Interview: ‘I’d be a homeless drunk had I not gone to Edinburgh’ - Jamie Kilstein, comedian

The Fringe turned life around for US comedian Jamie Kilstein, he tells Brian Donaldson

‘MY radio and stand-up audience is full of shy, awkward, nervous outcasts, like myself,” says Jamie Kilstein, “It’s vegans and atheists and LGBT and artists. We’re usually at the other end of the bullying, and I’m certainly not an alpha male.”

The US comic and co-creator of internet station Citizen Radio (tagline: “like CNN but with more swearing”) is reflecting on the time he challenged the cage-rattling conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg to a charity boxing match, an invitation which was never taken up. For a UK comparison, imagine Mark Thomas taking on Richard Littlejohn with a spot of karate or Josie Long arm-wrestling Julie Burchill.

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Despite proposing a very public duel with an ideological enemy, Kilstein tends to save his tough talking for the stage with some visceral and highly politicised stand-up. He tackles all the keynote subjects for liberal-left American comedians (gun control, abortion, religion, the war on drugs) but won’t trot out material that simply preaches to the converted. Instead he’ll confront the casual prejudices and perceived wisdom in his room head on.

Kilstein is also not afraid to mete it out to the president he happily campaigned for in 2008. In particular he has been heavily critical of Obama’s relationship with the National Rifle Association (“before the Sandy Hook massacre, they had given him an A rating; he was the first president who made it legal to carry a gun in public parks”), his foreign policy (“he’s done shadier stuff than Bush when it comes to covert wars, assassinations and violating the constitution”) and aligning himself with opponents of gay marriage (“his first act in office was to have Rick Warren give the prayer at his inauguration; it was like throwing all the gay, lesbian and transgender kids who worked on his election campaign under a bus.”)

With his ability to harpoon injustice and slate hypocrisy wherever he sees it, it’s not for nothing that Kilstein has been compared to Bill Hicks. He accepts the comparison with good grace.

“It’s totally flattering; he was the first comic who gave me courage to talk about certain issues. When I hear a CD of his now I don’t laugh as much as I did when I was younger, but he didn’t really teach me how to write a joke: he taught me about politics. When I was at high school, I would read Noam Chomsky and I didn’t know what any of it meant. But through Hicks’ comedy, I got that basis of understanding so when I went back to the books, I finally got it.”

The UK finally got a taste of Kilstein when he arrived at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007. But it very nearly never happened for him. He admits at that point to have been totally broke and living out of his car in a part of New York where stabbings were a regular occurrence, (“god, these are all supersad stories”). Luckily, he was spotted performing at a club in New Mexico by comedy impresario Paul Provenza.

“I was playing this weird free gig in Albuquerque where the audience would hurl quarters at the stage if they liked you. Provenza was there and liked what I was doing. He made some calls and told me about this month-long festival.”

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For that first year in Edinburgh, he played spots such as Late’n’Live and Spank!, learning from the likes of Daniel Kitson, Tim Minchin and Stewart Lee. Given his particular worldview, it wasn’t an altogether easy ride (he had to be swiftly escorted from Late’n’Live for his own safety: “I just wore a hoodie for a few days and went incognito”) but can remember a more successful gig when things truly turned around for him.

“It was like one of those cheesy Hollywood stories where I had finally stopped failing. There was one night in a cave where I performed and Brendon Burns lifted me up on his shoulders. I would have been a homeless, drunk basketcase had I not gone to Edinburgh.”

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He returned for his first full show the following year and in 2009 played the Assembly Rooms, a somewhat grander venue than he was accustomed to at that point.

“The staff were great, but it was on the wrong side of town and the venue was just too posh: I’m up there talking about the class struggle and there’s literally a chandelier in my room. Each night there was half my audience and some comics which was great but also the other half would be people who wanted to see Adam Hills or some of the other lovely comics who had sold out at the same venue. People would go, ‘Well, this guy’s white,’ and they’d come in and be horrified. So I’d still have to eject people and get yelled at. The spirit of Late’n’Live lived on there.”

Kilstein is now returning to Scotland after a run at London’s Soho Theatre and seems relieved to be back performing in a country that respects his chosen artform.

“If you go to a comedy club and look at the people in the line-at a regular strip-mall chuckle factory in America, you’ll see a bunch of bros wearing penis hats, the worst kind of people in the world. At The Stand I’ve seen people by themselves reading books! Your audiences respect the craft, not just to see someone who had a guest spot as the wacky delivery man in Two And A Half Men.”

• Jamie Kilstein plays the Stand Comedy Club, Glasgow, 24 February, and The Stand, Edinburgh, 27 February. ;