When Liverpool comedian Adam Rowe won the Dave’s Joke of the Fringe award on Monday, no-one was more surprised than Rowe himself.
“My agent called, and I thought he was lying,” he tells me over a drink in the back of a quiet Edinburgh bar. “I was blown away. I’m not by any stretch of the imagination a one-liner comedian. I’m all about observations and stories.”
But his winning one-liner does hint at the story of Undeniable, his sell-out show: "Working at the Job Centre has to be a tense job - knowing that if you get fired, you still have to come in the next day."
It’s a joke that comes from personal experience. Though he’s never worked at a Job Centre himself, Rowe is no stranger to them. “I’m from a really rough background: alcoholic single parent, parents broke up when I was nine, and we were on benefits - I know what it’s like to be in that system.
“That winning line comes at the end of a rant about benefits. It builds up a lot of tension, and that joke relieves it every night, so it’s an important part of the show.”
Rowe talks frankly about his upbringing onstage - but Undeniable is certainly no sob story. He’s fiercely proud of his background, and how far he’s come through eight years of hard graft on the comedy circuit. “The message of the show is that wherever you’re from, if you’re willing to put the work in you can get what you want.”
The job centre might not be appealing workplace, but the 26-year-old owes his comedy career to a stint somewhere many people would see as even worse.
“I worked in McDonalds from the age of 16 to 18, and while I was there I met a guy called Dave, one of the managers. We were both obsessed with stand-up, and we’d try and time our half-our breaks so we could watch it together on the computer in the staffroom.
“Eventually, he said, ‘I’m going to give it a go.’ I thought, that’ll never happen. It’s like when you’re drunk and say ‘Let’s start a band!’ But he rang me later that day and said ‘we’ve got a gig: my local pub agreed to let me put a night on.’”
At first, the omens weren’t good: “That pub actually closed down a week before the show.” They relocated to another pub that was too small for all the family and friends who had bought tickets. “There were people standing in the fire exit, sitting on each other’s knees… It was definitely a breach of health and safety, but it was one of the best audiences I’ve ever had, even though our material was terrible!”
Growing up, he saw how stand-up could be a salve in difficult times. "The first comedian I ever remember seeing was Richard Pryor. After my mum and dad split up, me and my little brother would go to bed together - but when he fell asleep I would watch TV with my mum for a couple of hours, partly because she was lonely. I remember one time when she was watching Richard Pryor, and I’d never seen my mum laugh like that. I remember thinking, this is something different.”
His mother’s personality comes across so vividly through the stories he tells in Undeniable that I can’t help asking whether she’s been to see it. Rowe pauses for a moment before answering. “I never wanted to do a dead relative show, so I don’t say this onstage, but my mum passed away five years ago,” he says. “If there’s an afterlife, I’m sure my mum’s watching it - if she’s got this channel.”
Rowe is an unashamed traditionalist when it comes to comedy, aiming to reach as broad an audience as possible. It makes sense to learn that Jason Manford is one of his heroes: “He was the comic that made me think maybe someone like me can do it - because he was from the North-West, a slightly chubby, working class lad.”
In recent years, Rowe’s style of comedy could have meant his show would be overlooked at the Edinburgh Fringe, where it’s usually the edgier alternative fare that wins awards and captures the attention of critics. But a new wave of talented mainstream stand-ups - such as Glasgow’s Larry Dean, and Yorkshire-born Amused Moose Award-winner Maisie Adam - have been filling rooms and forcing reviewers to sit up and take notice.
“I’ve plied my trade in the clubs, so I’m labelled often as a ‘club comic’ - which in the past has been used in a derogatory way at this festival,” says Rowe. “Just to make an audience laugh every six seconds for an hour takes a ridiculous amount of skill, and there are comics I know who’ve done shows like that in the past and got negative reviews. But I think there’s a change in the tide this year. Being a ‘bang bang’ funny comic has got more credence than it’s had in the past.”
Things could have been very different for Rowe. Until his comedy career began to take off, he says, “I wanted to be an accountant - that was the dream!” By an odd coincidence, both Rowe and last year’s Joke of the Fringe winner Ken Cheng dropped out of mathematics degrees to do stand-up.
Having got the bug, however, Rowe now feels he could never do anything else. “You’re saying things you’ve thought of, and 500 people are laughing and clapping. There’s nowhere else in life that happens. Not in the post office, or WH Smiths.
“I have to do it. If I take a week off, I get withdrawal symptoms - I start fidgeting, scratching my knees… I’m an addict, and there’s no cure for what I’ve got. Unless I can hire a room of 500 people to come live in my house and laugh at me every day, I’m gonna have to do this for the rest of my life.”
Adam Rowe: Undeniable is at Just the Tonic at the Caves, Edinburgh, until Aug 26, then touring from Sept 28; adam-rowe.co.uk