Cardinal Burns interview: ‘We’ve got about 20 levels of camp’

Sketch comedy is in safe hands with duo. They tell Holly Williams about graduating to the TV mainstream

The trajectory of sketch duo Cardinal Burns – Seb Cardinal and Dustin Demri-Burns – is the kind young comics must dream about when trudging round the toilet circuit or being bankrupted by fringe festivals. Their first gig in 2005 was reported on in the national press: The Independent, in fact, in a wider piece on the state of sketch comedy.

They were soon spotted by a promoter who put them on at the Edinburgh Festival. It was when performing in 2009 that Shane Allen, a commissioner for Channel 4, saw their  sketch show – and saw potential. They were given a TV series, called simply Cardinal Burns, which aired on E4 in 2012, and was critically lauded for its blend of pop-culture parody and tight character comedy that spiralled into surrealism. After winning them a British Comedy Award and being nominated for a BAFTA, the show was given a second series, starting this month, which graduates to Channel 4 proper.

“We’re glad it’s on Channel 4 – you want more people to see it,” says Demri-Burns when I meet the easy-going duo in a Hackney café, near where he lives. The upgrade also means they don’t have to worry about targeting the yoof demographic of E4. “Channel 4 has a much bigger age range,” points out Cardinal. “Some of our stuff is really, really juvenile, other things may be slightly … smarter?”

“Highbrow?” suggests Demri-Burns – at which they both snigger in a fairly, well, juvenile fashion. But it’s true they plunder a wide range of source material, from parodying structured reality shows to recasting Banksy as a street artist cum middle-aged suburban bore (the real Banksy liked the spoof so much he posted it on his website). Other characters include Sketch, the perfect pastiche of a spoken-word artist, but spitting middle-class privilege instead of urban grit, and a pair of super-camp paranormal investigators, who despite only appearing once in the first series became fan favourites.

“That’s our default setting: talking in camp voices,” offers Demri-Burns. “We’ve got about 20 different types of boring guy, and 20 levels of camp: extreme camp, boring camp, depressed camp…”

The pair, now in their mid-thirties, met as students at film school in Edinburgh in 2000 – “at the turn of the century” says Demri-Burns, in a mock-grandiloquent style. It was after helping edit each other’s short films that they started writing scripts together, sending out sitcom treatments on spec.

“It just seemed fairly futile, your script would be in a long pile…” says Cardinal. They decided that, as they were writing characters anyway, they should just get on stage and do them: “It helps – you get immediate feedback”. That their stage show eventually led to a filmed TV show is a pleasing outcome, and they’re developing a sitcom again: they remain tight-lipped about it, but the script should whizz to the top of the pile this time round.

The second series of Cardinal Burns has also moved in that direction, explains Cardinal: “We don’t tell jokes so much, it’s more about the character and the world. It’s more like six little sitcoms in an episode, rather than quick-fire sketches.” Favourite characters have their stories developed: Banksy is now engaged in a saga of marital strife.

The new series also boasts heaps of extras and more fully-realised sets. Presumably being on Channel 4 now means they’re blessed with bigger budgets? “Kind of… it was a little bit of a stretch,” says Cardinal, a diplomatic response which suggests it was actually an almighty one. “The second series was more ambitious, and we felt it during filming: a lot was rushed …”

They were shooting almost every day for six weeks – including that three-week heatwave last July. Demri-Burns recalls, with some amusement, a sketch filmed on the hottest day of the year, in which “Seb plays a 10-year-old fat boy in a karate suit, he had the full prosthetics, the chubby cheeks… he was sweating out of his eyes – it was literally the only place he could sweat, he was just watering!”

So perhaps it’s no wonder that, since filming wrapped, they’ve been pulling their live gigs in the opposite direction, away from sets and costumes, towards something more improvised, more anarchic. They had grown sick of the revue-style format – “lights down and you hear us moving the chairs frantically around” as Demri-Burns puts it with a roll of his eyes.  “Our style live is a bit more to the audience, and a bit more shambolic [now],” says Cardinal. “Sometimes in sketch shows there’s not enough of a connection – it becomes like a play.”

And they’ve long gigged alongside stand-ups, an influence which can be seen in the TV show too. The first series presciently featured comedians who’ve since been garlanded – take a bow, Edinburgh Comedy Award-winner Bridget Christie and Best Newcomer-nominated Aisling Bea – and you can continue to play spot-the-stand-up in series two (is that another Comedy Award-winner, Adam Riches, getting in a fight with Cardinal? Why, yes it is.)

So, are they part of one big, loving comedy family? “Oh yeah,” gushes Demri-Burns, adopting what is, presumably, their “luvvie camp” voice. Cardinal observes that the comedy scene is “quite pleasant at the moment… warm… loving…” before dissolving into sniggers. More seriously though, they say they genuinely have no interest in cruel or deliberately offensive comedy. “Whenever we feel something feels mean, for starters you just go off it – it’s just not a fun thing to do if you feel a character is too cruel,” says Cardinal. Which is really rather heartening… such nice boys.

They’ve been in America recently, and that British decency, combined with their surreal sense of humour, must surely go down a treat… They laugh at the idea of girls swooning over their English accents, but say a live show did work surprisingly well, given how very British their reference points are (the new series references the horsemeat scandal, spoofs Nineties game show The Crystal Maze, and features entire musical numbers about taking a mini-cab to Hackney).

“In America at the moment, sketch is quite a thing,” points out Demri-Burns, flagging up TV shows like Key & Peele, Kroll Show, Saturday Night Live and Jimmy Fallon. “Whereas here they always go on about ‘sketch is dead, sketch is dead…’” Cardinal interrupts, in true double-act style, “‘Oh no it’s not, sketch is alive! Oh. It’s dead again.’”

It’s a perennial debate they’re very bored with – despite being hailed for reviving the format themselves. “Recently, with Monty Python doing their reunion, it’s now certain sketch is back in – but they could have decided to do that [reunion] however-many years ago,” says Demri-Burns with frustration. “Our producer was giving us stats on what was working, and we were like, ‘we don’t write according to what the FTSE is for sketch stock: write-write-write, sell-sell-sell!’ You can’t be too reactive – well, we can’t, or we’d go mad.” He adopts one last comically camp voice: “We’d go bloody bonkers!”

Series two of ‘Cardinal Burns’ begins at the end of this month on Channel 4; their live show tours from July, see www.cardinalburns.com

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