“I think I’ve managed to make getting beaten up funny...” Comedian Karl Minns’ bares all about his life in new one-man autobiographical show Sortabiography
- Credit: Nick Stone
Stories about love, courage, death, despair, loss, the kindness of strangers and an arrest for a crime he absolutely did not commit – Karl Minns' new show is a raw, honest, hilarious, uplifting and poignant rollercoaster which lays bare his life to date.
He's had the best of times and the worst of times, soaring highs which gave way to the darkest depths of depression, huge success and long periods where he felt an abject failure – and now Karl Minns will be sharing the story of his life in front of Norfolk audiences.
Sortabiography, his latest one-man show, is at Norwich Playhouse tonight and tomorrow night and sees Karl addressing two sold-out auditoriums with a story he knows like the back of his hand: his own.
'The show started out with me looking at my career with a backdrop of my life and ended up as the story of my life with a backdrop of my career,' he tells me, 'because I think my career in comedy happened as a result of what was happening in my life; using laughter as a defence mechanism and a way of coping.
'These are stories that I've never shared before, about my upbringing, my father's illness and death, the difficult 10 years I spent growing up in Great Yarmouth, my relationship with my step-father and how I discovered writing, comedy and performance and how it offered me a way out. In short, it's about how I got here, what I did as I got here, and how I went from totally messing it all up, to the I've happier place I'm at today. It's a rags-to-riches, back-to rags, ending-up-in-a-slightly-better-class-of-rags story.
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'It's something I felt compelled to write, something I needed to write. I don't think I could've done it before now'
Playhouse audiences have been queuing up to watch Karl on stage for decades alongside Nimmo Twin partner Owen Evans and in 2015 he brought his first one-man show Raining Diamonds to Norwich.
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'I did a writing course called Story Slam at the Southbank in London years ago and the theme was Sheet Lightning,' he said, 'you had to write a 200-word story based on those two words. Everyone there did quite flowery and poetic pieces that used thunder and lightning as a pathetic fallacy. Mine was about a boy who set the bed on fire if he had erotic dreams.'
He admits that it was frightening to present a show so completely different to the Nimmos, but what followed was even more daunting.
Karl was part of the Creative Matters season at Norwich Theatre Royal's Stage Two in January 2018, which put the spotlight firmly on men's mental health issues and saw him talk candidly about his own struggles with anxiety and depression to the theatre's chief executive, Stephen Crocker.
It was, he admits, a terrifying prospect, but one that helped sow the seed for Sortabiography.
'When you're used to making people laugh and, indeed, when you've created a persona where your default mode is to make a joke out of everything, it's scary to sit in front of a crowd without a wig, without characters to hide behind, without a script, and just be you', he said.
'But it was cathartic and in the show, I've worked hard to get the balance between being super honest and talking about some tricky stuff, but making sure there are laughs, because even its worst moments, my life was frequently ridiculous. And also, I want to entertain. I didn't want to sit there po-faced and stern as I list all the times I could barely leave my flat because I was so anxious. I mean, I DO. But there's a way to do it while still being funny.'
He stops: 'So yes, I guess I'm asking people to laugh at the worst things that have ever happened to me. Sounds a great night, doesn't it? Ha ha ha, he's SO MISERABLE!'
The writing process, he explained, was difficult, trying to draw a line between what he did and didn't want to share, what was and wasn't funny, what should and shouldn't make the final cut for the show he hopes will help him and others.
'People have their own stories about me, about who they think I am and the public face is obviously a mask, and I start the show by saying: 'Everything you're about to hear is true. According to me', because it's the truth, but it's just the truth I'm ready to share. If anything isn't in there, it's because I need to be respectful. You have to keep some things for yourself and frankly, there are elements of my life that I have not made friends with to the point where I can share them,' he said.
'I hope that I have been careful, because I am aware that I don't own other people's feelings. Having said that, one of the bullies from school gets a mention. Fully deserved. It's been cathartic, a form of therapy but having to relive parts of my past has been hard.
'It sounds a bit grand, but I hope people find it inspiring and uplifting. I've had a few knocks, a tough start, but I'm still here. And I want to show that being honest about how you're feeling is a really good thing to do. In terms of mental health, it can save lives and we need to encourage more people to do that, especially young men in Norfolk. And yes, my story's unique to me, but I hope that people will find it relatable – we're all of us fighting battles and it's easier to do that if you know you're not the only one on the battlefield. If you've got a ticket, I promise you'll laugh, you may cry and there's a big chance you'll make a weird gasping noise about 45 minutes in.'
When he began to write Sortabiography, it was the story of his career which has taken him from his first joke published in Private Eye when he was 15 to his early 20s when he joined a Norfolk theatre company that encouraged new writers to the birth of the Nimmo Twins in 1996 alongside Owen and Nigel Woolston.
The Nimmo Twins performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1997 to four-star reviews and went on to perform on BBC1 before returning to Edinburgh in 1998 for a sold-out run at The Pleasance Theatre and five-star reviews across the board. The Guardian said: 'The intelligence of this show's writing ought to produce mass gory hari-kari amongst stand-up comedians.'
Regular appearances on Radio 4's Loose Ends followed, as did a week-long residency in New York's Soho Theatre and a stint at the Singapore Comedy Festival. There was a three-series run of radio series The Rapid Eye Movement, starring Martin Freeman, and a long run of sell-out Nimmo Twins sketch shows which culminated with the 20th anniversary show in 2016-17 which played to almost 20,000 people.
A regular visitor to Norfolk, Karl now lives in London and is a comedy writer, providing material for a raft of comedians such as Russell Howard, Charlie Brooker, Matt Forde, Al Murray and Have I Got News for You. How did it all go so right?
'The show looks at how we popular the Nimmo Twins became very quickly and how we dealt with that, or in particular how I dealt with it, which in truth wasn't particularly well,' he said,
'I went from feeling pretty lost to seeing a tiny light in the distance to performing under lights to almost losing it all – I'd gone from cleaning toilets to being told what a genius I was almost overnight and I had no way to deal with that. It felt like I didn't deserve it.
'Now, I would love those chances that I had 20 years ago and I would be ready for them, but I enjoy my career so, so much more these days, because I'm no longer looking for it to fix me. In this show, I go right back to the beginning and the reasons why I started to write comedy. And – spoiler - they're not really very funny. Which, to be fair, is true for many comics.'
'When I was a kid, being anxious and quiet meant that I was an observer rather than a joiner-in: I used comedy as a way to hide that and to win people over– I've been doing it since I was about five. I think it was because my dad was very ill, I was very sad and scared and I didn't know how to process that. And making people laugh was the first power I discovered – you control someone's behavior by saying things? Wow. I mean, it's a good power; they're happy. They like you. With an audience, you get that power and reaction back a thousand-fold. And for someone who grew up with no power in his life, that's very…well…for want of a better word, powerful.
'I never felt as if I fitted in. I didn't fit in at school, I didn't fit in at home. But comedy gave me somewhere that I felt safe at last and it gave me a voice, because comedy is the refuge of the weird outsider. Never trust a stable, handsome comic, folks.'
The audience will learn about Karl's horrific ordeal in December 2007 when he was punched to the floor and then repeatedly kicked by two men close to his Norwich flat ('I think I've managed to make getting beaten up pretty funny…') about his struggle with anxiety, the problems which have dogged him for a lifetime and the methods he has chosen to fight his demons.
Karl added: 'I need to say this stuff because I think it will help me and I really hope it will help other people. It's either brave or it's idiotic. Possibly both. When I was writing it all down, I was struck with the thought that I'd really like to go back in time and tell the kid enduring all that awful stuff, all those problems, all that heartache, that he was OK. That it would all be OK in the end. And it is'.
* Sortabiography is at Norwich Playhouse on January 18 and 19. Some returns are available to buy, call the box office on 01603 598598