It’s probably fair to say that comedy critics are not top of Russell Kane’s Christmas card list, judging by the odious lead character in his debut novel.
Savant reviewer Benjamin White is the ultimate example of the eunuch in the harem: a man who has an intrinsic understanding of humour, yet is psychologically unable to laugh. Of course he’s a ‘failed stand-up’ – his one attempt on stage ending in abject humiliation – but that is only the start of it.
Kane heaps unpleasantness upon unpleasantness on to this hateful vermin. He’s a sociopath with the zeal of a Nazi eugenicist, so sure of his own superiority he knows he must obliterate imperfect comedians with his penetrating words, taking a detached but sadistic glee in doing so. 'I would destroy and crush the immaterial, the intellectually lazy,' he boasts.
A soulless 'essentially inhuman' machine, he’s little short of being a middle-aged virgin ('I'd had sex 11 times in 39 years') who harbours incestuous sexual thoughts about his cousin. Making him a paedophile would probably be a step too far, so Kane contents himself with throwing the rest of the book of unpleasant traits at him.
Maybe, as a comedy critic, I’m not in the most objective place to say this, but making White such a monstrously unsympathetic egotist, a revenge for every stinging review he’s ever received, gets in the way of Kane’s good story.
Ironically Kane is pretty good at dissecting the workings of stand-up himself. There’s a comedian in The Humorist who’s very much a cartoon version of his own stage persona – all overwrought physicality and youth-TV-friendly quirks, who rises to the top despite White’s disdain. And Kane knows the power of owning criticism by throwing brickbats at his own image, so doesn’t let back on dismissing Jay Conway as a no-talent hack.
But back to the story. It turns out that White has discovered the potent secret of comedy. A method of performance so powerful that it causes people to, literally, die laughing. A Monty Python sketch had the same premise, of course, a fact Kane not only acknowledges, but cleverly weaves into the fabric of his own fiction, alongside the Stoic Greek philosopher Chrysippus of Soli.
Such ostentatious, desperate-to-impress displays of learning are also a hallmark of Kane’s stand-up, and it’s also telling that, The Humorist's fictional secret to such devastating comedy is all in the delivery, not the material. It's almost as if the book is excusing all Kane's purposeful stances on stage.
But it is more than that; thanks to the eloquently disturbing writing and a compelling narrative that you'll want to return to. Kane starts with an hilarity-induced massacre at the Comedy Store’s gong show, then rewinds to explain White's personality flaws and how he came to piece together the secrets of the Movements that would prove so devastating.
Devotees of the art of stand-up will no doubt welcome Kane's satirical take on its processes, even if he is occasionally heavy-handed when making his points. But it's the central story which shines through this, suggesting a promising career as a novelist, even after those bees have flown from his bonnet.
- The Humorist, by Russell Kane, was published last week by Simon & Schuster, priced £12.99. Click here to buy from Amazon for £8.18