Since Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman boosted demand for funny, personal books about the female experience, publishers have increasingly looked to comedians for frank, honest and amusing memoirs with a more ambitious, idiosyncratic edge than the typical celebrity autobiography.
Bridget Christie’s A Book For Her, which followed her Edinburgh Comedy Award-winning show, was a huge critical and commercial success. So, of course, she’s returning to the festival with Mortal, about her creeping preoccupation with death. Writing the book’s feminist treatise gave her “more room to develop ideas [and to] go into more detail about things”. But she’d already “liberated” herself as a comedian in discussing difficult subjects.
“Talking about female genital mutilation or rape culture in a brightly lit community hall in a provincial town on a Friday night freed me up in terms of what I could write about in a book or a [newspaper] column,” she reflects. And perhaps counter-intuitively, she felt more pressure to be funny when putting her thoughts on paper.
“My editor kept reminding me that it was going to be in the Humour section in bookshops, so my main objective was always to try to be amusing,” she recalls.
For Susan Calman, who’d struggled to open up about her teenage suicide attempt in her act, writing Cheer Up Love: Adventures in Depression with the Crab of Hate, finally afforded her the opportunity to do so with clarity and humour. “That was difficult enough to write and it’s not something I ever really want to go into,” she explains. “But it was important to put it in there so people knew just how bad it was when I was younger.” With sensitive subjects like depression, the book format puts the ‘audienceʼ
from someone who’s done 10 years at the Fringe,” she states matter-of-factly. “It’s the best show I’ve ever done.” Luisa Omielan agrees that memoirs transfer control from the comedian to the reader. Reprising her word-of-mouth smash, What Would Beyoncé Do?! at this year’s Fringe, she found that writing the companion book left her feeling, “quite vulnerable, because it’s like writing a dear diary for people to read in their own voice. In my stand-up, I can play caricatures, I’ve got accents and facial expressions to show what I mean. It’s difficult to capture that in a book.”
However, as someone whose ITV2 pilot is currently gathering dust, books unquestionably amplify a comedian’s voice too. “TV has its doors locked,” she observes. “So it’s quite good that another genre or format is actually giving new talent an opportunity.”
Itʼs impossible to be a stand-up without being a writer, Shappi Khorsandi maintains. The nature of the art form, in which you don’t get to choose your audience, means you have to try to connect with all sorts of people in a way that’s, “more nuanced, deeper and more heartfelt than ordinary interaction.” So it makes sense that publishers are increasingly looking to comics because, “we have to spend so many years feeling comfortable in our own skin.”
The Anglo-Iranian comic perceives her patriotic hour, Oh My Country! From Morris Dancing To Morrissey, as a companion piece to her 2009 memoir, A Beginner’s Guide To Acting English. This year marks 40 years since her family arrived in the UK as Iranian refugees and it’s a decade since her breakthrough show, Asylum Speaker, which inspired the book.
But Khorsandi is also returning to Edinburgh with acclaim for her debut novel, Nina Is Not OK, a powerful, darkly comic account of a teenager’s alcoholism. While the book is fiction, the comedian, “can’t pretend I didn’t lose my twenties to addiction, I was lost in a fog”. And she found the process of writing Nina an exhilarating rush, in more ways than one.
“You get more creative with a novel, and it’s so much more expansive,” she says. “But at the same time, it really made me appreciate stand-up. The book was drawing me into a darker world. So when I could skip out and do a gig it seemed like diving into a pool of crisp, totally clear tonic water.”
Words: Jay Richardson
Bridget Christie: Mortal The Stand Comedy Club, 5-29 August (not 15, 16), 11am
Susan Calman: The Calman Before the Storm Pleasance Courtyard, 3-28 August, 6.20pm
Susan Calman: Depression and How To Laugh It Off Bailie Gifford Theatre, 23 August, 1.30pm
Luisa Omielan: What Would Beyoncé Do? Venue 150 at EICC, 26 August, 9.30pm
Shappi Khorsandi Studio Theatre, 18 August, 3.45pm
Shappi Khorsandi:Oh My Country! From Morris Dancing to Morrissey The Stand Comedy Club, 3-28 August (not 4, 15), 8.30pm