Don't Ever Heckle... is a new column where Londonist interviews some of the most exciting and original comedians currently working on London's live comedy circuit. Don't ever heckle them, because we think they're great.
Our second interview is with James Kettle, who in the past few years has taken his bitter, pessimistic anti-humour and frequently disturbing take on life to all the best clubs in London, as well as the Edinburgh Fringe, and even to the BBC, featuring on Radio 4's 28 Acts in 28 Minutes, and recording his own pilot. Below is a video clip of some of his finest work, recorded almost two years ago at Up The Creek. Watch it, love it, then read on to find out more about the man who the Radio Times accurately described as "London's answer to the sub-prime credit crunch".
I am James Kettle, and I do stand-up comedy. I'm hopefully a different kind of comedian to the sort who are distinguished by their positive attitude to the world. I kind of go against the flow, and preach the gospel of misery, inertia and nothingness. ...it's all an enormous hoot!
Ha! Well, you do make it a hoot. People always seem to enjoy it...
I think people react to it in two ways. There are people who identify with what I'm saying, with the pessimistic, bleak outlook on the world, and enjoy that black humour, and then there are poeple who see me as the classic negative clown who will do pratfalls and throws sponges, but is overly miserable, and those sort of people find it hilarious. And I'm happy with both of those reactions. I think that's great.
Your act is very bitter and angry, but in real life you always seem very jovial and friendly. How much of it on stage is actually an act?
Very little of it on stage. In fact, most of my everyday life is an enormous facade. When I'm on stage, what I'm effectively doing is channeling how I talk and think when I'm pissed out of my head at four in the morning, talking to large groups of friends.
In fact, that was how the act started. When I was at university I was having a very passionate affair with a close friend's girlfriend, and we broke up in extremely painful circumstances. It fucked my life up to an enormous extent. During that time I began drinking heavily, using various banned substances, and generally having a miserable time. And one of the things I'd do while drunk around friends was start to hold fourth about all of the dreadful things that this woman had done to me. And it was while doing that at a party that I realised I'd been speaking solo to the room for an hour, to mass hilarity about how bad my life was. So it was very much channeling that which has been the source of my stand-up. Daily life... you have to be fairly positive to people. I think i've suffered from constant depression since I was five or six, including episodes of intense anxiety, self-harm and bulimia along the way, so it's an interesting psychological ragbag... from which I extract puns and knob-gags.
As you'd already "performed" to all your friends, did you feel that you'd already done your first few gigs?
No, I was very scared. I'd always seen stand-up as a particular kind of art, and I didn't watch it regularly. When I was younger I always thought of it as being enormously gladiatorial, as if you're just fighting off people who are tanked up, shouting abuse. And when you're a new act, unless you're a Kitson-esque freak, you don't have the chops to just hurl things straight back at people. So I was terrified.
I had a strange baptism into it, because my third gig was for BBC radio. It was the semi-finals of the New Act competition. So rather than spending a lot of time schlepping around London performing to ten people for no money, I was playing my third gig to several hundred people in Cardiff... and then started schlepping around London performing to ten people. So I had this skewed picture of what the life of a comic was life because of that early gig.
So after gigging to so many people, you weren't nervous in front of smaller audiences?
No, I think the emotion is "enormous disappointment."
Has your material changed much over the years?
The focus of it has changed. At the start, I had a certain voice, and there were various things that I was trying to do with that voice which I thought would entertain audiences. But I came to realise that I wasn't interested in doing that kind of humour every night. And I realised that other things were either more effective or more rich in terms of possibilities of the stuff I can write about. I think there's an enormous amount of merit in finding a great theme to talk about. And for someone like Stephen Carlin, it would be intellectual pedantry, which he does brilliantly. For me, the theme is darkness. In a whole number of ways - the fear of associating with the human condition, the falseness of yourself and of other people, of mankind's ability to communicate with other people - and I found that so terribly exciting to go into.
Let's talk about the writing process. I'm guessing it comes from yourself and from being introspective?
Yeah, but it can come from all sorts. There are little things that peak your interest in life. An enormous amount of the stuff we do in comedy involves seeing something in life and pushing it to an extreme. I was talking to my five year old brother about Thomas the Tank Engine, and he asked me if I liked it. And I got into the process of vocalising the routine while talking to him. I said to him "Look, Oliver, I'm not really interested in Thomas the Tank Engine. It has no bearing on my life. I'm a grown-up, I'm 26 years old. But I am into The Beatles, so I do approve of Thomas the Tank Engine because in the 80s, Ringo Starr didn't have to sell his own teeth in to buy crack." And he didn't laugh, but he nodded and looked very interested. And I'll take that from an audience on a slow night.
Were you funny as a child?
No, I was extremely solemn and serious. I was a chorister, and zany madcap laughs don't tend to go with that job. I used to sing for about 25 hours a week, and hated virtually every second of it. Sixth form provided some laugh, though. My friends and I used to devise a lot of elaborate practical jokes. One of my favourite things we did was to drive around in my mate Johnny's car in Norwich, and at pub closing time, we'd wind the windows down and put on the Financial World Tonight, on Radio 4. And we'd max the bass right up and drive down the high street slapping the sides of the car as if we were listening a hard house track. And we thought this was the most interesting thing that had happened in Norwich for years! We were extremely smug to have thought of doing it. It's probably the thing I should be proudest about in my life, that we did it as an artistic happening!
You mentioned your approval of Wil Hodgson. What other London circuit comics do you like?
A lot of the comics I like I've then chosen to work with. So it makes it look awkward if I big them up, but those feelings are still true. I write with Stephen Carlin, I think he's a really gifted technician and a brilliant writer. I think he's fantastic. Holly Walsh, I think is a great creator of gags and I think she's going to be massive. Helen Keen is another act who I work with and like a lot, I think she's a great story-teller. They're all little-known, but you should investigate them. Come on, The Kids, get investigating!
What's your favourite London clubs to play?
I really like Downstairs at The Kings Head in Crouch End. For a few reasons. It's run according to a proper philosophy, namely "great comedy, whether the punters like it or not." Peter who runs it is one of the greatest supporters of new acts in the capital, and also one of the biggest supporters of quality acts in the capital. There's lots of people who owe him big favours for putting them in front of decent crowds, and I can't speak highly enough of him or of his club. And also it's down the road from my house.
The 99 Clubs are all great, for similar reasons. And I also love Pear Shaped, Brian Damage's club, because there's nowhere else like it in the world. It's a club which will often deliberately try to be as bad as possible, but inadvertently ends up being brilliant. And to storm Pear Shaped is one of the hardest things an act can do, cos the audience is made up of 75% acts, so to do a good gig you really have to be on the money. I love it there, and I think that all new acts should do it. It's a real baptism of fire. And it's such a good proving ground for new material. If it works there, it will work anywhere.
Have you ever been reviewed?
Yeah. It's kind of weird. Initially you take it very much to heart. The philosophy I have now is very much like Kipling, when he said "treat those two impostors just the same", whether it's praise or derision. I was talking with Richard Herring about this last Edinburgh. I told him that I'd got this bad review on someone's blog, and Rich said that he'd just got a five star review on someone's blog, but it was all written in misspelt illiterate English, so he thinks you just have to treat derision and praise as nonsense, as white noise.
There are very very few decent comedy critics in this country. Most of them are people who write about pop or cars who just end up reviewing Edinburgh comedy shows, and don't understand much about the art form. You'd never get that about ballet or cinema or fine art. There are some fantastic critics, but generally the standard of comedy criticism is quite low. And it's very easy for comics to be thin skinned. I've done a lot of work on The Fix magazine, and I know for a fact that comedians ring them up all the time to complain that they've been criticised in the most minor way. I think that if you can take abuse from bull-nicked guys telling you that you're a wanker, you should be able to take it from a pale fop who says that you don't capture the best example of political comedy in the 21st century.
Have you ever become friends with anyone from the audience?
I know people who do that really well. Paul Foot is an example of someone who bonds really well with his crowd, and becomes as one with them. but I think I'm so awkward, especially in the moments after coming off stage, that I'm not very good at building those bonds. Having said that, if you want to come up to me after a gig and lionise me, please do. Especially if you're a short blonde girl with big tits and a too-tight white t-shirt. It doesn't have to be that specific. Come along. The party's always here!
In ten years time, perfect world situation, where do you wanna be?
Ideally I'd like to be living in some sort of white castle, with more money than I'd know what to do with so I'd never have to work again, not having to do comedy again but knowing that there are lots of people all over the country wishing that I would return to the stage. I'm not sure where the money would come from because I like the idea of remaining forever undiscovered rather than being big league. But I like the idea of retiring and resting on my laurels. I'd like to be in the US in my thirties. I want to see the world, in more than a gap-yeary way. Ten years time... smoking cigarettes outside of a Parisian bar with Scarlett Johansson, totally forgotten by everyone.
What do you think will actually be happening?
It's important not to rule out being poet laureate.
We talked with James for far longer than our word count allows, so this interview continues over at the author's blog. If you want to read more about his experiences at the BBC, in Edinburgh, and what James was like as a tiny tiny child, click here to read part two.
See James play at the Comedy Tree On Thursday 17th April, 14-16 Putney High Street. Doors at 8pm. Tickets £7, call 0207 736 1446 for further info.