Interview: Kevin Bridges, comedian

Kevin Bridges, pictured at the Grand Central Hotel in Glasgow. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Kevin Bridges, pictured at the Grand Central Hotel in Glasgow. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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HIS comedy career is on a sharp upward trajectory, so why is Kevin Bridges still plagued by insecurity and neuroses?

Later this year Kevin Bridges will perform to more than 120,000 people in Scotland as part of a colossal UK stand-up tour, yet his appearance and demeanour, as he sits and talks in BBC Scotland’s headquarters by the Clyde, suggest not comedy royalty but rather a journeyman plasterer or, perhaps, a student at one of Glasgow’s less rarefied colleges. In his blue jeans and white trainers, in his apology for being slightly late, in his constant assertion of Ordinary Blokeness, he strives for a level of banality that he never quite achieves. For Bridges – if one only takes the trouble to peer beneath the hooded top – is actually fascinating, complex and more than a little neurotic. He is, in fact, Hoodie Allen.

Glasgow comedian Kevin Bridges

Glasgow comedian Kevin Bridges

“Sometimes I just create worries in my head,” he is saying. “Or sometimes I just feel overwhelming sympathy for people that I don’t even know and I start to make up stories. You know, like you see an old guy in a pub and he’s sitting on his own with a bowl of soup? I think that’s tragic. I start to think maybe the guy’s wife has died and this is all he’s got left – just his wee day oot to the pub, and I start to get really ...”

He trails off, as if he has a lump in his throat. “I know that sounds a bit mad. This is like a therapy session.”

What is causing him to experience such strong emotions? “I don’t know. Catholic guilt, maybe that’s it. Growing up Catholic? Who knows?”

Is that it? Something about his Catholic upbringing? “No, I think that’s too easy to say. I just overthink things a wee bit too much.”

That’s classic Bridges. He will proffer a statement about himself, a theory almost, then retract it immediately, as if to say it was just a joke all along. He seems reluctant to commit to self-analysis, yet you get the sense that he does think about these things – his drives and dark places – and would, on some level, like to talk them through at length. He’s on the psychiatrist’s couch but keeping one foot on the floor.

You can see that in his new BBC1 series What’s the Story?, in which he explores the roots of his material by taking the cameras to meet his parents, his oldest friends and so on. In one scene, prompted by on-stage musings on psychology, he visits a therapist and – though the tone of the series is intended to be gently humorous – comes across as anxious and panicky, uneasy with the idea of confronting himself. “Do you think you’re OK?” he is asked at one point. “Borderline,” is his reply.

Bridges is 25 and has been a professional comedian since the age of 17. He grew up in Clydebank but moved to Glasgow last year. He was asked to leave school in fifth year after – he confesses somewhat reluctantly – he failed to sit two of his Highers, preferring instead to travel to Seville and watch his beloved Celtic in the Uefa Cup final. “So the school said, ‘Look, you’re a bright guy, but if you’re not going to show up for exams what’s the point?’ And that’s when I had to go out into the real world with my three Highers. Too thick for uni, too proud for a call centre.”

His big break was a 2009 appearance on Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, since when his career has been on a steep upward trajectory. His live DVD outsold the latest by Billy Connolly. In one day, last November, he sold 45,000 tickets for forthcoming stand-up dates. It would be difficult to overstate his popularity. But has he been able to enjoy the experience? “Oh aye, I enjoy it, but there’s still that thing at the back of your head that somebody’s going to go, ‘Right, that’s you, your time’s up.’ Maybe that’s a working-class thing.”

He gives an example of what he means. “I went into this designer shop and bought a jacket for, like, 280 quid. Then I started to think, ‘My mum’s a home help and that’s a week’s wages.’ I went back into the shop and I was returning it. The guy looked at the receipt and it was only 17 minutes after I’d bought it. So I was going, ‘Oh aye, I tried it on again and it didn’t fit.’ I was starting to go a bit red. I just wanted to get the money back so I could go. The guy ended up giving me store credit and I sold the vouchers to my pal for £200.

“You know you get R&B stars that make a bit of money and success and they’ll go and buy hunners of motors? I could never imagine being like that. As soon as I had bought the jacket I thought, ‘What am I doing? I’m a comedian, I’m supposed to be the underdog, I shouldn’t be dressed like this' – 17 minutes it lasted. I had 17 minutes of glamour. A 17-minute celebrity. The guy in the shop was probably saying, ‘That Kevin Bridges was in today and he was f***ing weird.’”

Does he not feel he deserves the success? “No, I think I definitely deserve ..." He trails off. “I don’t really see it as success. I just work.”

It would be wrong to portray Bridges as living some kind of hairshirt-and-gruel existence. His success has its fairy tale elements. He has recently returned from a trip to Spain to watch Barcelona play Real Madrid, and was able to introduce his father to Sir Alex Ferguson following his performance at a dinner to celebrate Fergie’s 25th anniversary at Manchester United. However, generally, Bridges’ rejection of conspicuous consumption and his embrace of work do seem meaningful.

His father Andy used to work in the shipyards as a night porter, but rheumatoid arthritis has meant he has been on incapacity benefit for several years. Bridges grew up in a council house, which his parents bought about ten years ago. They were by no means affluent, he recalls, but neither did he feel poor. That said, he remembers the feeling of shame that came with being eligible for free school meals. He and his pal Tony would sell their dinner tickets for 50p and, come Friday, would have enough for a bottle of cider each. “That was the economics of the school. That was how it worked.”

His father’s ill health and refusal to sit idle, but instead to involve himself in creative writing and other projects, were, for Bridges, an important motivation behind his own strong work ethic. “I always respected him,” he says. “I think he does get frustrated. It’s that pride thing that he got told he couldn’t work but he doesn’t want to just sit on his arse. There’s that frustration that he always felt held back, and I see that as an inspiration.”

Andy was with him when he gave his first ever live performance – at the Stand comedy club in Glasgow in 2004. “I was under 18 so I had to have a guardian, an adult with me, at all times. Then I started getting offered gigs outside Glasgow and I needed a lift. I mind it was my dad, my mum, my Uncle George and my Auntie Maureen and me in the car. My family were always 50 per cent of the audience. At these low-level gigs, most of the comics bring the audience with them. So the other comics on the bill would have girlfriends with them or whatever, and I’d have my mum and dad, my auntie and uncle, and there would be maybe two punters. I remember asking my mum, ‘Is it all right if I say f*** on stage?’”

At first, his parents saw the comedy as a hobby. Bridges had started going to college – first doing business admin at the Food Tech and then social sciences at Stow, as well as stacking shelves in the Co-op at the weekends – but he had little interest in further education. “I used to buy an all-day ticket, pretend I was going to college and just sit on a bus for four hours, going up and back, up and back, making notes, and that’s how I wrote most of my stuff.”

Live comedy was an obsession. It all goes back to Frank Skinner, whom Bridges interviews for the BBC series. Reading Skinner’s autobiography was like looking in a mirror. Skinner’s working-class background reflected his own situation, which had – until then – felt limiting. “I used to think that to do stand-up you’d need to go to some sort of school and get qualifications or you’d need to come from some kind of theatrical background. I just didn’t think it was possible. I knew I was quite funny with pals, but that’s just my pals.”

Skinner’s memoir taught him otherwise. “I realised that I didn’t have to audition or send in some sort of CV, I could just walk on a stage and go for it.”

One night, at the age of 16, awake and worrying at 3am, he sent an e-mail to the Stand asking if he could have one of its open-mic spots. “I had been advised to leave school. I was doing what I knew was a bullshit college course. I didn’t know what else to do. Then I had a moment – an ‘I’m gonnae be somebody’ moment – and sent it.”

A month later, while he was in the grips of Pro Evolution Soccer on the PlayStation, he got a call from the comedy club to say he could have the spot. It was a turning point. The spot went well and he kept it up, performing wherever and whenever he could. Eventually he started getting paid, and was able to pack in his shelf-stacking job. More than the money, though, which was modest at first, was the sense that here was a world where, finally, he fitted in. He had always struggled with that. At primary school, he had cried every day – “I was a nervous wreck; really shy” – which he puts down to simply not wanting to be there; he would have preferred to be at home, where he was able to relax.

At secondary school – St Columba’s High – he made good friends, but there was still a feeling that he could not quite be himself. He was, for example, a great reader, but the idea of talking openly about books was unimaginable; such an admission would have been met with incredulity and disdain, at least until he discovered Irvine Welsh – a hero, in part, for the way he, like Bridges, expresses himself in Scots vernacular – and was able to pass his novels along to pals. “I don’t mean I was a lonely person growing up, but I never really, truly related,” says Bridges. “Dance music, nightclubs, hanging about the park – that was boring to me. If the music was too loud, I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t be funny. In a nightclub, I’m redundant. So there was a longing to escape that. It was only when I tried stand-up that I felt, ‘This is me.’ That night back from the Stand, that first gig, it was me and my dad together, and after years of messing about and being told I was too daft for school, I was going, ‘I’ve found where I’m supposed to be.’"

He still has the same social group – the guys with whom he grew up and who are still his team-mates for seven-a-sides on a Saturday. On Sunday nights, when his Clydebank pals stay in, Bridges will often go for a pint with friends from the world of stand-up, among them Frankie Boyle and Greg McHugh. “But I’ve known them for eight years. They aren’t pals I’ve met through the world of showbiz. They’re work colleagues."

Bridges enjoyed the anonymity of the stage in those early days. He could be anyone. “There wasn’t that Clydebank small-town attitude of, ‘Aw, his Da’ was funny as well; his Da’ was funnier than him.’ “I remember when I first started, I never told any of my mates because I was worried they would show up at the gigs and then all my fellow comics would go, ‘These guys are all mental.’

“I used to worry that they’d look at me and hear my accent and think I was a ned. I hate that word, but I worried that’s what they would see me as. It’s only now that they’ve merged. Frankie knows all my pals.”

For what other reasons did he not want his friends to know about the comedy? “It was a personal thing. I don’t mean it was an escape. I don’t want to start talking like a rapper that escaped the Bronx. It was just a personal thing. It was me and my dad. I thought, ‘If I tell anybody, this’ll ruin it.’ I liked the idea that I had a wee place to go. But eventually I ran out of excuses for what I was doing at the weekends. I ran out of uncles that were turning 40. I lasted about a year.”

Bridges is more at ease because he seems to have reconciled himself to the idea that stand-up is work. A proper paying job. His pals were serving apprenticeships – as electricians and joiners – and so, in his early years, was he. He is determined, therefore, now he has learned his trade and makes a good living at it, to maintain high standards. So even though he can sell out the arenas with seeming ease, that doesn’t mean his performances should be anything less than sharp. To this end, he is returning to the clubs for a few months of low-key gigs ahead of the big tour. “The comedy circuit is the proper spit ’n’ sawdust boxing gym where you get toughened up.”

The craft of comedy is important to him but there is also an element of self-preservation in his pursuit of excellence. “The first tour went well so I’ve got a second tour. But if the second tour’s shite I won’t get a third tour. And then where do I go? Back to Stow College. So that’s the fear ...”

It’s a strong word, fear. Is it fear of failure that is driving him? “Aye, but I think everybody’s got that, though.”

Do they? Maybe, but it seems especially acute in Bridges. There is an interesting tension about his career just now. His work is rooted in Scottish working-class experience; his humour is typical of that milieu – coarse, quick, warm, dark, daft, vivid, a touch sentimental and taking a proprietary pride in the bampots and bawbags for whom the west is famous.

Success threatens to insulate him from that world, but he is aware of the threat and is determined to remain the person and comic that, right now, has Scotland entranced. Certainly, his ego doesn’t seem to be running away with him. Quite the opposite. “I’m only a comedian,” he says.

“I’m there to make people laugh, the same as in school or work when I was the funny guy, the joker. “People come to see me as a night out. I would be dangerously close to insanity if I thought differently.” He laughs. “It’s good to stay close to people that know you just as a dick.” n

• Kevin Bridges – What’s The Story, 8 February, BBC1, 10.45pm. He tours the UK from September to December {||