Humphrey Ker interview
Award-winning comedian Humphrey Ker’s solo show is based on his grandfather’s heroic World War Two exploits. Ben Williams gathers the military intelligence
Humphrey Ker is rising up the comedy ranks. The 29-year-old, a member of sophisticated sketch trio The Penny Dreadfuls, won Best Newcomer at the 2011 Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Awards. He’s host of Radio 4’s new series ‘Sketchorama’ and part of the core team of BBC 3 gang show ‘Live at the Electric’. But two things really show that Ker (pronounced ‘car’) is officer material: appearing on ‘Have I Got News for You’ and being the subject of a piece of pornographic fan fiction.
Time Out caught up with Ker to provide some therapy ahead of the final London performances of his wartime comedy-thriller show.
Your show, ‘Humphrey Ker Is Dymock Watson: Nazi Smasher!’ is loosely based on your grandfather. How much is fact?
‘Well, the overall structure is kind of fact. Dymock Watson – you can look him up in the National Archives – was a captain in the Navy and was sent with a team of demolitions experts at the start of World War II to blow up the Ploesti oil fields. My story is set right in the middle of the war, and he’s sort of an all-action commando, quite young, but in reality he was about 40 years old. It’s a family story that we’ve known for years, and you just get immune to it. “Oh yeah, my granddad was a commando in Romania sent to blow up a thing, like James Bond,” but it’s kind of old hack to us.’
As you say, the show has a narrative, but the gag rate is consistently high. Do you consider it a comedy show or a theatre piece?
‘My number one objective was to make people laugh. But over the course of it I stumbled across the fact that people seemed to care about what happens to the characters and by a happy coincidence it turned out to have a relatively satisfying story. I thought it was just going to be knob jokes for an hour.’
You’ve said previously that the show was ‘terrible’ until you brought on director Phillip Breen. How did he change it?
‘The script was pretty much exactly the same. But I had to fight back my sketch instincts of having a series of elaborate props. He said, “No, don’t bother with any of that, just act it and be funny and let people enjoy it.” Also, as a military history nerd, I wanted to cram it with loads of really factually accurate details, and it turns out that super-accurate detail about the kind of firing-pin mechanism on a certain type of rifle is not as interesting to other people as it is to me. You’ve got to try to hit a bigger demographic than just guys in camouflage Mackintoshes clutching Guns & Ammo magazine.’
Your fellow Penny Dreadfuls, David Reed and Thom Tuck, also took solo shows to Edinburgh last year. Why did you all decide to go solo?
‘We’d done five years as the Penny Dreadfuls and we just felt like we’d done Edinburgh as far as you can do it and we wanted to take a break. We were kind of ludicrously, pathetically, childishly concerned before we went up there: “Everyone’s going to be talking about it, obviously. It’s going to be the main focus of Edinburgh, that we’re all doing solo shows.” Of course, no one gave the slightest of shits, as is only appropriate.’
Speaking of David and Thom, a fan recently posted a raunchy piece of gay fan fiction about the Dreadfuls online. How did you feel when you found out?
‘That was a crazy and wonderful night. Somebody’s sat down and imagined a scenario in which Dave and I have double-pronged Thom, if you will, over a game of poker. It’s just weird. But the thing that’s really weird about it is it’s littered with detailed knowledge about us. Like Thom swears in Spanish in the story a lot, whenever we’re drilling him, to note how excited he is. Thom speaks a bit of Spanish and loves to let people know that at any opportunity. It was weird. But it was also hilarious, and something exciting and funny.’
You recorded your ‘Have I Got News for You’ debut the following day – a rather different experience. Did you enjoy the show?
‘I had such a fun time. This is a very douchebag statement, but it still hasn’t sunk in. I was like, “I would give my right arm to do that,” when I first wanted to do comedy, and then suddenly they’re going, “Yep, okay, Friday it is,” and then you turn up and you do it and then you go home and you’re like, “Gosh, okay, that was good.” This is the forty-third series, or something like that, and it’s been consistently great over that time. It’s always been the daddy of all panel shows. I loved it.’