Sara Pascoe interview
Sara Pascoe – comedian, actor and writer – is currently beetling about the country with her first stand-up tour show, Sara Pascoe vs History. Between her two shows at The Lowry in Salford, she very kindly agreed to loiter by the doors while I asked her a few questions.
Hi Sara. So this is your first tour – how’s it going? Are you enjoying it?
It’s great. I’ve just had my Christmas break, so that was my first show back that you were just in. So it felt like ‘aargh, I can’t remember this bit! Ohhh, I like this bit!’ So I was kind of getting to know it again, and that’s nice.
It’s fresh again…
Yes! And I thought that touring would be more lonely than it is. But actually, I’ve kind of liked not being with other comedians, if that makes sense. You get to just focus on how the gig was for you, and how it felt; and you have to kind of do all of the jobs. If anything happens you have to cope with it. You don’t get an MC to kind of get them all fired up. So I’ve learnt a lot from doing is, and so that means that it’s still been really useful. I’m not in any way bored of it yet.
When you’re planning a show, how do you decide what you’re going to write about? Do you just set off writing and see where it takes you?
No, it lives in your brain for a little bit. The beauty of stand-up is that quite often it writes itself in drips and drabs anyway; so sometimes it’s like, ooh, I definitely want to write about this thing about my mum – can I link this to trains? And I kind of go ‘my mum likes trains… the thing about trains is…’ and you can do a link. Or sometimes you have a clearer structure. With my fourth Edinburgh show [Sara Pascoe vs The Truth] which was about truth, that one I had a structure. I had an argument I wanted to do, so it was more about trying to fit things in, and that’s a lot harder. I guess the first couple of shows people do is usually: my funniest stuff in an order. But it’s different every year.
The audience for that matinee show was quite a big one. You’ve done things like Live At The Apollo, but also I’ve seen you at The Invisible Dot so that’s a much smaller audience – does the audience size make a difference? Or, do you prefer doing smaller or larger venues?
It’s not about preference, but it is about being a completely different comedian sometimes. Or sometimes being a good comedian, and sometimes being not enough. I think of myself as a small-room comic, because I think I need to see people’s eyes… to feel safe. I need to – for me to be knowing that I’m doing okay I need those like, reassuring smiles you get on people’s faces. There’s something about a huge room that if… I guess the energy you have to bring to it, for me, feels false. So I often feel quite small.
I try quite often to try and be exactly the same on stage as I would be off stage. And in a huge room, that’s not big enough. And that’s something that I’m now thinking about. I had a big gig last night in Leicester, it was 1600 [seats]. It was huge. And I kind of went on the same as you just saw in that room, which is a 140-seater; and there’s something about being in that huge room – it’s not that my material is flabby, it’s that I don’t do a do-do do-do-do [how to say? … and explosion sound]. I don’t run around, and I don’t get into a sweat on stage; and actually I need to work out: oh, is that something I need to learn to do? Or is it alright to just kind of drag your heals on and be a different flavour in an evening?
If that’s the kind of comedian you are, then that’s fine.
Exactly! Exactly, that’s the thing. You can’t be all types of comedian.
How different is your style of comedy now to when you first started?
Oh, very different. Actually someone – Jarred Christmas – was making fun of me last night about how much like Noel Fielding I used to be at the beginning. But quite often with comics – it doesn’t stop you getting anywhere – at the beginning, you’re so influenced by what you think is funny. Some people are just comics, straight away; from their first ever gig, they have something that’s very unique. It’s brilliant when that happens.
But most people flail around for three years, being very heavily influenced, watching too much comedy because you get obsessed with it; and imitating as a form of finding out who you are. And then, last night there was a really, really great quote that something said about how, in music – and the same with comedy – you imitate your idols; you fuck it up, and that’s how you find out who you are. And that’s a really nice way of looking at it, that it’s nothing to be ashamed of; I cringe when I think of my early performances, but you have to go: that was part of it, that’s just a stage!
Were there specific comedians, then, that you were imitating? Or that influenced you?
It wasn’t a conscious imitation but I was really influenced by The Mighty Boosh. I didn’t watch it until after university so I found it really late, and had never liked comedy. And then, just the fact that you could be silly, I think I found too intoxicating. And now I tend to be much sillier at home. I think it just reminded me that you can still be a child as an adult. So it was quite huge at the time, and then for stand-up… I think I really just wanted to be best friends with Noel Fielding, so I would write material that if he ever saw me he’s be like ‘hey, she talks about crows too!’ And then I look back and cringe.
I’ve read somewhere – and do correct me if I’m wrong – that before you did stand-up, you didn’t take it particularly seriously as an art form.
No, no I didn’t. I had no respect for it whatsoever. I thought it was stupid, I thought it was easy, I thought it was very rude, I thought it was misogynistic. I would never have gone to a comedy night. And I thought everything should be very serious. I thought the world was very serious, so it should all be political theatre and we should all be crying all the time. And then I realised that comedy is a form of theatre. That’s very, very authored. And that actually laughing about things is very powerful.
I guess when I first saw stand-up, I suddenly realised that. And it’s classless. That’s what made me very excited. The kind of theatre I wanted to make, I was trying to work out in my early-twenties, how do you get that to people? Do you do it in town squares? How do you get funding? And I did lots of theatre in education, which I thought was really great. But again, schools don’t want to book something that’s going to agitate their pupils.
They want to teach them how to speak French, or not to drink and drive. And I found that quite frustrating. So while I was playing with that, stand-up was like: oh my God! You can just get up and say whatever you want! And no one pays you! Brilliant! So the fact that no one pays you at the beginning is like, I’m liberated! I can be racist if I want, I can be this – I honestly though it was really exciting. Mad people do stand-up. Mad, properly crazy people.
Do you remember a particular gig, or a time where you felt you’d become the comedian that you are now?
No, it always goes back and forth. And I’d say this to anyone who is starting stand-up or in an early stage: every time you think you’ve nailed it, that’s not the end of it. And that doesn’t stop, or it doesn’t stop for me. After Edinburgh, actually – I got nominated, it was my fifth year, I felt like, oh, okay, I’m learning to do this. But I still find it very difficult to be on stage. I’m not someone who loves it. But it’s getting easier. And still, one gig and I go straight back to the beginning, crashing. What am I doing? This isn’t what I fit. It’s too hard. I’m too sensitive for this job. And it doesn’t stop happening occasionally.
I suppose though, the good thing is that you still want to do it.
Well, that – I think it’s a compulsion, and it’s masochistic. I think, as long as you’re wired that the things that hurt you make you want to do it better, then you can be a comedian. If you would rather go to the cinema in the evening, or have a social life, then that’s the bit when you’re like ‘oh, maybe I’ll write for other people or something!’
You do a lot of acting as well – you’ve been in The Thick Of It and Twenty Twelve. Is there something that you particularly enjoy about acting that sets it apart from the stand-up that you do?
It is set apart, it’s a very different skill; but I think everything feeds into each other. And there is something really brilliant about not having your name, an saying things like… For me, acting is such mask work; you put on someone else’s shoes, or a funny costume and there is an escape from all the responsibility that stand-up has, which is: it is all your fault. And also, being able to bounce of other people.
What I love about Twenty Twelve – we’re just doing W1A at the moment, and in the breaks we can just have such a hysterical time. I get light-headed from laughing too much. And I’m really lucky that I get to kind of try that on. But at the same time, we’ll finish filming at six and then I’ll go and do a gig. I get to do both. I don’t have to choose. And that feels really lucky.
Oh, again, very different. Very different skill. And I think anyone who’s just starting them you have to – like with stand-up – take the responsibility off yourself. Your job is to do your best. It’s like a new gig all of a sudden, and I really found it exciting. I think that helps: if you’re flooded with adrenaline, and I’m quite competitive actually – I don’t think I’d really acknowledged to myself… yeah, I’m one of those comedians that’s like: when you need to be on, I’ll be on.
What you have to do for panel shows is throw a lot of stuff up in the air. Some of it fails, and you need to not die, yourself, when that happens. You have to just go ‘I’ve got another thing, and here’s that!’; and acting helps, because sometimes if the audience aren’t laughing at you in studio you have to just play it like you’re having the gig of your life. And actually that helps, because then you start feeling positive, rather than going ‘oh shit, they hated me’ you go ‘hey! I’m going to react like everyone’s clapping!’
And I suppose that’s then good for them, because if lose faith in yourself then they’ll lose all faith in you, too.
Yeah, exactly. And sometimes you can just baffle people. If they’ve never heard of you and you’re saying odd things, then they think ‘who’s that lady?’ But in an edit they’ll put in a round of applause where they think there’s a funny joke. And also am home things are so much slower than in a room, so stuff that can get a round of applause on Live At The Apollo, at home they’re going ‘what the fuck are they clapping? What the hell is that?! They just said ‘I got off the bus’ and they’re going crazy!’
In 2009 you co-wrote Girl Friday for Channel Four’s Comedy Showcase. How did you find sketch-writing? Do you think it’s something you might want to do again?
Do you know, oddly, I’ve written sketches for lots and lots of things that have always been cut. I really like sketch writing – I’ve just written a sketch that we’re filming on Monday for the BBC for Valentine’s Day. It’s a Norwegian pop band. And it’s the first time that I’ve got to make something that just I’ve written, and it’s really fun. So I do like it.
It’s like Sarah Silverman… she was fired from SNL, she only had one sketch performed.
Oh yes! Well, that’s a very difficult job, I think, SNL.
We’ve mentioned already that you do a lot of acting as well as your stand-up; you’re on television, and radio, and you’re writing for Standard Issue – if you weren’t doing comedy at all, what would you be doing?
Well, it changes. But I think a psychologist. I think I would probably have to do another degree, but I find psychology really interesting.
Is that what you studied at university?
No, I did English Literature. But I think now, if I was never going to have another paid gig I would train to be a psychologist. And then I could tell them all how I used to be a stand-up. ‘Hang on, don’t I know you?’ ‘Yeah! And this is going to end up as a routine!’
Is there a topic, or a particular joke that you want to make work or have tried to make work, that you haven’t been able to yet.
Oh yeah! I’m struggling with veganism. I am a vegan, and what I have found is, comedy… you can’t rant at people really. No one wants to be told what to think. And actually with women’s issues and cultural stuff, you twist it: you become sarcastic, or you become stupid and surreal; and also you make sure that it’s your idea. For two years I’ve been trying to write this thing about how we evolved to eat meat, it’s so interesting – and I can’t make it funny.
My next show is probably going to be more of a story show and I think it’s going to be in there. But I still haven’t found how to not have people have that switch where they think you’re about to tell them off, and you’re not. You’re about to tell them that they’re right; but it’s about acknowledging that you’re an animal, and how we treat other animals is relevant. That’s all it is. And I would never, even in real life, I’m not saying to people that they shouldn’t eat meat.
I think for most people they really, really want to and need to; but it doesn’t mean you can’t be selective about the farms that you use, how involved you are. So I think that’s probably as hectoring as I would get about it…. Yeah. I can’t be flippant enough about it on stage to make it funny.
Have you tried it on stage?
Yeah, and it’s really long and boring. It works great at vegan gigs. They’re like ‘we know what you’re saying! We’ve though the same thoughts!’ And then there’s a shut off. I think I’m going to have to use giant pandas, because they used to be meat eaters and now they’re vegetarians. And that’s always blamed as to why they’re dying out. So there are things that I could use, but there’s going to be lots of trying to generate laughs… Because, you know, it might not be a very funny topic; hang on, this a blog! This isn’t a routine. You might have to eventually give up.
Your gig is almost like a lecture. It’s not lecturing, but –
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. A lot of people have used the word ‘lecture’. In Edinburgh I was in a lecture theatre, and it did feel – especially one I get to the sperm selection bit, sometimes I’m having to give information so I can joke about that information. I guess that show I’ve just done, that’s the kind of show I’d want to watch. Like, you do learn something. The Marie Bonaparte thing: I found out about that and I was like, I have to tell everyone because it’s weird that people don’t know.
Well, I saw – do you know Sam Gore?
I saw him do a work-in-progress recently, and his show for this year is going to be about cryptids. And it was basically just him talking about cryptids; and some of it was funny, but the whole thing was just really interesting.
There are different ways of entertaining people. To me there’s a thing about becoming more confident as a comic where you don’t go: it’s not funny enough, it’s cut. Sometimes you go, do people seem to kind of relate to it? Is everyone looking at me when I’m talking about it? Okay, we’re all switched onto this, it’s fine.
That’s the thing: it doesn’t all have to be laugh out loud.
Yeah, you can’t just count laughs. Some comics do, or can: but I can’t.
Do you have any recommendations of comedians that you really like, that you think other people might not know about?
Ah yeah? So, Bobby Mair, actually. He’s getting to be really successful, but I did a gig with him last night and he was brilliant. I think that Alistair… Burdett-King (I think is his name); he’s the newest comic that I’ve recently seen. Oh my gosh, he’s vegan as well! So yeah, really biased about vegans. Mm… There’s lots. I think the main thing is to go and see live comedy. I think that’s the thing – people are always so surprised when they do, they go ‘oh! This is really good!’ or ‘that person’s really good!’ or ‘why is that person not famous?’ – these are people that make a living!
Are there any gigs, then, that you would recommend?
The Stand in Newcastle is always everyone’s favourite gig, so that’s really great for people up north… Oh God…. I guess it’s just listings, isn’t it? If people would go and see it…
But: live comedy – that’s what people should go for.
Yeah. Yes, absolutely.