Placed at the centre stage of political and social reviews, 2021 marks another serious year for the betting industry. Yet speaking from experience, stand-up comedian and MyRacing.com podcaster Ross Brierley tells SBC that betting can be a laughing and unifying matter.
SBC: Hi Ross, thanks for this interview… What made you decide to become ‘the world’s only stand-up comedian and pro punter’?
Ross Brierley: I’m not sure it was a decision, more a series of fortunate events. They both started as a hobby and became something more serious, with the former being a dream of mine ever since I saw Frank Skinner live when I was about 14. In fact, I think I’ve unconsciously tried to echo his entire career since, with chat shows, stand up tours and making comedy about sport.
Funny has always been my main social skill, so it was only a matter of time before I did something with it. The punting was simply part of the world whilst working as a producer/presenter for William Hill Radio / TV, but then I landed a big win in 2010 and thought it was worth trying to make some decent cash from it. So I quit full time work to go freelance, doing occasional shifts on the radio and the rest of the time betting, mainly in-running in trading rooms, offices and at home. I’d say due to the events of the past year, however, that I’m neither a stand up comic NOR a pro-punter anymore!
I’m definitely a bit bored of the day to day grind of trying to make it pay, as it gets harder and harder every year, and I get older and more tired. The sense of satisfaction from creating/presenting is greater these days than it is from a winning bet. I’d say I’m more a writer/presenter/comedian/semi-pro punter/live-in chef/dining room chat show host, but that’s quite a clunky headline.
SBC: As a comedian is betting really an inclusive topic for audiences… what reaction have you had to recounting betting-related jokes?
RB: Better than you’d expect! The best comedy comes from distilling complex ideas into understandable premises and jokes, so the fact that betting is so inclusive is only a problem in so far as you have to understand it to joke about it. It’s like being a good teacher: knowledge is one thing, but transference of it is another!
The show I did at the Fringe in 2018, ‘Accumulator‘, detailing the early days of me becoming a ‘pro punter’, sold really well and got a really good reception, though there were a lot of jokes in the early previews that didn’t make the cut because of people not quite getting my point. However, I did a few gigs on a cruise to mainly American audiences and they had no idea what I was on about. I had a great joke about snooker. Americans don’t play snooker. I have a song about bookies pens. They don’t know what they are, either. Occasionally I’d get negative reactions from individuals in the audience who, the moment gambling is mentioned, tensed up or were visibly disapproving of me talking about it, but I was always careful to say that it was just jokes, not promotion of a lifestyle.
SBC: Can you detail your highs and lows as a punter, and how you have turned these personal experiences into comedic material?
RB: Highs include the initial ‘big win’, landing the Scoop 6 in August 2016, and landing a bit of a touch with a horse called Dark Forest, which myself and a friend bought to win at Southwell, which he duly did, first time on the surface, in 2017, carrying chunks of our money. Lows include my first year as a ‘pro punter’, where I lost half my initial betting bank and totally underestimated the graft and discipline it takes to win consistently, a couple of massively misjudged lays on horses in running (The Friary still haunts me to this day) and a shocking run at the end of 2018 after I did two shows at the Fringe and thought I could jump straight back into normal life without a proper break. You can’t make good betting decisions whilst physically and emotionally exhausted! I haven’t really turned the highs into comedic material, as no one wants to hear a comedian on stage telling them about how things went really well, but if you’re candid, self-deprecating and honest about the highs and lows of anything, then you can usually mine it for humour.
SBC: You have candidly spoken about your time working in a William Hill betting shop. How did this formative experience influence your creative direction?
RB: I never worked in a shop, but would say on stage that I got a job ‘at a bookies’ to simplify the message. I worked in the call centre in Sheffield, then at William Hill Radio as, well, everything really. I’ve always been a jack of all trades. The lessons I learned in the call centre were numerous, both betting wise and for comedic purposes.
It was a crazy, chaotic environment, full of students like myself, veterans of the betting trade, and everyone in between. Throw in the occasionally crazy characters you’d get on the phones, some who definitely rang up more for a chat than a bet, and the early workings of a best selling sitcom were definitely born. I’ll write it one day. It was certainly a good breeding ground for observing the weird and the wonderful.
SBC: Your sponsor MyRacing seems to believe that humour adds value to sports betting. Did they not get the memo, that in 2020 betting is no laughing matter?
RB: I think in 2020, everything has to be a laughing matter, or we’ll all go crazy! But I take your point. I think people fail to understand that something can be serious, but not taken too seriously. Making light of life doesn’t make you irresponsible. Context is key. If you make a joke at a funeral, is it to lighten the mood to help deal with the situation, or is it at the expense of the dead?
One is fine, the other ain’t. So I think it’s perfectly OK to laugh at the absurdities of the racing and betting world, but you have to be careful to aim for the right targets. The sport itself is absolutely absurd when you boil it down, and people in the game are very insecure. Racing as a pastime is steeped in privilege, and the privileged aren’t used to taking jokes. It’s a robust, billion-pound industry, I think it can take a few light hearted jibes. But, as ever with comedy, you have to be careful to punch up. Promoting responsible gambling and joking about the things people bet on can both coexist without one undermining the other.
Ross Brierley is the co-host of Spotlight Sports ‘MyRacing Show’ podcast presented alongside ITV Racing’s Natalie Jane Green. The show takes a lighter look at the biggest talking points in racing and betting.