‘I had a friend called Iain. Two “i”s… to go with the face.’ That’s the John Kearns gag that was named one of the worst jokes of the Fringe earlier this month by channel Dave. Fast-forward 24 hours and the 26-year-old stand-up is having the last laugh, having been nominated for the 2014 Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award.
It’s proof (not that proof is needed) that hour-long Fringe shows can’t be boiled down to a pithy one-liner. There’s depth and heart to Kearns that can’t be summed up in a throwaway gag read out of context on the BBC News website.
In last year’s show, ‘Sight Gags for Perverts’, Kearns found humour in his own loneliness and misery. This year he hasn’t got much to be sad about. That show went on to bag him Best Newcomer at the 2013 Foster’s Awards and it changed his life. The comic has quit his day job as a Houses of Parliament tour guide, was invited to perform in Australia and has finally achieved his dream of becoming a full-time comedian. He’s ditched last year’s flaccid inflatable horse costume, but his tonsure wig and crooked false teeth remain – it’s ‘a joke that got out of hand’ he says about his own daft ‘costume’, if you can call it that. ‘It worked, and now I’m stuck with it’.
It’s the John Kearns ‘character’, he’s careful to remind us, but while we only get glimpses of its creator’s personal life, the emotions and thoughts behind the dentures are all the real Kearns. He wistfully reminisces about his childhood, frets about an encounter with Russell Brand at Parliament and there’s a poignant story about an old couple that became ‘part of the furniture’ in his local pub that spirals into a superb skit.
Kearns has much wider appeal than his ‘absurdist’ label would have you believe. There are jokes aplenty here – beautifully constructed pieces of wordplay, poetical witticisms and strange observations. He can conjure up vivid imagery with just a few words, and while not every set-piece totally flies, his screechy, seemingly baffled delivery makes sure every line gets the biggest laugh possible.
Kearns knows he has something to prove this year. He compares himself to Frankenstein, having regrettably created a monster that he now can’t kill. It’s a monster that deserves to live on, though, even if it’s slowly morphing into its creator. It’s Kearns’s shtick, and what a gloriously funny shtick it is.
‘John Kearns – Shtick’ is at the Voodoo Rooms, 5.05pm