John Kearns: Shtick

Review by Steve Bennett

There’s often a peculiar atmosphere in comedy festival shows once they’ve been nominated for an award, when some come not because they think they’ll like it, but because they’ve been told they should.

It’s hard to say whether that’s the case with the impressively original and newly Barry nominated John Kearns,, since there’s always a peculiar atmosphere with him. He creates it, and thrives in it.

‘Who writes this shit?’ he says about 15 minutes in, when the audience still hasn’t sized up this odd man in comedy false teeth and ill-fitting tonsure wig, pacing the stage wondering in a reflective, angst-ridden monologue how his life has come to this. He reads a brief extract from Frankenstein, the parallels with the doctor’s grotesque, sentient creation made explicit.

Kearns is agonisingly self-aware, describing himself as ‘a man grappling with a joke that’s gone too far\'. He feels uncomfortable with too much acclaim and popularity – and is never going to be the sort of comedian who ‘pretends to be your friend’. It’s not even clear if he likes himself, and he’s certainly ill at ease with the unpredictable world. Institutionalisation holds an appeal.

The mood is awkward and melancholic, epitomised by him mourning the old characters in a pub.He’s 28, but has the weariness of a man twice his age – and finds a strange contentment in his discomfort.

He also crafts some strong, almost conventional, jokes from this atmosphere, almost to his own surprise. His record choices for Desert Island Discs are playful, the surreal picture he paints of his gran’s bathroom unexpectedly crystalise into a lovely punchline. It’s not just in writing a gag that he confounds expectations. He’s good at audience interactions, too; his slamdown of the punter who gave him nothing in response to a question proving priceless.

Comedy’s about a release of tension, and Kearns certainly builds plenty, the self-analytical musings heightened by his controlled physicality. Mostly the tension comes from whether this weirdo’s going to be any good or not. And when the weight of evidence that he is gets to a tipping point, it’s a watershed.

The audience, always leaning forward to figure out what is going on through the layered complexities of his soul-searching, are mostly won over, initial reservations dissolving as they buy into his unconventionally endearing wit.

Review date: 16 Apr 2015
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Melbourne International Comedy Festival

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