Cardinal Burns: The comic duo breathing new life into the tired sketch show format

The bizarre creations of Seb Cardinal and Dustin Demri-Burns have earned them cult status; now they're embarking on their first UK tour

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It is around 8.30pm on a Thursday night and  in the basement of the Soho Theatre, Seb Cardinal and Dustin Demri-Burns are straddling two helpless audience members as they encourage everyone else to sing “Ohhhh, my tax disc’s expired” to the tune of “Sex on Fire” by Kings of Leon. Over the previous hour they have thrust their way through a dangerously sweaty R&B routine, played campy paranormal investigators, earnest spoken word artists and mega-lads, and performed a sketch about potatoes, entirely in French.

It is all in a night’s work for Cardinal Burns, the comedy duo whose sketch show has had a stellar rise from Edinburgh Fringe to  Channel 4 primetime, via a Bafta nomination and a British Comedy Award. After a fortnight of previews in London they are now embarking on their first national tour. So, for those who are still unfamiliar, how would they sum up the Cardinal Burns brand of humour?

“We always find it so hard to say what the show’s about,” says Dustin Demri-Burns, looking a bit stricken. “It’s tricky,” murmurs Seb Cardinal. “I suppose we always come back to the idea that it’s our take on the mundanity of life,” says Demri-Burns. “It goes two ways – it’s either mundane characters in ridiculous situations, or ridiculous characters in mundane situations. That’s it in a nutshell. I think.”

Take Banksy, one of their most popular sketches, in which the subversive graffiti  artist is reimagined as a middle-aged suburban dad in an anorak and a false moustache (the real Banksy, whoever he is, liked the spoof so much, he posted it on his website). Elsewhere, minicab drivers become action heroes, heartthrob boy-banders have genitalia for noses and an ordinary office worker is honoured with a fawning This Is Your Life-style tribute. (“It says on your CV that you ‘work well as an individual and as part of team’. How is that even possible?”) It’s a weird, topsy-turvy world, and, unusually for a sketch show, it works as well on stage as it does on screen.

“It’s not just two guys, two mics,” says Demri-Burns of the live show. “We’ve really tried to put on a bit of an event. It’s not just a series of sketches – it’s a show. Bells and whistles.” And wigs, and hats, and shiny suits. Certainly Cardinal Burns are not afraid of looking silly. Demri-Burns is the tall, dark, flamboyant one, with a comically wolfish smile. Cardinal is the blond, twinkly one, a little older, a little more contained, perhaps, but far from the straight man. This double act doesn’t have one. Both have the same facility for physical clowning and stupidly memorable voices  (“Neither of us can do Welsh,” says Cardinal. “I can do Welsh,” says Demri-Burns.) Both love to dress up. “It is amazing that putting on a wig still gets a laugh,” says Cardinal. “But it is funny. And it’s fun. It’s like being a kid and we’re not bored of it yet. As long as what’s behind it is funny and the wig is well chosen…”

It is an eye for detail that has served Cardinal Burns well so far. Their first series on E4 in 2012 marked out the arrival of an heir to The Fast Show, Little Britain et al, in boldly original style. Its ambitious cinematic sweep and pitch-perfect look and soundtrack were as distinctive as its commitment to its bizarre comic creations. As a result, it has succeeded where so many sketch shows, like Anna and Katy or Watson and Oliver, have failed of late. Why do so few make the grade? “Well they don’t commission a huge amount,” says Demri-Burns. “There are a lot of sitcoms around but if you look at how many are actually good, the ratio’s not that  great either.”

They always set out to break the mould of the sketch show anyway. “We knew what we didn’t want to do,” says Cardinal. “No catchphrases.”

“Not to disrespect other sketch shows but we didn’t want it to feel too static. Two people in a café. Two people in a pub. Often you can feel with sketch shows on telly that they’ve done it live. It’s quite theatrical – brilliantly written but it’s often about the dialogue in a slightly old-fashioned way,” adds Demri-Burns. “We wanted it to have a certain energy, to feel quite fluid.”

“And to feel that there’s a world beyond what you’re seeing on the screen. Which sounds very pretentious but...” picks up Cardinal. “We always had an eye on it. It always sounds so lame saying we both went to film school, but that did really help.”

Cardinal Burns met in the edit suite at Edinburgh’s Napier University where they bonded over their oddly similar backgrounds – both are from London, both half French, with fathers from France and mothers from Essex – and a taste for the comic. Cardinal was working on becoming the next Woody Allen; Demri-Burns was making surreal short films about window cleaners on Super8. Neither fitted in. “Everyone seemed to be so earnest – all these dark Scandinavians making really earnest films that the lecturers would encourage because they were all quite dark themselves. They didn’t take us seriously because they felt we that weren’t taking things seriously. I’m a bit bitter, actually, about my experiences there,” says Demri-Burns. “There was a feeling comedy was quite trivial, really,” agrees Cardinal.

After university, they began to create characters – “Boring suburban guys, nerdy types, a lot of media characters…” – with a view to filming them at some point. They also wrote a sitcom, called Soho Stories. “Then we thought, if we send this off, no one’s going to read it. We didn’t know anyone in TV”, says Cardinal. Almost by accident, they started to perform live, in a bid to get their ideas noticed.

Neither had an acting background though Cardinal grew up in north London next door to Michael Croft, the late founder of the National Youth Theatre. “We’d always have actors in our house, people like Daniel Craig. I was surrounded by actors, which was a good thing but also a bit of a warning, because you could see that it didn’t work out for all of them.” Demri-Burns was similarly scared off the “insecure, treacherous” world of acting early on and went to art school before studying photography and film. The harsh realities of life as a jobbing actor would later inspire one of their most popular sketches, “Fiery Hawk”. In it Demri-Burns is graphically humiliated during an audition for an energy drink advertisement. They still perform it live, to whoops of recognition.  

In 2006, they went up to the Edinburgh Fringe, having formed a trio, Fat Tongue, with Sophie Black. They were nominated for the Best Newcomer prize but split from her a few years later. “I think she found it hard working with two guys who had a very similar sense of humour. It’s always hard when there are three,” says Cardinal. Was it amicable? “At the time it was hard. Like a band splitting up. But we’re all friends now.”

They took their first show to the Fringe as a double act in 2009 and were instantly spotted by Shane Allen, then head of comedy at Channel 4 (now controller of comedy commissioning at the BBC). Two series and numerous awards later, they are now working on a new kind of Cardinal Burns vehicle – possibly a sitcom. It’s an exciting prospect given the refreshing oddness of their sketch show. “I’ve been quite surprised by what a long leash we’ve been given so far,” admits Cardinal.

Meanwhile, they are increasingly in demand from other comedians, having appeared in Psychobitches and Bad Education. Demri-Burns played trendy rival DJ Danny Sinclair in the Alan Partridge movie and both have just finished filming on Sacha Baron Cohen’s new movie, Grimsby, in London and Cape Town. They appear in their own strand “as a double-act type thing” but are sworn to secrecy on details.

Like Baron Cohen, Cardinal Burns have faced the odd criticism along the way. Hashtag and Bukake, a pair of lusty Turkish taxi drivers and Yumi, a dim, subservient Japanese girl, played by Demri-Burns, teeter on the edge of inappropriate cultural stereotyping. “We always think that if it’s coming from a good place and you’re not saying anything bad, what’s the  difference from playing a guy from Newcastle or Stoke, or a woman from London? We can play a stereotype of a Frenchman, being bolshy and smoking Gitanes, and no one cares…” says Demri-Burns.

“Sometimes we play to stereotypes,” says Cardinal. “We’re very fond of the minicab drivers and Yumi. None of it feels cruel. I think when it feels cruel, it’s not quite right. Then it starts to come from an ugly place... What’s good is that we’re much more confident now.”

“When you’re sitting down writing, you always have this inner monologue of ‘Is this funny? Is this crap?’ says Demri-Burns. “Now we can sort of think, ‘Well we’ve got this far, we must be doing something right.’” 

Cardinal Burns tour the UK from 2 October to 23 November (