday morning. I was wearing last night’s clothes and smelling suspiciously like a shark bucket. The antenna bit of my alarm clock had fallen off, and so instead of waking up to Chris Moyles, I woke up to quite loud static. I can’t decide which is worse. So, I knew exactly what Inbetweener Joe Thomas was talking about when he described his recent visit to Cambridge.

‘I went back to Cambridge not so long ago to collect that MA thing they give you once you’ve graduated,’ Joe, who studied History at Pembroke, explained. ‘The night before the ceremony, I went to Cindies. And I woke up feeling really hungover and unprepared for the event: like I was inevitably going to get into trouble with some very serious, old people. That’s exactly how I felt for the majority of my student life at Cambridge. It was so good to be back!

Joe is best-known as the neurotic, hopeless-with-women-but-ultimately-loveable Simon Cooper from The Inbetweeners; a Channel 4 comedy show that follows the life of schoolboy Will McKenzie. The basic plot goes something like this: Will moves to his local comprehensive school, befriends Simon, Jay and Neil out of convenience more than anything else, and muddles through adolescence in a hilariously watchable way.

Before reaching fame, however, Joe spent most of his time here writing and performing with the Footlights. He didn’t like Cindies. ‘When I was at Cambridge, I thought I was a bit too cool for Cindies. But, I did go back there a few weeks ago. I guess I’m a bit too mainstream now. I’ve lost my edge.

‘I did like Fez, though. And La Raza. For some reason, shit clubs with a Moroccan theme are better. It’s something about those fabrics and lanterns that they stick everywhere. And the incense. Maybe they hide the drunk people.’

Joe discovered his passion for comedy quite early on. ‘I experimented with music and sport in my first term,’ he explained, ‘I played a bit of football and I played the violin. I was quite good, but I had to give up because everyone else was so much better; the standard of music was so high. The people I’d try and play with would be, like, the top three violinists in the country.

‘It was really lucky that I met Jonny Sweet as early as I did.’ Jonny is Joe’s writing partner, and he credits Jonny with encouraging him to get involved with comedy. ‘I think I met Jonny on my first night in Cambridge,’ he continued. ‘It’s really lucky that I did, because I was much too nervous to do stand-up on my own, but eager to do sketches with him. I think it’s important to have a partner in crime.’

So, Joe was a semi-cool thesp with a penchant for shitty Moroccan-style clubs while he was at Cambridge. But, he’s keeping quiet about something: whilst he was at Cambridge, he edited a section of Varsity. ‘Oh yeah, I totally forgot about that!’ Joe laughed. ‘I edited the satire page. Actually, it used to be a satire page but then when I took over, it got reduced to a column, which I edited. Actually, I just wrote the column myself. There was no editing involved.

‘I remember once someone called me up and asked if they could write satire for Varsity, and I had to turn them down because I was the only writer for my own section!’

I took quite a shine to Joe; he’s refreshingly self-deprecating for a rising British comedy star. ‘To be honest, when we started series one of The Inbetweeners, I was just trying not to be awful and cock it up,’ he explained.

‘I think the show became so successful because it’s about normal teenagers. Most sitcoms focus on discrete groups of people: like people who work in an office or whatever. So, The Inbetweeners is more like a soap or an American teen film. The actors in it all look like just anyone, and the characters are based on the middle 90% of people.

The Inbetweeners writers are hilarious. It’s really important that we make the audience laugh every 12 seconds, and the writers are great at this.’

The Inbetweeners celebrating being named Best Comedy Show at the TV Choice awards

As Joe talks, I become aware that  he’s been quietly watching the innermost operations of The Inbetweeners team in order to pick up advice. He tells me that his biggest ambition is to be admired as a good writer. ‘I suppose I’d like to create something with as much longevity and popularity as the show myself. If I can continue doing what I’m doing well, then I’ll be very happy.

Joe actually has an interesting new project in the pipeline. He’s started writing a sitcom called Chickens with fellow Inbetweener Simon Bird. ‘It’s set in the Second World War,’ he explains, ‘and it follows the lives of three men who haven’t gone to war. One of them is a conscientious objector, one has flat feet so he can’t fight because of a medical condition and the other wants to hang around and chat to women.

‘The program is all about being fucked before you even start something. These three guys are stuck in this village, and it’s about what happens to them when there is no socially acceptable reason for anyone else to start relationships with them. The characters are at odds with their environment. It’s not a historical sitcom, although it is nice to finally find a use for my history degree!’ And when will we hear more about Chickens? ‘The pilot is being filmed in April or May, and hopefully will be on Channel 4 in the autumn.’

After that, Joe will be busy with The Inbetweeners film, which is set on a lads-on-tour style holiday in Malia; a  virtual rite of passage for any self-respecting lad. Simon Bird, aka Will, told NME: ‘It will have everything you’d expect it to have. Girls, drinking, I imagine some male nudity, vomiting, some pissing yourself, some shitting yourself. I imagine there will be some discussions about my mum’s tits.’ Rumour has it that the boys will meet their female counterparts in Malia, and the film will track their emotional journeys with these girls. Shane Allen, Channel 4’s head of comedy, told The Independent: ‘They go from being The Inbetweeners to being slightly more grown up by the end of it.’

But making a film that’s as popular as the series will certainly be no mean feat. For a start, the film will have to match some of the show’s highs: Will shitting himself in an exam, Simon exposing his left testicle in his male-modelling debut, Jay wanking in the room of a resident of an old people’s home and Simon puking over Carly’s little brother to name but a few. ‘We start filming next year,’ Simon explains. ‘We have done some shooting in Malia – just general shots of the four of us walking around, which we can use as promotional material if nothing else. In a way, I’m glad we’ve got some time to prepare. Making a film is definitely a challenge. It’s a really different prospect to doing another series, and we need to make it equally exciting. The television episodes are only short (23 minutes), and so the film is going to be five times the length of an episode.’

I recently heard a rumour that Simon Bird was quitting the film, because he wanted more money. Luckily, that was just a rumour. ‘The Sun started that,’ Joe confirmed. ‘All four of us are paid the same amount, and that’s stated on pretty much the first line of our contracts.

‘What was interesting about that rumour is that it wasn’t obvious where it came from. I mean; it didn’t really work in anyone’s interest. I know that Simon would never have demanded more money – if anything, he might have tried to get more money for all of us and, fair play to him. But he’s definitely not quitting.’ Phew. And, it was recently revealed  that the boys will be doing a two-part, parting of ways, Christmas special in 2011. So, we won’t have to say goodbye to our favourite schoolboys just yet.

Rumours or no rumours, Joe Thomas is a nice guy. And The Inbetweeners is a much funnier and more realistic look at teenage life than Skins. Let’s face it: most Cambridge undergrads will remember their school days as bearing more resemblance to Simon’s embarrassing parents and frequent failures with women than the drug fuelled parties and hit-and-runs of the Skins gang.