The Edinburgh Festival veteran chats to us...
Interview Barry Donovan Jul 30, 2009 - Den Of GeekAfter winning the BBC New Comedy Award, Josie Long went on to support Stewart Lee on tour in 2005. She went on to win Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2006.
Now in her mid-twenties and with three hour-long Edinburgh shows under her belt she's still regularly performing stand-up, has written for Skins, and you may well have seen her as a panellist on Charlie Brooker's You Have Been Watching. Josie also publishes a free fanzine, Drawing Moustaches on Magazine Monthly (Bi-Monthly), which has featured contributions from, among others, Stewart Lee and Robin Ince.
You started doing comedy in your mid-teens when Fist of Fun and This Morning with Richard Not Judy were on. Is it safe to assume you were an avid viewer?
Yeah, I loved it; I really loved it. I really liked the fact that they did things to include their audience. You know when they had challenges that were like "send in your picture of what the Millennium Dome will look like"? I sent mine in and it got on the show; you could see it quite clearly on the board. So yeah, I was a big fan of it; I really loved how ramshackle it was, and full of ideas but it was about people participating and getting involved.
What other comedy did you watch?
I really used to like The Mary Whitehouse Experience. Aged about 7 or 8 I used to sneak into my parent's bedroom when they were downstairs and turn it on and I would just be convulsing with laughter. I'm sure I didn't understand a lot of it, but it was the funniest thing I'd ever seen. Monty Python I watched a lot of and enjoyed just before I became a teenager and that carried through my whole life really, that and Vic and Bob. They had their own internal logic; it wasn't just being silly for the sake of it. Especially with The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer, it felt like "This is what's happening, we're gonna pretend this is proper real," y'know?
Is that what made you want to try stand-up?
I guess so; it's a kind of combination of those. I was really fat and big when I was 12 or 13; I was a hefty girl. I was really awkward and I used to find that I'd be less so if I was funny and trying to make people laugh and I enjoyed showing off and acting so it came from that too, really. There was a workshop near where I lived that my mum took me on as a present for my 14th birthday and I just really fell in love with it.
Took a break from stand-up while you went to Uni, but you ran experimental comedy clubs. What were they like?
I had an agent at the time, which was quite frightening to me as a 17 year old. They weren't really a live agent so they weren't getting me any gigs and I was too shy to book gigs so I couldn't really do getting to London. When I was at Oxford there was a comedy society that wasn't very prominent so I just decided to use that and we'd run gigs every couple of months and just sort of play a lot of games.
We'd have a two hour-long show to fill so we'd have loads of games. We'd whittle down the audience with loads of questions to find the loneliest person in the room. We played a game where we got the person who'd been the worst loverat in the room to run this gauntlet of people who'd been abused in their relationships - not actually abused, people who'd been badly treated.
It was on Valentine's Day and we gave them a big beautiful bunch of flowers worth about £20, which in student terms was phenomenal. She was holding it as she ran the gauntlet and people were allowed to claw at the flowers and she was allowed to keep whatever was left at the end. She ended up with like this stalk, it was really funny.
Me and someone else would be standing on these big tables, we'd pick people out of the audience and see how many of us we could get on a table. We held it in some really weird places around the University; we just kept getting banned. We never made a profit, we'd always spend on it things like that. We'd send people in the audience out on missions and stuff, it was really fun actually. Lots of ideas.
After University you supported Stewart Lee on his 2005 tour. How did that come about?
It was a dream come true really, it was brilliant. By that point I had been back about a year and a half. By September 2004 I'd got twenty minutes of material, he saw me at a gig and was really nice about my stuff and sent me an email. It just so happened he was getting back into touring so he gave me that poke to do all those gigs in front of his crowds and travel round.
It was really great; it was exactly my dream and it was quite fun, y'know? Obviously he's this really interesting knowledgeable man so to get to hang out with him and listen to him was really great. It felt like it was being an apprentice; he was really kind and helpful and gave me good advice. But he also farted a bit in the car, which wasn't great.
At TedStock, you did a piece of material that I haven't heard you repeat elsewhere since where you repeat the question "Who here, out of everyone here, likes hip-hop?" Do you have any plans to revisit any of your old material?
That bit of material I wrote in 2003 or 2004 maybe so that was really a revisitation for me back then 'cos that gig was, like, 2007? I did it at Glastonbury last year as well to kind of put it to bed, so I guess not because it doesn't really feel where I am at, I suppose, in terms of the writing and stuff. But I did really enjoy it, doing it again that time.
I've now seen some newer comics who've got some similar stuff - pretend things they've done with rock stars - so it sort of feels like it's just a phase people go through. I used to have this big routine about lemon meringue pie, and about Paul McCartney and singing... it lasted for ages. I should write it down and record it.
Do you find influences creeping into your work at all?
I think everything you like influences what you do. The more you do it the more you sort of become a mish-mash of everything. Nobody's that unique, everyone is bits of that, bits of the other, and not just comedy stuff; what you've read, what you like, you can't help being the sum of all that.
I was thinking the other day about how much I love Simon Munnery and how much I feel like he's influenced what I do; how bold he is and how much of a variety of stuff he likes. I was at Glastonbury with him and we were talking about Kierkegaard, and he just started to quote Kierkegaard at length and I was like, "Oh did you study that at University?" and he was just like, "No, I read this thing about Sherlock Holmes and I put it in one of the speeches." and I was like, "Of course you bloody did, you're wonderful!" He's just so unashamedly highbrow but also really stupid as well. I'm sort of quite open to any influences really.
I know I'm not somebody who consciously steals, I've never felt like my stuff is treading on anyone else's toes and if it ever has I've just stopped doing it. To begin with you might seem to be aping someone you really like but keep going, keep going long enough you just have to be your own person.
After the Radio 4 adaption of your 2008 show 'All of the Planet's Wonders (Shown in Detail)' are you going to do a DVD of it?
No I'm not, and partly 'cos it is a Radio 4 show and it was too much crossover and partly just because I didn't manage to get it sorted in time and I'm not really performing that show any more. I feel like because I've got the radio series just about enough of it is recorded. Quite a lot of bits from the show aren't in the radio show, so it's sort of similar but not the same, and I quite like that. It's like, 'bad luck if you weren't there!' or 'good luck,' depending on who you are.
You're not doing an Edinburgh show this year. Why's that?
They can all fuck off! No, I just needed a rest. I worked out I'd done eight out of the last ten Edinburghs and the first one was when I was 17 and last year I felt really tired and I thought "Y'know what? There's no need for me to feel this worn down; I'm quite young, I can have a year off and it won't ruin anything." It's quite hard to make that decision 'cos people I really admire like Dan Kitson and David O'Doherty, they've just kept going, and they've done show, after show, after show and I was a little bit like "Why can't you do that? You're shit." But just last year was relentlessly hard.
The show itself got such ambivalent reviews and sometimes I'd come out and I'd be like "Oh, it's the best show I've ever done!" and other times I'd be "What am I doing with my life?" That took a lot out of me. I had a conversation the other day with another stand-up who said quite seriously, "Yeah I don't do many gigs because every time you gig a small part of your life-force drains away." and I don't believe it but sometimes I have felt that.
So what are you doing instead? Are you still going up to Edinburgh?
No, not at all, which I'm quite excited about. I feel like I'm bunking off! I'm just basically taking some time to think of new ideas and relax and not do too much. Basically I had three weeks off at the end of 2006 but up until then I'd been gigging between four and seven nights a week. Then 2007, 2008 and the first bit of 2009 until about May I'd had the odd holiday but in general I was gigging six nights a week and touring a lot of that so you're just away the whole time. I'm quite enjoying just slobbing around being rubbish (laughs).
Do you find that there are many differences between your audiences where you've performed?
My first show I took to Australia I had a bit "You don't get a prize at the end of your life for not trying and the reaction was like, "yeah, obviously". You feel that they're quite lovely and involved and friendly. I find audiences in remote places can be a real laugh and really weird. They've all got together and gone "Yeah we'll go out and do that". In the West Country there are not many Arts Centres and I've found that in Exeter people there's always a big crowd going "Oh, there's something going on at the Phoenix, we'll go!" and they're really enthusiastic. I suppose sometimes in London people are a bit hipster but not really. A lot of time in places quite close to London but aren't London it feels a bit close-minded, commuter-belt mentality or something but maybe I'm just projecting.
I think you can have a good gig anywhere. At club nights it can really be shaped by who else is on and what's happened. I also think that it's up to the person who runs the club on the night to decide on how that night's going to be and the audience comes to it and they're educated by it. If the compere comes on and he's really aggressive that night feels aggressive. If you're doing a really big club and it's catering for hens and stags then you do just get a different response to whatever you're doing. It is much harder to relax into it.
Green Man Festival was lovely. I think a lot of the time music festivals are lovely because the people who go are so sweet, kind of in their heart very liberal and gentle. The End of the Road in particular is a brilliant gig. I did the first Latitude which was brilliant, the year after, that was good, and I did this years' but I had to leave 'cos I was a bit ill. And I couldn't hear myself over the rain. It was terrifying! I just got freaked out.
How did you get involved with writing for Skins?
They saw me at a charity gig in 2006 and got in touch with me and just were like, "Do you wanna get involved with the writing of it?". And just have been involved since then. I'm quite peripheral but I really love it. I love all the producers; they're really generous with advice, their time and patience at helping the writers develop. It's been a privilege, really. I've got to meet all the actors and to do bits and bobs of acting and directing myself. The ones I did on the internet I wrote all my own lines, but on the series it was mates of mine writing for me who really enjoyed just parodying me.
I think it's a great genre and also because the drafts change, you forget bits and there might be episodes I haven't had much involvement because I've been away. I do really enjoy it as drama and because the acting's so good. I'm a total Skins dork, I love all the characters - they're my friends.
Have you got any podcast recommendations?
Answer Me This, my friend Helen's show. I love it, I've listened to it since its inception, I listen to The Bugle when it's on. I listen to Jordan, Jesse, Go! which is Jesse Thorn who does The Sound of Young America, he's on my radio show, actually, a very small part. Philosophy Bites, In Our Time, Iain Lee's podcast, Robert Popper's podcast, The Moth podcast, which is really short stories. My friends do one called Boo Hoo it's the News, but don't update it often enough. And they know who they are! And Dinner Party Download, which is a thing I just did. It's a good podcast about making you better at dinner parties. Everything good in my life comes from This American Life.
When you said you write out a show quite thoroughly, how much room for improvisation is there?
I always leave bits open. There's always at least three or four points of the show I know I'm going to have to make up every night, or at the very least remember old stuff. Always leave a little bit open that you can muck about with. And to be honest I will keep tinkering with it the whole time, if there's a bit that's still not working unless I really love it I will get rid of or change it. I always feel like you're kind of adjusting it.
I like the fact that at times you feel so desperate you're like, "I'm never gonna write a show. How the fuck am I going to do this?" and then one thing slots into place or you move something or you just quite arbitrarily get rid of something and then it's there. I think as well at that time you're really open to any suggestions and your whole life is hyper tuned to what's going on.
I want them to feel quite true and be quite true to my experiences so they do have to feel like a journey I've been on that year, without sounding too pretentious. I go on stage with the idea and I record it. Then I try and hand-write out one of those previews and have a copy of it I can sort of muck around with; try and learn things I've said that were really good. I tend to record most previews and listen to them a little bit because you'll find this turn of phrase that you've improvised that's really good. I'm not very good at sitting down and writing; I do a flow-chart with different directions and then take that on stage.
At the beginning of your shows you play some really interesting music. Can you tell us a little bit about how you choose those tracks?
I always have a think about what I've been listening to that might've influenced the stuff and what might seem relevant along the theme. The first show I did, I played lots of Kimya Dawson and Jeffrey Lewis because the way that they live their lives and the way that they perform I felt was really in tune with what I wanted to do and what I liked.
They're really DIY artists and they do art as well as their writing and as well as performing. Jeffrey Lewis especially with his comic books and his music, I've felt really influenced by him. And on top of that I played a bit of Dizzee Rascal and some MIA. I like London a lot and they reminded me of London. It's funny, I seem to be getting this rep in Edinburgh for just being really nice and I don't think I am; I think I just have enthusiasm and aren't cynical and that's different, so I was playing those songs which are all about shooting to be like "Yeah come on, then! Let's enjoy it."
Sometimes I deliberately put in really downbeat songs. There's this song called 'Here' by Pavement, and it's like "I'm the only one who laughs / At your jokes when they are so bad / And your jokes are always bad / But they're not as bad as this" and I just thought that it was hilarious this really slow, downbeat song playing with people sitting waiting for the show to start.
I do tend to think about it a lot. I like the idea when writing a show of not just going up and writing an hour of material; I like the idea of trying to transform the room a bit. And it's got harder the bigger it's got. My first show I could decorate the room 'cos I was in quite Fringe-y venue and I had lots of time, whereas in the Pleasance Two last year there wasn't really time to put things up on the walls and get things together. It's trying to make the whole room your own and think outside the box as much as possible on every level. You're always going, "What can I do to make this more personalised?"
Your favourite book is Revolutionary Road. What did you think about the film adaptation?
I haven't seen Revolutionary Road yet, partly because I feel a little bit gypped. Like "Oh that's my thing, how did you even know about it?" What is frustrating is that people who would not have otherwise read it now come up to me and are like "I thought nanana nanana." and I'm like "I don't want your nasty critical opinions of this masterpiece, fuck off! I'm not interested." But I will see it eventually. Apparently it's quite good and to be honest I would expect it to be all right; it's a wonderful story, the director's all right, the actors are cool.
You took part in Robin Ince's Carols for Godless People last December. Is atheism very important to you?
It is and it isn't. It is because I am an atheist and I'm proud of it and I feel it's very important to protect and respect secular culture and I think it's very much a part of all the different things I believe and feel strongly about but also it isn't because I respect religious people who are kind and I like some of the things that religion makes people do; community dinners and charity work and things like that.
I don't have massive disrespect for religion in that way that some atheists do, and I feel there's a lot of ways that it can not matter quite a lot in daily life. It doesn't matter if someone believes in a religion as long as they're kind to everyone and don't ever talk about it. And don't let it affect the way they dress or behave. As long as that happens, it's fine; believe in whatever fruity business you like.
I'm not really in the business of converting people, but maybe that's because most of my friends are atheists, or agnostic or, at the very least, rational and sceptical. I'm much more of an evangelical feminist. I like making my atheism prominent; I don't mind anyone knowing about it and will quite happily talk about it. When Christian Voice were harassing Stewart Lee, then I will be quite militant about atheism but it's more I'm anti the bad aspects of religion than anti people having a god if they want to have one.
Do you see stand-up as something you'll do for the rest of your life, or-
Yeah. Sorry! What's the 'or'?
Or as a path into something else?
No! Agh! It's like you deliberately asked me that question just to make me annoyed.
I could've asked you what it's like being one of the only funny female stand-up comedians.
Oh god! That would've been annoying. Oh my god. It's so nice you've done research!
It's not really research it's...
Just knowing! (laughs) Yeah, it's definitely something I want to do with the rest of my life and I think it's really vocational and such a brilliant way to write. It just feels so well-suited to me personally. What I mean by that is not that it goes well, because believe me, it really doesn't that much, but it's more that when I'm learning something it fits in really well. At the moment, the way that I've approached it is has been sort of to try to make myself better or do it about things I'm interested in or want to aspire to and that's quite healthy, I like that. I just see it as a massive part of my life; I can't imagine not doing it. It's like a calling, you find it, you love it and also you can do it when you're really old. When I was 16 I did a gig with Norby West who at the time was about 84 and he genuinely used to live in an old people's home and come out to do stand-up. And like Phyllis Diller, who's in her 80s. There's so much you can do with it; it's really flexible. I see it as something with limitless potential and so much to explore.
I can't imagine ever stopping and I also can't imagine sitting down at a meeting and people going, "Listen, if you want to make it you're going to have to change your material" and me going, "Yeah, sure." It's not really in my nature. Most of the time I really like the idea of it being my whole life and knowing that I've got this weird trade that I can always do and will always do. It's so direct and so honest but also silly and full of lies and this thing I've been fascinated by since as long as I can remember.
You've got a couple of Sunday Night Adventure Clubs coming up in the Autumn...
Yeah I have! God, you're on the bloody ball!
What kind of format will they take?
We ran the club before in Crystal Palace from 2005 to basically last year. I was going out with a comedian and he lived with my friend who ran it with me and I split up with him and it needed a cooling-off period. Every month we'd do a theme and all of the acts had to write material on that theme but on top of that we'd think of figures from the past we could impersonate and we had a house band and plots and scenery; just trying really full on to decorate the room. We had art competitions, craft competitions, lots and lots of fun games... It was always about including the audience in a quite non-threatening way and it was loads of fun, so I'm hoping it will be like that again. I'm going to think of two really good themes and because it's a more established theatre we'll get people to come in costume, get them to bring things. Before I started writing Edinburgh shows it was my real outlet for developing stuff and mucking about. And going out there with no ideas and seeing if I could do it. It was really valuable I think.
What do you like best about your job?
When I do my tours really creative people come. They've shown up and they're like, "Oh, I made this comic, I don't know if you'll like it." so that's really great. I've got to meet people around the world who've been fascinating. I love that I've got to go to other countries to do my job. I like the camaraderie. People in general are so supportive of one another, they really are. It's not bitchy, it's not anything like that. You go to Edinburgh and see your peers and they're so wonderful and you feel really inspired. I don't like how under scrutiny you feel sometimes. I don't like hard it is sometimes to feel like you're really on form for a long time. Some bitter nerds are a bit hard to deal with. I don't like how sexist it can be in the media mainly. But in general I love it, and it is what I wanted to do. I like the freedom that I've got to get up when I want most of the time; I don't hate myself for getting up late, I quite enjoy it. I like the free food backstage, I like clapping and I like making people laugh. I like it when you really do wonderfully well; it's magic. It's really electric.
Josie Long, thank you very much!