Sarah Gough, Arts Editor; talks to the stand-up comic about box sets, Derrida and geriatric sperm ahead of her gig at Exeter Pheonix this month
Described as having a “magpie curiosity,” Sara Pascoe is a rising star on the UK’s comedy circuit. With numerous appearances on Mock the Week and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, she is quickly winning over the masses with her intelligent and somewhat relentless wit. Having won me over back in 2012 with Sara Pascoe the Musical, her Edinburgh show this year Sara Pascoe vs. History was a conscious move from silliness to sperm. Exploring some of the greatest love stories ever known – not the Will and Kates or the Posh and Becks but Joséphine and Napoleon, Adam ‘n’ Eve and, of course, Eva & Adolf – her show talks of sexuality and human biology. It’s feminism at its funniest. Garnering her first nomination for the big Edinburgh Comedy Award with this year’s Fringe, her upcoming tour, which includes a gig at Exeter Phoenix, is an extension of this seemingly magic material. I chatted to her about her present fascinations: both sperm-related and not.
Keen to learn what inspires her on a daily basis, I asked the stand-up comic what her standout comedy moment was this Christmas. “Well, I’d never played Articulate before and it was very indicative of what goes on in my family’s heads. You don’t really know someone until you know how they describe certain things. Like the country Pakistan, for instance. So whilst I don’t know how I can get that into my show, it was the best thing that happened. I also got inspired to write something about how box sets have killed socialism.”
With her spontaneous erraticism spiralling our discussion into the Brechtian nature of Eastenders and the brilliance of Homeland, we came to the conclusion that she was exactly like someone from Made In Chelsea. She repeats an authored narrative and passes it off as truth: “There’s truth in fiction, there’s fiction in truth. I don’t go on stage and lie for an hour and a half but I was a pathological liar when I was at school – you have to fictionalise life a bit to make it more interesting.”
It seems Sara’s unbridled ingenuity is something that comes naturally, yet her style of delivery screams exhumanities student. Having studied English Literature at Sussex University, I quizzed her about her student experience. “Well I had the classic regret of not working hard enough. It took me ages to learn that if you bunk off a lecture you’re the only one that loses. I was like ‘AH I didn’t go to my lecture, I had to phone Paul and now it’s two in the afternoon. And I look back and go: ‘YOU HAD YOUR WHOLE LIFE TO PHONE PAUL , YOU DON’T KNOW ENOUGH ABOUT THE ENLIGHTENMENT NOW BECAUSE YOU PHONED PAUL’.” But I did work quite hard. I remember sitting in lectures on Derrida and Foucault and thinking ‘please no one ask me a question, this is too hard.’ But what’s great is ten years later someone brings them up and you know what country they came from and how to pronounce it, and actually that’s enough.”
Yet this time, Sara really knows her stuff. Sara Pascoe vs. History is undeniably well researched. Drawing upon the book Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, I wondered what else inspired the writing of her newfound pathological punditry. “What I’m lucky with in my job is that it’s basically just what I’d tell someone in a pub. Like ‘Oh I just read this amazing book and it’s all about sperm.’ That’s essentially what I’m able to do with the show. I just read another book called Sperm Wars, it says that if men don’t masturbate, their sperm gets geriatric so when they have sex with somebody they can’t fertilise an egg, all they can do is block, they get very sleepy. It’s really interesting but what I’ve found is that when you run into your kitchen to tell your boyfriend, he does NOT want to hear about it. This is why I have to do it on stage.”
Sara’s style is discursive rather than autocratic, she is not telling people how to think about something merely to think about it. “I was constantly asking myself ‘how would I make this not too heavy?’ How would I make this not feel like a lecture? It’s never ‘Hey guys I’ve worked it out and this is what everyone has to think now.’ I don’t like that in some other comics. You have to have flexible ideas, next year I might do a show that completely contradicts this because that’s just what happens as a person, you read something else and suddenly go ‘I’m right-wing now everyone.’
Despite the temptation for crude jokes to dominate her show, Sara’s made a conscious decision to avoid stupidity. “If I’d have said fanny or wanker then the whole thing would become infantile. There’s one minge joke, that’s it. With new comics in particular, willy jokes will always get a response
so they’re often the first port of call. It is baffling though. You’re thinking: ‘another guy talking about masturbation: really?!’ MEN ARE RUNNING THE WORLD AND THIS IS WHAT’S GOING THROUGH THEIR HEAD.’ Yes Sara, down with that patriarchy! Analysing the division between male and female comedians is somewhat inevitable, what with the on-going controversy over male-dominated panel shows and the general success of male comics over women. I asked Sara if she still found the industry to be sexist. “There’s a real change in tide, there are people that fought for a long time to make an industry realise it was sexist and it definitely realised. I’ve found the most successful comics to be the most supportive of new comedians, they know what it means to say well done to you, or “keep up with it” or “good to see something different on a Saturday night”. Sarah Millican is hugely helpful to a lot of upcoming men and women.Before I did Mock the Week she sent me emails and emails of advice. You do have to feel safe to be funny, you need to feel like you can improvise or say something that’s in your head without definitely knowing it’s a joke. The older guys all come and knock on your door and offer advice. What I’m trying to call myself up on all the time is that any kind of generalisation about gender is wrong. Anybody can do anything and thinking otherwise is only restrictive.”
Misogynistic or not, however, comedy is a profession notorious for its knockbacks. I was curious as to how Sara has dealt with the haters before hitting the big time. “I’ve taken my strategy from comics like Stewart Lee or Josie Long who don’t snap back aggressively. If someone shouts: ‘you’re shit’, that is your gift, if you can make that into a funny thing then you can win everyone back. You have to talk about it in a relaxed way. But on the other hand if it’s going really well and someone shouts out ‘fuck off’ then it’s great because life’s a democracy and they’re in the minority. The beauty of comedy rather than theatre is that it’s so un-bourgeoisie. You don’t have to stay if you’re not enjoying it, people can voice disapproval and I love that in comedy. You’re never going to please everyone and that’s fine. I try to talk about ideas that are interesting before they’re funny, people really respond to that, it doesn’t matter if you’re not getting the loudest laugh in the room, there are different levels of enjoyment and people might go home thinking ‘wasn’t that fascinating what that person talked about’ rather than ‘that person had 10 jokes…all about a willy.”
So apart from not writing willy jokes and visiting Exeter, I asked Sara about her other goals for 2015, both realistic and unrealistic. As well as touring Sara Pascoe vs. History, she is writing a book on sexuality and the human body: “more about sperm basically”. As for the failed New Year’s Resolution, she has made a bleak attempt at Dry January: “I got to January 2nd – I did dry January 1st, that’s not a thing.
Sara Pascoe is at Exeter Phoenix on 28 January. A night that guarantees to be hilariously spermy. A sentence I never thought I’d write.
Sarah Gough, Arts Editor
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