Stand-up comedian Russell Kane has turned his hand to novel writing with his debut The Humorist - about a comedy critic who can't laugh. He opens up about what inspired him to write and how he's coped with recent break-ups.
By Kate Whiting.
Russell Kane takes a gulp of his steaming onion soup and shifts a little restlessly in his seat. He's in the middle of a hundred and one different things and can barely sit still enough to eat.
"Two phone lines, four lives, it's mega. Mega mega mega," says the award-winning stand-up comic, in his familiar Essex accent.
It's impossible not to feel invigorated by the energy he emanates - he talks passionately at breakneck speed about everything from his new Edinburgh show to the grammar school system.
"I've got bags of the stuff, I can never get it out and since I started stand-up, it's like an exfoliation, an expulsion, it all comes out every night."
Today he's here to talk about the fruition of one of his keenest passions - writing. His first novel, The Humorist, is published this month and for Kane, it's been a long time coming.
"I started writing it about four years ago," the 31-year-old admits. "I'm a morning writer, I won't write anything after 1pm. I started getting up at 9am and writing for three or four hours then doing stand-up in the evening."
He's already written three other novels, which he describes as "70,000-word training exercises" that he's been doing since he was 16, plus a collection of short stories he'd like to rework. But he's keen to see how this one does.
"I don't think people will expect me to write a book like this," he says. "They'll be expecting a hilarious romp with lots of pratfalls: 'It's 170 pages of laughs!' Not a dark, twisted, 'literary' novel. It'll be interesting to see what the public make of it."
The Humorist is narrated by comedy critic Benjamin White, who has a genius insight into his subject but can't laugh. It opens with a scene of mass destruction in a comedy club - Benjamin has taken to the stage and killed his audience with the funniest joke in the world. The rest of the book delves into his background, growing up as an outsider in a family of laughers, and recounts the events that led up to that moment.
"I'd always wanted to write, it long predated comedy," says Kane.
"Comedy was just something I did as a hobby after work. I was a copywriter and needed something unrelated to work to help me unwind. Someone said, 'You've got loads of energy, you're really funny, try stand-up'. I knew nothing about it, so it was never an ambition.
"But once I started, I was like, 'Right I want to win the Perrier Comedy Award'."
The idea for his novel began with the opening scene.
"Normally I'm quite a concept person and would start with an idea or a character, but on this occasion it was just that tableau of dead people on the front row after someone has told the most powerful joke on stage."
There was already a Monty Python 'Killer Joke' sketch, in which the joke is translated into German in a form the British troops couldn't understand, so that it only kills their enemies.
"I took that as a challenge," says Kane. "I thought, 'How could someone tell a joke and not be harmed by it?' That's when I started thinking this guy needs some kind of disorder where he can't laugh and the character started speaking to me."
The comedy industry he evokes in the novel is not representative of the real thing, he insists.
"I've exaggerated it from his warped point of view. He really hates comedians. I've not met a critic like him, thank God, critically I'm quite successful. But he's frustrated - he wants people to laugh at him and he wants to laugh himself - all of that has affected his outlook.
"The only character based on anyone is the young comedian Benjamin hates the most, called Jay Conway, who's based on me. It was really fun hating myself the whole way through, which I'm particularly good at."
Despite having the capacity to be utterly self-deprecating, Kane says he has nothing in common with Benjamin.
"He's the polar opposite of me, apart from his love of language. He sees himself as some sort of messianic truth revealer and wants to scrub away the dirt and reveal the few great comics out there."
Benjamin is critical of what he sees as the new breed of rock god comedians, who play to packed-out venues.
"That's me poking fun at myself because that's how I'm perceived sometimes, but I wouldn't play the O2. I don't think it's the right shape for my comedy. I've got quite a confessional, autobiographical style that relies on a real connection."
Since winning the Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2010, Kane's undergone something of a make-over, which coincided with splitting from his comedienne wife Sadie Hasler. He now regularly sports a blond quiff and eye-liner and dated model Charlotte Austin, until they too split.
He says his new look is a "slightly feminised masculinity - the comfortable place for me on the continuum. I'm heterosexual but living next to the border of gay and straight".
Writing a novel is a natural extension for Kane, who studied literature at Middlesex. The first of his family and friends to go to university, he enjoyed being close to home and "smashing the two worlds together".
"I was reading Jane Austen and Roland Barthes and then going out smoking with my friends at the weekend."
He grew up in a bookless house and says his degree was a reaction to that.
"I went from age 5 to 18 without anyone telling me literature had any value whatsoever."
Now he's passionate about the debate surrounding grammar schools and equality of education.
"It's utterly unforgiveable that if people fail the 11 plus they get dumped in a sub-standard school. The correct response is to fix the schools for the people who failed, not to take away the opportunity for bright working class kids to experience social mobility from passing the 11+."
Once the rounds of book promotion have dissipated, Kane's working on two new TV shows for BBC Three and then there's his new hour-long comedy show for this year's Edinburgh Festival, which has the working title Posturing Delivery.
"It's a male voice analysing what it might be like if I don't have kids, because we don't hear that viewpoint. The feminine discourse is regurgitated in chicklit and magazines, but how can men talk about that fear? So in the show, I have this hypothetical child with a hypothetical woman. We deliver it in the first minute and then bring him up to 18 over the hour, with different insights."
He already considers himself a single dad, with his five-month-old pug Colin, who he bought for his ex-girlfriend Charlotte. But it's a real-life baby Kane's desperate for.
"I think the previous generation of men think that just getting an egg to become a zygote constitutes fatherhood, whereas I think it's more about going down to school and playing with them and there's a biological cut-off for that, just like there is for women," he says.
"If I haven't popped out at least one by the time I'm 40, I'm going to be looking at being in my 60s with teenagers."
He considered adopting with his ex-wife and would even think about surrogacy.
"I am so sick of falling in love and it going wrong, I have considered going to America, slapping £20,000 on the table, finding a surrogate and coming back with my sprog," he says.
"But if I can get two loving people to bring up one child, that's definitely better. I think there's a magical equation in two people sharing it. Particularly if they're balanced - doesn't matter if they're male or female - but one quite burly, grounded protective character, and one feminine, flighty but caring.
"I represent that role in a relationship, so I'm looking for a woman who is organised, down-to-earth and stable."
:: The Humorist by Russell Kane is published in hardback by Simon & Schuster, priced £12.99. Available April 26