Have you toured much outside the UK before?
I’ve been to places in Europe like Norway. Countries that don’t have their own comedians, so they have to ship us over.
There are no Norwegian comedians?
It’s really early, they’re only just starting, so all of their comedians are either based in Britain, or they’re open spots. It’s only just started that they’ve got clubs to play – they used to have two clubs and because you couldn’t do an open spot, you’d have to write 45 minutes and that would be your first gig, so straight in at the deep end, no five-minute spots.
You’re going over there to show them how it’s done?
Yeah, you do gigs with half-Norwegian and half-British comics and I guess they learn from seeing us and we get to go to Norway.
That’s interesting that there isn’t a stand-up comedy culture there …
D’you know what it might be? They’re a bit like Australia – they’ve got lots of natural resources, their economy’s strong, if you’re unemployed what you get is pretty great and the minimum wage is pretty high.
They’re too happy for comedy?
Don’t need it. You need adversity and you need to hate your political system, you need something to rail against.
Is that why there are so many British comics?
It’s a booming industry, it’s the one thing we can export.
You’ve been called Russell Brand minus the libido – is that really a compliment?
I never took it as one. Mostly any comparison to another comic is always a bit difficult because everyone likes to think that they’re achingly original, but that was written very early on and I didn’t take it as a compliment, but the people who run the festival will have picked that quote and they think that for someone hasn’t heard of you – because why would they, you live on the other side of the world – they think, if you like Russell Brand, this person comes from the same part of the world.
Do you think they were saying it was your subject material?
It makes me sound like I’m passive, I remember reading it and thinking, “what do you mean, without the libido, like I’m a eunuch or something?” But at the time, I was doing a funny women competition, I was doing five minutes and I didn’t display any libido.
So you did the televised comedy gala – are they a challenge because you have to go on after someone else?
It feels like a gamble. It’s chopping your work up. In an hour show, a lot of it is building platform so that the end is really funny. The structure of your show is leading towards the funniest bits. Sometimes you choose material, and then you hear someone two routines before you doing similar stuff, you think, “I’ve got to change, but it’s too late, I’ve already told the festival what I’m doing and the lawyers have checked it and it’s too late.”
Do you try to manipulate the line-up – I’ll go on after James Acaster, he’s rubbish and it will make me look good?
Number one, they don’t let you, and number two, James Acaster is hard to follow. He’s odd, but he’s brilliant, he’s the kind of person that the audience warms too and then really love.
They do say that female comedians tell more stories and that men tell jokes – is that true? It would make it easier for men to do galas.
There are fewer gag comedians that are women that I can think of, but there are, they do exist. I don’t think there is a difference between male and female brains, it might be much more what a woman enjoys telling is something that is also sharing and personal, and you get a very different reaction from an audience. You feel like you’re getting to know someone and that you’re being outrageous, or letting them into a secret. There can be much more heart to it than there is in wordplay or just punning.
I guess that’s the grand British pub tradition of men standing in pubs telling mother-in-law jokes.
When I first started comedy, I thought it was a really misogynistic thing and really negative about women. I would never have gone out for a night of comedy, I’m not someone who grew up loving it. Then I realised, there’s a plethora of voices, they’re rooms below and above pubs, they’re not Jongleurs, which is like the biggest chain in the UK.
That circuit still exists, doesn’t it?
It does, but it’s dying, it’s really in the death-throes. All of those gigs now have people at them who have paid £1 or £5 on Groupon, because to get people in to drink and eat, they have to be in on work or hen parties, so they’re there for virtually nothing and they don’t respect the comedy.
When you come here do you do that thing where you find out something about the country and try to work it in?
It would be so odd to go on stage, to walk on and go, “so, I was on the bus the other day …” You have to do an acknowledgement of, “hello, I’m this person, I’m from here …” In Melbourne, they’ve just opened an H&M shop, and they’ve been queuing outside it for two or three hours – I just have to comment on how everyone said that Melbourne is a really cultural city, but all the art galleries, you just walk straight in, and then the biggest queue is to look at cheap trousers. It’s not my strongest material, it’s not even really material, but it says hello properly to somebody.
It’s polite to do it?
I think so, it’s like meeting somebody at a party and saying, hello, nice to meet you, I like your top.
There must be something in Lord of the Rings?
With Lord of the Rings, I’d say that if I lived in New Zealand, I’d be fed up of hearing comedians talk about it. I know some Australian comics, and they say “Just don’t fall into the trap of telling us about our poisonous animals, because we know.”
Has the internet made it more difficult for comedians because they can’t recycle their material?
Yeah – someone might go on YouTube and watch to see if they like you and you have to make sure that nothing on YouTube is used in your show. Even if it’s just a small proportion of the audience, they would think, “that’s not true, this person said this two years ago to a different audience.”
So you have to come up with something new all the time?
Or just stop things getting on the internet, because that’s what you have control of. Whenever you do stuff on telly, you always know that that’s a swan song of that material.
What do you like doing more, a comedy gala, or a panel show like QI?
Both things. I feel very, very fortunate. To do a gala, it’s a much bigger room than I would sell out on my own, you get this tiny experience of what it would be like – when you look up and there’s three tiers of people and the noise that you get hit with when they laugh and you think, “this would be alright wouldn’t it, if it’s just you for two hours”, but none of the pressure of it being two hours. Something like QI, that was one of the days where I wish 15-year-old me could have known. When I was being bullied at school that’s the kind of thing I’d have gone off to in a fantasy world. When I first started stand-up, some of my jokes were a bit too clever and I used to imagine Stephen Fry laughing on his own in my head. When I was actually there, it was pinch-me day, and then I won it, and as he was saying the scores, he was saying “What a fantastic QI brain, you must come back again Sara, you must come back lots of times.” I thought it was a dream.
You tackle body image for women and inequality, but is it tough for women to do that, because you just get accused of talking about your period?
I’ve found that as long as the stuff is funny, you can talk about anything. I’ve tried talking about things – like I’m a vegan and I’ve tried routines that I thought were a good idea, and if it sounds at all that you’re preaching, you think that you know more than the audience or you’re trying to persuade anyone, that’s not what comedy’s about. But if you can touch on something very lightly, and explore the ridiculousness of something. So when I talk about body image, I don’t go on stage and say, “guys, look what we’re doing to our teenage daughters”.
Is it now okay to be called the f-word – feminist?
In the stand-up comedy scene in the UK where there are a lot more women, we all use the word “feminist” on stage, and it feels like a new wave of something that’s very much under way now. I think like people like Caitlin Moran really spearheaded something which was accessible and that people realised that they could dissent from the norm and it wasn’t an intellectual movement, actually everyone’s personal experience of being a woman is valid and you would all disagree, but let all women feel welcome into this debate and men too if they want to be part of it rather than something that’s exclusive or right or intellectuals arguing with each other.
It feels like a second wave now …
I think they think it’s a fourth wave. I think it’s just now that for some people feminism will be about padded bras or plastic surgery and for other people it will be about female circumcision or burkas, but really it’s all about trying to understand what is going on now, where does it come from and how do we make it better. A lot of women feel so empowered now, that a lot of women who say, “we don’t need it”, what they don’t realise is all the stuff that happened to emancipate you so that you can feel like that.
Lastly, is there much that you want to do when you get here?
New Zealand is one of those places that everyone says, “Oh my God, you’re going to have this wonderful time,” so I have pretty high expectations of getting off the plane and sheep running up to me to welcome me.