THE IRISH and the British - in some ways so similar, in others so completely different. One commonality is a strange uneasiness with success. In Ireland it manifests as ‘the begrudger mentality’. In Britain, it’s the ‘mustn’t grumble’ belief that failure and being inadequate is your deserved lot. The other great common factor is drinking, or rather drinking too much.
These are some of the issues comedian Russell Kane will delve into in his acclaimed new show Smallness, which he is bringing to the Róisín Dubh on Saturday May 10 at 8pm.
“The philosophy behind the show is that in Britain and Ireland we like smallness,” Russell tells me during our Tuesday afternoon interview. “There is this inverse snobbery about not liking things too loud, that you shouldn’t be too good looking, instead liking things being a little run down and quiet.
“It started when, going back to Edinburgh for the umpteenth time, I though it would be interesting to play a 65 seater venue, as nobody goes back to the places they started out. I thought it would be a fun, intimate experience. I lost a shitload of money, but I won a weird, inverted respect for it. That wouldn’t happen in the US if you did that.”
And then there is the drinking.
“No other countries go from repression to yobbishness straight away over drink,” says Russell. “We’re all sorts of up tight and keeping your head down and repressing emotions and then we get a few drinks and we’re like wild beasts running down the street in the middle of the night with a kebab on our hands! You find that in Ireland and Britain but not anywhere else. Anywhere else, there’s a medium. It’s a few glasses of wine. With us it’s either heads down and repressed or going mental!”
Smallness is primarily a comedic exploration of the British psyche, and Russell is aware the British and Irish psyches are also quite different.
“A lot of Irish people come to the shows in London and Liverpool and you can see them nodding, saying, ‘Yeah, that’s just like at home’,” he says, “but it would be dangerous at other times to say ‘Everywhere in the UK and Ireland...’ It will be safe for me to say in Ireland, ‘Aren’t the English ridiculous?’”
Smallness follows Russell’s previous show Smokescreens and Castles, which explored Englishness and his relationship with his father. The phenomenon of national and regional identity is clearly a passion for him and informs his comic outlook.
“It’s sociology,” he says of his style. “Other comedians are political or observational, but not many do observation with gender, class, father-son relationship. I’m not saying you’ll come out of the show thinking ‘Wasn’t that a wonderful hour of sociology?’, but that’s what I’m interested in. My shows are different modules of a sociology - gender, class, nationalism, etc. There is so much humour in those. It’s observational comedy that tries to dig a bit deeper.”
That interest in identity stems from an upbringing which was divided between Brimsdown, on the outskirts of the London borough of Enfield, and his father’s native Essex.
“When my mum got ‘up the duff’ as they say, Enfield was where the council flat was allocated, but Dad is from Essex so we spent lots of weekends in the beachhouse on Southend-on-Sea and that had much more of an impact on my interior landscape,” he says. “I now live in Woodcliff, near Epping Forest, and it leads to a big bold, regional identity, rather than the brown, faceless, council houses that were just far enough away from London for people not to be able to tap into the culture of London.”
In an interview with The Guardian in 2010, Russell said he “realised I could get punched less” at school by making any potential bullies and tormentors laugh. So is comedy a form of self defence?
“It can be for some, both girls and boys,” he says. “By putting myself in that league that was just above the bullies, and by using humour and otherwise staying invisible I survived the five years of hell that is the British comprehensive school.”
Not that this meant a career in comedy was inevitable. “I sold watches to help pay my way through university,” he says. “I worked in an advertising agency for a while. I thought I could be a genius copyrighter, a genius watchmaker, or a genius comedian!”
To the public’s benefit, Russell opted for the latter. A bonus for the Englishman was his discovery that being funny tends to attract women, although he remains puzzled as to why.
“The big question is, ‘Why the hell, of all the things they could be attracted to, are women attracted to funny men?’” he asks. “From an evolutionary point of view I can understand being attracted to wealth as it provides comfort; being attracted to someone taller that you, as it signifies strength and protection; but the funny man? There must be some survival mechanism that calls for a person who can chill a situation through humour, create a good atmosphere, and help make things less tense. Hence his ability to make people laugh is a social survival mechanism, and that’s why girls are attracted to that kind of man. That’s a Darwinian take on it anyway.”
It has to be true, after all, it’s how he met his fiancée, Lindsey Cole.
“That’s a practical application of that theory!” he says. “She was in the front row at one of my shows and I though, ‘She’s fit!’ and that ‘Average looks plus witty banter, equals I might have a chance’, but I spent the time making fun of her, picking on her during my routine. I was horrible, so I thought, that’s my chance gone. Then I saw her friend who was following me on Twitter said Lindsey thought I was amazing, that led to a Tweet, then we got together, and 10 months later I’m popping the question. We’re getting married next month, in Andalusia. It’ll be amazing.”
Apart from stand-up and presenting TV shows like Unzipped and Staying In With Greg and Russell, with his mate Greg James, Russell is also a published novelist, having penned The Humorist in 2012. The novel centres on a comedy critic who discovers the perfect joke, one so funny people can die laughing, although he himself is unable to laugh.
“It took me four years to write but it was a lot of fun,” he says. “I’m definitely interested in writing more novels, but I’m going to wait until I am a bit older, when this celebrity/comedy journey has gone where it may. Men need to be into their 40s before they write anything. I love literature, and you find the great novels were written by people aged between their 40s and 70s. You need that sedimentary layer of experience, that silt, before you can really do it.”
We could not conclude this conversation without asking about Captain Colin, Russell’s pet pug who appears alongside him in the posters for smallness.
“I have two dogs now, Colin and Janet, both pugs - funny, squashed up, kind of creatures,” says Russell. “They both have pet passports but I won’t be bringing them to Ireland, as I’m flying in and you’re not supposed to have pugs on a plane, as with their short snouts they cannot take the air pressure. That’s what I’ve heard, I don’t know if it’s true.”
Tickets are available at www.roisindubh.net, the Ticket Desk at OMG Zhivago, Shop Street, and The Róisín Dubh.