Having a crack at comedy
SCAN HER reviews - almost all of them, by the way, are raves - and the same word keeps cropping up: "bleak". This author debuted with short stories, and right away the critics reckoned they had her number - "bleak".
Later, some strove to say something different about her. "Bleak and disturbing," ventured one. "Melodiously bleak" hinted at faint rays of sunlight, but with obvious bleakness attached. When she branched out into the world of film, and was exposed to movie critics for the first time, you wondered if they would come up with a whole new take on her writing. No. "A horribly funny black comedy, fascinating and bleak" was typical.
She returned to books, to the literary reviewers, and the same reaction: "It is a critical commonplace to assume that no one does bleak like her." Are you still unconvinced? Do you continue to labour under the assumption her work might not have quite enough bleakness in it? Then how about this for a conclusive verdict: "If you don't like the chill, the dark, the sheen of psychic malice, stay out of the fictive House of Kennedy."
The Kennedy in question is Alison but you can call her AL. She's one of Scotland's leading literary figures. But compare and contrast the AL Kennedy you think you might know from her award-winning fiction with the one sitting opposite me in a cafe in Glasgow's West End. She's watching a waitress perched on a ladder and is half-anxious for her, half-hoping she'll fall. This is AL Kennedy, comedy fan, devotee of Dave Allen and Marty Feldman and even the silly slapstick of Benny Hill, and now, in her own right, a comedienne.
"People have always assumed that because I'm a woman and I write books, I must be gay," she says, apropos of not very much. "Now they assume that because I'm a woman and I get up on stage and try to tell jokes, I must be gay." She's not.
"'Well,' they say: 'We never see you with a man.' To that I have to reply: 'Thank you for reminding me.' There are certain jobs that it's considered odd for women to do. Chippendale, for instance, or submarine commander, and it's the same with comedy. You're thought to be not quite right."
Kennedy is small, serious and drinking a strange brew when I arrive. "It's mint tea with real mint and real insects so it's very flavoursome," she quips. Is she trying to make me laugh, to prove her comedy credentials? I've never heard her read her fiction but friends who have say she's a born performer, and hilarious with it. And many of the aforementioned reviews for acclaimed books such as Original Bliss, Indelible Acts, Everything You Need and Paradise made the point that her fiction was bleakly funny.
But a literary evening is one thing; the stand-up club bear-pit is quite another. Why subject yourself to it, and why do so during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe when everyone on the teeming scene is striving for a reputation: other comics, critics and, let's not forget, hecklers?
"I'm just passing the time, which I need to do, right at this moment."
Between the books?
"No, just between inhaling and exhaling."
She answers slowly and quietly and almost undiscernibly above the noise of the Gaggia and Depeche Mode. "I wouldn't be doing it if my life wasn't completely shagged. I've always liked comedy. I used to go to gigs a lot. I'd watch it on TV and listen to it on the radio. I would read about it, the mechanics of it and everything. It was a big thing in my life. But for various complicated reasons I can't do any of that stuff anymore, so I miss it and I have to try and generate some comedy of my own."
Kennedy has spoken before about the demise of a relationship which has caused her to seek a weird kind of sanctuary in dimly-lit caverns where a bunch of complete strangers demand that you make them split their sides. She goes a bit further today, revealing that the person involved is male and was a friend and not a lover. But that she has "no idea" why they are no longer on speaking terms.
She's finding it difficult to say any more, so best to move on. I tell her my favourite Dave Allen joke, a riff on collective nouns: "A brace of dentists, a flock of Indian restaurants" etc. She laughs and is soon reminiscing some more about the comedy icons of her Dundonian childhood.
"For a while there was only Dave Allen. Every other comedian was a man in a ruffled shirt and a jacket with a velvet collar and that didn't make any sense to me." This sounds very much like ITV's The Comedians, which Kennedy only saw at her gran's house, the third channel being banned in her own. "These guys told jokes about sex, which at eight you don't want to hear. And if you're a girl, you're not really going to laugh at gags about big tits."
Now 40, Kennedy feels able to make jokes about sex in her own act. "Sex is funny," she says. "Sex is frightening so it's funny. Sex is ugly so it's funny. Sex is important so it's funny. Sex makes people want to kill themselves so it's funny. Sex with me involves my body so it's fantastically funny. I am a circus freak!"
Does she like hearing the sound of laughter? "Yes, but if there's too much of it, I start to get resentful. You lot are having a good time, why am I not?"
Back in the Dundee of her youth, Kennedy remembers the thrill and danger evoked by the mere mention of Richard Pryor. "We were told at school that he was supposed to make you die if you listened to one of his records. So I had the sense there were really bad people out there but that these were the great comics."
So has she borrowed from other comedians to develop her own routines? "No, I don't think you can do that. You have to tell the truth, speak in your own voice. I approach comedy the way I did my writing: you have to find out what you sound like and who you really are.
"You can tell when a comedian isn't speaking in his own voice. I've gone to shows by guys I've liked and thought: 'You're not writing your own stuff anymore.' I'm not interested in comedy that is just funny on the surface. It's got to have something to do with who the comic is. Which largely means I want blood!"
So, having performed random gigs for a year and half now, what if her Fringe audiences view her upcoming regular 3pm stint at The Stand in the same way?
"I'm sure some will come hoping to see me flop on stage; that's the fun of comedy for a lot of people. But I think my writing contemporaries are more likely to want to see me f*** up than comedians will. Comedians can be vicious and entire acts can be based on cruelty, but I think it's other writers who will really want to see me crash and burn.
"Maybe I will die on my arse and get savaged. Maybe I will do all right and get savaged. Or I might have a nicely, divertingly appalling month in Edinburgh. We'll see..."
When Kennedy told friends she was going to try stand-up, none of them was in the least bit surprised. "I thought: 'That's great. Did you always think I was going to be a prostitute as well?'" And when Kennedy told Stand stalwart Tommy Shepherd, and asked him for a five-minute slot, he presumed she was researching a book about comedy.
"I'm not. That's one of the few rules of comedy you just don't break." How, then, did the comedy scene react to having a highbrow authoress in their midst? "Oh, they were all very supportive. I got infinitely more support from the comedy community than I did when I started out as a writer. Comedy isn't run by the arts council, you see.
"People told me comedy was a poisonous world and that I would be stabbed in the back, but you've got to remember that I'm no threat. Everyone I've met has been fantastically nice, although I must say it's odd at first when you listen to a comedian do his stuff and it's really savage material about raping grannies, and when they come off stage they're the fluffiest people.
"The circuit is a big bunch of folk who are maybe not mentally the healthiest you could ever meet, but I've found them extraordinary tolerant, gentle and kind. When they asked me why I was doing this and I told them because my head was up my arse, they just went 'Oh' as if to say: 'You too?'"
As she prepares for the Fringe and road-tests new material, Kennedy says the gigs are blurring into one another, and she's struggling to remember much about her debut 18 months ago in The Stand's sister club in Glasgow.
"I had a lot of stuff written down. Basically if I cannot sleep, rather than lie in bed thinking, because thinking inevitably leads me back to the friend I've lost, I get up and write comedy.
"So I had tons of material, a ridiculously high number of attempted hits per minute. You just get five minutes when you start out, but that's way long enough. Comedy really is the most horribly stupid, difficult thing to want to do."
Her induction was over in an instant. "It went very, very fast. When the cue light came on [indicating a minute remaining] I thought I was having a stroke. All I really remember was me walking off." How did she feel afterwards, relieved? Exhilarated? "Peaceful. For the first time in four months. That was nice. But then the feeling went away."
She orders more mint tea and tells me about her new fitness regime which also involves tai chi but is hampered by a slipped disc. Still, her bad back has inspired the odd funny line. On the night I caught her show she also revealed she has nipples "like fishmonger's thumbs". She shared the bill with two other comediennes who had been in the gags game for longer but, competence-wise, there was nothing between them.
During that performance, Kennedy was heckled by a Carol Vorderman fan which prompted her to spin off at a surreal tangent. She likes it when this happens. "I've also been heckled in German and by a person claiming to be American but isn't. That's not a heckle, that's some kind of personality disorder. Curiously, I haven't had the 'You're ugly, you are' heckles. I can only guess I don't get them because it's very plain I already know and that would not be the way to upset me."
She certainly knows that jokes about Dundee - such as the city being too poor for consonants and only having one vowel, "a" - work best in Aberdeen. "Audiences want different things - silly, dark, political. Many of them don't want political. Sometimes I've only completed the first syllable of 'Iraq' when I feel the room temperature drop. I'm usually like: 'Well you're getting it anyway.' I'm thrawn about political stuff."
Doctor Who might seem an easy, obvious source of material, but few comics at the Fringe this year who go down the Tardis route are as big an aficionado as Kennedy or, like her, are seriously intending to submit a script to the BBC for the next series.
She's hugely impressed by David Tennant's take on the Time Lord. "I look at him and I think: 'You've got yards of that, haven't you? You could be terrifying children for ever!' It's those eyes of his. Also the fact he has no chin. How does he eat without a bottom jaw? Bless him."
It feels like a long time since I was re-reading those articles about the unremitting bleakness of AL Kennedy because now she's speculating on what it might be like to kiss Tennant.
"He's very tall, so that would be a problem because I'm 5ft 5in and because of the slipped disc, I can't put my head back for any length of time. I'd have to be content with a quick peck. If he fancied a snog I'd have to say: 'I'm terribly sorry, but we're going to have to lie down for that.'
"Maybe I'd have to be happy with just a chat because, in conversation, I can only do very tall people or munchkins; that is, look up or down. It takes enormous precision to do side-to-side conversation, I really admire anyone who can nail that."
Kennedy has not given up the novels; another is due soon. After that, there will be short stories and scripts for both TV and theatre. She does not think the comedy conflicts with the day job. "There is no area of my life where I walk around thinking I'm this highly-respected novelist and I certainly don't do that here."
She scoffs at my suggestion she could be snapped by a comedy star-maker and whisked off to London as part of a worldwide tour. "I'm only doing this until I get sane. Or get a life. I would like to perform when I'm happy, that would be quite nice."
Has the lost friend seen her perform? "No, I don't think so." How would she feel if, on the Fringe, she suddenly spotted him in the crowd? "I'd be very surprised. I don't think mediocre comedy is his thing.
"Friends are a bugger, aren't they? In some ways they're the most important. Acquaintances are a bit removed. The people you're shagging witless... I tend to do more self-defence in that area because I know it will be apocalyptic when it ends. But those guys in the middle ground, the ones you really like, who you are like, who you can trust, who are special, who you can talk to about books, about anything, and write big, daft letters to... when they walk away it's almost worse."
Is that relationship beyond repair? "I can't think about it. I just miss my pal, it's dead simple. He was my 'funny'. I wish him well and hope everything is OK with him. I sometimes think that if I had a functional life, one with actual content, this situation would be sad, but no big deal in the greater scheme of things.
"It's just because my life is inadequate that it is."
• AL Kennedy will be appearing at the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, Thursday, 7pm, free but ticketed (0131-623 3845) or e-mail email@example.com. AL Kennedy: Feel The Love is at The Stand Comedy Club, Edinburgh (0131-558 7272), August 3-27
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