He’s done six sell-out tours at the Edinburgh Festival, knocked Tim Minchin off top place in the iTunes comedy charts and his Amateur Transplant videos, such as London Underground, have racked up more than 20 million hits on YouTube.
But the Adam Kay I meet looks less like a foul-mouthed comedy frontman and more like a fresh-faced young obstetrician with nice bedside manner (more on that story later). The real reason I want to interview him is that he’s just delivered his own bouncing baby, a six-episode BBC3 sitcom called Crims set in a young offenders institution. Crims finished last week so it felt like a good moment to catch up with Kay and ask him how it all started.
You’ve just had a pretty big hit with your first sitcom? Where did the idea come from?
Dan Swimer – my co-writer – and I came up with the idea for our lead characters, Luke and Jason, long before we chucked them in a young offenders institution.
They’re so badly suited to life together, we played around with various ways of trapping them with each other – before deciding that the door should be locked by the Ministry of Justice.
Have you ever spent any time in police custody?
I’m going to answer you the way I answer the question when I fill out the Visa to get in the USA. No.
Did you visit any real young offenders institutions for research purposes?
We visited several whilst we were writing the show. And if the show’s accused of not being realistic, that’s because we visited them and realised there’s very little comedy in the truth of these places: noisy, violent, gang-filled, drug-filled and highly depressing. That’s my description of YOIs by the way, not of my sitcom.
How long did it take you and Dan to write and how do you work together? Do you both have to burst out laughing for a line to make it in?
We write an episode in about three weeks – and, fittingly, we do so by locking ourselves in a room together, driving each other mad. We each have a veto on every line of dialogue, so everything has to make us both giggle.
Did you sketch out all the plot lines and describe the characters first before you started on the dialogue?
Our process is fairly conventional: we write the episode as a paragraph, then as a page, then as a “beat-by-beat” description of each scene – normally four to five pages – then writing up the dialogue. More accurately, we write the episode as a paragraph, realise it’s terrible then start again, write the episode as a paragraph, realise it’s terrible then start again . . .
How did you get it commissioned?
I presume BBC3 were drunk.
Luke and Gemma have an ‘interesting’ relationship. Do you think there’s a spin-off series in it – like Better Call Saul?
You’re assuming Luke gets out of prison alive?
So one minute you actually are an obstetrician, next minute you’re a comedian?
That was also the reaction my parents had. We all make bad career decisions at some point – unfortunately mine was the slightly time-consuming one of training for six years at medical school then spending several years working as an obstetrician. But I still like to keep my hand in.
What’s the worst gig you’ve ever done? And why?
The time I made a Stephen Hawking joke, not realising that Stephen Hawking’s sister was in the audience, has to be one of the worst.
What do you like about Edinburgh? What don’t you like?
Thanks to the Fringe I’ve spent one-twelfth of my life in the city for the last decade, and it’s one of my favourite places on Earth. I love the architecture, people and the food, especially The Dogs, Martin Wishart, Los Cardos, Loon Fung. I hate the weather and the gradient of the streets. But there’s not much you can do about that.
Apart from Adam Kay, who’s your favourite comedian?
I’ve never laughed harder at an hour of comedy than Stewart Lee’s 41st Best Stand Up Ever back in 2008.
What’s your favourite sitcom and why?
I’m not sure I could choose between Black Books, Blackadder or Fawlty Towers. Or I’m Alan Partridge. Or Arrested Development.
If you had a day left to live, what would you do?
Delete my internet history.
Mum may be the key to set youths on right track
I’m not prepared to declare whether or not I’ve ever spent any time locked up.
But my Dad was a volunteer prison visitor after he retired so I’ve always been interested in prison and how people end up there. When I worked as a bin man we got paid on a Thursday, finished early and went to the pub. Once, a very nice old man sat down next to me in his brand new bin man’s uniform. I asked why I’d never seen him before.
He told me he’d just finished serving a 25-year sentence. I asked what for. He said murder. I asked how come. He said he just lost his temper with his wife. “So what did you do?” “I threw her out the window.”
Most violent offenders don’t plan their crimes. While I was working in my day job as a copywriter on the violence reduction unit’s No Knives, Better Lives campaign, I visited Polmont Young Offenders Institution to meet some of the inmates. The prison officers told us their biggest problem was preparing them for release. Often, on the day he gets out, an offender’s “friends” will be waiting for him. One 22-year-old, back in for a long stretch, told me: “They had Buckfast and Valium. I was so wasted I couldn’t even tell you who gave me the knife but I found the guy who’d got me sent to jail the first time and I stabbed him again.”
Polmont runs special “exit” classes. The officers act out possible scenarios for when somebody gets out. “Show us a safe place on the body to stab someone.” The older boys smile. They know the answer. “Nowhere. And you can bleed out in two minutes.”
Only when I was with them in a smaller group did the boys drop their guard a little. The 22-year-old who had reoffended talked about how upset his mother had been and I watched that thousand-yard stare go misty. There are all sorts of schemes in Polmont to help rehabilitate offenders – art, photography, music – but maybe the answer lies with their mums. A joint “mothers and sons” project might point a way forward out of the misery of so many messed-up lives, the victims’ and the offenders’.
Never hurry curry
It’s taken a while but lavishly bearded and be-turbanned comedian-turned-restaurateur Hardeep Singh Kohli is just about to open Vdeep, his new craft-beer-and-curry restaurant in Leith. Saturday, February 21, pop it in your phone.