Comedian Sara Pascoe talks feminism, padded bras and improv jazz

Feminist but not activist” is how she has described herself. But a canter through her career and a dip into any of her performances, live or on TV, reveals a powerful and persuasive female voice. There is a great intelligence to
what Sara Pascoe does. Her opinions are never simple or polemic. Loud and spikey, frequently, but never just hot air for correctly politicised laughter.

Her book, Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body, revealed her as, amongst other things, an almost lifelong (ages 14-31) padded bra wearer turned vehement opponent of body fascism and cosmetic surgery. It was incredibly powerful stuff. It created waves on many shores, and a veritable tsunami when she dared opine that no subjects are out of bounds for comics. But, she explained at the time, “people are forgiving of subject matter when we find things funny.” Having said which, she continued “there are definitely things I would never be able to make sound funny.”   

She has a brilliant analytical brain when it comes to comedy and how and when and why it works. In another interview she once compared being onstage doing stand-up as being like playing a musical instrument, a comparison I have always thought quite brilliant, and illuminating. Does she play improvised jazz? Classical concertos? “It is an interesting thing to think about. My dad is a musician, he does jazz improvisation actually, and he is the first person I ever talked to about craft. He has dedicated his life to playing, and when I get to talk to him about what I do, it is always both of us trying to understand the other via different mediums. Speaking onstage, and working out what feels right, or what people respond to I guess is a bit like picking up lots of instruments until one ‘feels’ right. There is a very strong sense of self when one is speaking honestly as a comic, and I have only recently found that feeling. And it is so connected to confidence; you have to trust yourself to be honest. And I guess, in the early years, all of us are practicing our scales, waiting to get good enough to play freely – but unfortunately, we can’t practice in private. We have to show everyone from the beginning!” 

To paraphrase the classic Norm McDonald Hitler gag, “You know, with Sara Pascoe, the more I learn about her, the more I like her.”

Pascoe’s comedy beginnings were in 2007, playing creative comedy clubs like Invisible Dot. “New wave” was one description used of this “slightly surreal, slightly political” (Pascoe’s own description) group of up and comers. “A Noel Fielding tribute act” is how Sara describes her early work, with characteristic
searing honesty.

2010 brought her to Edinburgh and 2014 saw her nominated for a Foster’s Comedy Award. Since then she has stormed Live at the Apollo, won QI, played ditsy blondes in Twenty Twelve and W1A, grabbed a slew of comedy-boy dominated panel shows by the hairy bits (“a great way to get people to come to your gigs,” she says) and taken home the Pointless trophy with Josh Widdicombe. Pretty much no performance stone has been left unturned.

Google her and she is generally described as “writer, comedienne, actress,” in that order. Is that how she sees herself? “I think that might be the order of difficulty/loneliness,” she replied. “Writing a book takes a long time and a lot of effort and thought. Stand-up is a completely delightful job that can weigh on the ego and be competitive but it’s also a bit more social than writing, and acting is the most fun ‘cause someone tells you what to wear and when to speak and in between takes you have a gossip and eat biscuits.”

Growing up in Dagenham, Essex, she was spurred to success by her first job. In McDonald’s. “My first job was in McDonald’s and I knew I was going to have to become very successful if I was going to buy the whole company and close it down so that no one ever has to work there ever again. I’m still working on this.” Of course, she is now famously a vegan. How, I wonder, does that work with the traditional EdFest Diet? “Very very well,” is the surprising answer.  “Edinburgh has more vegan places every year and has always had David Bann and that jacket potato place, so I’ve always been fed. Being skint in Edinburgh makes it hard to eat, but not veganism. Also, this year I’ve spent a fortune on accommodation and I have access to an outdoor pizza oven so anyone skint come round mine and I’ll knock up some kind of cheese-less pizza for ya.”

Given her increasing telly success as stand-up, panel show regular and actress, what brings her back to Edinburgh? “The socialising is part of it. There are comics I long to see but I only get to hang with at festivals as we are all so busy. And did I mention my house has an outdoor pizza oven? Plus, the length and scrutiny of the festival sharpens one’s work. The hard shows or low self-esteem can increase focus on the material in an odd way. It keeps you trying to improve and I have missed that. Also, like everyone else who has had a couple of years off, I’ve forgotten just how dream-crushing it can be and think it will be ‘fun’.”

So after a heavy-duty year in 2016 focusing on the book and the politics of the female body (and coming out as a flattie), what is this year’s show about? “This year I’ll still be flat-chested but the show is more about what’s going on underneath, in my flat heart. It’s the show I have most enjoyed writing and saying, and it’s about being a lone, single woman, happy without love and trying not to hate herself. It’s not worthy, or deep, but I do talk about the big shit as always.” One would expect no less.

At one point in her chequered past, Ms Pascoe was a tour guide. I wondered where she would take us on a tour of Edinburgh. As you might expect, Greyfriars Bobby and the Fudge Shop this is not. “Oh, I wish I knew more about Edinburgh’s history and I would do a proper tour,” she says. “This year my big mission is to research the Ghost Brothel. A few hundred years ago there was a ghost whorehouse in Edinburgh where people would pay to watch through a window at all the ghosts doing it. Actually, there is a city of the dead tour in Edinburgh that takes you to see all the ghostly places, let’s all do that!” Form an orderly queue now.

Words: Kate Copstick

Photo: Matt Crockett

WHERE & WHEN

Sara Pascoe: LadsLadsLads Pleasance Courtyard, 2-27 (not 14) August, 7pm From £11.50

Tel: 0131 226 0026

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