‘I’m not just grumpy and deadpan’: standup Romesh Ranganathan reveals another side to his comedy
Maths teacher turned comedian Romesh Ranganathan’s quirky humour has propelled him to the top of the class. But, as he reveals here, life hasn’t always been so easy
Not so long ago, Romesh Ranganathan was having lunch in a burrito place. As he was tucking into his wrap, the manager recognised the 44-year-old comedian, said he was a big fan, and they had a friendly chat. A few minutes later the manager reappeared with the restaurant’s signature dessert: tres leches cake, a Mexican delicacy made with whole milk, evaporated milk and condensed milk. He put it down on the table with a flourish; again, all good. The only problem is that Ranganathan is a vegan. He hasn’t consumed any dairy in almost a decade.
So what did Ranganathan do? “I ate it!” he exclaims. “I couldn’t bring myself to tell him, so I fucking ate it in front of him, man. I was just sitting there going, ‘This has got so much dairy in it!’ I just thought, my morals are not as important as making this guy feel good about having brought this thing over.”
The tres leches debacle is what Ranganathan’s wife, Leesa, would call, with an undisguised eye-roll, “a Romesh situation”. What’s another example? “Well, before I got an agent, I was frequently supposed to be at two gigs at the same time that were geographically impossible to be at,” says Ranganathan. “And I’d say to Leesa, ‘I’ve got a situation. I’m supposed to be in Lancashire in 45 minutes, what do I do?’”
One time, early in his career as a standup, Ranganathan called up a promoter and told him he was standing by the side of the motorway, his car broken down. He was actually just about to walk on stage at another gig. Ranganathan has never spoken about it publicly before and doing so now makes him feel physically unwell. “I was on the phone thinking, ‘This is fucking insane. This isn’t normal,’” he recalls. “I thought, ‘You’ve got to sort yourself out.’ And I haven’t, but I’m better than I was, put it that way.”
Home truths: starring in Avoidance, his new family sitcom for the BBC. Photograph: Rich Hardcastle/BBC/RangaBee Productions
If you have seen Ranganathan perform – he reliably turns up these days, occasionally even on time – you will recognise these well-meaning, chaotic traits. They are there in his television work, too: in The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan, where he travels to some of the world’s least enticing holiday destinations, or Rob and Romesh Vs, where he and fellow comic Rob Beckett undertake quirky challenges, such as training to become strongmen or running a restaurant for a night. Ranganathan’s flawed everyman is also central to the appeal of the Sky panel show, A League of Their Own, on which he succeeded James Corden as host.
And, it has to be said, Romesh situations, while they must be maddening to be entangled in, do make excellent anecdotes. In person, when we meet at a photographic studio in Brighton, there seems very little distance between him and his onscreen persona. It’s a well-established trope: you can interview comedians and not crack a smile. An audience with Ranganathan is, instead, often gleeful and unexpected, like hanging out with a friend who just happens to be much funnier than your actual friends.
Ranganathan is naturally drawn to the incongruous: before he was a comedian, he was a maths teacher and he remembers becoming obsessed with one of his colleagues’ shoes, how shiny they were. “So for about a month, I deep-dived into different techniques for polishing shoes,” says Ranganathan, who is dressed all in black, from hoodie to (admittedly pristine) Air Maxes. “Like doing an initial layer, letting it cure, then doing a layer of polish over the top of that. That became like the thing I talked about. Like, quite a lot.”
Ranganathan is pleased that his work on TV is less “performative” than it has ever been. “When I started, I was doing panel shows and you’re trying to look for the funny,” he says. “So my thing was being like this deadpan grumpy prick, right? The truth is, that exists within me, but there’s more to my character than that.
Top form: hosting A League of Their Own with
Roisin Conaty and Tom Allen. Photograph: Sky UK/PR
“Whereas now, it’s partly that you feel more comfortable,” he goes on, “And partly because I trust the process. Like on Misadventures we shoot for ages; if they can’t find an hour of funny stuff in that, then I shouldn’t be a comedian. Same with Rob and Romesh: if me and Rob run a restaurant for a night and nothing happens, we’ve both got to have a long, hard look at ourselves.”
These days the fact that Ranganathan is enjoying considerable success just by being Ranganathan is the cause of some bemusement in his household. He has three sons, who are early teens and younger, and they never see any of his not-inconsiderable output on TV. “I’m trying to think if they have watched anything I’ve been in… No, I don’t think so,” he says. “With something like Misadventures, because it is just me being me, albeit in a different country, they are just not that interested. You know, why would they want to watch another hour of the guy that lives with them?”
Ranganathan has lived a pretty steady life albeit with two major upheavals. His parents, Ranga and Shanthi, arrived in the UK from Sri Lanka in the 1970s and settled in Crawley, West Sussex. Ranga was an accountant and did well enough to be able to send Romesh and his younger brother Dinesh to the fee-paying Reigate Grammar School. Then, in a head-spinning three-month period when Romesh was 12, Ranga announced that he was leaving Shanthi for another woman. Soon after, he was arrested for fraud, the family home was repossessed and Ranga was sent to prison. Romesh was moved to the local comprehensive, and Shanthi and her two sons lived for 18 months in a B&B, before being found a council house.
“I did hero-worship my dad,” says Ranganathan. “I wouldn’t say I preferred him to my mum, I definitely wouldn’t say that, but he was the more fun one of the two. And that was because my mum was dealing both with what my dad was being like and also dealing with two kids who thought my mum was making a big deal about nothing. But, as it turns out, she was not making a big enough deal about it.” Ranganathan smiles wryly. “I saw my dad as infallible,” he says. “Then I found out that he was, like, really fallible. And it really upset me.”
Flexing their muscles: Rob & Romesh Vs Strongman. Photograph: Stuart Wood
After prison, Ranga came back to the family, apparently chastened. He started running a pub, the Prince of Wales in East Grinstead, which sounds like it might have been a better fit than accountancy anyway, before dying from a heart attack in 2011. “My dad was a proper party animal,” says Ranganathan. “He drank so much, and he loved all that kind of lifestyle. It was a very personality-driven pub: like you go to the pub and big part of the reason is to go and see Ranga. And I’m not really like that, although, I sort of have become like that because, as a standup, you are that to the nth degree.”
The extent to which Ranganathan is turning into his dad clearly concerns him. Shanthi, whom you might know from their travel documentary Asian Provocateur or their spiky, very funny bickering on his BBC topical news show The Ranganation, and his brother Dinesh often tease Romesh with how much he looks like Ranga now.
“Well, I look like my dad, I am like my dad,” says Ranganathan. “My sense of humour is the same as my dad’s. I am basically a lot like him. There’s lots of things that I find frightening about that. So for example, I didn’t like the way my dad treated my mum and my dad was inconsiderate in a lot of ways. And I’m inconsiderate in a lot of ways, not deliberately, but I accidentally find myself being inconsiderate.
“My dad and I are very similar in that we expect very little from people around us,” continues Ranganathan. “But we also deliver very little to those people around us. So, you know, low expectation, low delivery. And my mum and brother aren’t like that: they’re high expectation, high delivery. So my brother and mum are fucking great at doing stuff for your birthday: organising dinners, hooking up. But they also expect you to do that. Whereas I don’t give a shit if you forget my birthday, but it’s also very likely I’ll forget yours.”
‘I’d say to her, “I’ve got a situation. What do I do?’” with his wife Leesa. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy
The second upending of Ranganathan’s life was self-inflicted. He taught maths for nine years at the secondary school he went to, Hazelwick School in Crawley, and for the most part loved it. He met Leesa, a drama teacher, there and was made head of sixth form, which boosted his salary. So when he decided to do comedy full-time in 2011, he knew he was taking a risk.
Then, three days before he was set to leave teaching, Ranga died, and Ranganathan and his brother had to find the money to settle his affairs. They even took over thePrince of Wales pub for a few months, but “ran it into the ground”. Ranganathan had young children at home and suddenly no regular income. At one point, the family car was impounded because he couldn’t afford the road tax and then, because the fines were increasing every day, he had to just abandon it.
“You become conscious: I need to get us out of this,” says Ranganathan. “Because I’ve made this career choice, we’re living like this. And it’s not a noble thing. Going into comedy is not a noble thing.”
Both of these episodes from his life remain fresh and vivid for Ranganathan. And if it feels as if he’s on telly a lot, they go some way to explaining it. “My dad had it, my brother has it and I think I’ve got it where you want to work because this could all go away any minute or things could go tits up,” says Ranganathan. “My dad was doing well and then it all went wrong and it felt so quick. Then when I started doing comedy after being a teacher, we were broke. I’ve had two periods of it being really lean, so you always think that could happen again quite easily.”
Maternal figure: with his mum, Shanthi. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Observer
A decade on from becoming a professional comedian, Ranganathan is pretty well unstoppable now. Even the pandemic couldn’t derail him. The Ranganation, in which he’d discuss the events of the week with a panel of ordinary (and not so ordinary) British people, was that rare show in which the Zoom set-up didn’t remind you of a dreary work meeting. Misadventures and Rob and Romesh Vs were perfect, escapist binge-watching.
He also became a hero to many parents in May 2020 when a promo video for The Ranganation on homeschooling went viral. Especially poignant was a section on the curious inability of children to flush the toilet. “A good maths problem in our house would be: what’s the total number of floaters Daddy’s found during the lockdown?”
“It just went massive, that video, for me anyway,” says Ranganathan. “It eventually got to the point where my wife came up to me and she goes, ‘I’ve just had a message from somebody to say, “Can you thank Romesh for his homeschooling video?”’ Then she goes, ‘And I just wanted to ask you: what the fuck do you know about homeschooling? You’ve been up here writing the whole time.’”
Ranganathan has even spun those Romesh situations into entertainment. His latest project is a six-part comedy-drama for BBC One called Avoidance, co-written with Ben Green and in which he stars. The series opens with Jonathan (Ranganathan) being kicked out by his wife. He hasn’t been unfaithful, hasn’t done anything really, and that passivity is the problem: Jonathan – which is actually Ranganathan’s given first name – is spineless and a hopeless procrastinator. All that remains is his relationship with his nine-year-old son, Spencer, and the series follows his increasingly frantic attempts to keep that father-son dynamic on track.
“I know people don’t want to hear it, but I do on occasion think, ‘I can’t believe it’s my job.’” Photograph: Alex Lake/The Observer
That Avoidance is funny isn’t much of a surprise, but what might be is how touching and bittersweet it is. Ranganathan has clearly poured much of his life into the scripts: from being the kind of guy who would be served the wrong food in a restaurant and eat it anyway, to his relationship with his kids, to how he felt as a child when his parents separated.
“When my mum and dad split up, and my dad went to prison, my recollection of that is: home life is nightmarish, or is all falling apart and so school and your social life became really important,” he says. “Weirdly, school became my respite from home. So that’s where that came from with Spencer in Avoidance.”
It’s not exactly Ranganathan’s style to feel pleased with how things are going. He has long admitted to suffering from impostor syndrome. Overall, though, he has to concede that he isn’t staring down the barrel of career collapse and penury these days. “I know people don’t want to hear it, but I do on occasion think, ‘I can’t believe it’s my job,’” he says. “As I’m saying this to you, I imagine hearing this from somebody else and it would be fucking annoying.” But sometimes, when I’m going to do a tour show or I’m doing something with Rob or I’m going to act on Avoidance, I think, ‘This is so sick that this is my job.’”
Ranganathan even learned during the pandemic that it’s OK to slow down, even do nothing, play video games with the kids, go for a long lunch with Leesa and his eldest son, as he’ll do when he finishes our interview. “I know I say that as somebody who has made a hundred TV shows in the last year,” he says, smiling. “But this whole thing about making every minute count, being on the grind and turning everything into an opportunity, I really am opposed to that way of thinking. So days where you just do fucking nothing are great, man.”
Avoidance is on BBC One on Fridays at 9.30pm
Grooming by Juliana Sergot