Andrew Dipper

Sarah Millican interview

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Sarah Millican is one of the most recognisable voices in British comedy – which isn’t bad considering it’s only ten years since she tried her hand at stand-up in a Newcastle pub. Since then, she’s made three series of The Sarah Millican Television Programme for BBC2, become a regular on pretty much all of the panel shows and sold out huge rooms across the world. Her latest tour show Home Bird, now out on DVD, finds her seeking a gentler pace and plenty of cosy time in front of the fire. With cats.

What’s Home Bird about?

It’s about being at home: I realised I was a workaholic and decided to do something to create a better work-life balance. There were a number of things that I wanted to achieve, primarily to buy a house, which I did. And then I wrote about it, and tried to make it funny and did it on a stage.

Are you a domestic goddess now?

What’s lower down from a goddess? A private? Does it go down like that? I’m a domestic private. Maybe a corporal; I don’t know – I’m not the one to judge. I can make a chilli con carne and a killer banana and chocolate cake. It is amazing. That’s not me being cocky – that’s just a fact. I can grow tomatoes, and I can kill and then revive plants, which is one of my favourite things to do because I like the power.

You talk about your husband [fellow comic Gary Delaney] moving in and getting cats as part of the domestication process.

It’s really nice not to have to drive 90 miles to see my husband/boyfriend/whatever he was at the time. Cats were always on the list. I hadn’t had any cats for eight years. Most people don’t count the years where they don’t have animals, but I do. I’m on YouTube a lot less these days – I just open my eyes and it’s like I’m on YouTube.

I do still have to kill the spiders; the cats aren’t very good at that. There’s a little hole in the hallway where the wall meets the floor; a crack, which I imagine is where spiders live, but the cats are so fascinated by staring at it that sometimes I think it’s a portal to another world.

Isn’t Gary incredibly allergic to cats?

Not any more. We, erm we-slash-I thought it was worth a risk, because its sometimes possible for people who are allergic to animals to get used to it over time, and become less allergic. So we got a kitten and he took an antihistamine every day and made sure he washed his hands after he stroked him. He doesn’t have to do that anymore. He does still wash his hands. It’s a good job because they love him so much. They don’t come near me but they wake him up in the night and they snuggle his face. I think I might start a rumour in the house that I’m allergic so that they come and nuzzle me as well.

You talk about your family a lot in shows. Are they okay with that?

They don’t mind. And if they did, I wouldn’t do it – I’m not an arsehole. They also know that this is, weirdly, how I make my living, by sharing things in my life and, obviously, there’s an overlap between my life and theirs.

Sometimes I’ll change who it is if it’s something a bit embarrassing, so if I say ‘a friend’ that might well be a family member. And sometimes to protect the innocent I’ll change the relationship. What I do, which is quite sneaky, is I find out if it’s funny first. In the past, I’ve asked my mam and my dad if I can try something they’ve said onstage and it hasn’t worked and they’ve been slightly gutted.

How responsible are they for shaping your humour?

Oh 100 per cent, totally. My mam is quite rude and has a very dark sense of humour, which I think comes from being disabled. I think a lot of people who are disabled or have been through a lot of illness have a dark sense of humour because it’s often what they’ve used to get through things. She thinks I’m rude; I have to point out that she’s where I got it from. My dad is very funny as well, and is an expert storyteller.

Did you always want to be a performer?

Sort of, in a small way. I was quite quiet and mousey at school and then when I was at home, I used to perform. I used to make up dances and do them at home, so it’s probably down to my family’s encouragement that I do this for a living.

There was one year when I taught all the girls in my year a dance to a Five Star song (Can’t Wait). Apart from one girl who said it was against her religion to listen to Five Star. I still haven’t worked out what religion that is. Mormons? She was fine with Abba but not with Five Star. She also wore long socks when we didn’t. I don’t know if that was part of it.

What makes you laugh?

Conversations with my husband. Because we’re both funny, it can get quite ridiculous, although if one of us is tired, it doesn’t work so well because the tired one is just laughing and not doing any of the being funny. Nobody else would ever get it; they’re in jokes really. The sort of thing that, when I was single, I fucking hated with couples. We do that. But not in public.

I was slightly obsessed with Eddie Izzard’s The Definite Article when I was in my early 20s; I knew it back to front. It was a video (old-school) and it squeaked because I played it so much. With comedy, I like the stuff that I do, observational stuff, done really well – like Jon Richardson and Hal Cruttenden – and stuff that is nothing like what I can do – like Eddie Izzard, Terry Alderton, that kind of thing. It really makes me laugh, and I’m fascinated by people’s brains that work so differently to mine.

There’s a big element of audience involvement in a Sarah Millican show.

You’ve got a resource in the audience: there are maybe 1000, 2000 people in the room that can interject. Why wouldn’t you use them? In Home Bird I ask what they’d take on a dirty weekend and, because I’ve come out with stuff and they know I’m going to come out with more, people seem happy to share.

It makes the audience feel included; they know the show is different every night in those areas.

And it’s so I don’t get bored. This last show I’ve probably done 200-odd times in different ways, certainly 140 times on tour. The audience participation is what I get excited about because it’s different every night – anything could happen and I like that frisson. And of course I want to be entertained as well, and my audiences come out with brilliant answers. Or just stuff that they think is normal, but the rest of the audience go, ‘that’s not normal!’ That’s a nice little moment when a member of the audience learns that what they think is normal isn’t.

My audiences are generally warm and generous with their time. And I’m not picking on people; I’m asking for suggestions, so you can come to my show and keep your mouth shut. If they open the door, I can do some gentle ribbing.

What’s the difference between TV Sarah and live Sarah?

TV Sarah is still quite rude, thankfully. If TV Sarah was squeaky clean and hosting a kids show, then stage Sarah would frighten the shit out of most people. But I can still be quite rude on TV, even if it’s implied sometimes rather than stated, so it’s still on the same path. Live Sarah is just further down the path – and there’s a lot more swearing because I really like swearing. I like the traditional ones – I like cunt, I like fuck – but cockend is a current favourite. Somebody said spunkbubble to me the other day and I liked that.

Is there an element of feminism in your comedy?

I hope so. It’s certainly intended to be there. There’s a section in Home Bird that’s questioning the way we are supposed to be as women and whether that suits everybody or whether it appeals to a minority. For example, the pubic hair question: women’s mags sort of imply that women have none or only a little bit of pubic hair, whereas most women I know – not that I’ve seen all of my friends’ fannies – have led me to believe they’re abundant, or at the very least covered. I like putting something to bed like that. It’s not just my opinion: I get the women in the audience to cheer: which women are totally smooth like a Ken doll, which have a little bit, and then we identify that there’s an awful lot of women that haven’t answered yet.

Also, I think by being a woman standing on a stage and doing a job that’s often done by men is quite feminist in itself. Feminism may not be there by name, but it’s often not there by name. I don’t think you need to label something for it to be there.

Do you think comedy can be a force for change?

I think yes, but I think comedy is ultimately there to make people laugh and some people don’t realise that. You can certainly voice a popular, or unpopular, opinion, and if you do it in a funny way it gets across. What people do with that is up to them, but they are absolutely allowed to just laugh at the jokes and walk out of the room and do nothing. That’s totally allowable because why I’m there is purely to make people laugh. If someone comes out and feels a bit more normal, or having changed their mind about something, that’s up to them. That’s never my intention. My intention is to make them laugh.

How do you deal with detractors?

People who don’t like me? There’s always been people who don’t like me. There were people who didn’t like me at school, but they just did it via not sending me a Christmas card – which is just as hurtful! To find somebody who nobody dislikes is very hard. It’s just that when you are known, that number increases. So where there are a lot more people who do like me than there used to be at school, the number of people who dislike me has increased too.

Comedy has a weird thing where people are offended if you can’t make them laugh and that makes you “rubbish at your job” rather than it being a taste thing. Chris Addison said something that makes a lot of sense: people on social media are completely afraid of saying, ‘That’s not my cup of tea’, because that’s not a strong enough opinion. They have to say that person is shit, when they’re clearly not: they’re selling tickets, DVDs, people are watching their TV programme or listening to their radio series, so they’re not shit. There are comics that don’t make me laugh, but I don’t think they’re shit, because I know that other people laugh at them so they must be good at their jobs, it’s just not my cup of tea.

It’s hard to be philosophical about it, but you have to be because what’s the alternative? You can’t listen to loads of people saying how shit you are because that has an effect. And how awful if that made a permanent change to how you are and how you feel about yourself. That’s not allowed.

Sarah Millican: Home Bird is out on DVD now. Buy from Amazon for £9.99.