Young gifted and a woman – comedian Josie Long talks labels with Sinéad Gleeson,
There’s precocious, and then there’s starting a comedy career at 14. The early start has only helped Josie Long, who has carved out a distinctive stage persona, writes Sinéad Gleeson
AFTER SEVERAL attempts to get hold of Josie Long, we eventually get to speak. She is huffing and puffing, running down stairways, trying to catch a tube and hauling a large suitcase to boot. The comedian is on her way to Glastonbury to play two gigs and, despite twisting her ankle in the middle of the interview, she is as breezy and funny as you’d expect. Long’s profile has been steadily rising and at 29, she’s one of best known female comics in the UK. She has also – amazingly – been doing comedy for more than half her life, having started performing stand-up at 14.
“I just loved it and was really impatient to get into it,” says Long. “There was a workshop at this arts festival that my mum signed me up for as a birthday present. I fell in love with comedy and just wanted to keep doing it. It’s all I ever wanted to do and the only thing I’ve ever really pursued.”
At 17, she won the BBC New Comedy Award, but decided to go ahead with a degree in English at Oxford. While at college, she continued to run comedy clubs, and never lost interest.
“Growing up, I loved telly comedy, like Monty Python, The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer and when I got a bit older, I got really into Lee and Herring. I thought they were the coolest people on the planet and thought the fact that they got the audience to participate was amazing.”
After college, she supported Stewart Lee on tour and like her hero (in his Lee & Herring days), Long loves interacting with an audience. At her 2005 show in Edinburgh, she challenged punters to play her at the word game Boggle – and usually won. These days she still throws in competitions and “creative things”.
“If I’m running a club night, I ask people questions. In my first show, I asked people about their favourite small thing that makes them happy. Another time, I invited people to send me postcards with a drawing of an eccentric person that they know. I love that interactivity. I love that you don’t have to have this clear distinction between you and the crowd. Running my own club, I get to know all the regulars so you can muck around and be more informal, so there aremore chances for something magic to happen.”
A regular contributor to radio and TV comedy programmes and panel shows (Long also wrote for Channel 4’s Skins), touring takes up most of her time. While it’s fun, she says she misses her friends and makes extra effort to keep friendships going. Something of an old comedy hand now, Long says she has long gotten over her stagefright, which was extremely intense when she started out.
“I used to feel physically sick for days beforehand, but you get over it, because you love it. But also because it’s your job, and who wants to feel sick about going to work? (laughs) It’s about what suits your personality. I love stand-up because you can be yourself, but the idea of singing in front of people would bloody terrify me.” Like all comedians there have been the tiny crowds, virulent hecklers and no laughs. “Oh god yes, it’s happened. If any comic tells you they haven’t had 10 shows where they’ve died, they’re lying. It’s like bad reviews – it hurts and then you get over it. I try to take each heckler on their own merit. Sometimes you think someone is initially being aggressive, but they’re just being enthusiastic. Other times, people actually heckle with points of information like [laughs and adopts snooty tone] ‘Um, David Hume was not actually an atheist . . . even though technical- ly what he said was atheist,’ but I like that. My favourite kind of heckle is anal pedantry.”
One thing that really irks her about comedy is the discussion about women within it. Old cliches about “women not being funny” and “there are no female comedians” strike Long as at best lazy and at worst potentially harmful to upcoming new female talent.
“People who think there aren’t many women in comedy are idiots. It’s such a sexist discourse and it actually crushes people who are doing comedy. It makes them feel that they’re an anomaly and that what they’re doing isn’t legitimate. It’s not helpful. Until society is more equal, every generation of women will feel like pioneers. That’s not cool, but it’s all we can do. I feel that I’m constantly made to justify myself and it’s tiring when people assume that as a female comedian you’re going to just talk about certain things.”
Long mentions the lengthy tradition (which is slowly changing) of sexism by commissioning editors in television, or club nights that would only allow one woman on a comedy bill. In 2006, she won the prestigious if.comeddies (formerly Perrier) best newcomer award at Edinburgh, something that made her feel like a “real comedian”. Long’s subject matter is broad and varied. She can do rambling anecdotes about bread or conjure up characters such as a working-class astronaut who used to be a nail technician. At her upcoming Dublin show, she’ll be talking politics, when she’s not pretending to be the Brontë or Mitford sisters.
While there is a lot of twee talk of comedy as “the new rock and roll” (thanks to multiple-date arena tours from Michael McIntyre or Peter Kay), Long is outside of that, thanks to an oeuvre that is personal, charming and funny. You won’t find her making jokes about minorities or involved in the kind of controversies that Frankie Boyle or Tommy Tiernan have been in. She is wary of censorship but believes in comedy as a platform for strong opinions.
“What I really like about comedy is that it’s so diverse. I like that I can go on stage and be really earnest about things that I like; or that someone else will just do puns or another comedian will be deliberately, wilfully offensive. It’s not interesting or important to me to watch comedians who try to shock. I don’t find racist or sexist jokes funny, even when people are telling them in an apparently ironic way. I’m pleased comedy is that diverse, and in nearly all instances, people are not trying to be harmful, but there are certain boundaries, and it’s up to comedians to be honest about what their intentions are, but I wouldn’t seek to censor people.”
Long has been to Ireland several times and admits to deliberately organising gigs so that she can catch up with comedian friends Maeve Higgins (“I love her!”) and David O’Doherty (who was nominated alongside her the year she won her if.comeddies award). The rest of year will be a busy one. When not touring, Long is finishing a book (“about a treasure hunt”), has a new show at Edinburgh and plans to rent a mini-van and go on tour with some other comedians. “We’re going to play some ad-hoc gigs in really boring suburban places where nothing happens.”
O’Reilly Theatre, Saturday July 16th, 8pm, €10/8
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