Hilary Wardle

Interview: Zoe Lyons

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Stand-up Zoe Lyons will be premiering her new show, Pop Up Comic, on 19 February. Hilary Wardle caught up with her for a chat about her career so far, what she thinks of the alternative/mainstream comedy debate and – most importantly – her bear-attack survival tips.

HW: I’m about the same age now (31) as you were when you entered stand up. What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to anyone – particularly a woman – thinking of starting out in stand up at a slightly older age?

ZL: I think it’s as simple as ‘just do it’. If you’ve got something in your head that you want to do, you have to just give it a try. When I got to 30 the thought of not doing it became more terrifying than the actual prospect of starting stand up. I’d think to myself, “What could you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” – Paul McKenna style. In a sense I was also incredibly lucky in that I had absolutely nothing to fall back on. When I started out I was waitressing, I had nothing behind me. That’s a tremendous boost.

HW: Talking about career leaps of faith: fellow stand up Jason Cook recently wrote and starred in his own sitcom, Hebburn. Would you ever do a self-penned sitcom or do you prefer gigs?

ZL: I’d consider having a part in someone’s sitcom, I can’t imagine actually sitting down and writing one. A little quirky part in one would be ideal, someone who shows up once or twice per episode. Would I want a sitcom connected with my own life? Absolutely not. No. It would be about a 41 year-old middle aged lesbian sitting in her slippers panicking about life. It’d be more like a workplace training video for a mental health institution than a sitcom.

HW: In your new show, Pop Up Comic, you talk about some of the TV appearances you’ve made in the past. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

ZL: We’re now in an age where comedians are killing themselves to get on the goggle box, but I’ve found it isn’t always a great idea. I appeared on a ‘celebrity alumni’ version of University Challenge in 2011 and it was one of the most buttock-clenchingly embarrassing experiences of my entire life. As it was a celeb version I thought it’d be a bit like It’s A Knockout with gungeing and custard pies, but there was a bloke there who worked on the Large Hadron Collider. It was also a glorious insight into my own prejudices and misogyny: I was told there would be a model on one of the teams and I was like, “Great! A bit of fluff.” Turns out she was the highest paid female poker player in the UK and that she had a 2:1 in Astrophysics.

HW: Stewart Lee recently curated the Alternative Comedy Experience for Comedy Central, filmed in the tiny Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh. What do you think of the mainstream vs alternative comedy debate he seems to have generated?

ZL: I think that it’s a conversation we should be having in green rooms before gigs, but is it any interest to the general public? I doubt it. Michael McIntyre fills the O2 because he’s doing broad-stroke, mainstream comedy; you can’t do gags that split the room in a 25,000 capacity venue. You’d end up with 12,500 people walking out saying, “I didn’t pay £50 for this shit.” There’s a massive market for that sort of comedy, so there’s no point telling people they’re stupid for liking it. At the end of the day you only have to go to a branch of Tesco to realise you have nothing in common with 90% of the population. I wouldn’t eat a Findus crispy pancake, for example, and not just because it’s full of horse meat.

HW: Who would you say are two up-and-coming female comedians to try and catch in 2013?

ZL: Someone that people might not be aware of is Lucy Beaumont, who won the BBC’s New Comedy Award in 2012. I was in charge of one of the heats and she blew me away. Brighton-based Sam Savage is another one to watch. She started out a couple of years ago and she’s great: really good and very interesting. Both really stuck out for me in very different and distinct ways.

HW: What’s the most ridiculous question you’ve ever been asked about the fact that you’re a gay comedian?

ZL: The question I usually get asked – in a tentative sort of way – is, “Is it difficult being a gay comedian?” I think people assume I market myself as a gay comedian and that I’m going to talk about being gay and a woman in my show. That’s what a lot of interviewers see and they don’t often dig much deeper than that. I’ve had horrible heckles though. One bloke stood up and said he “didn’t pay to see a lesbian” and stormed out. Oh, and one other thing I do get asked a lot is: is it hard to be a female comedian? My friend Jen answers that one with, “I don’t know, I’ve never been a male comedian.”

HW: Finally, something people might not know about you is that you were a contestant on the 2001 reality show Survivor. Do you have a top survival tip you could share with our readers?

ZL: One tip that features in my new show relates to the fact my brother just married an Alaskan lady; they need a lot of survival techniques over there. My sister in law’s aunty’s friend was eaten by a bear, and she said that the best thing you can do if that happens is play dead. I felt a bit sad that I was never going to be able to use this piece of advice myself as I live in East Sussex, so in my show I advise people to use it to get out of other tricky situations. Don’t want to go out with your mates? Play dead. Owe someone £20? Play dead. Missed a deadline at work? Play dead.

Zoe’s new tour, Pop Up Comic, visits Newcastle and Salford on Tuesday 26 and Wednesday 27 February. For more info, and the full list of dates, see: zoelyons.co.uk