Interview: Russell Kane, comedian

Ahead of a tour, a debut novel and two more TV shows, Russell Kane tells Jay Richardson about keeping it real for maximum laughs

AFTER Russell Kane performed as Beyoncé on Let’s Dance For… Comic Relief last year, audiences for his stand-up shows began demanding a repeat of the Crazy In Love routine. “People were coming to see me who’d never heard me speak a word,” he recalls. “So they were understandably disappointed when I come out dressed as a… I won’t say ‘man’. That’s a bit strong. As a male.”

The feral-yet-metrosexual, “Lego-haired” 31-year-old, who routinely skips, collapses and splays in skinny jeans across his stages, never once obliged them. But, he says: “I’m such an attention junkie, I probably quite enjoyed it. It was time sensitive and, if anything, I’m the first to mention it now. I bring it up and girls go ‘wooh!’ Then I say, ‘Yeah, but it’s not healthy, because I was doing it as an escape from my despair.’ Everyone stops laughing and we’re back in the story.”

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That story is Manscaping, the serial monogamist’s captivating but flailing show about the breakdown of a long-term relationship, which he is currently touring around the UK. Although he’s just begun shooting the BBC 3 comedy showcase Live At The Electric and will soon start on the channel’s comedic census, Look At The State Of You, they offer no distractions from his live engagements.

“I’m not into ‘hey, my life’s a mess, I’m doing therapy on stage,’ ” he says, “because that’s a load of old shite and I don’t believe in it. It just so happens that my life is still pretty bumpy and unsettled. When I’m speaking the words, even though I’m a performer and the whole thing’s an illusion, there’s still a rawness behind it unfortunately. I wish there wasn’t.”

Kane crafts his routines on stage rather than scripting them. And after acclaimed shows about his bigoted, working-class father, the 2010 Edinburgh Comedy Award-winner is currently beating himself up about becoming a tabloid cliché, with the glamour model girlfriend he met on a photoshoot for Cosmopolitan and his accompanying inadequacy. “I’m not anti-fame, but if you ever see me doing red carpet stuff, I’m always in an ironic ‘this is how posers pose’ pose.

“Art should be truth and the only thing I’ve found to be consistently funny is telling the truth to a horrific and cringing degree,” he adds. “If I could get laughs from making highfalutin references, sneering at other comedians, joking about ‘the man drawer’ or easyJet, I would do it in a heartbeat. But that stuff dies in my mouth. I get all of my fictional stuff out of the way in my writing.”

Kane was a writer before he was a stand-up comic. After belatedly attaining a first-class degree in English as a mature student – “I’d been brought up to think degrees were a waste of time, ‘get yourself a proper job, your dad is working himself to death’ – he became head copywriter at an advertising agency.

But he always wrote “little short stories for my mum and friends, I used to put ISBN codes on the back of exercise books”. He composed his first novel at 16, then promptly burnt it. He writes quickly and easily over nine months, he says, but the re-writes take two years. Only now, after two further book rejections, is he being published. “It really takes a lot of willpower, to say to [his management agency], ‘do you want to see if this one’s shit?’

The Humorist, his debut novel, is a magical-realist tale of a comedy critic, Benjamin White, with the capacity to understand humour at its deepest level, an “almost physiological reaction”, as he describes it, but an inability to laugh. The character is informed by neurologist Oliver Sacks’ case histories, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, which also inspired an opera of the same name and scenes in the films Rain Man and House Of Cards. But it starts with White on stage, an audience dead around him. He has stumbled upon a formula for a comedy routine with the power literally to kill. Suddenly, the novel becomes a ludicrous, high-stakes conspiracy thriller, reaching from the Greek philosopher Chrysippus, through Lenny Bruce, Graham Chapman and Bill Hicks, to President Obama’s present administration.

Monty Python’s classic fatal joke sketch became a touchstone, Kane says, “only after certain people delighted in telling me about it, when they realised I’d written 30,000 words. ‘Ooh, you’ve wasted your life, I’m getting a schadenfreude erection at your hurt face’. But it improved the novel.” The Humorist also namechecks David Foster Wallace, who wrote the killer movie story Infinite Jest. “So I wrote him in and he died while I was writing it. How freaky is that?”

That kind of bathos, the tension between a subject matter’s seriousness and its presentation, have always been tied up with class friction for Kane, as exemplified by his 2009 RSC play, Fakespeare, which transferred Shakespearean characters and language to contemporary Southend. He’s always “made a fetish of posh things like Radio 4 and books. I’ve got an unhealthy, lustful relationship with the higher arts mixed with a low pedigree. That comes out in my comedy.”

And what’s more ridiculous than comedy taken seriously? “In our pretentious minds, comedy doesn’t seem as middle or low-brow as it clearly is,” says Kane, who struggles with criticism. More than any other stand-up, except perhaps Stewart Lee (whom Kane semi-jokingly hails as “Master!”), his shows maintain an ongoing meta-commentary in which he endlessly picks apart his routines, his reviews and himself.

“It’s a personality flaw that just happens to be good for comedy,” he admits “I put myself down before anyone else can because that’s how I got through school. I would appreciate what the bullies might say and do it first. Same with my old man.”

He’s stopped reading reviews. But at least two of his show titles, Easy Cliché And Tired Stereotype and Gaping Flaws, are derived from them, and he incorporates them into White’s savaging of a popular comic. (“Unbelievable how that little fraud-f*** has gone on to bag a historic double in the comedy awards world,” says White at one point. “Post-modernism is dead, long live trite autobiography and c***ish haircuts.”) Notwithstanding his delight in “gaping flaws” being a tautology and that the book’s many in-jokes condemn the comedy nerd who spots them, the symbiosis is brutal.

“The personality of the critic was easy,” Kane reveals. “My guiding principle was always, what is the exact opposite of what I would feel at this moment?”

Kane’s father David died in 2004, in the same month that his son performed his first stand-up set, and Kane now sees the two as connected. He also maintains that winning the Edinburgh Comedy Award “was one of the best moments of my life”. Nevertheless, he loves that Lee is currently attacking fellow comedians in his routines, knocking Kane for his award and banging on about his “dead dad”.

Interestingly, like The Humorist, Lee’s novel The Perfect Fool includes a shamanic clown seeking the essence of humour. And Kane says he welcomes a return to “the good old days of writers having a bit of dialogue with each other. Let’s get that into comedy. I’m not offended or hurt because it’s coming from a fellow artist. It’s an invitation to duel, which I’ll obviously be taking up at the Fringe.

Lee, he says, is challenging “this weird diplomatic immunity surrounding [comedians on television], gentlemanly conduct I suppose, because it gets out of hand and you’re both using your full claws on each other. It’s quite exciting.”

Kane and Lee have remained in email contact. “So in his head, there’s clearly a line between what he’s saying on stage and speaking to me about a gig we might do together. If I respond, if I can just get it funny enough, I’ll have a silly sort of twinkle in my eye where I’d like to think he’ll be thinking ‘you f***ing wanker’ but still have half a smile. I don’t know. I’ll probably just bottle it and do a cracking show based on my fear of never having children.” «

Russell Kane plays Aberdeen Music Hall on Thursday; the Garage, Glasgow, on Friday, as part of the Glasgow International Comedy Festival; and Perth Concert Hall on 1 May