Edinburgh Fringe 2014 winner John Kearns: From tour guide at the Houses of Parliament to best stand-up at Edinburgh in under a year

‘Being a comic? I didn’t even know that was a job’

It’s the morning after John Kearns won the prestigious Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award for best show at the Fringe on Saturday, and he is contemplating just how far he has come since  he gave up his day job last November as a tour guide at the Houses of Parliament.

The 27-year-old Londoner spent nearly five years showing members of the public – many of them parties of schoolchildren – around the highlights of the Palace of Westminster. Did he do it with jokes? “Oh God, no,” he says. “I have great respect for the institution and I was very strict with the kids – and anyway they think adults trying to be funny is so lame. Privately, I could laugh at the contrast of having appeared on stage the night before wearing heels and shouting at someone in the front row about what their favourite curry was.”

Kearns’s winning show – Schtick – is thin on mentions of his old job. There is one anecdote, however, about leading a group of schoolchildren round and bumping into Russell Brand. A few of the youngsters recognised him and asked for selfies, but most didn’t – and thought the outlandishly dressed Brand was bit of an idiot.

Schtick is lo-fi comedy full of slow-burn material that tends to dwell on the mundane – for example, the ceramic frog soap-holder at his grandmother’s house (his family are referenced a lot in Kearns’s work); the meaningless phrases that we litter our conversations with; the sight of an elderly married couple sitting in the pub. “It is,” one critic observed, “a very funny show without any gags,” while another described it as “an elastic band about to snap”. One riff from the show goes: “If I was on Desert Island Discs I’d choose the title track eight times… so people listening would think there was something wrong with their radio.”

 

Kearns appears on stage in a monk’s tonsure wig and ill-fitting false teeth – not, as amateur psychologists might suspect, to mask inner turmoil, still less indicating that this is comedy as therapy, but to underscore life’s ridiculousness. “Life really is weird,” says Kearns, “and the get-up highlights the absurdities of it.” In the show, he references his onstage appearance as “a joke that got a little bit out of hand”. It’s not for everybody, but established comics Frank Skinner and Stewart Lee are among those who have sung Kearns’s praises.

Kearns cuts a warm but serious figure when we speak after his win. “I suppose I am quiet and I certainly don’t feel the need to perform off stage,” he says, “although my girlfriend [fellow comic Gabby Best] might say something different.” He adds that his reflective outlook on life comes from his father. “I’m my dad’s son in that respect, totally.”

He laughs at how serious that makes him sound but then reinforces the impression by telling me that his ambition is to own a secondhand bookshop, where he “would be the type of guy who would be annoyed when anyone came in”.

Kearns, 27, comes from a close-knit Irish-Catholic family – his father is in insurance and his mother works in a bank – and grew up in Streatham, south London, the eldest of three sons. He says he was a well-behaved boy – “I didn’t break the rules because I didn’t know I could,” he says laughing at the memory. “Typical eldest child, I suppose.”

It was a primary school teacher who planted the idea of comedy, suggesting that the quick-witted pupil stand up on stage and tell jokes. “I thought, is that possible? Is that even a job?”

But the idea had taken hold and later, when he went to the London Oratory (at the same time as Tony Blair’s children) and then to the University of East Anglia to study English and Drama, it was with a view to taking up comedy as a career. He did his first gig at the age of 18.

His heroes were Tony Hancock, Robin Williams, Les Dawson and Tommy Cooper. “I love when comics don’t realise how funny they are, or why the audience is laughing at something they said which they thought was serious.”

He says he isn’t political – “no more than the next guy” – but Kearns is fascinated by the workings of Westminster and says his interest was spurred by seeing This Week, Andrew Neil’s political magazine programme on BBC1, as a teenager. “They kept mentioning the Westminster bubble and I thought this sounds fun – I want to be part of it.”

Although he hasn’t yet plundered the Westminster job for material, Kearns has lots to draw on if he chose to in future shows – albeit anecdotes delivered in his distinctive style – “the modern-day absurdist cousin of Tony Hancock,” as one critic hailed it.

He talks with boyish pleasure at being at Westminster to witness the horse-trading in the corridors of power before the Coalition Government was formed in 2010 – “David Cameron just popped out from a door and rushed down some steps as I was taking a tour!” – and being on nodding terms with members of the Cabinet, before describing how weird it felt to be behind the Rev Ian Paisley in a canteen queue. “There were only two sandwiches left – ham or cheese – and I thought, “I hope he doesn’t take the cheese because I want it.”

Despite his protestations, I suspect Kearns is a political animal. During our conversation, apropos of nothing, he recalls appearing in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good – a play about nationhood and imperialism – alongside Tony Blair’s daughter, Katherine. “He came to see it at the school in 2005 at the height of Iraq, and I do wonder what was going through his mind,” Kearns says.

“I’m going to go back and read that play again and see if it gives us any clues to a Prime Minister’s thinking about taking us into a war to which many people were opposed.”

Arts and Entertainment
Reach for the sky: there are around 250 new buildings of 20-plus storeys planned for London alone, some 80 per cent of them residential
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
television
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
filmReview: The ingenious film will intrigue, puzzle and trouble audiences by turns
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower