Phil Kay: interview

Time Out drinks Drambuie and plays with fireworks in a graveyard with quick-witted Scottish comic Phil Kay, who reveals why he never gets nervous before a gig

  • Phil Kay: interview

    Scottish comedian Phil Kay plays with sparklers in a graveyard © Tim Arthur

  • The last time I saw Scottish comedian Phil Kay perform was nearly a year ago. It’s seared into my memory. For more than an hour and a half, he whirled around the stage like a possessed spinning top – weaving interconnecting strands of autobiographical lunacy into one gloriously insane comedic tapestry. By the end of the show he was naked, pouring with sweat and had an audience member’s mobile phone nestled uncomfortably between his arse cheeks. This was barely constrained madness of the highest order – unpredictable, dangerous and hysterical.

    So, I’m slightly nervous when I phone him to check the arrangements.

    ‘Meet me on the high street. We’ll start there and then head off to somewhere I found yesterday.’ I detect mischievous excitement in his voice.

    And so I find myself standing outside an off-licence, on a freezing autumn evening in Lewes, East Sussex.

    ‘We need some supplies,’ he informs me. ‘I’ve a bottle of Drambuie and a pocketful of ice cubes. I think we should buy a bottle of ginger ale and some fireworks. Then head to the graveyard.’

    Before I know it we’re pushing open a creaking, ancient gate and entering the mist-laden cemetery.

    ‘I was loitering around earlier, trying to find a grave with your name on it, when I found a really nice spot round the back of the church.’ I follow him into the pitch darkness. As my eyes become accustomed to the velvet night, I see Kay hoist himself on to a white tombstone.

    ‘Let’s get some sparklers going for illumination.’ A click of a lighter and one crackles into life. Phil wafts it around in a sideways figure-of-eight pattern. ‘Infinity, baby. Infinity.’

    He sticks five or six of the fizzing torches into the ground.

    ‘Graveyard air burns well, eh?’

    He pours a huge measure of the sweet spiced whisky into a plastic beaker, then rummages around in his overcoat for ice. Sploosh. There’s more fluff in my drink than I’m used to. I sip it and cough.

    ‘That’s strong!’

    ‘Don’t worry,’ he says reassuringly. ‘I’ve got loads of the stuff. They keep sending me bottles and bottles of it. They’re sponsoring the “Late Night Pursuits” gig I’m doing with Sean Hughes, Rich Hall and Shappi Khorsandi. It’s brilliant, they’re trying to make sure we say the right things. Hoping we stick to their world marketing strategy. But with comedy you just open your mouth and speak. You can’t do it if you’re trying to please someone else. You can’t stick to a promoter’s brief. A comedy gig is the living definition of the opposite of PR. It’s RP, whatever that would stand for.’

    Kay has only recently moved south from Scotland and is experiencing properly being part of the London comedy circuit for the first time in his long career.

    ‘It’s like an orchard that I haven’t touched for 17 years and now I’m harvesting it. I adore it and my situation, although in other life circumstances it’s not what I’d have chosen. I’d have chosen to do what I’ve been doing for the last 15 years – which is performing one-man shows in lovely venues across Scotland and Ireland with two hours to do whatever I want. There’s no waiting for other comedians to finish their fucking acts. I can’t stand waiting around.’

    Even sitting here among the dead, Kay is a ball of pent-up energy. I can imagine that patience isn’t one of his strong points. It begins to rain, so we take refuge under a solemn Cypress tree.

    Does he get nervous before gigs? Is that the cause of his impatience?

    ‘No, not really. It’s not nervousness. It’s nerve-endings. It’s life. I’m curious. I want it to go well. Nothing means anything, except what you let it mean. You just have to go with a feeling, or rename it. So, it’s not nerves, it’s excited energy. I just want to get on.

    'It might be my ninety-ninth gig of the year but it’s the first time that audience has seen me, so there’s this brilliant mix of realities going on which I absolutely love. It’s the one magical moment you ever really have to connect with that crowd, and it has to be real.’

    The speed with which his mind is able to leap from subject to subject is remarkable. He plucks images and concepts out of the ether as they wander randomly across his consciousness.

    ‘I never have a set list or anything like that. That would distract me from the moment and nothing is more important to me than that moment. So the key is to make fun of what’s actually there in that room, at that specific time, rather than seeking out stuff to mock. The laughter then comes from a recognition of a simple truth, that we’re all together in a room sharing a unique experience.

    ‘For that reason, I’m always playing with the format of being in front of an audience. I’m in among them. I’m dropping things. I’m drinking their drinks. I do anything until something happens, something which is real enough for us all to focus on, and then I run with that and see where it goes.’

    It begins to rain even harder. ‘The weather’s against us, come back and meet my love and her daughter, the gorgeous Lily.’

    So we head back to his cosy cottage, with its glow of familial warmth and end the evening by launching rockets in his garden.

    ‘I’ve been incredibly lucky. I mean, if everyone could do this, who would answer phones for Direct Line Insurance or cut grass in the graveyard?’

    Phil Kay will be appearing at the Soho Theatre, Dec 4-13.

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