She narrowly missed Edinburgh's biggest prize for the third time - but the fiercely political stand-up has bigger fish to fry
Third time did not prove lucky for Josie Long. The irrepressible, whimsical, yet fiercely political stand-up comedian was shortlisted for the Foster’s Edinburgh comedy awards for the third consecutive year on Saturday, but she lost out to anarchic mime artist Doctor Brown.
Long was nominated for her sixth solo show Romance and Adventure, which covers her exploits climbing a mountain; the pitfalls of turning 30; and her anger about the Coalition. Her impression of a mobster Ed Miliband is a delight.
She joked before the winner was announced that her happiness at the nomination was “mainly because you get a crate of champagne”, but yesterday admitted some disappointment. “You try not to get sucked in but part of you wants the prize.”
While other artists might take the knockback as an excuse for some self-indulgent wallowing, Long is far too busy. Next month sees the launch of Arts Emergency, a charity she has set up to back arts and humanities degrees for those who are least financially and socially able.
She is frustrated by what she sees as an outrageous attack on the arts in this country. “The notion that the arts degree is a luxury is so fraudulent; the arts are so important to the economy. Take away funding for arts degrees and cut arts budgets and you’re shooting yourself in the foot. The Government is pretending arts don’t need training and time to develop.”
With friends she is also starting a mentoring pilot scheme, initially with nine students in Hackney. Another plan is to start a lottery to pay off student loans of up to £16,000.
And all this while continuing with her Edinburgh show. She has taken 11 shows to the Fringe – from the Oxford Revue “that got rightly slated” to a package show “where I died every night” to her successful solo performances.
Long usually has no trouble selling out her shows. This year, however, the festival was quiet in the initial weeks, with performers blaming the weather, the recession, and the Olympics. Long said: “I found it sad, because I focus on Edinburgh and I’m always working on building up my crowd here because I love it so much. Everyone was suffering but it has picked up now.”
Long’s desire to perform comedy stretches back to as early as 11 – and she started performing several years later at an arts centre in Beckenham, near where she grew up. “I always loved comedy and performing at school. My material at 14 was nonsensical. I loved Vic and Bob and I loved Monty Python.” What started in the workshop in front of four people led to open spots, performing in front of a crowd of 20 and then 100. While the 14-year-old Long did not suffer from nerves, it was different when she competed for the BBC New Comedy Awards three years later. She was unable to eat from the rehearsal the day before to after her set. After finishing, she got drunk, much to the dismay of Bob Monkhouse, who said: “You might win, you can’t get drunk.”
She did win and much was made of her being too young to drink the champagne that was part of her prize. While stand-up took more of a backseat as she studied English at Oxford University, Long still set up a comedy society, putting on gigs.
She returned to stand-up at the end of her studies. “It’s what I have always wanted to do, there has never been anything else really, and I was determined to make it work.” That desire was only intensified by several years of temping. “I resented it; they treat you so badly. I was just so desperate to do my stand up.” A break came when Stewart Lee offered her a supporting gig on tour.
The veteran comedian “was so kind and generous, paying for my food and accommodation. People don’t have to do that on tour,” Long said. Her goal was a solo show. “I did it for the first time when I was 24. The show was really simple, I did it and loved it.”
Then came wider recognition as she won best newcomer at Edinburgh’s comedy awards for her show Kindness and Exuberance. “That changed my life, because suddenly lots of theatres that wouldn’t have taken me, booked me as a punt. I went to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and that really was a dream come true.
“I’ve always tried to write shows about self-improvement and how I want to live my life. And I try and write political things. I’ve definitely felt more confident in the past few years. It feels like if you stay in the game long enough people have to stop saying: ‘You’re s***’ and instead say ‘She’s definitely doing something. Whether I like it or not,’ which is helpful.”
At the age of 30 she is at complete ease performing, but the message has changed. Two years ago was something of a watershed in her writing.
The big shift in her material was ushered in with the Coalition. “The change in government really did affect my life and I had to write about that. In my head I care about human beings and to me being a socialist is really obvious because it’s about living in a more equal society where people are cared for.”
Romance and Adventure is angry about the political situation, but even that has changed since 2011. She said: “This isn’t half as angry as last year’s show. Then it was ‘I’m f****** serious’ the whole time. This year it’s more sadness. Sometimes you feel really sad and tired and ground down. You just have to weather that and continue.”
Talk politics, and Long becomes more animated, yet she does not want to come off as preachy. “I don’t like the idea of upsetting people who come to my shows. I don’t go out of my way to be edgy. I just write about what is on my mind and interests me most.”
Long is firmly against the austerity measures. “Everyone can see they are not working. I was saying this before this Government got in.” Warming to the subject, she said: “I’m not just saying: ‘I f****** hate Tories’ because that’s easy in a bland Eighties way. I just can’t bear what they’re doing; it scares me.”
While she does not see her stage as a pulpit, she has been told that people who have seen her have become politically active. The focus of her detractors has also changed. “In the past, people hated me because they thought I was a pathetic human being, or I was too fat or ugly. Now they’re offended because they disagree with my opinion.”
She might take a year off from Edinburgh next year “because it is so stressful” and is making short films. “I don’t have a really aggressive five-year plan. There’s loads I want to do, it’s a question of the right ideas and being persistent,” she said. “I love stand-up so much, I will definitely keep gigging until I’m dead.”
Point of view: Josie on…
Her first climbing exploit:
“I was the first to reach the summit. Apparently this means I am not a team player.”
“I’m a feminist. That’s not creepy for me to say. I don’t like to bang any less for having said it.”
Living under the Tories:
“Nobody warned me what it would be like to live under a government I ideologically oppose. It’s like being stabbed with a little pin every single day. No one appreciates why I’m in a mood the whole time.”
“Before I got his book of letters I thought: he’s from Bromley, he’s got a beard. He’s got to be alright.”
“The reality is three hours of watching the white ball and trying not to cry.”
A Life in Brief: Josie Long
Born: 17 April 1982, Sidcup, South London
Education: Newstead Wood School for Girls, Kent; University of Oxford (English)
Career: Best Newcomer award Edinburgh (2006); Australia’s Barry Award nominee (2008); writer for C4 Skins (2009); Edinburgh comedy award for Best Show (2010 and 2011)