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John Kearns: “I’m being extremely truthful up there. I’m just not going down a literal path.”

| Comedy | 23/09/2017


Ian Cater, Chief Features Writer

“This wasn’t preconceived at all,” John Kearns explains.  “Some people can just walk onstage and say their deepest, darkest thoughts.  I can’t.  So I tried various ways to be honest up there, but none worked until I chucked on a daft wig and false teeth, and started acting like an idiot.”

Since finding his unusual route to the truth, Kearns has become one of the most distinctive comedians, pairing novelty props and an exaggerated South London whine with exceptionally funny – but deceptively poignant – musings.  It makes the contemplative 30-year-old hard to ignore, as judges found when crowning him Best Newcomer at the 2013 Edinburgh Fringe and awarding him the main prize the following August – still the only person to achieve the double.

This year, after an extended break, Kearns returned to the Fringe with his third solo show, Don’t Worry They’re Here, to predictably high acclaim.  He’s now performing the set, which searches for purpose amidst life’s daily frustrations, at Soho Theatre until 30th September.

Search for the absurd

Given his surreal getup, defensive body language and troubled expressions onstage, Kearns is often misconceived as a character act.  However, he maintains that his live persona is a “heightened version” of its creator, who feels equally out of sync with the modern world.  That feeling has grown since Kearns quit his job as a Houses of Parliament tour guide in 2013 to become a full-time comedian, forced to be constantly on the prowl for absurdity.

“I don’t find it easy to spot,” he says, with typical honesty.  “I’m not like Paul Merton, who became unwell because he’d see absurdity in absolutely everything.  But when I manage to tap into that vein, it seems to be everywhere.  Like one of my opening jokes, which is about struggling to get a till to read the barcode on a cream egg.  Modern life just has this way of throwing obstacles in your way and making things tricky.”

In previous shows – Sight Gags for Perverts and Shtick – Kearns peppered his thoughtful, furrowed-browed narratives on loneliness and success with similar examples, elevating their significance from mild irritant to despair provoker.  But Don’t Worry They’re Here deals with more than just everyday annoyances.  It has a transcendental quality, as the neatly crafted monologue of a bewildered man trying to make sense of his existence.

It also reflects a rather restless mind.  “Like lots of people, I probably spend too much time trying to find the meaning in things,” he admits.

That stems from Kearns’ Roman Catholic upbringing in Streatham – a context which might also account for his comedy style.  “I saw a documentary arguing that surrealist comedy came out of religion, where the fantastical is inseparable from the everyday.  That makes sense to me.  If you’re forced to accept at an early age that there’s this ceremony where a lump of bread turns into the body of Christ, your mind will be open to all sorts of suggestion.”

If Catholicism planted a surrealist seed, it took time to bloom as Kearns dabbled in other styles.  “It definitely took a while to find my voice.  My parents were normal: my mum works in a bank and my dad in insurance.  I was brought up without any struggle, so what did I have to say?”  But he was always destined to entertain people.  “I decided at eight years old I wanted to be a comedian.  One of my mates told me that people got paid to stand onstage and tell jokes.  It blew my mind and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Kearns retained that ambition through his teens, unperturbed by the difficulties many face achieving success.  “John Sullivan [who wrote Only Fools and Horses] grew up nearby in Balham and I knew the road he lived on.  He was my hero.  And Jack Dee lived two doors down from my nan.  So that stopped me looking at comedians and writers as superstars living in ivory towers.  It made it more real and grounded my dream.”

Chasing the dream

The dream began to crystallise at the University of East Anglia, where Kearns first took the mic after falling in with a crowd of creatives, including fellow comedian Pat Cahill, Olivier Award-winning playwright Jon Brittain (who later directed Kearns’ first two shows) and Radio 1 DJ Greg James.

“Pat gave me my first gig and was a big help on the circuit.  If you’re on your own, it’s a lot harder.  And I learnt loads from Greg, who had an incredible work ethic – DJ’ing uni nights, doing clubs and driving to Birmingham to do weekend shifts.  He got the Radio 1 Early Breakfast slot before he even graduated.  It was impressive seeing how calmly he approached everything because he was so comfortable with himself.”

Kearns only felt comfortable with his comedy when he began to focus on the absurdity of life’s mundanities.  “That felt right because the comedy I loved watching growing up – Hancock, Ever Decreasing Circles, Only Fools and Horses – all celebrated the mundane.  They’re sentimental and in many ways mirrored my life.”

After uni, he learned to splice his observational comedy with surreal style at Adam Larter’s Weirdos Comedy Night, performing alongside Cahill, Beth Vyse and later Joz Norris.  It was in that experimental environment that the wig and false teeth first made their appearance.

“They really helped throw off my inhibitions, in a way that disguises often can.”  The low quality props also increased Kearns’ vulnerability – a trait that triggers almost as many laughs as his turns of phrase.  “And it makes audiences concentrate harder to see who’s underneath,” he adds.  “It means they focus on the expressions of my eyes and eyebrows, so I can have some fun with that.”

And the voice?  “My squawk developed from friends’ impressions of me, exacerbated by trying to talk with a mouthful of plastic that threatens to pop out at any time.  The teeth regulate my pace, creating this staccato delivery.  And when you have a physical distraction in your mouth,” he says, chuckling at the double entendre, “it acts as a checkpoint to what you’re about to say.”

Kearns pauses, perhaps wary of over-thinking his comedy or coming across as pretentious.  “But none of that was planned.  The wig and teeth just worked – nothing more complicated than that.  You can agonise over it, but you just need to keep going until you’ve found your thing.  I’m grateful I did, because some people aren’t that lucky.”

Finding a balance

Perseverance has certainly been necessary.  “My first proper paid gig came five years after uni, once I’d won the Newcomer Award.  I’d leave the house before 7am and get back at one in the morning, four nights a week.  There were no holidays, because I saved all my leave for Edinburgh.  But if it’s what you want to do, nothing stops you.”

The struggle was partly eased by the fact that, unlike many budding comedians, Kearns had a daytime job he actually enjoyed.  “When I returned to London, I worked as a tour guide at the Science Museum, but I’d always been fascinated with the Houses of Parliament.  One day, I decided to apply for a role there and got lucky.  It was a great job.  I found the grown-up environment a blessed relief from gigging, especially if I’d had a tough show the night before.  I kept the comedy very separate, so I didn’t need to worry about being funny during the day.”

john-kearns-2014“Not many people leave that job.  Most of them are still working there now,” he adds wistfully, admitting he missed its routine after quitting following his 2013 award.  “That’s what Shtick was about: I’d wanted to be a full-time comedian since I was a kid, then when it happened it was a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’.

“It was crazy.  I was suddenly self-employed and the structures I’d been used to were no longer there.  And when your currency is stupidity, it’s an odd thing to get your head around.”

With no small dose of irony, the show that railed against his initial success picked up the Fringe’s Best Comedy Award and opened up further opportunities.  “I took the show to Soho and then over to the Melbourne Comedy Festival in 2015, but I wasn’t really coping.  When I got home, I just crashed.  I got anxious, was diagnosed with depression and had to tap out for a while to get myself better.”

Although Kearns recovered sufficiently to record a Radio 4 series, star in BBC sitcom Top Coppers, and work alongside Harry Hill on Stars In Their Eyes and Harry Hill’s Tea Time, he sensibly spent much of the next 18 months looking after his health.  Last December, he decided to dip his toe back in the water with A John Kearns Christmas at Battersea Arts Centre, which reignited his love for performing.  Now, he wants to focus on live work, which he says offers him the most control.

During Don’t Worry They’re Here, Kearns regularly alludes to his difficult few years, reiterating the autobiographical nature of his act.  “People might think that because of how I look, my work isn’t honest.  But I’m being extremely truthful up there.  I’m just not going down a literal path.”

John Kearns is performing ‘Don’t Worry They’re Here’ at Soho Theatre until 30th September (tickets here).  He’s also returning to Battersea Arts Centre to perform A Very John Kearns Christmas between 11th and 16th December (tickets here).  To keep track of John’s other projects, follow him on Twitter @johnsfurcoat.

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