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Interview: Paul Kerensa, comedian, script-writer

01 December 2017

‘I think that humour can help us try and make sense of the world’

Steve Fanstone

Writing a book about Christmas was utterly addictive. I’ve always met up with my old housemates for an old-fashioned pre-Christmas dinner with readings from Dickens, and, as I was thinking of these, I found myself more interested in the origins of it all.


When you start digging away, you discover that Christmas cards are down to the wealthy man re­­spons­ible for designing the first stamps’ realising that he was too busy to reply to every well-wisher. Once he’d taken his share of Christmas cards, he sold the rest, the same week that Dickens released A Christmas Carol just up the road. The first per­­sonalised Christmas card was sent by Annie Oakley, of Annie Get Your Gun fame, 50 years after. Religious Christ­mas cards came much later.


So the battle between religious and commercial Christmas has often been about the Church arriving late to the party, then not being sure if it wants to be there.


The big surprise for me was the knock-on effect of these key his­­torical festive moments — like how incidental things such as the first eight Christmases of Dickens’s life, at the end of a mini-Ice Age, inspired him and us to think of a “white Christmas”, even now. By the time A Christmas Carol was published, this was already nostalgia.


The other big surprise was how many secular Christmas innovators — Dickens, the writers of “Jingle bells”, American Santa-encouragers such as Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore, St Nicholas himself — were all well-meaning Christians, trying to add something to the season. I doubt they had any idea they’d take over.


It’s Christmas music that gets me truly in the festive mood. There’s nothing quite like a carol service telling the nativity story. The fact that it’s in the run-up to everyone’s busiest week, when we’ve taken time out to come and focus on the nativity, is something extra special. Then we go back into the madness of the world again, and, hopefully, take some of the service with us.


Christmas Eve, for us, means last-minute wrapping, a Christingle ser­vice at St John’s Stoke, in Guildford, then that ongoing quandary of how much to speak to our kids about Father Christmas. Then Christmas Day is the extended family, a turkey, and me trying to get everyone to play a game after dinner, but struggling to keep us all in the same room. It’s like herding well-fed, wine-fuelled cats.


The comedy circuit is at its busiest then, with work parties and the toughest gigs of the year. But I’ll also be off touring my “Comedians and Carols” show to far nicer audiences in churches. The joy of that is also showing some non-Christian co­­medians how lovely a church audi­ence can be.


Office parties are probably the roughest part of the season. I’d no idea until I researched the book how much they have in common with the Ancient Roman parties of Saturnalia — and how little they’ve changed in 2000 years.


I did a theology degree at Oxford, but really enjoyed writing and being in plays; so I thought, “I won’t be a vicar — let’s try drama school for a year.” I left thinking, “I’m an actor now”, but not being great at acting, I tried stand-up comedy once, and, straight away, I thought, “This is me.” There’s no script: if it goes wrong, it doesn’t matter, it’s only you up there. I quite like that.


I also sent jokes off to Radio 4 shows, and, from getting work on those, I got to meet Miranda Hart and people like that.


As a humble writer, I don’t get to go to the awards ceremonies. But, since the British Comedy Awards people upgraded me to “Academy Member” straight away for my work on [the BBC sitcom] Miranda, I’ll take that as a sign that they thought I had a share in its win. Working with Miranda is great fun: she’s just as you imagine her, only with fewer pratfalls.


My equation for humour, if I had to have one, is x=y. This thing looks a bit like that thing. The chandelier that Del Boy is unscrewing looks a bit like that other chandelier. “Four candles” sounds a bit like “fork handles”. Miranda saying she wishes the ground would swallow her up sounds a bit like the ground actually swallowing her up; so she falls into an open grave. I think that humour can help us try and make sense of the world.


The American style is brasher, or, at least, built on more self-confidence. I’ve done one stand-up show in the United States, in San Francisco, and the audience took five minutes to realise that my self-deprecating “I’m British and therefore clumsy/inept/indecisive” wasn’t an act. People afterwards told me to pick myself up, go get ’em, life’s not all bad. I never thought it was; I’m just British.


Writing a joke for Lee Mack to get a laugh from in eight months’ time is one thing. Getting an immediate laugh doing stand-up from a roomful of people is a whole other level. The worst moment is not if they heckle, but if they ignore you — if they chat. At least a heckle opens channels of communication. I think it’s like life offstage, too: the worst thing is to shut someone down. Talk, argue, disagree — but listen to each other.


The best moments onstage are those unpredictable ones, where a joke doesn’t just work, but sparks something magical. At Greenbelt Festival this summer, I revealed my lack of bellybutton (it’s complicated), and a woman stood up and shouted, “I haven’t got a bellybutton either” (which happened once before), then a man stood up and said, “Me neither” (which hasn’t happened before). We had a bellybuttonless selfie afterwards.


On TV, I howled at Count Arthur Strong: tears in my eyes. Taskmaster’s a winning format, too. And some pals of mine have written a sitcom on Dave, Zapped, which is worth a look.


We can overemphasise the serious uses of humour. I don’t think it changes as much as we’d hope it could. But then John Major never got out from his Spitting Image persona. Roy Hattersley never recovered from being replaced with a tub of lard on Have I Got News For You. But we’re testing right now how useful humour can be when it comes to Trump. Is he good for comedy? I don’t know. I think, worryingly, he’s good for tragedy and little else.


It’d be nice to change the world. We can all do it by stepping out of our front doors with a smile on our face, a positive outlook, and an open mind and heart. I try to do that. I don’t succeed every day, but I hear some lovely feedback after doing the Radio 2 Pause for Thought slot. People tell me ways that it has affected them that I’d never dreamt of. So you can only do what you do, do it the best you can, be positive, be creative, and go where God wills.


I first experienced God on a teenage canal holiday with CYFA [Christian Youth Fellowship Association]. I was very gradual, wrestling with what prayer was one year, learning the narrative of Jesus’s life another year. I’m still learning. I try and have different focuses every year or two. Right now, I’m trying to unpick how all the disciples interacted, and tried to exist alongside Jesus and each other, and the many things they got wrong, and that we all still get wrong.


I hope that God has a sense of humour, although I think he probably calls it something dif­ferent. He’s got the big picture and the fine detail. If you can see the whole canvas, while also seeing the individual moments of tears and upset, then that must be an unfath­omable experience of comedy and tragedy. But I think life has a happy ending and then some; so surely that means that, ultimately, it’s all about comedy, not tragedy.


I’ve got two young children, one wife, two parents, one brother, and no pets — yet. We had dogs, and I’d like to have one again, but first the children need to become a bit less like pets. I’m always working. Then I’m with the family. Then I’m back at work. In fact, that’s how most days go.


Comedy is my hobby. If you’re a comedian, you end up watching comedy, or thinking about it. But if you do a job you love, that’s your daily life. You keep doing the work until it feels like work, and then you try something else.


I mostly remember to be polite when I pray; so that’s mainly “Please, God,” “Thank you, God,” and “Sorry, God”. I try to keep the “pleases” to a min­­imum.


My health slowing me down makes me angry. I joke about my bizarre medical CV on stage, but, sometimes, when I’m missing out on work, I feel like my body’s letting me down.


People being nice to other people makes me happy: people listening, people understanding. People chan­ging their mind — but that so rarely happens.


I’d choose C. S. Lewis to be locked in a church with. Also, I hear he was a mean locksmith.


Paul Kerensa was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


Hark! The Bio­graphy of Christmas is published by Lion at £7.99 (Church Times Book­shop £7.20).

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