Around the time that comedians began doing shows in stadiums and releasing live DVDs, the phrase 'comedy is the new rock and roll' appeared in print and on TV. Reportedly coined at the end of the 1980s by writer and comedian Dave Cohen, the claim was repeated many times in the media and is still heard today. That description has been widely rejected and mocked - not least by comedians themselves - but there is no denying that comedy has achieved a level of cool approaching that of rock and roll. In fact, the same people who attend a comedy show one week go to see their favourite bands at a festival the following week. Comedy audiences are no longer just middle-aged reactionaries downing pints in working men's clubs laughing at sexism, racism and homophobia: they are younger, more switched on, politically and socially aware. This doesn't mean that comedy is any easier now than it was in the bad old days: on the contrary, a sharper audience means that a stand-up comic needs to be on top of his or her game in order to make it through a show.
Russell Kane is one of the UK's most popular comics: his shows often sell out and even the critics like his work. His stage manner is fluid, confident and energetic and his routines are punctuated with sudden vocal caricatures, throwaway characterisations that illustrate the traits and attitudes he describes. It comes as a surprise to find that such an accomplished writer and performer just fell into comedy almost by accident.
"I was working in an advertising agency so I already had a perfectly good job during the day. I was the first person in the family to get a degree and the first person to get what some would call a decent job, so I had no real reason to change my life. But working in advertising was so all-consuming that I wanted a hobby in the evening that would be just for me. A friend of mine suggested that I try stand up comedy but I was dubious. I wasn't good with public speaking, I'm a little bit nervous, and I wasn't sure I'd enjoy it, but they said, no, you're really funny, do it. So, I thought, sod it, I'll give it a try. I went and did it, just like that. I didn't always want to do comedy and I didn't have an interest in it at the time. I just wandered on stage, gave it a go and was good at it. I thought, wow, maybe I could do my hobby for a living, and I kind of fell into it from there."I know it's weird. The stand-ups who are really passionate probably hate hearing me say it but honestly I really didn't give a toss about stand-up at the beginning. Obviously I care about it now and I am really, really passionate about the job I do. I love it.
"The first show I ever did was at the Comedy Cafe in east London. It was an amateur night where you can go on and try to do three minutes - or at least see how long you can last. It's obviously very scary and I ate almost a box of Imodium before I went on. I could hardly hold the microphone 'cause my wrist was shaking so much but I got through it. The few laughs I managed to get gave me a buzz and I realised that I actually could do it. After that I just kept doing it until I got good. That first small gig was 2003 which makes it 12 years since I did my first amateur spot. I only played around for the first couple of years and I didn't leave the other job until 2006. That was when I went for it, so I've been doing it as a job since 2006.
"I got into it quite late considering. A lot of people start at 16 or 17 but I was like 23 when I started. In my case that was a good age for me to start. I'd got my degree, I'd lived some life and had a few relationships, so I was more mature than my years, if you know what I mean. That helped."If you've a bit of a gift - and I think I have - then you can get really far quite quickly. It's like learning a language: you feel that it's very easy at first, and then follows about eight years of really hard work. I got enough of a jump at the beginning for it to have been exciting for a long time. It's been especially exciting since 2006 because I've been doing telly and people are starting to recognise what I do."Edinburgh has been very important. I kept doing Edinburgh because it really showcases your talent to the whole industry. You go up there, you do an hour long show and everyone turns up: ITV, BBC, normal audience as well. And it's just by repeatedly doing Edinburgh that things happen. Of course, I won the big prize in Edinburgh, which is really well respected, it's called the Edinburgh Comedy Award now but it used to be called the Perrier. When I won that in 2010 that's when things really stepped up to the next level."
The next level meant more than just TV work. Russell Kane, like most top comics, gets out there and tours with the shows he writes. At the time of our interview, Russell was taking his Smallness tour on the road."I'm going to take Smallness back up to Edinburgh again so people can re-see it, even though I did it at Edinburgh last year. Then from September to the following June I'll be writing the new stuff and by next June I'll preview. I'll have skipped out the whole September to March touring phase, so I'll be a bit skint, basically, because that's my main income. I'll have to live off my savings for a year, which is nice."The sarcasm of that last phrase highlights a very real tension. Touring and TV may be profitable, but any artist who creates his or her own material must resign themselves to substantial periods of writing and preparation, activities that are not directly profitable. Russell Kane's breathless, quick-fire delivery means that he needs a lot of material. As Russell himself has told audiences, they get two sets worth of comedy crammed into one, and it's not always the same material.
"Shows vary from night to night. I would say that the main spine of the show is about and hour and ten [minutes] or an hour and twenty. On top of that, twenty minutes at least is improvised each night around that spine depending on where I am in the country, who's in the audience and things like that."
Not everyone has the right temperament for touring. Some musicians may be able to get away with a career based mostly on recording, but stand-up comedy is an interactive genre. Staying home is simply not an option.
"I love it. Some people really don't like it but I enjoy my own company. I like books,
I like movies and I love hotels so, for me, it's a bit of a gift. Plus, I love Lindsey [Russell's fiancee at the time of interview, now his wife] and we love spending time together but it's great to have a job where you're forced to miss each other a bit. No one would choose it but when it happens it actually makes a relationship a lot healthier to be apart one or two nights. With Lindsey's job as well, she's been away two nights this week in Manchester doing a makeup job - she does hair and makeup - it just means you appreciate each other's company more. It's all too easy to stifle each other, I think."
The story of how the couple met has been told many times, but it's a good one.
"She was in the front row at one of my gigs, wearing a fur jacket. I wasn't impressed with that because it looked like real fur, so I snatched it off her and threw it around the stage, making obscene and lewd speculations about where the fur might be from. Basically I did the classic thing of being horrible to a girl until she fancies you. Nothing happened initially because it took me a while to track her down on Twitter and stalk her, but I eventually did and got her out on a date. We went out on one date and I wasn't really in the place for a relationship but she kept biding her time and then, about six months later we were like, come on let's just go official and see what happens."
So, in addition to his income, Russell owes his domestic happiness to touring, but which does he prefer, the immediacy of live stand-up or the wider exposure of television?
"Well, the two are interlinked really. It would be hard to have one without the other because if I just had the stand-up I'd only be playing clubs, no one would come to the theatre to see me. But I really don't mind that kind of stand-up. In fact, that's what I did last night and it's what I'm doing tomorrow night. I do club stand-up to keep that side of me sharp but, on the other hand, you can't beat the thrill of doing a TV programme and then thousands of people turning up at your gigs. Part of the buzz of doing TV is knowing you're getting your stand-up out there to a larger audience, and seeing how it connects with the public. I like the creativity of creating a TV show and being in front of the cameras and being on set. Yeah, I do love that."
With all that live work, Russell Kane must have encountered his fair share of hecklers. It's a traditional part of the job, dealing with audience members who seem intent upon ruining your evening.
"The most effective heckle I ever got was around 2004 or 2005. I was at the back of a pub doing a gig to about 30 people and I was dying on my hole, as the expression goes. Then, as if things weren't bad enough, the pub dog, which was a great dane and a scary animal, walked onto the stage and sniffed… basically sniffed my balls while I was performing. There is no heckle I've ever had that was more effective than that. It was so humiliating. Everyone was laughing at that instead of at my act. The gig was just over."
Even after a difficult gig, or even just when the workload is daunting, Russell isn't one to relax too much.
"I try not to, because it's not like riding a bike. I will still do at least three gigs a week, even if they're club ones or little arts centre ones. You'll see me doing those smaller gigs, trying out stuff and then I'll start previewing round about June time. I never sit at home - how boring! But I do break from touring. I'm having a bit of a break from TV as well. It's good just to appear and disappear, if you know what I mean. It takes willpower but it's definitely about the long-term game."
When he is not performing, which comedians does a comedian find funny?
"The problem with this question is it's like asking a composer which music he likes: you're not going to have heard of any of the people he says. But, to think of names you would have heard of who are doing really well at the moment, I suppose Sarah Millican... Jack Whitehall's doing very well. Those two really stand out to me. Obviously the classics like Bill Hicks and Richard Prior, people like that. Chris Rock too. Stewart Lee, he's good as well. The rest of the list would just be mates that you've not heard of. I could be making people up and you wouldn't even know."
Eventually, the conversation drifts around to the subject that brought us to Russell's home. His new private registration, KAN 333E.
"I've always wanted my own number plate because there's something nice about that personalised thing. It's like having a tailored suit, I suppose. But I've always sort of stopped at the last minute. I never really treat myself to anything. My house is nice, but it's not over the top. It's not like, oh my god, did you see that place? It's just a nice home. Well, it's the same with my car: it's a nice Mercedes, but there are posher ones. I don't like things that are too show off. The only things I do like are watches, I've got a big thing about watches. I've always wanted a number plate as well so now I've got that. That's it, I'm done with luxury!
"My friend, the comedian Stephen Grant, has got a personalised plate that says Joker or Jester, and I thought it looked really good. Yeah, it's like a nice little luxury accessory that some people might notice and some might not. It could also look pretty cool pulling up outside a theatre when people are waiting by the stage door. The girls would see KAN 333E sweep up and they'd all go, Aaaah! Yeah, that'd be cool."
Yeah, that'd be cool."
Interview: Angela Banh
Story: Rick Cadger
Location photography: Stan Thompson