John Kearns doesn’t over-analyse his act. Audiences enjoy the shrill Cockney whine he’s adopted, so he keeps it, simple as that.
A devotee of classic comedy, the Tooting-born comic notes that “Tommy Cooper never rehearsed in front of a mirror because he didn’t want to see how he moved, he didn’t want it to become a trick. He only learnt his stuff in front of an audience because he wanted to be guided by the laugh.”
It should come as no surprise that Kearns doesn’t create material in the conventional way either, preferring instead to “turn on loud, quite weird music and then shout over it, before writing it down”.
Scrutinising Sight Gags For Perverts too closely, the show that won him the Edinburgh Comedy Award for best newcomer, probably does a disingenuous, even pervy disservice to its quirky and often inexplicable appeal. It is enough to remark only that the bespectacled 26-year-old takes the stage in a monk’s tonsure wig, buck teeth and an inflatable horse costume that has failed to inflate.
This time last year, Kearns was virtually unknown outside London’s alternative comedy scene. I first caught him at the 2011 Fringe in a two-hander with his friend Pat Cahill. John Kearns’ Dinner Party was “an ambitious but deeply flawed production” I sighed, because “the trouble with a show that depicts a loser having a breakdown is that if you can’t convince the audience what’s on stage is entirely fictional, you risk it being a very long hour”.
Strikingly, that was the same risk Kearns took with his latest show, which currently leads comedy website Chortle’s annual awards nominations, with the winners announced later this month. Recognised in the best show and breakthrough act categories, he’s also up for best character, sketch or improv act, a suitably vague stab at what he does.
“I guess it’s a kind of character,” he reflects. “But in a way, I’ve never seen it as that because what I say is mostly true.”
Since peppering his earliest sets with stolen Steven Wright and Demetri Martin lines, an insurance policy against him bombing that made no discernible difference, he says it hasn’t been “interesting to talk about myself on stage. What I find interesting is how you talk about yourself. The way I’ve got around it is by ‘acting’ my life basically. It’s embellished but all very much true and I believe audiences know when it’s real. They love thinking ‘he must have been through some really bad times for this bit’”.
Indeed, for all its high-energy lunacy, Sight Gags For Perverts (named after a scathing review of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, which Kearns, mindful of tensions in North Korea, had wanted to use for a contemporary re-imagining of its Cold War humour before realising that “I knew nothing about nuclear weapons”), grew out of a sad, grey and lonely trip he took to Berlin, as he recounts during the show.
“It was the usual thing, I had to get over a woman” he affirms. But in his own, distinctive, Bruce Springsteen-loving, cross-dressing fashion, he committed absolutely everything in sharing his agitation, “feeling like a kid laying out my lemonade stand outside of my house, putting all my possessions on the table and having a little garage sale. It felt as if it had everything and you don’t go for that half-arsed”.
Taking a month off from his job as a Houses of Parliament tour guide, imagining he might be sacked when he returned, he threw himself into “bits like shrieking at a song and all that nonsense, [because] it was coming from a place of ‘well, this is why you’ve come’. It was built from frustration.”
A career “turning point” had come earlier when he started reading the rejection letters he’d received from agents on stage, such as: ‘we like you John, you work well with a comedy audience. But we don’t know how to work you into anything else.”
“But they’d written ‘comedy audience’ in inverted commas,” he says, “so if the audience were laughing at me, I’d just berate them, screaming ‘they’re taking the piss out of you as well!’”
Winning the Foster’s comedy award “really changed everything”, letting him become a full-time comic, landing him “gigs with people I look up to”, meetings with television commissioners and “a bit of a mental collapse for a few months if I’m honest, because I didn’t know how to handle it.”
Channelling those anxieties and more “into character”, Kearns’ forthcoming Radio 4 show will share his inner monologues. Inspired by Hancock’s Half Hour, he likens it to “a nature documentary for this odd man,” which he hopes to record sitting on buses or simply walking around.
The events in Ukraine may yet make him reconsider a nuclear apocalypse show. But his 2014 Fringe offering is likelier to be a “Dr Frankenstein kind of thing”, with him exploring being “trapped behind this disguise – that it was a joke that got out of hand.
“I did a preview, taking the wisdom teeth off, going to the mic, trying to work out how to stand on my own, then putting the wig and teeth back on, trying to work out how I did it, going back to the mic …
“People liked it but somebody came up to me afterwards, who’d not seen me before, and said: ‘I had no idea you wore that in the first place’. Which is true. There’ll be new people coming who don’t know about the crutches. So I’ve still got to build it all up properly and crash it down again.”
He laughs. “It’s going… with mixed success at the moment, this second-guessing of audiences. It really is the Cold War before Edinburgh. You never know what’s going to happen till you’re actually facing them.”
• John Kearns: Sight Gags for Perverts is at Blackfriars Basement, Glasgow, tomorrow as part of the Glasgow Comedy Festival, see www.glasgowcomedyfestival.com