Not many of us will be able to say that we “sing smutty songs” for a living after we graduate, but musical comedian, Adam Kay, is part of a small demographic that can put such an achievement on his CV.
Originally reading medicine at Imperial College and then practising as a doctor for five years as per his parents’ wishes, the drastic decision to quit medicine to become a comedian unsurprisingly came as a shock to them. “Yes! They weren’t fans of my career change at all,” Kay recalls animatedly. The shock was also compounded by coming out of the closet to them around the same time. “I think they thought I had some absolute meltdown, changing everything about my life.”
Whilst understanding his parents’ concerns about throwing caution and financial security to the wind, he explains that writing for television has helped establish some vocational stability in his parents’ minds. Addressing the inter-generational gap, he reasons, “Being a comedian is quite nebulous, but when they see my name at the end of some credits, it’s like, ‘Ah, okay. I get it. It’s a thing now.’” Chuckling, he then confesses, “Not that one works to please one’s parents, but it’s a bit annoying when you’ve got one’s parents telling you you’re terrible, that you’ve made an awful mistake.”
Despite admitting that “even if comedy didn’t work, I wouldn’t go back to medicine, I would have taken a job doing something completely different – working in Carphone Warehouse or as a bus driver”, he says with a certainty that surprises even him that he didn’t have any regrets doing medicine in the first place. A “good way to learn his trade while being able to pay the gas bill”, medicine was a good source of income while he was on the “learning curve of working out what’s funny”.
His shows and albums often have a medical theme with titles such as Amateur Transplants and Unfit to Practise. Kay explains, “I’ve spent such a long time doing that particular job. It’s definitely had a significant impact on everything since.”
Citing his medical background as what sets him “slightly apart”, he refers to the demographic of comedians and says with hearty wit, “I’m from the relatively small subset of people who used to cut up other people… it’s good to have a niche… The old maxim is ‘write what you know’ and for me, it’s ill people.”
A wordsmith with an air of easy confidence and comfortable charm, he gets inspiration from hearing songs on the radio and proceeds to change the lyrics to create his quirky subject matter, singing about anything from bad romans (Bad Romance) and Iranian men (It’s Raining Men).
However, his light-hearted demeanour settles into a more serious one when he broaches the subject of offending his audience with his brand of humour. Again preferring speaking in the hypothetical ‘you’, he elucidates: “Your job as a comedian is to make people happier than when they walked into the gig. You know, if at the end of the gig, they are less happy, then you’ve literally failed at your job.”
Adam is thankful that he is able to count the number of times people have walked out of his performances on one hand, most of them not knowing what they were getting into (raising the example of grans who don’t think swearing is acceptable). He sheds light on the profession, revealing how every comedian would be faced with people who don’t like their sense of humour.
His method of avoiding such problems is simple honesty. “I try my very best to make sure the advertising for a show says what it is on the tin. I’m not interested in getting as many people in the room as possible, no matter who they are. I want people to know that they’re going to be hearing naughty words, tons of silly songs so they can decide for themselves if it’s worth their hard-earned money.”
He does resume his giddy but intelligent air when he divulges the details of the worst show he’s ever had. Often performing for officers, a Christmas gig fell into his lap and, not reading the description in full detail, got to a large aircraft hanger only to realise that he wasn’t playing to a few hundred officers, but to “a few thousand squaddies who had come back from a tour of duty”.
“The act on before me was a stripper and the act on after me was a stripper,” he manages through a fit of laughter. “And what they got was a guy at a piano doing wordplay. I think I lasted a good twenty seconds before a few thousand people started booing and throwing things.” After suggesting that there was merit in turning a bad experience into a funny story, Adam notes, “That’s the thing about being a comedian. You never have any disasters, the worst you have are anecdotes for future gigs.”
When asked why comedy as a means of self-expression, he answers simply that “it’s the only one I can do”. “I can think of great little cartoons that I could write that will look great on the front page, but I can’t draw. Wouldn’t it be great to paint sunsets? But I can’t paint. So through the process of elimination,” he says cheekily, “I’m left with comedy as my skill set.”
Still amused at his previous anecdote, I offer him consolation in the fact that he, at least, is not a stripper, to which he replied, with no less than the roar of laughter expected of him, “Yes, that’s what I should tell my parents, isn’t it? ‘You might not be happy I’m a comedian, but hey, it could be worse – at least I’m not stripping.”
Catch Adam Kay at the York Basement, 3 February. Tickets here.