Nearly a year ago to the day, I was listening to BBC 5 Live. It was the usual Saturday afternoon fare of football results around the grounds, intermittently punctuated by a commentator nearly having a cardiac arrest as they reported on the final furlongs at Cheltenham. The race itself was the Cotswold Chase and a historic victory had taken place; Many Clouds, the winner of The Grand National in 2015 had defied the odds, beating the bookmaker’s favourite, Thistlecrack. The People’s Horse, as he was known, had done it again and yet within minutes he was pronounced dead. “But he’s just won?!” I said staring at the radio as the reporter held back tears, announcing the horse had collapsed 100 yards from the finish line. An interview with Many Clouds’ trainer Oliver Sherwood provided a fitting epitaph, “He wanted to win that race, and by God he wanted to win it. He was beat at the last, he fought the last 50 yards to get up and win. He was the horse of a lifetime.”
Admittedly not ideal inspiration for a comedy show I’m about to take on tour around the country and yet I found myself incredibly moved by that afternoon’s events. A story as old as time, an underdog defying the odds and yet to die immediately afterwards, to have given his all for what?
The role of the underdog is a naturally comedic one, railing against the world, seeking to win petty small victories. It’s an attitude I like to adopt on stage, usually sporting a tatty monk’s wig bought from a joke shop and false teeth. The latter can make your voice hollow and direct, which I’ve found gives an air of authority. I mean it worked for Churchill who for most of his life had only five real teeth. On a $1 bill George Washington can be seen with rolls of cotton in his mouth to cover his lower fake teeth jutting out. I’m in good company. In literature, a character’s fake gnashers can symbolise their traits and weaknesses, whether it be embarrassment, pathos, domestic disorder or plain old insecurity. Along with a tonsure wig and glasses, to an audience I am a peculiarity, someone I hope they are intrigued enough by to hear what I have to say.
I do not play a character in the traditional sense, there is no stage name, I’m not trying to convince you that my hair is real; the teeth may fall out now and then. When asked how I came to wear what I do, the stock answer is that I found them in a box at home. Wearing them on stage I felt idiotic, stupid and most importantly funny; judgments and decisions are made quicker and without mercy, unlike my usual demeanor which is to ponder and doubt until hopefully a question goes away.
As an example of this I was best man at a friend’s wedding in Melbourne. The speech went well but later I was congratulated by a stranger who then asked, “Has anyone ever said that you should be a politician?” Informing him I was a comedian, he looked at me with suspicion and then laughter as he walked away, presuming I was winding him up.
A few years’ back some people would say I looked like someone they couldn’t stand and it’s only when they heard me that they liked the act. Over the years it’s thrown up a lot of questions; I enjoy playing with the ambiguity that can be treated by some with suspicion. Yet every comedian is a character on stage, exaggerated versions of themselves, I just show that in plain sight. When starting out a lot of emphasis is put on truth. You’ll sometimes hear a comedian say proudly “this is my most honest show to date.” It was an odd moment that I realised the most honest and funny I could be was to look like a monk with gum disease. Robin Williams’ act in his prime was described as ‘legalised insanity’. What an aim to strive for! To create something so loony that the only thing that stops you from being taken away by those in white coats is that people find it funny. The majority of people of course don’t find you funny but to quote Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, “with insanity, as with vomit, it is the passerby who receives the inconvenience.”
I’ve always tried to focus on the mundanity and the detail of life rather than the grand sweeping topics of the day. In my current show I talk about how when left on my own in my local cafe, I raced two kettles against each other whilst waiting for the owner to come back. The owner trusts me and that makes me feel very good indeed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone happier than when I’ve seen him spin shut a paper bag. It hangs in the air for what feels like an eternity, spinning around his fingers as he laughs and laughs, his teeth rattling around his gob like cat flaps in a hurricane. Moments such as these in life are ethereal, short lived but, oh the excitement! I’m talking proper excitement, like a stag do on a barge gearing up to creep under a bridge. It was in that cafe that I saw a woman walk backwards past the window and straight down the road. She didn’t walk backwards as if she’d forgotten something but almost as though she’d remembered something. She walked with such conviction, shoulders back, or forward depending on how you were looking at her. She didn’t care what anyone thought of her and was smiling. It was a lovely example of how to live life, especially for anyone who relates to the old WC Fields joke, “First thing I like to do when I wake up in the morning is smile. Get it done with.”
I owe Scotland, specifically the Edinburgh Fringe, my career, as after winning a couple of awards I could quit my day job and walk around the park where I live muttering “what have I done?”
I’ve only ever gone round the country scratching out previews, so I thought it was high time I actually performed the finished article. I haven’t got a clue how it’s going to go, which is why I’ve left it till now I suppose. The poet Ted Hughes wrote how adults were just children “behind the armour, peering through the slits.” That’ll be me as I take a gander through the curtain, eyeing up the audience, armed to the fake teeth with a wig and show about luck, nostalgia and how you never know what’s around the corner. One minute you’re running the race of your life, you jump, land, hang on, hang on, hang on and then you let go.
John Kearns – Don’t Worry They’re Here is at The Stand, Glasgow at 8:30pm tonight, www.thestand.co.uk and The Monkey Barrel, Edinburgh, 7:45pm tomorrow and Wednesday, www.monkeybarrelcomedy.com