Have you heard the one about the female comedians who had a serious conversation about gender equality? Sarah Kendall and Celia Pacquola let Sophie Tedmanson in on the joke. Styled by Monique Santos. Photographed by Hugh Stewart.
Comedians Sarah Kendall and Celia Pacquola on their craft – and gender equality.
“17 YEARS AGO, IT WAS FAR MORE OF A BOYS’ CLUB AND YOU HAD TO NUDGE YOUR WAY IN”
Sophie Tedmanson (in Sydney): “When did you two first meet?” Sarah Kendall (in London): “The first time I met you, Celia, was at one of the comedy galas at a green room and Tom Ballard was there and you were talking about how you guys had lived together.” Celia Pacquola (in Melbourne): “We had, and he used to pee on the toilet seat!” SK: “That’s right! I have a terrible memory but remember that.” CP: “Because he was 19 at the time and it was totally fair enough. It was a comedians’ house and I remember people would go: ‘Oh my goodness, a share house full of comedians, you guys must just be a riot!’ And I’d be like: ‘Nooo, it’s really not!’” SK: “No, no, no! Too depressing for words.” CP: “We talked about the fact that we should all try and buy a house because we were too old to be sitting on beanbags anymore. We also dried our washing on a plastic Christmas tree that we never took down because it was strong enough to hold underwear and a light T-shirt, but not jeans.” SK: “I think you were in the right climate to get away with that! I think if I did that with my family’s clothes [at home in London], we’d just smell like a seal colony. That wet dog smell …” CP: “I’d watched a bunch of Sarah’s stand-ups and I had been following you a bit everywhere. In a non-weird way.” SK: “Ah, my huge online profile!” CP: “When I go to London people say: ‘Oh, you’re Australian, you’re going to know every other Australian female comedian’, which I generally do, which is sort of annoying.” SK: “Yes, we totally do.” CP: “You had this legend status and some gig story about the guy going down the aisle, and everyone there was like: ‘OMG, Sarah’s the best, she has this amazing story’, and I was like: ‘OMG, she sounds so cool!’” SK: “That was the story about the heckler, right? The guy who basically threatened to rape me and I turned it into a stand-up routine and then the routine got bigger and bigger and longer and longer, as your routine does. What ends up on stage after a couple of years barely resembles the initial incident and then I just started to worry about doing that material because I couldn’t be entirely sure as to whether people were laughing at the right places at the right times. On a good night people would laugh at the good places for the right reasons and the story had pathos and they got it. But on a bad night it felt like I was going: ‘Ha ha ha, isn’t this funny this happened?’ A stupid audience would laugh in the wrong bits and it appeared like I was going: ‘Oh, this really funny thing happened when this guy threatened me!’ I felt like I couldn’t be entirely sure that it was being received in the right way, so I stopped doing it.” CP: “The whole goal in this game is probably to get respect in the community, and everyone, before I met you, would say: ‘Yep, she’s the best!’ But I do remember meeting you at an audition for an ad in London.” SK: “Oh, that was the worst audition.” CP: “We bonded over how we hated it. Was it the audition for 3D Yoda from Star Wars? I just remember we were sitting in this tiny waiting room thinking: ‘Fuck, I hate auditions.’” SK: “I do remember that but I can’t remember the product.” CP: “I did so few, if it was with me it was either the Yoda or the yoghurt – I hate yoghurt and you had to eat it in the ad.” SK: “That’s acting!” CP: “Yeah well, this is the problem … so I ate it and they were like: ‘Okay, do it again, but can you try one where you enjoy it?’” ST: “What is it like being on the comedy circuit and being female. Do you support each other? Is there camaraderie?” CP: “Overall comedians have a camaraderie, so you can go anywhere in the world and meet up with comedians, but then there’s the other factor of being an Australian. It’s not just necessarily a bond between female comedians, that’s there with everyone, but as a woman it’s one of those things where the longer you do it, the less you have to talk about it. I remember when I started I was really outspoken about it, but now I just want to tell jokes. I’ve almost forgotten I’m a woman.” SK: “I’ve been doing this now for 17 years. Actually longer; I started at uni in 1998, so my first proper show was in 2000, but the landscape has really changed. It was far more boysy then, there simply weren’t as many women doing it. What has been so amazing over the course of my career is seeing more women at each fringe festival doing really inventive and interesting things. I find the men are really into it as well. It’s a much nicer climate, if I’m being completely honest. You know, I think the way it was 17 years ago, it was far more of a boys’ club and you had to nudge your way in and try and occupy some sort of space in the industry. Whereas now I think I would have trouble listing all of the female comedians doing great shows. It’s honestly like a tenfold increase, which is fantastic!” ST: “Has the huge popularity of people like Amy Schumer and Tina Fey helped change people’s attitudes towards female comedians in general?” SK: “I don’t know. I watched two series of Amy Schumer recently and just loved it. I love the thought that 10 years ago it wouldn’t have been made. But we live in this media bubble where we go: ‘ Holy shit, isn’t Amy Schumer amazing!’ But there is also this huge legion of human beings who are dreadful to her online. So I think yes, she has made so much progress, but it hasn’t been an easy ride. I think the push back is almost as frightening. It is unnerving when you realise how much it aggravates people when a woman like Amy Schumer does what she’s doing. I love the fact that she aggravates people like that, but it has just opened this door and it’s an easy path for us now with the media bubble a bit.” CP: “I don’t think a switch has been flipped where the universe is like: ‘We’re okay with women in comedy now.’ While it is better, I think the only way forward is more visibility with women – it’s harder to be what you can’t see. Amy Schumer can have her own show and she’ll pave the way, but I think she’ll be the first to admit that there have been these other great women like Joan Rivers who have had an even harder time. I think it’s great that people like Amy Schumer and Tina Fey are so visible and even though it was so hated by certain groups, the fact that there even was a female Ghostbusters is huge! It’s all progress, but it’s definitely not an even playing field.” SK: “Exactly, and I think people like Amy Poehler and Tina Fey openly talking about the misogyny of working in the SNL [ Saturday Night Live] environment helps. These are my favourite comedians full stop. But I also know that they’ve had to fight to occupy that space and I think sometimes you can underestimate that. I think sometimes if you go: ‘Oh, look at them at the
“SOME MEN DON’T WANT TO LISTEN TO WOMEN IN CONTROL OF A ROOM, BEING POWERFUL”
Golden Globes, they are the best hosts ever.’ But it’s been 10 times harder for them being females to get to that point.” ST: “Why do females still have to fight to be recognised as funny? Does it go back to the whole worldwide attitude of misogyny and feminism and sexism?” CP: “It is tied to inherent, systemic, long-serving misogyny, sexism; it’s all a power thing. Some men don’t want to listen to women in control of a room, being powerful. It should just be ‘funny is funny’ and that’s it, but it’s not.” SK: “Which I think this is why the festival circuit has been such a breakthrough. Festival audiences are generally accepting and they’re the coolest people on the planet! Fringe festivals have been an amazing way for people to build up a profile as comedians, because you get to have more space to be yourself. You have an hour to be in a room, people are paying to see you, so you can literally do whatever you want with that hour. I think that’s why it’s so exciting seeing these women coming through, because there are all these voices doing well, they’re selling really well, they’re winning tonnes of awards. That’s why when people say we’re not funny you go: ‘Well, that’s not a fact.’” CP: “But also, as much as I’d love people in the world to believe that women are just as funny as men, I struggle with it being a woman’s job to change this. I don’t know whether you’ve had this, Sarah, but I’ve had women come up after a gig and say: ‘I don’t like women comedians, but I like you’. I just feel like: ‘Oh great, do I carry a list and tick someone off when I’ve turned someone around?’” ST: “You are both very successful: Celia, you’ve done dramatic acting and won an AACTA award last year for The Beautiful Lie – congratulations! And Sarah you’re doing so well in London and are now also one of the faces of Georg Jensen’s new ‘You Can Never Be Too Much You’ campaign. How do you balance it all and how important is it to find other projects that work for you?” SK: “The Georg Jensen thing only took me a morning, so I can balance that well. It’s such a cool concept; I mean, when I read the pitch, in the rest of the campaign there was the British heavyweight champion boxer and Danish film director Susanne Bier, and I remember thinking: ‘Wow, I’ve seen some of your movies!’ I felt like I was riding on these people’s coat-tails slightly.” ST: “How do you balance other parts of your life with work?” SK: “I think just having any spare time I have to use it as effectively as I can. I have to grab any moment when I’m not being required to be a parent and use it effectively, and that’s really hard for me! I’m a procrastinator and I’m lazy, so I’ve had to fight my natural inclination to just sit on a couch and smash a box set or it’s really hard for me to do anything.” CP: “It’s a combination of having to say no and say yes to absolutely everything and anything, terrified that every job will be the last job and just being really single and alone. I’ve really been able to balance things, because it’s just been work.” SK: “You’ve just described my heaven!” CP: “But for me the balance is that I need variety. I was just doing stand-up at nights and then my days were wasted days so I love getting an acting job that I can do in the day. If I have somewhere to be at 10am, I’m like: ‘Check me out in the real world, people!’ I’ve got to work on my personal life a bit more; I really should have more friends, but, you know, no regrets!” SK: “I do agree though, there is horror when your diary isn’t full. I remember seeing a documentary about Joan Rivers and she was in her 80s going: ‘What’s happening in September? Why is September empty?’ I feel like even when I’m 90 and I’m completely demented I will still be panicking.” CP: “Also, I like being needed.” ST: “So will you still be doing stand-up when you’re in your 70s, like Joan Rivers?” CP: “I’ll definitely still be doing comedy. But in what form I don’t know.” SK: “Touring would be the most depressing thing in the world. I’ve never been so lonely and depressed as when I’ve been touring. Having said that, I do kind of agree … I know I’ve been quoting dead showbiz people, but people like Debbie Reynolds said: ‘You’ve got have your live act to take out on the road.’ I think in a sense it is our bread and butter.” CP: “There’s nothing as well, just nothing. No props, just you.” SK: “Yes, and in a sense it is like a trade that we have – it’s our hairdressing or our plumbing – the trade that we can take out and earn some cash from, because TV gigs do inevitably come to an end. I think it also keeps you sharp. There’s something about the demand of a live performance that keeps you clued in to what’s happening in the world and you see young performers coming through and you can see what’s changing. I think it’s a good way to in a sense keep yourself relevant.” ST: “It must be an extraordinary feeling, having nothing but the audience in the palm of your hands, laughing at a joke.” CP: “The reality of it doesn’t occur to you, well, actually it occurs to me when I’m sitting in an audience; you realise the scope of what an audience is and how many individuals there are.” SK: “That is so true!” CP: “To be able to command them and have them all experience something at the same time with dumb thoughts you’ve had is pretty cool.” SK: “It’s so lovely, as you say, when you’re in the audience going to see one of your friends doing a show. I had this thing when I was sitting in this theatre watching all the people coming in and I was thinking: ‘Every single one of these people is coming into this room from a separate day and a separate experience and a separate socioeconomic level, some of them caught the train, some of them would have driven, some of them are mega fans, some people are really drunk …’ And then he comes out and paints pictures in people’s minds with his words and they’re laughing and the whole thing feels like this miracle. The joy of it nearly overwhelmed me, I almost cried!” ST: “Is there anything too taboo for you to joke about?” CP: “I don’t really do anything like politics or anything risky. My jokes are about me and it’s always been that way. When the joke is about me I can’t be accused of stealing and there’s no chance that someone could come up and accuse me. Secondly, it’s not upsetting anyone, because I’m the joke.” SK: “I don’t think any subject is taboo; it’s how you handle the subject. I’ve heard fantastic jokes on really difficult topics. I think any dumbass can make a joke about an offensive topic, but when somebody does a joke on a taboo topic and makes it something that you’ve never thought of before and you’d never come at it from that angle I think that’s almost like the masterpieces of what we do.”