‘One Norwich show left me with head in hands on a see-saw’: Edinburgh best stand-up John Kearns returns with new show
- Credit: Richard Davenport
Edinburgh best newcomer and best stand-up in consecutive years, John Kearns is heading back to Norwich with false bad teeth and wig and a typically surreal show.
As the only Edinburgh fringe comic to scoop best newcomer and best stand-up in consecutive years, John Kearns became his own tough act to follow.
But after a successful run at the Soho Theatre in the heart of London's West End, the comic, who studied at the University of East Anglia, is returning to Norwich with his latest bold, funny and thought-provoking show.
Don't Worry, They're Here is a comic, heart-warming monologue that highlights the absurdities of the ordinary — delivered whilst he wears bad false teeth and a wig.
Rooted in the seemingly mundane conversations with his local cafe owner and a story about a bet he placed at the bookies, Kearns springboards from the minutia in British culture into an exploration of universal fears and human emotion.
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It is a show that travels from a massage parlour, to a supermarket check-out and then to a horse racing track. The result is a fast-paced comedy tour de force, an emotional yet hilarious story that highlights the fragility and absurdity of life.
'Being a stand up you don't see people regularly, there's not a lot of structure – the guy who lives next door is that person you wave to every morning,' he says about how the owner of the café next door reacted to being name checked in the show. 'He doesn't even know I do stand up. In the show I have embellished our chat, created a conversation with him.'
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Until last year, the 30-year-old who studied English and Drama at the UEA, hadn't been back to Edinburgh since he won the Fosters Award in 2014.
'It was fantastic - I owe my career to Edinburgh - but it threw me off balance slightly because it happened so quickly,' he says.
'Within a year I won both awards and left my job. It got a bit much and I needed to not be in that bubble or have that pressure.'
Kearns was working as a tour guide at the Houses of Parliament when he got his big break, but had already spent a decade honing his craft on the comedy circuit. 'Going on stage in front of people feels the most natural, rewarding thing to do. The only thing you have any control over is making the audience laugh. You know immediately if something works or doesn't and [at Edinburgh] have 25 shows to polish it into something you are proud of.'
During those years he kept his day and night jobs 'totally separate'.
'Taking school-kids around the Houses of Parliament, telling them why it's an important place, getting them to listen when they are not interested, released a valve where I could be serious – I took it very seriously, I was bone dry, no smiling, no laughs – very different from the surreal stuff I do. I was carrying a dual identity around in a bag - like Superman.'
Since his comic breakthrough he has been seen on TV appearing on Channel 4's 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, Dave's Drunk History and with fellow lovers of the surreal Harry Hill in Alien Fun Capsule and Harry Hill's Tea Time.
He also appeared, alongside fellow Edinburgh Best Newcomer nominee Steen Raskopoulos, in BBC's Top Coppers, which followed the adventures of cops John Mahogany and Mitch Rust as they attempt to rid the fictional world of Justice City from its deranged criminal underworld.
'I don't think I've laughed at anything written down since April 1993, so I was taken by surprise that there were actual jokes in it,' he says of what attracted him to the show. 'It unnerved me. It didn't seem fashionable. Its whole purpose was to just be as funny as possible. You can't ask for more in a comedy.'
It also allowed him to indulge in a love of 1970s and 80s cop shows. 'The great thing about 1970s and 80s cops shows is that the theme and show titles were usually the best bit,' he said. 'Starsky & Hutch and Simon & Simon were particular favourites, the latter showing within seconds Simon (I presume) getting a kiss from a killer whale, to both Simons visiting their mum like the good sons they were. As for actors, David Rasche in Sledge Hammer! and Leslie Nielsen in Police Squad! are heroes.'
When it comes to UK comedy one inspiration is Only Fools and Horses writer John Sullivan, who famously set his 1970s sit-com Citizen Smith in Tooting, where Kearns lived until recently.
'Growing up in south London the Trotters felt like my family, it's important for young people to have that connection and see that a guy who lived there and observed my area had a career like that.'
His influences also encompassed the surreally silly Vic and Bob and Woody Allen — less so Morecambe and Wise, even though Eric Morecambe's paper bag trick pops up in Don't Worry, They're Here, it's just he likes 'the smoke and mirrors of throwing something in the air and catching nothing'.
'The more you do something the more you realise your limitations,' muses Keans. 'I started out wanting to be satirical like Bill Hicks but you realise that's not who you are. You can't escape your influences – what you grew up laughing at. I went through some tough gigs before I discovered that in the end this is all I can do I can't change for you.'
Being back in Norwich will revive some memories. 'I started doing stand up in the Rose Tavern on Rupert Street which as a place to cut your teeth had such a supportive atmosphere,' he recalls. 'That doesn't necessarily mean I always produced the goods. Once a gig went so badly I ran off and hid in the toilets before bolting it to the park swings.
'Radio 1 DJ and then flatmate Greg James had only seen me head to the toilets, not knowing I'd made a dash for it. When I was nowhere to be seen he and other friends assessed the situation and realised the only thing I could have done was head to the river and jumped. He drove to the river where he received a text that I was found head in hands on a see-saw.'
• John Kearns: Don't Worry, They're Here is at The Garage, Chapel Field North, Norwich, on February 21, 8pm, £12 (£10 cons), 01603 598646, thegarage.org.uk