Ahead of his gig at Birmingham Comedy Festival, funny man Rob Kemp chats Elvis, exam invigilation and electro rock with Shelley Carter
The intensity of two shows a day at Edinburgh Festival may have been taking its toll when we chatted to Rob Kemp, but despite a cold (absolutely not man flu because it’s 2019 and we’re not going there) he was as chipper as ever.
Edinburgh 2017 is the place Rob credits with his ‘big hurricane’ where comedy horror musical, the Elvis Dead – a retelling of cult horror movie Evil Dead II in the style of Elvis Presley – was one of the hits of the festival. Rave reviews, a best newcomer nomination and a bucket load of opportunities followed.
The following year, not so great. Wheel of Shows in 2018 didn’t connect with audiences in the same way and Rob says he felt ‘the pressure and fear of failure’. He explains: “I didn’t know what people expected. I wasn’t happy writing it or doing it.” This year, he wilfully wrote a show that was ‘silly and just had a lot of fun’.
Cue Moonraker 2 which focuses on that ‘thin veil between sleep and awake, where your mind wanders unimpeded’. It’s a collection of those thoughts including some stuff on Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte and a song full of penis synonyms about the Icelandic Phallological Society. Standard.
At the time of writing, we’re not sure if we’ll see this or an entirely different show at Birmingham Comedy Festival, but there’ll be belly laughs for sure. Rob tries to avoid reviews. He says: “You get good reviews and then just one off-colour one can throw your whole day out. Then there’s a temptation to change the show. No, I don’t bother.”
Rob’s route into comedy came via Birmingham’s electro rock scene and exam invigilation quite randomly. The camaraderie of being in a band ‘jumping the van’ was enjoyable. Rob recalls: “Everyone’s noodling away in a practice room. It was a lot of fun, but they weren’t my gang. It wasn’t my home.”
When the drummer took time out for ‘nefarious reasons’ and Rob started to struggle financially he began invigilating exams. “It’s an important job, but it’s not thrilling. While I was there, the exam officer suffered a mental breakdown which was lucky for me. I stepped into the role. She’s alright now.”
Despite always being a fan of jokes, Rob says he really wasn’t the funny kid at school. “I had a severe side parting, thick glasses and looked like a bank manager, yet friends say now, ‘I always knew you were funny’ and aren’t surprised by my career choice.” The decision to go into stand-up came when Rob thought up a joke he’d never heard before and turned it into an eight-page Word document.
He recalls: “I thought ‘why am I doing this?’ so I went along to an open mic night. I just didn’t want to be an old man with regrets.” Rob says there’s an element of ego and kudos associated with the stand-up scene and that it’s easy to forget it’s all just silliness really.
“When you die on your arse it doesn’t feel like that, but really the worse thing that can happen is they might forget who you are or never come again. I obviously want approval. Hug your kids or they’ll end up like me!” He adds: “Mum, don’t worry, you hugged me enough.”
Speaking of family, the performing gene perhaps came from Rob’s dad who was into amateur dramatics. “He’s a grand presence at 6ft 3in with a deep booming voice and always smiling, so there was no surprise I ended up performing. My mum’s a bit quieter, more contemplative.”
Rob’s fond of Birmingham and recalls many a night at Foundry and Excel. “I’m proud of it and I love how it’s changed. The comedy scene’s not as big as in other cities, but it’s a really nice place to be.” He’s excited to be heading back for Birmingham Comedy Festival this month even if he’s keeping us guessing with the content. “The blurb I’ve written is vague. Am I going to be doing Moonraker or have I got time to do something else? I’ll do my best.”