Daniel Kitson: Comedian of Comedy

Why you should go see a standup you might not have heard of perform a show he hasn't written yet

Feature by John Stansfield | 05 Sep 2013

In February Daniel Kitson had an idea. He had waited for it, and it had duly obliged in coming to him. This idea was still malformed, gestating in his brain, working its way to a full set, but was a good enough idea for Kitson to embark upon a small tour across the country. Since the show was still being written when tickets went on sale, they were offered only to those on Kitson’s mailing list. Tickets sold out almost immediately such is the fervour of his fans, and the rarity of the event. There are no Daniel Kitson CDs or DVDs (unless you count Phoenix Nights, in which he played mentally slow barman Spencer), no specials doing the rounds on Comedy Central, and if you look on YouTube for him you’ll struggle to find anything recorded after 2005. Which is not to say he has stopped performing, just that he doesn’t like it being recorded. Not through vanity, but because he believes you should be there to soak up the whole performance. It’s not the same at home.

Kitson is a comedian who does comedy. This may sound like an obvious truism, but look at some of the biggest comedians of any day. Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy were stand-ups’ biggest stars, but soon made the switch to movies, followed by the switch to terrible movies. Comedy high priests like Jerry Seinfeld and Peter Kay were quick to make the switch to television. Even that most vaunted of alternative comedians, Stewart Lee, has done his fair share of Comedy Vehicles for TV. In his aversion to television and film, Kitson can be likened to the best American comedian you’ve never heard of, Mitch Hedberg. Hedberg was dubious of the ‘stand-up as route to TV and movies’ road trodden by many of his peers throughout the 90s in the US, stating, 'As a comedian, they want you to do other things beside comedy, but it’s not comedy. They say, "Alright, you’re a comedian, can you write? Write us a script! Act in this sitcom!" It’s not fair, you know? It’s as though if I was a cook, and I worked my ass off to be come a really good cook, and they said, "Alright, you’re a cook… can you farm?"'

Since winning the 2002 Perrier Award Kitson has been a must see in live comedy, but aside from his stint on Channel 4’s seminal Phoenix Nights he has been loath to appear on television, even leaving that show under a cloud of smoke after he criticised it for being racist in their portrayal of two Asian immigrants (he was dead on), which led Kay and his cronies to make fun of Kitson during the commentaries on the Phoenix Nights' DVDs. The only thing that angered Kitson about this was that now the fans of broad comedy drawn to Kay’s success were infiltrating his shows. And they weren’t quite getting it. Kitson’s clever way of fighting this was to make the show so niche and esoteric that he could wean these ‘fans’ off his comedy and get back to the audiences he felt appreciated and deserved his material.

Often seen as a comedian’s comedian, Kitson is revered by his peers. Tim Key, a fellow Perrier winner who also features in his show TREE., is in awe of him, as is Stewart Lee. They see his shows as the peak of their artform, and they are exactly that. Though Kitson makes light of his own structure with wry asides to the building of a comedy set, it is all pre-planned. Like Hedberg, he creates a dialogue with the audience and makes you believe it is all improvised. But where Hedberg struggled with drink and drugs, Kitson struggles with life, love and loneliness – what it is to be human – and goes to great lengths to dissect this, bringing an honesty to his shows that resonates with the crowd, bringing you into his world and making you feel at home. That is his gift. Live comedy. He has promised a recording of the show he embarked upon from that idea in February, but it won’t be the same. This is comedy that needs to be felt.

Daniel Kitson: TREE., Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 11-21 Sep, £12 (£10) http://www.royalexchange.co.uk