Lickety Brit

English comic Matt Kirshen makes himself more than a novelty act.

"It's like those monkeys that get raised by humans and then forget they're monkeys," says Kirshen, 34. "That's what I'm like when I go into a bank."

And while his accent—or his youthful choirboy looks—might be the first thing to catch your attention, keep listening and you'll be greeted with remarkably precise, whip-smart standup. The London-born Kirshen studied math in college, which seems to have rubbed off on his comedy: There's an impressive logic to his intricately layered jokes, whether he's offering rebranding strategies for post-Katrina New Orleans or marveling at gun-lovin' Texans.

On Saturday, Nov. 29, Kirshen hits Portland as part of comedy showcase Funny Over Everything. He talked to WW about Siri, Gallagher's racism and witnessing a shooting in East Hollywood.


WW: How does your math background influence your joke-writing?

Matt Kirshen: Simon Singh wrote a book about how a surprising number of the Simpsons and Futurama writing teams are people with math degrees—in some cases quite advanced degrees. I just scraped through an undergraduate course. But you definitely use some of the same brain pathways when writing jokes and proving theorems. You're connecting two unconnected topics in concise and interesting ways. 


With a math degree, your taxes must look pretty good, right?

My taxes are in shambles. I wish I could tell you I'm good at all that stuff. I'm so bad. I've got two accountants, one in each country, and I just hand the papers over to them and go, "Please, fix this."


Moving on, then. How do you find your accent affects your act?

I realized a while ago that I need to talk slower for the first minute so people can tune into my accent. Once they've got it, I can speed up and talk at my normal pace. But voice-recognition systems are the worst. Every so often I have to put on a bad American accent: "resERRRvations." I gave up on Siri.


How did you end up in L.A.?

Some people make the big move to L.A. right away, whereas me and L.A. is like a one-night stand that got out of hand. Like, it just gradually became more of a relationship. Two years in, I realized, well, I've left my toothbrush here. Half my clothes are here. I guess it's probably time to move in. 


Do you see yourself staying in the U.S.?

I don't have an end point. I like performing in America. The things that are kind of annoying when you're trying to be recognized by the drive-through person become endearing and charming when in front of a standup audience. It's quite nice being the Brit when you travel: You've got something original to talk about, and people think you're much more intelligent and charming than you are.


So your success is purely due to novelty?

Are you asking what I've got to offer other than an accent and a smile? In the U.K., I was that white guy who tells jokes. In America, I'm that white guy who tells jokes and is from England. Onstage, it buys you 30 seconds worth of interest, but then you still have to not be bad. Or rather, you still have to be good—that's a more optimistic way of putting it. That might be my Britishness shining through. Like, well, you've got to not be terrible. You know, not cock it up.

 

Does your performance style change depending on whether you're in the U.S. or U.K.?

Not really. There's a slight rhythmic difference that's really hard to pinpoint. British audiences and British comedy have a slightly different—and almost imperceptible—pacing, and a slightly different rhythm. I think I switch marginally when I switch countries, but it's very hard to pinpoint exactly. Even that's changing now. There's so much crossover, with comedians traveling internationally and especially with YouTube. 


How does audience reception shift?

When I play a British crowd, the second I walk onstage and open my mouth, people know a lot about me. Britain is still divided into very specific, hugely different accents. The second I open my mouth, a British audience knows I'm a middle-class kid from somewhere near London. Whereas when I walk in front of an American audience, they still have preconceptions, but it's just "English." It's far wider. It's weird that in a foreign country I can be pigeonholed less than I can in my own country. 


What sort of performance experience did you have prior to starting standup in college?

I had a pretty sophisticated performance lifestyle. When I was seven, I played the third wise man in the school nativity play. When I was 13, I played the second servant in a production of Macbeth at school. I don't know if you're familiar with the play, but I had two lines, so that's better than most bit parts. I also had to carry a cushion from the side of the stage and put it in a specific place and then leave the stage. Very complicated blocking. I just realized that those were at 7-year intervals—I think I was 14 in Macbeth. And then 21 was my first standup gig.


What happened when you were 28?

That might have been when I did my first adult video, but I don't like to talk about that.


You recorded an episode of your Probably Science podcast at Bridgetown in 2013, on which Gallagher said some very racist things about Mexicans. What was that like?

Over the year and a half since, we've finally gotten to the point where we're regularly getting downloads bigger than that episode. It was the Gallagher spike. That episode was such a car crash but in such an interesting way. There was a weird moment when both (co-host) Andy Wood and I were onstage, and we've got Gallagher being nuts, and we were like, we need to take him to task, but we're also the hosts, and we've invited him onto this thing, and we don't want it to look like we've invited him on just to take him to pieces. By the time Peter Serafinowicz and Patton Oswalt had tweeted it out, we spiked to three times the viewers. We've finally grown the podcast past that point, with non-racist guests. 


Did you catch any flak for having him on?

No, I think people appreciated that episode for what it was. To this day, I still don't know whether he was doing a bit on us or is genuinely an asshole. Or both. He's probably somewhere along the spectrum. I'd gotten up early to prepare, and my plan was to go back to my hotel room and have a sleep before my gigs in the evening, but I've never been more wired in my life. I went back to my hotel room and turned off the light and just laid there with my eyes wide open. It was more adrenaline than I've ever had. I think I was more wired than after my first gig. It was basically a full hour of being tense and trying to steer the thing vaguely back on course.


Can you tease any new material?

I've got a story about a shooting I saw in L.A. It's the funniest topic in the world! It wasn't fatal. Nobody got hit. It's more my reaction as somebody who grew up in a country where we don't really have guns. In Britain, police don't carry guns; criminals don't tend to have guns. If someone shoots a gun, it's news. This shooting was in East Hollywood—I was driving an American friend home at 2 in the morning. No one ended up on the sidewalk. That would be quite the way to begin a joke: "And I saw the life drain from his eyes. Good evening, Portland!"

SEE IT: Matt Kirshen is at the Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd., 281-4215. 9:30 pm Saturday, Nov. 29. $10.