Life & Culture

Lee Kern: Working class hero

Comedian and writer Lee Kern is up for an Oscar. But, he tells Keren David, there are more important things in life than winning awards.


Lee Kern does not drive a black cab, but it is not difficult to imagine a journey with him at the wheel, had he decided to follow his family tradition. When he talks, he has the rhythm, accent, pace and punchy passion of a London cabbie putting the world to rights. What’s more, his background, in “a working class, boxing family” has shaped his career and world view.

We talk on Zoom, a zippy interview of just 45 minutes (but loads of words, as you will see), and the reason for our conversation is his upcoming trip to Los Angeles, to attend the Oscars. He’ll be there as a nominee, part of the writing team for Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. It’s just for the ceremony, as the parties have been cancelled. “It gets me out the house,” he says, but Oscars shmoscars. “I’m not even lying. Things like awards and Oscars … I don’t think that’s as glorious as the act of just making a living. I think anyone who can make a living is a success. In this world, I think if you’re making a living and putting food on the table, then you’re killing life. You’re doing well, particularly in the creative industries. So that for me is what it’s about.”

I assumed he must have written the film holed up in a Hollywood writing room, but that wasn’t the case. Baron Cohen, a long term collaborator, whom Kern worked with on 2018 satire show Who is America? was “hassling me to work on this film. I sort of fancied a break from it, because I was doing other stuff, but he kept haranguing me to work on it.”

Eventually Kern agreed, but stayed in London — pre-empting the working from home regimes we’re all used to now. “It had some benefits because it allowed us to have a 24 hour writing process.They would be waking up to receive my material. And they could use that and build upon it. It’s a good way to reclaim time from the universe.”

How do you go about writing a film which puts its protagonists into essentially unscripted situations, interacting with people who don’t know they are part of a film? Kern refers back to his own prank show on Channel Four in 2012, Celebrity Bedlam in which he memorably managed to persuade celebrities that they were meeting their own clones.

“I always describe my writing for that kind of show as though I’m building a playground where I’ve got these set pieces, you know, a swing, the slide, but then when you go to the playground, you can play on them in any particular order, go back and forth. But you know, the apparatus is there for you to play with. And you can make up spontaneous games, yourself. That’s the metaphor I use for the kind of pranky stuff I’ve written.”

The pranky stuff though, is just a small part of Kern’s work and I sense he’s less comfortable with it than he used to be. He’s written comedic documentaries for Channel 4, including one called The Edgware Walker, “about a local legend, a lot of JC readers will know, who used to walk around everywhere in north London in his underpants.”

He’s currently working on a comedy drama for Channel 4 about schizophrenia. One of his best friends has the condition and so, he says “a lot of my social life is with schizophrenics and other people who’ve been sectioned and are part of the mental health system.”

His series has “a lot of heart in it, a lot of love, a lot of brutal honesty but is also clownish and comedic. And I’m loving it. And it’s about as fine as anything that I’ve ever worked on. And I love how love-filled it is compared to you know, pranky stuff which can have a bit of an edge to it. This is just pure love but with a really dark subject matter.

“You’re dealing with deep questions of human consciousness and the human soul. And, you know, love, God, tragedy, pain. You get into the heart of the grandeur and absurdity of being alive.” It’s impossible to work on this kind of content, he says, and for it to be just “cheap and tacky”.

He’s also working on some movie ideas. So the multiple award nominations have come at a good time, when his writing is developing and growing, and he is proud of his successful career: “I’ve managed to do all of this without having an agent,” he points out, having gone it alone for the last 12 years. “I haven’t waited around for anyone to give me permission or endorsement to do what I want to do and get on and succeed. I’m not going to wait for someone to legitimise my existence, or my creative abilities, or my human agency to go out there and approach people. I want to approach and interact with life and existence how I want to.

“I think my career’s gone a lot better, since I started just embracing the fact that I’m the child of a black taxi driver, from a family of cab drivers, where my attitude is literally, I will take anyone, like a cab driver, I’ll take you wherever you want to go, as long as you’re paying me. But if you’re not going to pay me, get the hell out of my cab.” Accolades are all very well, he says, but “I don’t have this preciousness. I literally just want to make a living, I couldn’t care less if I write for Hollywood stars or just any other schmucks. As long as I’m getting paid, I couldn’t care less.”

Kern doesn’t just put his energy into making a living though. For the last few years he has been an extremely active fighter against antisemitism, both online and creating content such as — most recently with Joe Jester Jacobs— a clever and funny rap about Jew hate. This activism is stressful, he admits, but “this is the story of being a Jew… we have to get on with what we want to get on with, with one hand tied behind our back — one hand trying to fend off bastards, the other hand trying to create. It’s is just what it is.”

Antisemitism “came to me, the world came to me to tell me I’m a Jew.” At Cambridge University, where he went from his comprehensive school,“I got called a yid by a kid on campus. There ended up being a fight. There ended up being a court case. And this was at Cambridge University. And then I had a year and a half of this guy who started the fight and his mates trying to intimidate me, talking about the West Bank and Gaza. Now, I grew up in a home where I’d never even heard the word Zionism. We’ve never even had a Shabbat dinner. And then I had a year and a half of this intimidation at Cambridge University, you know, talking about Israel, Palestine and abuse and I’m just alone having to deal with this stuff. No protection from the college.” (Later, I try to fact check this, and find nothing online, but I believe him, 100 per cent.)

He tells me about incidents later on, when people wrongly blamed Israel for the deaths sustained at the Jenin refugee camp in 2002. “That’s when I realised that the world isn’t just willing to believe the worst about Jews. They want to believe the worst about Jews. Because if you take any antisemitic conspiracy, they’re irrational and implausible. The only way you can bypass your reason and intellect and actually believe them is if you desire to want to believe these things about Jews.”

Because of his background he feels different from many Jews in show business circles who, he says are “ambivalent, if not hostile” towards Israel, and “incredibly Ashkenazi-centric, with a “fetishisation of Yiddish” . Moreover “they also seemed utterly ignorant of the way that anti-Zionism is the route to antisemitism these days.” He suggests these Jews were willing to “throw Israel under the bus”, unlike “the 95 per cent of Jews who support Israel’s right to exist.” His motivation in speaking out is to “reflect what I felt was a Jewish community I know.”

He’s especially scathing about the Jews who held the infamous ‘Kaddish for Gaza’: the "poncey middle class lot, who live in a world of ideas and idealism”, contrasting them with those who “live in the real world, who are not coddled.” The incident and the row that followed showed a “class chasm” in the community, he says. But he is hopeful. “We’ve gone from a timid quiet community, to a loud, vocal, confident community, and I think that will only continue to grow.”

He deliberately adopts a “pugnacious attitude, to inspire confidence so that we will no longer be meek and scared. And so, in my online presence, I have consciously been bullish, I’ve consciously had spiky elbows, I’ve consciously been prickly and sharp. Because it’s not just enough for us to have the intellectual narratives to combat the lies, it has to come with an attitude that we’re not going to be messed around with or bullied. And there’s a red line in our souls where you’re not going to push us around. I don’t want to live in a world where any Jew feels scared to express their inner world.

“And, for me, it was very clear that it doesn’t matter how equipped someone is intellectually, with the arguments and ideas — if they don’t have courage in their soul, they’re never going to be able to externalise those ideas and actually take action in the world. And so for me, it’s about being intellectually and mentally equipped but also being emotionally equipped to deal with the feeling of being surrounded, the feeling of being despised, and yet being comfortable in your soul. We’re not scared to stand up for the Jewish people and speak out. “

He’s passionate about transforming ourselves from “ passive victim, to someone with agency, someone whose soul now feels clean, because you no longer have the pollution of silence in your heart, you’re free, you’re liberated and speaking out. If there’s any people on earth, who should be comfortable with being outgunned and surrounded, it should be us.”

Despite all this talk of the soul, he is “completely secular”, seeing Jews as a people, rather than a religion, but reads the Torah and Tanach, seeing them as a “living fossil” which encapsulates our ancestors’ “emotions, their hopes, their fears, their wonder… excitement and inspiration… I think it’s crazy for any Jew, atheist or not, to not want to read the Jewish canon.”

Some people, moving from a working class background to Cambridge and then into showbusiness leave their roots behind, but not Kern. “My soul and spirit is working class,” he says. Some British Jews at Cambridge came from “fancier schools”, he says and, “they’re like, ‘Well, of course, I’m here, I was always meant to be here.’

“I don’t feel like an imposter because I have as much right to be in any space as anyone else. But… it’s not designed to make me be comfortable there. Or feel like I’m totally welcome there. And my accent doesn’t necessarily dovetail with the accents of other gatekeepers of power in British showbusiness.”

“I’m well read and I got to Cambridge and I think I’m pretty smart. But I also talk like a f***ing cab driver. And if I try and suppress that side of me that is more pugnacious … I’m not being authentic to myself. So I’ve got that the intellectual thingie but I’ve also got that more fighty side where you have to protect your space. And I think that’s what’s helped me to get where I am without any kind of backing and with no connections.

“I’ve just had to smash my way in.”

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