“Swearing at strangers is essentially what I do, though from behind a grand piano because that gives it the veneer of respectability.” So begins my conversation with Adam Kay, the man who brought the world ‘London Underground’. “Take your Oyster card/ And shove it up your asshole!” he memorably concluded his rant against “lazy, fucking useless cunts” who (may or may not attempt to) get Londoners to work every day.
That song propelled Kay to fame just under a decade ago. “I had this weird trajectory where the graph went vertically uphill quite early on,” as he describes the effect the ‘London Underground Song’ had on his career, in a scientific turn of phrase very appropriate for a man who used to work as a doctor.
For the first few years after ‘London Underground’ Kay continued to work as a doctor and it was only a few years ago that he gave that up to concentrate on performing musical, observational comedy, accompanying himself on grand pianos, along with writing scripts for TV. He wasn’t exactly sad to finish his medical career, though: “I didn’t like a job where I was covered in blood all the time, which doesn’t happen in comedy, and I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t drink at work, which I can at comedy.” Then he corrects himself, “I couldn’t drink at work legally.”
When I ask for details about why he was always covered in blood, he explains he was an obstetrician, who carried out injections on labour wards: “They’re bloody. The average blood loss is about half a litre. But when I was doing them it was a lot more than that. You turn up to work in your civvies and then you change into scrubs, but if there’s enough blood it soaks through your scrubs and it destroys your boxers and your socks. And so more shifts than not I’d go home having to throw away my underwear. I wasn’t being paid enough to buy new underwear every single day.”
Going under the band-name Amateur Transplants (there used to be two of them), Kay has now achieved several sell-out runs at the Edinburgh Fringe, made recordings and enjoyed millions of views on YouTube. He is currently touring with Bum Notes, his latest solo show. He’d just been to Cardiff when we spoke, and he’ll be visiting various English cities over the next few months, including Oxford, London and exciting places like Salford.
Bum Notes consists predominantly of new material (lots of it, incidentally – he promises 70 or 80 songs, most under a minute long), but for a musical comic like Kay, it’s quite hard to do a show without playing the old favourites. “People come along to my shows and want to hear songs they already know, me and Madonna have the same problem – do we play ‘Like a Virgin’ or some of the terrible new shit?” he asks.
So he must have to play ‘London Underground’ quite often? “I’m absolutely fucking sick of it. Someone asked me how many times I’ve played it and I just can’t work it out, certainly more than … It must be a billion times,” he responds. Then he remembers that the success of the last ten years is based on the song: “It would be churlish for me to complain about it, because if that song hadn’t done so well my comedy career would probably have lasted a couple more years before I got bored with it.”
That success has manifested itself in favourable reviews from the highest of places – Stephen Fry, no less, tweeted of one of Kay’s performances, “This made me very, very happy.” The quote frequently appears on Kay’s publicity. “Luckily Mr Fry committed this to writing. Though I’m slightly nervous using [that quote] because I don’t want people bringing along their grandparents because I’m certain that they would have a terrible time.”
Fortunately Cosmopolitan have also given Kay a complimentary review. Used in tandem with the Fry quote, this is Kay’s tactic to ensure that the right “Venn diagram overlap” between him and Fry attend his shows. He looks up the quote for me: “‘Five stars: it left us with eyeliner streaming down our face’ But that [description] could also be a one star review, couldn’t it?”
I am not sure whether that says more about Cosmopolitan’s house style or Kay’s modesty. It was just a few minutes earlier that he had described his experiences at the first show in which he performed, a revue at the University of London: “I shone like a glistening shit in a pile of normal shit.” Those are hardly the words you’d expect from someone who has spent the last ten years being praised by everyone from Stephen Fry to Cosmopolitan.
Adam Kay comes to the Glee Club, Oxford on 24th October. Tickets and further details are available here.