Issue 30 | Winter 2021
TOM ALLEN AND SUZI RUFFELL ARE TWO OF THE COUNTRY’S BEST LGBTQ+ COMEDIANS, writes cary gee – AND THEY’RE BESSIE MATES AS WELL. AND THEIR PODCAST LIKE-MINDED FRIENDS IS A MUST-LISTEN
What sort of gay man dresses in a suit and tie despite having no plans to leave the house? Comedian tom Allen, that’s who.
Of course he does. I bet you’ve never seen him dressed any other way. Tom doesn’t do casual, however smart.
And today is no exception. This morning he’s selected a chic grey lounge suit and red tie to chat to me from the spare bedroom of his new house. The room houses his home studio and office and it’s a whole lot more professional-looking than mine, as you might expect from a man who is rarely off our airwaves. In addition to presenting The Apprentice: You’re Fired, and Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice, Tom’s TV resume includes regular guest appearances on television staples including Mock the Week, Blankety Blank, Would I Lie to You? Have I Got News for You?, Live at the Apollo and Eight of out Ten Cats.
Tom is joined on a different connection by his BBF, fellow comedian Suzi Ruffell. Suzi, like me, has opted for a somewhat more casual approach and I have to say I’m somewhat relieved. The pair are zooming in to discuss the relaunch of their podcast, Like Minded Friends. Imagine eavesdropping on a conversation that segues from Tom’s knitwear (clearly reserved for the odd moments he’s not on the telly) to blow-up Santas to table decorations and affairs of the heart. It’s as warm and cosy as a glass of sloe gin in front of the fire which might explain why the podcast has so far attracted more than three million downloads.
Whose idea was it?
“We started it five years ago. I think it’s fair to say neither of us were that busy,” says Suzi.
Tom replies, “At the time there wasn’t then much on offer for LBGTQ+ people. We felt we were something of outsiders, even within that community and wanted to celebrate that. It turns out that everybody feels like an outsider.”
‘’We thought it would be quite a niche thing,” says Suzi. “Very queer. And it is because we host it, but it’s extraordinary how many people have reached out, got in touch with us, straight people and allies who also feel they are somehow ‘other’ and have become part of the Like Minded Friends gang.”
Such is the level of intimacy created by Suzi and Tom that I confess I’m a little surprised to discover that Like Minded Friends is actually recorded remotely, much like this interview, from their own bedrooms. Remarkably, given that their audience cannot see them, they insist that no alcohol is consumed during recordings.
“At least not by me,”’ says Suzi. But there is nothing remotely staged about their real-life friendship.“I met Tom about 13 years ago. He’d been doing stand-up for a little while and I remember being very impressed when I first saw him doing a gig. We then did a gig together and became firm friends after that.”
What was Suzi’s first impression of Tom?
“I thought he was hilarious, very inspirational and that he looked nice in a suit.”
And Tom’s impression of Suzi? “I thought, ‘Ooh, there’s someone a bit like me!’ Suzi was very easy to chat to which is always a good sign. When there’s something that connects you.”
Unlike telly, Like Minded Friends allows Suzi and Tom simply to be themselves.”The lovely thing about doing a podcast is that we’re allowed just to be us. We just throw out what we want to talk about. We don’t really edit it. It’s just a fun conversation that people overhear. It’s very loose, very chit-chatty and I think that’s what people rea ly like,” says Suzi.“We’re the last vestige of the lonely,” adds Tom. “What we’ve really enjoyed is that people from all around the world have been in contact. It’s especially heartening that people listen in places where being out is actually illegal, where there are no LGBTQ+ rights and protections at all, and often outright hostility. We feel its very important to be a friend there.”
Are there any subjects that THEY would prefer not to discuss?
“Not really. We pride ourselves on having an authentic and natural conversation,” says Tom. “One of our strengths in a world of social media where people are so polarised and angry with each other is that we like to talk about the ephemeral throw-away moments in a life as well as the bigger topics, and talking about things from a personal perspective.”
“We don’t try to debunk anything or take on a difficult subject,” says Suzi. “We just chat about things that have come up. We’ve spoken about being on the receiving end of quite hostile homophobia and then choosing the best tiles for a new bathroom! That’s what life is. Trying to find a way between those things.”
How much being gay was a factor in their decision to choose comedy?
“I think for many queer people I know humour was a way of communicating and expressing themselves”, says Tom. “There is a brilliant tradition of subversive, camp comedy, like Julian and Sandy. It couldn’t be spoken about but it was there. Comedy allows an amazing connection for people who might feel disconnected or might not feel they can speak openly about things. As a comedian you can reference something and people laugh because they feel a relief…”
“A kinship,” interjects Suzi.
“Exactly,” Tom concurs.
Aside from each other who do Tom and Suzi turn to FOR a real belly laugh?
“I’ve worked with many of the greats from this generation and before,” says Suzi. “The comedy world is unbelievably small. I’ve worked a lot with Alan Carr [with whom Tom is also great friends], he was always a huge inspiration to me when I was starting stand-up. And we’ve both worked a lot with Jennifer Saunders. When I was growing up and my friends were obsessed with music and cool things I was obsessed with French and Saunders! They felt like something which belonged just to me, and which I loved. I don’t know if anyone could ever love me like I loved French and Saunders but if someone can watch my comedy or listen to our podcast, feel a connection to us and have a laugh… .feel ‘Oh, there’s someone a bit like me’, then I think that’s a huge achievement.”
Imagine eavesdropping on a conversation that segues from Tom’s knitwear to blow-up Santas to table decorations and affairs of the heart
When was the last time THEY were offended by something heard on stage?
“Well I’ve certainly heard people be homophobic on stage. I may say, ‘I don’t like that’ but I try not to let someone offend me by their ignorance. That’s a problem with them not a problem with me,” says Suzi.
As for Tom, he prefers “comedy that is about warmth and kindness and understanding each other. I’ve never been into a comedic tone that says ‘I’ll tell you how the world is’.”
How much is comedy still the domain of white heterosexual men?
“I don’t think we have to worry about the straight white men,” says Suzi. “But quite rightly there is more room for women, comedians of colour and more queer comics. As soon as you look at a line-up and there are lots of different types of people on, the more chance there is that everyone in that audience that night will feel some sort of kinship with someone that’s on and be able to laugh at everybody else as well.”
“What’s exciting about comedy,” says Tom, “is that there is a place for everybody. Naturally, human beings are curious and for me comedy is about hearing different people’s stories. People who are different to you, or people who are different to you but you can still relate to. It’s about connections.”
Certainly things have moved on for Tom since the time he left the stage mid-gig after being subjected to a torrent of homophobic abuse, only to be told the promoter ‘I’m sorry you had a bad gig, but as you left the stage early we’re only going to pay you half the money!”
“It was awful,” sayS Suzi, “but I think the industry has changed quite dramatically since that happened. It was really shocking and so out of order.”
“They told me I should’ve written more jokes for the audience,” adds Tom. “But I thought, if I write more jokes for those audiences I’ll always be stuck with them. I’d rather find an audience that actually likes me rather than trying to appease an audience which doesn’t.”
While Suzi is completing her Dance Like Everyone is Watching tour Tom hopes to be back on the road before the end of next year.
In the meantime there’s the small matter of writing his second book, a follow up to the eye-wateringly funny and often deeply moving memoir No Shame which he penned during lockdown. “I received letters from parents saying what a help the book was to their child who was coming out or feeling different. I feel very honoured by that.”
One word that has cropped up time and time again during our conversation is “connections”. Meeting Tom and Suzi together you can understand how important their own connection is to the other. Do they have plans to take their professional relationship on to the next level. Perhaps in a sit com?
“That would be fun. We should,” says Tom.
“There are a couple of entertainment ideas in the pipeline…..telly stuff,” Suzi teases, and I, for one, can’t wait.
Meanwhile Tom is gearing up to host a family Christmas in his new home. He has already bought some garlands but is still waiting for someone to send an inflatable Santa. His new home is just down the round from his parents’ house in Bromley, where he grew up.
“I always thought I’d live in a big city and lead some kind of metropolitan life, it would be so glamorous! But in truth I realise that suburbia is where I feel most comfortable. The people I’m most inspired by, people like Alan Bennet and John Waters, come from suburbia. That hinterland between the city and the countryside that people assume is quite boring is where life is. It’s true for our podcast too. The place in the middle is where life happens.”
Go to: tomindeed.com
Go to suziruffell.com