Susan Calman: “Something deep within my soul said, ‘Just do it!’”
It’s the day before her new Fringe show debuts and Susan Calman is feeling the pressure. “I’d kind of forgotten just how sick one can feel just before it starts!” the feisty Glaswegian laughs down the phone. “I was kind of thinking, ‘oh it’s fine it’s not a problem’ then I suddenly remembered why it’s a horrific thing to do! [I’m] either genuinely excited or I want to run away.”
This potent combination of nerves and exhilaration may well be the defining flavour of the Edinburgh Fringe, a festival that has become defined by its potential to make or break the cream of the international stand up circuit. In this hyper-communicative age, with live-tweeting punters, competitive blogging and errant camera phones ensuring that a single tumble-weed set can be forever preserved for prosperity, the stakes seem ever higher. Calman is refreshingly honest about this pressure. “Comedians who say they’re not bothered about that are liars,” she insists. “Why else would they really want to do it? They’re like peacocks.”
Fortunately the signs suggest that Calman has little to worry about. A late comer to comedy, she gave up a successful career in corporate law to become a fulltime stand up despite having never watched a real gig. “The first stand up gig I ever went to was the first one I performed in.” Calman laughs at my incredulous silence. “Yes, I know, again, the stupidity shines through in this entire escapade! I just knew I wanted to be a comedian, whatever that meant. And it seemed that stand up was the way you got into comedy. That’s why I started doing it.” Less than a decade on and this gamble is paying off. Calman is fast gaining recognition as a hugely enjoyable performer, her onstage persona defined by an appealing combination of fiery Glaswegian grit and a mischievous sense of fun. Yet she is also surprisingly versatile performer, appearing in everything from lairy Channel 4 sketch shows to the wryly satirical Radio 4 News Quiz, to BBC 3’s female prison sitcom Dead Boss, alongside one of Calman’s heroes, the inimitable Jennifer Saunders.
This year’s Edinburgh show This Lady’s Not For Turning Either, sees Calman at her most impassioned as she explores the issue of gay marriage in the light of her recent civil partnership, admitting that it’s “from the heart absolutely this show.” Yet although she describes herself as “without a doubt a political comedian” Calman is conscious that her primary purpose is to entertain. “I think the thing is you have to be able to do a number of things. When I do Newcastle on a Saturday night in front of a crowd, they just want to have a good time. They’re having a shitty time because of the recession, they hardly want to hear me talking for 25 minutes about the House of Lords Reform! I think it’s about a time and a place, and I’m quite fortunate that I do things like The News Quiz which means I can talk about these things. You have to be a comedian first, and a political comedian second.”
Calman’s spontaneous decision to give up law in order to break into comedy seems a brave move by any standards, but it’s all the more remarkable from someone who admits that she “detests” behaving compulsively. “This is the one thing I’ve ever done in my life that can be seen as spontaneous, compulsive or even stupid, I still don’t know quite why I did it” Calman explains, still bemused by her own chutzpah a decade on. “There must have been something deep within my soul that said ‘just do it’ and it’s terrifying because you don’t have any money and nobody respects you and you’ve just wasted your entire university degree. I coped fine because I just approached it with this blasé nonchalance of ‘I’m just not going to think of the consequences!’”
The career change was triggered by a number of coincidences. Turning 30 and unhappy with the direction her life had taken, Calman noticed that many of her friends were similarly dissatisfied but were unable to change their lives because of their responsibilities. “I sat there with my partner and said we don’t have any of these things, shall I just go for it? And it’s kind of because… if I’d stayed in the job I might have got a big house and a big car and never be able to have to do what I did. But I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t want to become the people that my friends [had become], at the age of 34 hating their lives because they’d never done anything about it. So I thought, ‘I could die tomorrow… may as well give it a shot!’”
Although she stills seems amazed that she ever took such a monumental risk, Calman clearly leaves little to chance. Her background has given her self confidence and a strong work ethic, and she swears by early mornings and long working days as the secret to successful writing. “I think some comedians moan about not doing well, and ‘I’m not on the telly, I’m not getting this’, but actually if they spent the time that they spend moaning writing, they could be slightly more successful” Calman says, revealing another flash of steely determination. “I’ve got six scripts on the go just now and one of them might come off if I’m lucky but none of them will come off if I haven’t written anything. You know, it’s a job like anything else. In that you have to keep being creative. And it’s easier to do that if you get up and say ‘right that’s me started.’”
So far this hard work seems to be paying off. Her profile growing ever more prominent, Calman is busier than ever this Fringe, balancing daily performance with a podcast, a newspaper column and guest appearances. Yet despite this remarkable drive Calman is quick to confess it’s not been easy to gain this momentum. “I’ve had appallingly bad Edinburghs!” Calman admits. “It was the very first year, I’d just given up my job, I did a show at the Cafe Royale, me and two other guys. Midnight show, promised it would be great. Terrible, no one came, money down the drain, my soul died! It was meant to be my ticket to stardom you see! It happens like that doesn’t it! You give up your job, you become a star. And it was just horrific.” Although she’s laughing, Calman clearly still shivers at the memory. “The thing is that after surviving that year at the Fringe there’s very little that I can’t survive now, it was just horrific.” She is happy to admit that the only way she managed to pick herself up after such a disastrous experience was through sheer pride. “You know, it was simply to show the people who had told me that I was silly for giving up my job, and that they weren’t right! There was absolutely no financial or indeed creative reason why anyone would have said it could have been carried off. I was too stubborn to give up.”
And it is this pigheaded stubbornness, this admirable resilience, that seems to be the real secret to Calman’s success. In the ever more congested world of stand up, where rewards can be huge but the competition cut-throat, Calman, a 4 foot 11 Glaswegian lesbian with a law degree and real nerve, is a brilliantly distinctive figure.
Although keen to cut down on touring so she can spend more time at home with her partner, she remains as driven and ambitious as ever, planning to keep performing and keep writing in the hope to one day have her own sitcom. It’s all pretty impressive from someone who only seven years ago was packing in her job and jumping into the unknown to give comedy a shot. Although she recalls little from her first ever gig, what Calman can remember is simply thinking, “This feels absolutely right!” It’s a sentiment that many punters seeing her latest show will no doubt agree with wholeheartedly.
Susan Calman’s ‘This Lady’s Not For Turning Either’ is at Underbelly, 6pm, daily. For tickets, see: edfringe.com.