Home > comedy, daniel kitson, stewart lee > The Man Who Wouldn’t Be King

The Man Who Wouldn’t Be King

A Saturday night/Sunday morning in August 2003, and on the stage of the Debating Hall of Edinburgh Uni’s Teviot building in Edinburgh stands a hirsute young man fielding questions from the audience.
“What was it like working with Peter Kay?” asks someone.
“That man”, replies the hirsute young man, pushing his glasses up his nose, “is a…”

I first saw Daniel Kitson one August Saturday night/Sunday morning in 2002 at the infamous Late and Live show put on by the Gilded Balloon at silly o’clock throughout each Edinburgh Fringe. His stand up show Something had been receiving rave reviews to the extent that by the time we arrived for the final week it was sold out. And he won that year’s Perrier award. So, I was pleased to see that the MC of the last Late and Live of the Fringe was to be Kitson – other acts on the bill included Rich Hall, Adam Hills and Ricky Grover, so an ace time was guaranteed. Oh, and there was Jimmy Carr. Carr aside, an ace time was indeed had which involved, variously, Rich Hall in KKK garb, Ricky Grover rather too enthusiastically pretend kicking a prone figure on stage during the end of show/festival free for all, and Kitson and Hills stripped to the waist fighting each other with Hills’ old false legs. In the middle of the expected chaos, Kitson sparkled with his devastating wit, comedy badinage, rude words and constant reminders to his peers that it was he who had won the Perrier. This was a comedian I wanted to see much more of before he got too big and ubiquitous…

To be absolutely honest I first saw Daniel Kitson in January 2000 as the St John’s Ambulance volunteer featured in the Arena episode of That Peter Kay Thing. He went on to appear in both series of Phoenix Nights as Spencer, most prominently as one of the bar staff in the second series shown in 2002 – with this TV exposure alongside one of comedy’s rising stars, and his award winning run at the Fringe, the world would be hearing a lot more of Daniel Kitson, right?

The calendar pages riffle past and it is now August 2003. I am in Edinburgh again and waiting to see Daniel Kitson having wisely decided to include him among the select group of shows I book before heading up north to overindulge in comedy heroin. In the intervening year I had taken the opportunity to see Something at the Soho Theatre and, yes, it was the best show at the Fringe that year. This isn’t a stand up show, though, and he’s not at The Pleasance, one of the then ‘Big Three’ venues (the other two being the Gilded Balloon and Assembly Rooms) at the Fringe, where he had been the previous two years. Kitson is appearing at The Pod, a new venue consisting of a tent/marquee thing set in a square opposite the Traverse theatre on Lothian Road. He is performing a story telling show called A Made Up Story and it is wonderful. Using video, music, and most importantly his words, Kitson took us into the lives of ‘ordinary people’ living ‘ordinary lives’, past the superficial and into the glorious banality that most of us experience, a theme that flows through all of his work. I was well and truly hooked. As my opening paragraph suggests, I also saw him at Late and Live again that year, taking along three of my friends for conversion. Kitson was MC again, and his stand up brilliance shone through, although it was nearly overshadowed when US comic and filmmaker Paul Provenza invited a persistent heckler up on stage, stripped him, and violated him with a mic stand. Kitson had previously attempted to quell the loquacious bugger(ee) by instructing the audience to self regulate – this involved us shouting ‘C***’ in unison whenever he (the heckler) spoke up. Good old Late and Live!

When I predicted the year before that a comedian from the Late and Live line up would break out and become a household name, I had been right. But it wasn’t Daniel Kitson. It was the blandly ‘outrageous’ Jimmy Carr who had made inroads into the nation’s consciousness, not the stuttering, hairy, bespectacled, self confessed looking like a cross between ‘an Open University professor and a paedophile’ purveyor of whimsy and honest simplicity. Why was this? Comedian Janey Godley has commented that the mainstream media are still to all intents and purposes happiest when dealing with men in suits and Carr certainly fits that demographic – nondescript, shirt and suit, ‘ironic’ use of stereotypes that we can all laugh at in a knowing manner, trite observations about everyday life – Carr ticks all the boxes. And just look at who got a primetime show on BBC1 last year: John Bishop – nondescript, shirt and suit etc. – the year I first saw Bishop at the Fringe there was also the likes of Josie Long, Alex Horne, David O’Doherty, but the straightforward bloke in the suit is the one that gets to the top. The debate on television commissioners and their blinkered view of the comedy scene is a lengthy one and I won’t be entering into it any further here as it would take up too much space, and, anyway, Kitson wouldn’t have taken a commission if offered one, let alone appear on panel shows.

After his Edinburgh triumph in 2002 Kitson chose to evade what Stewart Lee in his excellent book How I Escaped My Certain Fate describes as the “Death Star Light Ent tractor beam of the Perrier”. The doors that would have opened to him were ignored, he ditched his management, and he began to concentrate on becoming self sufficient. At the Fringe, Kitson no longer played the venues of the Big Three (now four with the Underbelly) but instead chose to locate himself at the only purpose built comedy venue at the festival, the wonderful, sweatily compact Stand club. That was for his stand up, though – Kitson also started writing more story telling pieces and for these he chose the Traverse theatre, across the road from the venue for his first theatrical piece, A Made Up Story.

Now that he was his own manager Kitson could book the venues he wanted, when he wanted – he famously won’t perform his stand up shows on Friday or Saturday nights due to the type of punter that might stumble in, although he still does spots at more ‘with it’ clubs such as Live at the Chapel or the Hampstead Comedy Club. Eschewing publicity, Kitson instead promotes his work via his mailing list having built up what Stewart Lee again describes as “the cleverest and coolest audience in comedy” (I have to admit to a smug flush of pride when I read those words, I’m not sure if that was Lee’s intent). Turning back to Lee, he also tells in How I… of the time the sublime poet/comedian John Hegley told him that 3000 dedicated fans paying a tenner a year is all you need to make a start, and Kitson appears to be working on this principle, except on a larger scale; he has admitted to making a very comfortable living, despite the self chosen lack of TV work and its side benefits. He does it so well that Lee asked him to be his manager, something Kitson declined.

The other side of this self sufficiency is that Kitson can, and does, try and work things to the benefit of his fans in terms of ticket prices. A ticket at the Fringe to see a top circuit comedian at one of the Big Four can cost £15-20 – the most you will pay at the Stand is a tenner, and at last year’s Fringe I saw Sarah Millican, Stewart Lee, Kevin Eldon, Alun Cochrane, Andi Osho and Andy Zaltzman there – all top comedians performing in a space made for comedy. When he tours Kitson will choose venues where he can earn but will not charge what he feels is too much and has even apologised when that has happened.

Kitson does this because he believes in his craft and its purity. And it works. Since 2002 he has written and toured six full length stand up shows and the same number of theatrical pieces. In addition he has written pieces in collaboration with singer-songwriter Gavin Osborn to be performed at his Regents Park open air theatre shows, taken part in runs of The Honourable Men of Art with David O’Doherty, Andy Zaltzman and Alun Cochrane, and toured (again with Osborn) as support to fey indie whimsyists Belle & Sebastian.

The standard throughout has been amazingly high – having won the top comedy award at the Fringe Kitson is no longer eligible, although I doubt he’d want to be, but he has won theatrical Fringe Firsts for five of his six story telling pieces. Both his stand up and story telling concern themselves with the minutiae of life. His heroes are librarians, pensioners, the suicidal, and in one case his flat! Kitson has been called a misanthrope, and on the surface this is understandable, but listen to his words and a love for humanity shines through, an admiration of the heroism needed simply to live everyday life at times. And honesty also shines through, from the man who spends his life diligently cataloging discarded compilation tapes in C-90, to Kitson himself as he describes how he feels to his father in It’s the Fireworks Talking.

For me it was his stand up show The Impotent Fury of the Privileged that most clearly showed Kitson’s love/hate relationship with humanity. He loves humanity but is frustrated at the ways we behave which hold us back and so the misanthropy emerges. I saw this show three times and it helped to clarify some of my own feelings – so, you know, I love you, but don’t be a twat.

Over the years Kitson has teased us with promises of CDs and DVDs but as yet nothing has come of it. And this is a shame as his work needs to be preserved, and not only because he speaks so quickly that his pieces are dense with detail. He is a true master at what he does, and earlier this year was voted the comedian’s top comedian in a poll by his peers. His contempt for television means that even a performance piece on BBC4 is lost to us. This dislike of the media world comes from the desire to control his own work, as evidenced by his methods since 2002. He also did not enjoy his experience on Phoenix Nights, which brings us back to the beginning of this piece: wondering what he called Peter Kay on that Edinburgh night? It rhymes with Jeremy Hunt, as various BBC presenters might tell you. According to Kitson, and since backed up by numerous other accounts, Kay was a control freak and unpleasant to work with. Kitson wants no part of that world and so instead of taking the easy route to panel show fame and riches, went entirely the other way. And it’s worked – he can produce his work with no pressures and retain its integrity, and at the same time allow his audience to see it on his terms and as it should be. The best comedian people have never heard of, Daniel Kitson doesn’t want to be king, although if you asked him he’d tell you that he’d be excellent at it.

  1. April 24, 2011 at 4:34 am

    If only he’d release the back catalog!

  2. April 24, 2011 at 5:09 am

    That would be grand – there is an MP3 of one of his shows on his site, but that’s it.

  3. Pete
    April 25, 2011 at 11:53 am

    I’m not quite sure how many times I’ve seen Kitson now, but each time it feels more like an evening spent with an old friend rather than a comedy gig. There is a beautiful honesty to the man that could never survive in the mainstream. The magic of a Kitson show lies in the intimacy, it simply wouldn’t work in The Albert Hall and I don’t think that it work on the television either.

  4. Festival Junkie
    April 26, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    I must take issue with the following:

    I saw Sarah Millican, Stewart Lee, Kevin Eldon, Alun Cochrane, Andi Osho and Andy Zaltzman there – all top comedians performing in a space made for comedy.

    Andi Osho simply does not deserve the billing ‘top comedian’. She isn’t – her recent appearance on Dave’s One Night Stand had me screaming at the telly in fury. Hack, heard it all before, and racist.

    I’m sure she’s delightful company and she’s working very hard but she really is not cutting it as a comedian and it saddens and infuriates me that other comedians who have so much more comedic talent than she are being overlooked. The sooner she gets the presenting gig she’s suited for and is off the circuit the better it will be for everyone.

    • April 26, 2011 at 7:04 pm

      S’all subjective, innit – I enjoyed her show but that was no doubt influenced by the low cost and my festival spirit – also she is a ‘top’ comedian on the circuit in terms of exposure. Point taken, tho – she is the weakest out of those listed there, and hasn’t shown much progress over the last year. That list is there to make a point – if she moves to a bigger venue, as seems likely given her raised profile and no doubt thrusting management, her ticket price will increase by 50% at least – I wouldn’t pay it, and I doubt she’d have as friendly a deal as at the Stand, and definitely a less ‘comedy’ audience. God, I sound like a right comedy snob.

  5. Paul C
    May 5, 2011 at 11:51 pm

    Happened across this piece by accident, much in the way I first encountered the work of the man himself some 3 years ago when I was fortunate enough to discover a Sunday afternoon run through of the “Revenge of Heckmondwyke” collaboration with Gavin Osborn which was to be performed that eveing in Regents Park.
    Having paid the princely sum of £2 I joined a packed room upstairs in a SE London pub to witness a theatrical monologue from this critically acclaimed but, at the time for me at least, virtually unknown performer.
    I left 2 hours or so later spellbound and in awe at the performance I’d witnessed and since then have had the pleasure of seeing him perform on countless occasions including Stand Up on New Material nights; stepping in at late notice to MC in front of c1,000 at Greenwich Comedy festival; midnight shows with Gavin @ Regents Park, solo shows at Union Chapel and theatrical monologues at The Traverse. He still never ceases to suprise, enchant, amuse and thoroughly entertain with everything he does – and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have discovered the man you so rightly describe as “The best comedian people have never heard of”.

    Just one question …. I hear he has some material about his stutter ……. do you know if anyone has ever actually heard it ? 😉

    • May 6, 2011 at 4:42 pm

      I do remember in the far off distant days he did a piece on the speech therapy he had which involved slapping his thighs – I think he has us finely honed now so he no longer needs to refer to it 😉

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