Russell Kane: Cancel culture means 'we live in a world where nothing has meaning'

The comedian speaks to Yahoo UK about his rise to fame, and new Sky History show Evil Genius

Watch Russell Kane reflect on his Origin Story:

Russell Kane is not one to mince his words, and when faced with the notion of cancel culture he wanted to challenge it because he feels "we live in a world where nothing has meaning and everything has nuance".

His new Sky History programme, which premieres on Monday, 20 November, reflects on the legacy of famous figures in history like Winston Churchill, and it is a tongue-in-cheek mockery of the way society has changed over the years.

It began as a BBC Sounds podcast which has been adapted for the small screen, and marks a new chapter in Kane's career after years as a successful stand-up comedian and presenter.

The comedian has proven time and again he isn't afraid to speak his mind, and he is ready to get candid about his success in comedy and his rise to fame as he shares his Origin Story with Yahoo UK.

Russell Kane talks Evil Genius

Russell Kane's new programme Evil Genius questions whether a famous figure should be seen as evil or genius in hindsight. (Sky)
Russell Kane's new programme Evil Genius questions whether a famous figure should be seen as evil or genius in hindsight. (Sky)

How did your love of history first begin, and what made you want to look back at famous figures and their legacy in hindsight?

The honest truth is I don't come from a house of reading or knowledge, I come from a council estate where you get a trade or go to prison — those were the options presented to me when I was young. I read my way out of my welfare situation and got myself onto a degree and f***ing destroyed it, I was so eager to learn.

But it was literature... about 10% of men who read fiction as an adult. God knows why. So I love stories. Have I ever sat there and read World War Two? Never, doesn't interest me at all.

I like people and stories, I was already into that, and when I started doing Evil Genius it was just a case of learning each individual, some week on week which was a pleasure.

It's stories about people that I love. It doesn't matter whether it's Boudicca or Diego Maradona, two subjects both have been done for the Radio 4 series, that's where the passion comes from.

I would love to do modern day figures, but they tend to sue... for Sky History it feels like the natural cut-off would be somewhere around 1960-1970. I'm gonna try and push them to do Thatcher on series two, if we do a series two, because I feel she is the 20th century, almost.

But it's a case of me saying who I'm passionate about, Sky History saying, 'well, this is our remit' and then trying to find subjects that resonate around the world. I like to think if this series ends up on an aeroplane you're flying on in four years time out of Sydney, every Australian would recognise every subject.

You approach each figure with the intention of deciding whether they're evil or they're genius. Why did you want to pick such extreme conclusions to draw from?

Evil Genius With Russell Kane. (Sky)
Kane's show reduces figures "to a simplistic, idiotic binary" because of how society has changed (Sky)

There's a relationship between the type of thing we're consuming and the evil acts the person has done, and there's obviously a cut off where we go 'cancelled'.

Picasso — I could list all the underage girls the guy abused, the women he abused, the children he abandoned, and the price of his art wouldn't even waiver. The National Gallery won't take it down because 'Cubism is important and people from Oxford like it'.

So there's power, there's class at play, and it's just interesting to find where that line is. That's where it came from.

The main thing people often say is, 'well, how can someone just be evil or genius? Everyone's a mixture of both'. Of course, that's why the show's one hour long, and not one minute long.

We get that richness of debate mixed in with belly laughs... but at the end we get it reduced to a simplistic, idiotic binary: evil or genius. Why? Well, I suggest you switch on Twitter and learn about the 2023 you're living in, if you think that's not how we live.

We live in a world where nothing has meaning and everything has nuance. And yet black, white cancelled, gone overnight. Those two things are opposite, toxic, and they are our world, but as a commercially viable format it's f***ing gold, so that's what we're doing. Have your cake and eat it as Marie Antoinette would say.

It's a mockery. It's a tongue in cheek mockery of cancel culture that gives us a satisfying, funny conclusion to the debate. But you can't tell me it's not what people are doing seriously day on day.

Russell Kane's comedy start

Stand-up comedian Russell Kane performs in his production
Russell Kane (pictured at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2010) began performing stand-up in 2004, and his career snowballed from there. (Getty Images)

When did you first realise comedy was your calling?

I grew up in a council estate, so you weren't exposed to theatre and books, you just went to school, then finished school, then got a job.

My dad liked Bernard Manning, Jim Davison, Jimmy Jones. You know, women being s*** on and abused and racial epithets which, as I got older and was on dance floors with people of every gender and colour, didn't really align with the life I was living in the dance scene.

So I managed to get all the way up to 18 without even realising stand up comedy was a thing. I got to uni and went to the one uni in England that didn't have a stand up night, so I got all the way to graduation without ever having watched, seen or really been aware of comedy.

Was I the funniest person in my group always making people p**s themselves? Yes, but so what? Everyone's got someone like that in their group.

I started at the ad agency, in the middle class environment and a comedy night was one of the things they did. I'm 25 at this point, I thought 'f*** me, my stories are funnier than that'.

It took me three years to get the guts to do it, I phoned up the local comedy club and asked 'can I go on and perform for free, just to see what it feels like?' [They said] 'Yea, ok, there was loads of space in August cause the comedians were in Edinburgh'... I went on, did this set and it was like 'Oh f*** me, I've been wearing the wrong shoes my whole life'.

I couldn't believe it. How can you get to 28 without even an inkling? The only inkling I've ever had was the best man speech I'd done a few years before, that's the closest thing I can think of.

How would you describe your first experience stepping out on stage and doing stand-up?

LEEDS, ENGLAND - AUGUST 25: Russell Kane performs on the Alternative Stage during day two of the Leeds Festival at Bramhall Park on August 25, 2018 in Leeds, England. (Photo by Carla Speight/Getty Images)
The comedian tells Yahoo UK that he struggled immensely when he first began doing stand-up (Getty Images)

I did school plays when I was in primary school, so I lost the ability to stand up in front of people without throwing up and s****ing, and I'm not speaking metaphorically.

I had no idea that the phrase s****ing yourself was literal, I thought it was a figure of speech. Diarrhoea, nausea, weight loss — It took maybe two years to get through that when I started stand up.

So the first one, I turned up telling myself 'I've got to try this'. Got there and what you think in advance isn't the same as the physical beer-stinking room full of idiot men, mostly. It was in the city, and you think 'I've gotta stand up there in a minute and I just lost my courage and tried to leave.

Another comedian there, I'll be forever thankful [to, called] Pete Jonas grabbed my hand and said 'you'll regret it, mate if you don't do this. Just try it and then f*** it off'.

I went up there and the rest is history, but I was on the toilet, both ends, until the moment I went on. Throwing up and diarrhoea. I did not know your body could do that.

Russell Kane: Quick fire questions

Actor John Hurt on the set of
Ridley Scott's 1979 classic Alien saw a team of miners discovering a deadly lifeform in deep space. (Corbis via Getty Images)
  • Movies you loved growing up: Alien, the first one obviously. By then the film was old, it was 10, 15 years old, but I just loved it. I think it's the best horror film ever made, better than The Exorcist.

  • First cinema trip: One of the Star Wars ones, maybe the last one Return of the Jedi. I was a bit young for the first couple and I was just able to be taken slightly underage for the third one, going with my great grandma.

  • First TV obsession: The Young Ones. I didn't even know who Thatcher was or socialism, didn't know what any of that was, I just knew that Rik Mayall's energy and mine were aligned.

  • One song to define your life: Firestarter. I just love going to a party and getting it started... I like being invited on the show where I'm the only comic starting the fire and getting that going. Not a destructive fire in a controversial comic way, just heating things up and getting it going.

Final thoughts with Russell Kane

Russell Kane at the Pleasance as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. (Photo by robbie jack/Corbis via Getty Images)
Kane credits Lee Mack as his most important mentor whilst coming up in the comedy scene (Getty Images)

Were there any mentors in your life or career that had a defining impact on you?

It's gotta be my my dad, really, in my personal life who taught me how to do everything opposite to him. I don't know if that was meant to be his lesson.

But in comedy I suppose my first mentor when I was still doing the day job was Lee Mack. My first manager said, "Look you can carry on working your day job, but I need you to take a sabbatical and support Lee Mack on tour."

I don't know what you know about comedy but going out as a support act when all the audience have put their hands in their pockets to see Lee Mack, it's an unforgiving 20 minutes. They gotta wait, they gotta sit through you, and then they have an interval. Some people are gonna be p***ed off and disappointed, they've never heard of you... so it really taught me to raise my game.

Comedian Lee Mack entertains the crowd during the Platinum Party At The Palace at Buckingham Palace.
Russell Kane cites Lee Mack as one of his comedy mentors. (Getty)

Watching Lee over and over again for those three months something switched in me about how to do stand up. He never sat down and talked me through or guided me, but just being on that tour, sitting in the car with him, talking about the shows, watching him.

I watched the show every minute, every night, watching him do the same s***, same beat for beat, to different audiences. It was the final bit I needed to bring my skill up where I could leave work in 2006, forever.

If you could go back in time and give young Russell any advice on how to change his Origin Story, what would it be?

I'll probably just give him some advice about girls. I was just so useless in that department and it's hampered all the other stuff, it doesn't matter what's going on in your romantic life until it's f***ing up the rest of your life, then it matters.

I had no action at all, nothing, not even a kiss tiI was 17... that s*** probably f***ed me up and ruined my teen years, just worrying about dying a virgin.

Instead of doing what you should do when you're young, and experimenting, and having different relationships, I would immediately fall in love with whoever showed me even one touch of kindness and then spend three years with them, no matter how toxic and s*** the relationship was.

29th Edinburgh Comedy Awards
Russell Kane won the main prize at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards in 2010. (PA/Alamy)

So I got all the way to age 35 without ever having had a one night stand, without even having kissed a girl in a nightclub that wasn't my girlfriend.

That's not admirable, that's a bit weird if you're not religious and you're a young man. Not having explored that was a problem. It was a problem in that I was toxically committing just to be with someone.

You need to be free, women as well. I'm sure you need a year on your own, work out who you are, whether that's romantically or even career wise, just space to have the confidence to be single.

I'd never done it and I wish I'd got it done younger. I had to do it when I was 35 and it was all a bit tragic and pathetic, but I got it done, and now I'm happily married.

Evil Genius airs on Sky History on Monday, 20 November at 9pm.

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