As a stand-up comedy star Kyle Kinane may have lost his USP – but it won’t get him down, he tells Jay Richardson
KYLE Kinane opens his new show by joking “I’m in a weird place because I’m happy, so that means my career is over.” The idea that contentment inhibits comedians is something that “everybody thinks”, he tells me now. “But I would really challenge it.”
A comic other comedians crush into the back of the room to see, Kinane compels with the bizarreness of his drunken misadventures and bar floor observations as much as his easy skill in recounting them. With his gruff, gravelly voice and ragged beard, the 38-year-old Chicago native seems an entirely different species to clinical, sharp-suited gagmen like Jimmy Carr. Residing in California since 2003, on his breakthrough second album, Whiskey Icarus, he likens his hobo-philosopher style to “wise high school janitor”. Or “Uncle Barbecue telling his dumb-dumb stories”.
The defining moment in his career came at the Aspen Comedy Festival of 2007, where he absolutely bombed. “I just didn’t know how to handle it,” he says of his act at the time. “I would get drunk, get nervous or a combination of both. I didn’t know how to be comfortable on stage.”
Licking his wounds in Los Angeles, he started “letting it all hang out. “It was like one of those movies where somebody breaks; a Jerry Maguire moment where you say. ‘I’m just going to say exactly what’s on my mind, I’m not going to be afraid of it.’ And yeah, the beard just kind of came – ‘what, am I trying to look good for show business, who cares?’ That’s when the sad, bearded guy comedy started.”
Dubbed “misanthropic” by the Evening Standard, to his irritation, Kinane’s debut, 2010 album Death Of The Party found him lamenting his many dead-end jobs and lack of direction. But even when he was starting out in comedy in 1999, and before that, playing in a band, he delighted in simply expressing himself. On his most recent album, I Liked His Old Stuff Better, a laundrette disaster is elevated to the status of a “miracle” and he vaingloriously anoints himself “The Alchemist”, wresting triumph from defeat, epiphany from the mundane.
Unlike, say, bitterness, which is either “disingenuous” or borne from genuine sadness and anger, joy is “a renewable resource for a comedian” he says. “It doesn’t have to be a story about being coked up in a Hong Kong nightclub. It can be getting overwhelmed with emotion by something at the grocery store.”
He might make terrible snacking decisions, fall out of the shower while drinking and wince at his 76-year-old mother discovering his interview with a porn magazine – “She’s almost too supportive,” he sighs – but he imbues these embarrassments and degradations with a sense of incredulous wonder, akin to his more clean-cut Chicago contemporaries, Kumail Nanjiani and Pete Holmes.
“I always knew there was something more than coming home after work, getting stoned and playing video games,” he reflects. Playing guitar was “a lot of fun” but until comedy, “I’d never found anything I wanted to be good at before. Kumail, Pete and I, we’d just get so excited about hearing each other’s new jokes. We didn’t want to be famous, we just wanted to be good at it.”
Kinane retains that creative exhilaration too. His stories would expand indefinitely if he wasn’t recording them for broadcast. “There’s no end point to stand-up, it’s just a puzzle you can’t finish,” he says.
There are echoes of his formative influence, the late, surreal one-liner comic Mitch Hedberg, in the miracle laundry tale. And there’s little doubt that Kinane is an inspired joke writer too, even if the end packaging is so different. “They call me a storyteller,” he notes dryly. “But that just means I have a five-minute joke I beat the shit out of for 20 minutes, that’s all storytelling is.”
He used to find the thought of performing anywhere for a month “depressing”. But after Silicon Valley star Nanjiani’s 2012 Fringe run and playing the Glasgow Comedy Festival himself the year after, the prospect of mountain biking in the Pentlands and trading his blue collar Chicago “bar bullshittery” with Scotland’s pub blethering tradition appeals.
“The funniest people I know aren’t even comedians,” he says. “It’s the people I grew up with. Nobody was doing well. It was just that weird grey area where there’s no major tragedy to define anybody but also no-one’s going to be a doctor or a lawyer; this slow realisation that we might have these crummy jobs forever.
“If you complained just to complain, you were a drag. So you had to make sure it was entertaining… I had friends I hoped would have a bad day, not from ill will but because of how funny they were about it. That’s how we processed being on an average frequency. If you can piss and moan about it, make each other laugh, you’ll get through it OK.”
Kinane maintains that he’s tried to clean up his drinking “act”. But “it doesn’t happen as often as it should and I’ll be out there for sure,” he says of Edinburgh. “You can have a few drinks, listen to me tell some stories for an hour, then I can have a drink and listen to your stories.”
Ambivalent about reviews, he claims he’s “just the same old desperate comedian looking for validation from his peer group” and stresses that he’s “not looking for world domination” by filling stadiums. But he is looking forward to playing bigger gigs, being less on the road and spending more time in California with his girlfriend.
He hopes he never sounds “aw shucks” about fulfilling his dream of telling jokes for a living, “but I’m still blown away by it”. The continuity “voice” of Comedy Central in the US, Kinane has just finished shooting Judd Apatow’s romantic comedy Love for Netflix and the sitcom Those Who Can’t, “playing an alcoholic history teacher, obviously”.
Invariably cast “for the way I look rather than any acting ability”, as anyone familiar with Cheerleader Massacre 2 can attest, he shaved his beard off for Love and subsequently toured without it. “It felt a little weird at first but a couple of shows in, I was like, ‘All right, I can still write jokes that people laugh at!”
So still drinking, but much less nowadays, more materially comfortable and with dispensable facial hair, Kinane’s wary of his act becoming shtick, as if he were “a hipster Larry the Cable Guy”.
“You see comics doing well, having to talk about a job they had 30 years ago and making jokes about being broke. There’s nothing wrong with a little reflection, I have stories that start like that. But I can’t pretend to be struggling. So if I lose the sad, bearded white dudes… sorry other sad, bearded white dudes… there’s too many of you anyway. I don’t want to stay broke and alone if it makes the act funny. I’d much rather have a mediocre act and be happy as a person than sacrifice my short time on Earth as a gonzo journalist for depression.”
Kyle Kinane: Ghost Pizza Party, Underbelly, 10.10pm, until 30 August / listings
Published in Scotland on Sunday on 9 August 2015
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