FEATURE PHIL KAY
CHAIRMAN OF THE IRONING BOARD
Scotland’s top comic is on a roll with his most successful Fringe run yet. But it’s a tough job being PHIL KAY, running off at hilarious tangents, using your hair as a prop, and coping with acclaim.
Craig McLean adds to his woes.
hat’s he like then?’ asks the ditsy Home Counties gel in the crowded foyer of The Gilded Balloon. Her friend pauses, then gushes: ‘Well he’s Scottish, he’s a bit erratic, and he does weird things with an ironing board.’ The ﬁrst gel raises her eyebrows and nods in an approving oh-l-see manner. This Phil Kay chap must be quite a hoot, then.
Phil Kay would prefer it if the media just stuck to nuts-and-bolts descriptions of his show. He ‘can’t bear’ to see another interview or proﬁle. another trawl through ‘facts about your life that are yours and just become really boringly, publicly known’. Thing is, doing verbal justice to the majesty of Phil Kay’s comedy is a tall order. Most Phil-istines could probably do better than the ‘Scottish/erratic/ironing board’ gem. But still, how to artfully, truthfully capture a show that contains no jokes per se; that relies as much on impromptu gestural gymnastics as it does on loose themes-to-be-explored; that is less a performance than a personality?
And from the latter ﬂows the compulsion to look at Phil Kay The Man as a way of illuminating Phil Kay The Comic Genius. Like Sean Hughes and Eddi lzzard, the other true and new 905 stand-up S*T*A*R*S*, Kay’s onstage brilliance stems from his innate aura of otherworldiness. This is no mere bloke with a quick wit, set routine. stagey gimmick or pet subject. Like Hughes and lzzard, Kay builds momentum and builds bridges, gradually drawing - and occasionally yanking -— the audience into his lunatic fringe. No audience- baiting brutalism or self-deprecating kitschness here. You’re laughing with Kay. not at him.
‘lt’s a sharing thing,’ he agrees, ‘rather than you and him ganging up on someone. You’re ﬁnding out about the comedian . . . That way you can make mistakes and it won’t matter, you can lose your way and it won’t matter. you can speak to people in the audience without having to humiliate them.’
Last weekend Phil Kay did lose his way. A little over a week into a hot-ticket Fringe run. the pressure was beginning to tell on the 25-year-old
Glaswegian. Nothing to do with pre-Perrier gossip that had 1994 down as Kay’s year, after coming so close last year with his ﬁrst solo show in Edinburgh — winning baubles and bubbles don’t seem to matter to Kay. Still, things were coming to a head. Before winning 50 You Think You ’re Funny. . . in 1989 this ex-public school, university drop-out. bedraggled Catweazle ﬁgure had never seen a stand-up gig. Then he saw Sean Hughes in Edinburgh and thought ‘my God, you can just mess around and tell silly stories and say funny things’. It’s a formula that worked well for him through 1990 and 1991 when he appeared as part of the The Funny Farm troupe. In 1992 he shared a slot and a stage. Last year he worried if he could ﬁll a whole hour alone. This year. the worry was: ‘Can I do what they want me to do for an hour? I’m always trying to do what people don’t expect.’
So now people have expectations and things are spiralling: compering Late ’n’ Live over the weekend gives him the cash he spends during the week. ‘But I wouldn’t do it out ofchoice. It’s a good night though, when it goes well. I’ve done my worst gig ever there. and I’ve done my best gig ever there.’ In between he has a weekend show on Festival FM, is acting as ad hoc cultural liaison ofﬁcer (kind of) for Australians P-Harness (he invited them over after spotting them during his working holiday Down Under in the spring), his flat in Glasgow wasjust burgled, and he hardly has a moment to see his girlfriend (working in the Gilded Balloon during the Festival). He feels drained.
‘My stuff is too tied up with what I feel,’ he says. ‘That’s what I mostly trade on. just pure energy and enthusiasm. And it has always felt good because I haven’t felt responsibility for it. But now it’s there more than ever before.’
Enough of the psycho-analysis. Even when he’s off the boil. as he was last weekend, Phil Kay is still riveting entertainment — partly because he’s upfront about the strains and stresses of the job. partly because he never fakes it. He is still relatively unknown on television, partly because his humour and person would be restrained by The Box, but mainly because he seems genuinely uninterested. (There is talk ofa ‘out and about with Phil’-type show. to be made with the team behind the Shadowing series.) He might lie low next year, travel the world with his girlfriend, maybe gig in Canada and Australia. In any case he’s considering taking next August off, so that. after six festivals on the trot, ‘I don’t have to worry about its imminence for six months’.
But then, ,even when he admits that ‘something in my head is bugging me’, he suddenly perks up, chuffed to be living in a festive flat with a dozen people (most of them Australian), happy that all his friends are up from London, and excited about the prospect of three weeks’ of ‘hit and run’ gigs in small community comedy venues in London in the autumn.
When comic brilliance can be conjured from a microphone lead, a T-shirt, his sponsors’ poster. his own thumbs and his own hair, you know you are in the presence of greatness. Whether he’s feeling groovy or not. you know Phil Kay will still be Scottish, erratic and armed with an ironing board. Cl
Phil Kay (Fringe) Gilded Balloon (Venue 38) 226 215], until 3 Sept, 7pm, £6 (£5).
18 The List 26 August—8 September 1994