Sara Pascoe has a decade of stand-up comedy experience under her belt, going from stand-up competitions to TV panel shows and even penning her first book, Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body. But does she still get nervous? Absolutely – we spoke to Sara to find out how to deal with hecklers, why no subject is too taboo and the three things every aspiring comedian needs to start doing right now.
How did you start out in comedy?
I was an actor at first, then I segwayed into character comedy and started doing more gigs to get out of the house. After five-months of stand up, I did the Funny Women competition and Katherine Ryan had invited a lot of agents to my semi-final. One of those agents signed me a week later
Do you think comedy should ever be censored?
Some comedy is going to upset people, even when you think people can’t be offended. Especially if that group of people is part of a subculture, it feels like bullying. It’s a human thing that when we feel pain, we look to think there was an intention behind it. Like if a stone hit you on the head, you look to see where it came from and who you can blame. I don’t think there should ever be censorship in comedy, but comedians have to be very good at what they do to joke about certain topics.
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Do you have to be a certain kind of personality to be a comedian?
Absolutely not. Comedy survives because comedians are all different. The earlier a comic learns to concentrate on themselves and accentuate their personality traits, the faster they’ll improve. If you’re a bit grumpier, you get grumpier. A lot of comics aren’t confident.
Yeah, a lot of comics aren’t funny off-stage. They weren’t the class clown at school. I still get nervous, and I get annoyed with myself. I get scared the audience are too young to get my references or hate me or just want to get drunk, but then I think ‘this is my job, why am I secretly hoping this will be cancelled?’ There’s a split second when you walk on stage, then you see that the audience aren’t horrible and you relax. That’s the best feeling in the world.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
No because if you get superstitious, you cripple yourself. I accidentally wore a Grayson Perry Alan Measles necklace three gigs in a row, and I felt so confident that I thought ‘oh my God, Alan Measles is magic!’ But if you forget your necklace, you’re worried. Whenever I start thinking something is lucky, I won’t wear it.
Are your jokes based on real life?
Being a comedian is a lot like being a liar – you take something that’s true and think of what you wish had happened, like if someone was rude to you and you think of a funny reply later on, but you pretend you did say that. You make the real-world more entertaining, exaggerating it until it starts to feel true.
How do you handle if a joke falls flat?
It’s part of the job. Sometimes it’s because the joke isn’t good enough yet or doesn’t work, and you have to think whether it was the audience, did the microphone cut out or was it the way you told it. One tip is to pretend it wasn’t a joke. I write my show so that if people don’t laugh, the show follows on and still makes sense.
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Does it push you to write better material?
It’s painful when people don’t laugh very much, you feel like you’ve wasted their evening, but the drive of ‘I want to be good’ keeps you going. That combination of arrogance and insecurity is perfect for stand-up.
How do you deal with hecklers?
That can put off would-be comedians, but it happens very rarely. If someone says ‘you’re s**t’ and you know they’re wrong, say ‘you’re s**t, everyone is fine – are you guys fine?’, then the audience knows you’re not going to cry at home. It can save you if you know the show’s not going well, you can say ‘I know, it’s not going great is it but I can’t stop! I’ve got 20 minutes left!’
Do you have to fake that confidence until you make it?
You have to be your own biggest fan, but be OK with mediocrity. Rather than wanting to be the best on the line-up, set your bar low and just aim to be nice to everyone, and if you manage to do that, say well done!
What three top tips would you give to any aspiring comedian?
1. Support each other. Comedians don’t look like a team, but we need to support each other – especially women. Recommend each other for gigs, speak to other comedians and promote up-and-coming artists.
2. Try as much new content as you can. It keeps your work alive, and you stop hanging on to jokes like life-rafts. The people that ascend really quickly have a high turnover of content, and everyone’s saying ‘oh, I haven’t heard that bit’.
3. Watch as much comedy as possible. Get to gigs early and watch the opening act, stay for the headliner, watch comedy on YouTube and ask what went well, what could be better, how did the audience react. Watch famous comedians do the same set; you might see something you thought was improvised, but they’ve done it four times. And don’t forget the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where you can watch eight hours of comedy a day.
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Sara Pascoe mentored Rosie Jones for the Funny Women Awards, whose first open-mic gig was in February – we asked Rosie what she’d learned through the process.
How do you write your jokes?
When I’m out and about - my Notes app is full of half-formed jokes. I considering wording a lot, as I have cerebral palsy and speak slower than other comics, so I know every word matters.
Do you take inspiration from your own life?
I poke fun at situations that have arisen as a result of me being disabled – I hope the audience find it refreshing.
Are there any taboo topics?
My main passion in life is to make disability less taboo. People are still so afraid to approach the subject in a light-hearted way.
Is comedy what you expected?
Everything and more! I get patronize a lot in my day-to-day life, but never by people who have seen me perform.
What have you learnt from your mentor?
The Funny Women Awards have taught me that there's some bloody funny women out there. My mentor, Sara, has definitely proven the ludicrous theory that women aren’t funny wrong!
Have you been inspired to take on stand-up? Get your tickets to the Funny Women final here.