Raymond Mearns’ radio show begins with impeccable comic timing – bang in the middle of a mid-life crisis
‘MY LIFE’S a disaster. I’ve not got a pot to piss in, I’m up to my eyeballs in debt and I’m getting a divorce. I’ve lost everything I ever wanted. And I don’t give a f*** any more.”
Is Raymond Mearns succumbing to the blues? When the Glaswegian comedian welcomes me into his house in Garrowhill, he’s watching the late Gary Moore of Thin Lizzy delivering a plaintive solo. He shows me into the room housing his own guitars, maybe 15 of them standing amid the exercise equipment and Subbuteo, including a Gibson Les Paul worth about £2,000. “They all do different things” he murmurs lovingly, before sitting down to play a studied riff, a picture of concentration. Another guitar is due to be delivered later this afternoon.
The 46-year-old became a comic after surgery for a congenital heart condition convinced him to seize the stage while he could. He supported and occasionally substituted for Pete Doherty (as a stand-up) when the ex-Babyshambles singer was indisposed on his 2011 tour, and once told me that he was “probably a bad influence on the boy”. For 18 of the 20 years that he’s been a comic, becoming one of the most trusted comperes and respected headliners on the Scottish circuit, Mearns was a “legendary” boozer. “I mean a truly brilliant drinker,” he says.
His marriage “spectacularly exploded” during the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe, while he was performing Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Stress But Were Afraid To Ask. Inspired by his experience of making a self-help DVD about mental health for the NHS, it was, he admits now, “all bollocks”.
“It was me standing on stage, trying to say I’m so sensitive and a new man. I’ve been reborn, I’ve learned from my mistakes, I’ve been to therapy, yoga and all that pish.” Subsequent efforts to reconcile with his wife failed and they split up for good in the summer of 2012.
So why is he now so bullish, as full of opinions as ever but with less of the bristling, angry edge? Not to mention looking much more, in his own (not entirely inaccurate) assessment, “fit as a butcher’s dog”?
Well, reining in the drinking and midnight curries played a part in slimming down from 18 stone to 13 and a half. That and “crying for nine months and eating Super Noodles”. An avid reader and incorrigible “navel-gazer”, given to plucking quotes out of the air, he leans on the wisdom of David Mamet, Gore Vidal and John McEnroe during our interview, paraphrasing Winston Churchill when he calls his troubles “blessings in disguise, even if, clearly, they were very well disguised at the time”.
Blessings all the same though, because he’s finally getting his own star vehicle, Planet Mearns, a BBC Radio Scotland show of stand-up, sketches and music that opens with the trials and tribulations of returning to dating in middle age. If a full series is commissioned, the episodes will also touch on lifestyle, finance, health and aspiration.
Typically damning-but-precious about his dramatic abilities – “I’m far too self-affecting to be a decent actor. I manufacture emotion which doesn’t occur organically in the piece” – Mearns previously appeared in the BBC sitcoms Rab C Nesbitt and Legit and the Ken Loach films Ae Fond Kiss and It’s A Free World. But his most high-profile role to date was in the first series of Limmy’s Show, co-starring with Debbie Welsh and Tom Brogan. More sanguine about the trio’s sacking from the quirky sketch comedy than he was in the past, he nevertheless archly suggests that the only “people who recognised me from that show were in school uniforms. No-one over 16 watched it.”
By contrast, Planet Mearns is unapologetically aimed at an audience that have been around a bit, and are experienced in decoding online dating profiles and mid-life crises. “They’re getting older, they’re getting bigger and they’ve got the money,” he says of his generation. “I’m a pissed off, middle-aged guy and there’s a lot of us about. I know because I meet them in guitar shops.”
Back in 2010, Mearns was a favourite of Rab C producer Colin Gilbert, at that time the kingmaker of Scottish broadcast comedy. With his backing, he delivered a Planet Mearns taster show of sketches at the Glasgow Comedy Festival the following year with Welsh and Brogan, which impressed the BBC enough to want to develop it further. Still, Mearns had a struggle to convince the corporation that he could adapt his rambunctious and sweary live performances into tightly scripted, mid-afternoon radio.
“I can tell if people are bullshitting me because I’m a lying bastard myself,” he says. “There’s a bit of a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous, ‘if you can spot it, you’ve got it’. And because I’ve been pished out my nut for so long, I knew no-one was doubting my talent, they were doubting my ability to run with the ball.”
Audiences at his gigs “ask if I know what I’m going to do before I get on stage,” he says. “And I’ve not got a clue.” So transcribing his routines for the Planet Mearns recording at Glasgow’s Oran Mor venue last month was more for his producers’ sanity than his own. And you could understand their trepidation. He was still writing that morning and constantly shuffling and misplacing his notes during the taping itself.
Happily though, the audience lapped up the slightly chaotic energy in the monologues and the sketches he shared with Welsh. Mearns bridles at the notion of authenticity in comedy but was clearly touched by a punter who told him: “‘You say the things I’d love to say but I’ve not got the balls to say them.’”
He acknowledges that collaboration remains a “nightmare” for him. “I’ll have to improve that discipline. Because normally I just don’t write these things down, I say them. There’s a vernacular and my voice rhythm doesn’t really work on the page,” he says. Ultimately though, he’s “just a mad ranter”, sharing his “stress-based reactions to things and putting my inadequacies into the world”.
As such, he won’t accept Frankie Boyle’s assertion that comedians become less interesting in their forties, as they quit creating and settle for just producing more of the same. On the contrary. Mearns believes he’s a victim of “arrested development”.
“I had children at 19 and I think that’s why my marriage failed. I think that both my wife and I felt that we’d been robbed of our youth, that we’d never had that going on holiday thing with each other and all those things normal people do while we were playing at houses.”
He’s got a new girlfriend now and allows himself the briefest flash of arrogance before the insecurity returns. “I honestly believe that Planet Mearns is going to be one of the best things people have heard for a long time on radio,” he says. “I have such faith in it because I have such faith in my own ability. I know I’m funny. Sometimes I die on my arse. Sometimes I take chances, fail spectacularly and feel like my career’s f****d.
“But we’re all inadequate in some way or other and I’m beginning to let that work for me now. I’ve said, ‘This is me. I am who I am. I am beautifully, perfectly flawed’.”
• Raymond Mearns plays The Stand, Edinburgh, on 20, 21 and 22 February. Planet Mearns airs on 5 March at 1.30pm on BBC Radio Scotland.