Stand-up comedian, actor, presenter, author, podcast host. There aren’t many things in the world of entertainment that Sara Pascoe can’t do. Ahead of her return to Nottingham to play Just the Tonic this month, we caught up with the popular comic to talk lockdown, her two new TV projects and being a backing singer for Robbie Williams’ dad…
Sorry to start with the obvious, but what has the last six months been like for someone working in the entertainment industry?
It’s been unusual for any profession really. Every time you think something is going to happen, it doesn’t. But live comedy is starting to come back with new rules, and it’s all pretty different. Stand-ups are performing for people outdoors, or to an audience of cars, so winter is going to be a lot harder. But some really big venues are able to have audiences socially distancing in a very safe way. People are being very cautious, and we obviously don’t want anyone to be in danger. But at the same time we’re going to shrivel up and die if we don’t do anything!
How have you found the return to performing in front of audiences?
It’s been brilliant, and the audiences have been great. A year ago, if someone said, ‘Hey, do you want to do a gig in a pub garden in front of thirty people in the rain?’ I’d have said absolutely not. But stand-ups have all missed it so much that you just feel giddy to be gigging and feeling happy again. I think it’s the same for audiences, too. They haven’t seen anything live for a long time, so they’re similarly pleased that you’re there. There’s a sense that it’s something we’ve maybe taken for granted, and now, having not been able to see anything live, we appreciate it more and can look forward to the future. That’s been really heartwarming.
You started out as a dramatic actor – what was the catalyst to start performing stand-up?
It wasn’t a decision, it was an experiment. I was living in London when someone told me you could do open mic nights as a character. So to start off with I wasn’t a straight stand-up. I’d write monologues and perform them in character, which for me was much more about acting than writing. And then I realised you could get a lot more gigs if you did straight stand-up, so I started doing the same material, but as me, and I enjoyed it so much. I started entering competitions and was gigging every night when I realised that it was what I really, really wanted to do. I love that you can do it every day – that aspect of it is really creatively satisfying.
I recently heard a comic in the US say that stand-up comedy is unique in that everyone who does it is obsessed with it, but ultimately want to move on to something else like having their own TV show or a film career. Have you found a similar sentiment in the UK?
I haven’t been to America and can’t speak for comics there, but I have heard people say that before. It’s interesting because they have these improv courses in LA and Chicago that teach you how to write sketch comedy for TV as an ultimate aim. In the UK the stand-up circuit can be very rough, it’s not an easy place to be creative. You really have to want to be here, and that creates a real sense of camaraderie between comics because you all know that you’ve put the work in to get to where you are. There aren’t any shortcuts to success, and because it takes you a long time to develop the appropriate tools, you wouldn’t want any. You don’t want to be put straight on TV, because you have to learn how to cope and communicate, and that’s a slow process. Like if you were learning to play the guitar, you wouldn’t expect to have a gig straight away because you’ve learnt three chords. It’s a constant learning process, and that learning curve is what attracts a lot of people. Even when you do feel accomplished and polished, you still have to do new material and the whole process starts over again.
There’s been a spotlight on British comedy in recent years in terms of addressing the gender imbalance, and the BBC decision to ensure that there are no more all-male panel shows. Have you noticed a change in the comedy atmosphere?
I think the thing that’s not useful with conversations about representation in comedy, whatever type that is, is that once it’s been had openly it can look like people have been given their place at the table out of a sense of moral duty. Quite often what happened was that viewers were complaining about all-male panel shows, because half of the viewers were women who might have been out to a comedy club and seen Katherine Ryan doing a set, only to turn on the TV and think, ‘Hang on, where are the women? I know that they’re performing’. So I don’t know how much the atmosphere has changed, I just think that there’s more awareness, and I think that’s positive. Comedy only flourishes if you hear people with a diverse set of opinions, beliefs and backgrounds. The same-ness of comedy before that was actually pretty dull.
They offered me a job either in the house from Noel’s House Party, or with Robbie Williams’ dad. I remember getting the train back to London and thinking, ‘Either way, I’m in there now. This is the beginning of the big time!’
You’ve got two new television projects launching this month with game show Guessable and sitcom Out of Her Mind. Can you tell us a bit about them?
Guessable is starting this month [Monday 5 October, 9pm on Comedy Central], and is a really wonderful and satisfying job to have. Comedy Central wanted to change their approach to comedy and make family-friendly, warm, open-hearted shows, and when they pitched the idea I loved everything they were saying. It was a lot of fun to film, because some of the games, like having to draw something in three seconds, make the guests look like idiots in a really fun way. We had these amazing guests, like Claire Balding and Debbie McGee, and just laughed all of the time. Alan Davies is one of the team captains, and he’s such a lovely man. There are lots of panel shows that are focused on being topical or clever so, to me, Guessable is like an antidote to everything that’s going on in the world right now – it’s the perfect time to make shows that are just silly.
And Out of Her Mind is my baby. For years and years I’ve been doing stand-up and researching human evolution, things like pair bonding and alchemy, and whether they’re natural. Out of my stand-up I wrote a book called Animal, which was part-scientific, part-autobiographical, but still funny. When the BBC asked if I was interested in writing a show, and I suggested making it scientific, they weren’t freaked out. They’ve let me do what I did in Animal, and I’ve made a sitcom that explores what’s happening on a chemical level behind the emotion. I was very, very lucky in getting my dream cast, like Adrian Edmondson and Juliet Stevenson, who I wrote this really long letter to.
And as you’re coming to Nottingham this month, I really want to finish by asking whether something I read online was true or not… Did you once live here while working as a backing singer for Robbie Williams’ Dad?
Oh yes, I did! It was a place called Thoresby Hall. I lived there for four months in 2001 working as a backing singer for Pete Conway, who is Robbie Williams’ dad.
I’m going to need some more context on that one I’m afraid…
It’s something I’ve been thinking about recently actually. It was a company that provided holidays for older people who liked cruise-style entertainment, but didn't want to leave the country. They go on holidays to places like Thoresby Hall and get everything from food to entertainment every night. I auditioned because I was doing that sort of hotel entertainment work at the time, and they offered me a job either in the house from Noel’s House Party, or with Robbie Williams’ dad. I remember getting the train back to London and thinking, ‘Either way, I’m in there now. This is the beginning of the big time!’
Everyone was always so excited about Pete and there were constantly rumours that Robbie was going to turn up in a helicopter. The last time I did Never Mind the Buzzcocks they got me to stand in the line-up with a t-shirt saying ‘I’m Sara Pascoe’ and got Pete Conway to sit in my seat to see if he remembered me. I’ve still got the t-shirt!
Sara Pascoe is performing at Just the Tonic comedy club on Saturday 10 October.