Sara Pascoe: ‘As a woman you’re often told not to talk about sex on stage’

The comedian and author on performing at Hugh Grant’s birthday party, the problem with being labelled a ‘feminist vegan’, and her new show Success Story

Why did you start doing standup?

I really wanted to be an actor but wasn’t very good at acting. I auditioned for drama school for years and never got in. I tried standup comedy as an experiment, just as a way of getting stage time. The second I did it, I realised it was exactly what I should be doing. I wanted to perform as myself, rather than lose myself and perform as somebody else.

Who did you look up to when you were first starting out?

I hadn’t really watched any standup before I did it, so I wasn’t comedy literate. Once I started doing standup, the people I loved were Josie Long, Bridget Christie, Stewart Lee, and then my peers like James Acaster and Josh Widdicombe.


Can you recall a gig so bad, it’s now funny?

I did standup for Hugh Grant’s birthday about seven years ago. They’d booked me as a trick on him and wanted me to do feminist standup to ruin his birthday. It worked out all right, I survived it and my career’s fine. But at the time I had to interrupt the party of people I recognised and do standup at Hugh Grant. I had to do half an hour. It was such a long time. I remember David Baddiel was there, who I’d never met, as well as Max Mosley and Charlotte Church. It was pretty A-list.

Your current show is called Success Story. What can audiences expect?

Name-dropping, personal stories and anecdotes – which is what I always do. I’m trying not to overshare too much because I’m a mum now and aware that my material will exist on the internet when my son is at school, has a job and is a grown man. Nothing too serious, but I do talk about conceiving during IVF. There is also a lot about the 90s. I didn’t realise I’d become a nostalgic comedian.

Best heckle?

Hecklers generally aren’t very good at their job. They’re usually drunk and either insulting you or have misunderstood what you’ve said. It’s never that this very erudite man from Dundee absolutely saw what I was trying to do and helped me along with hilarious consequences.

What’s the worst advice you’ve been given?

I’ve had lots of older comics tell me, “You shouldn’t do that type of comedy, you should do it like this, you should get a male writer.” Those kinds of things are the worst. As a woman you’re often told not to talk about sex because the audience aren’t comfortable with it. I got told not to wear skirts on stage. This was before Katherine Ryan and Andi Osho, people who were very glamorous, proved that it could be done: you can be hysterical and wear a nice dress.

Any comedy bugbears?

I hate being asked about being a woman. But it’s more because I don’t have a funny or interesting answer any more. I think the discussion has really evolved. As a middle-class, white woman, who’s well paid at the level I am, actually I’m not qualified to talk about being a woman in comedy any more.

You’ve written two books on subjects around sexuality, power and the female body. What role has feminism played in your career?

When I first started doing standup, I hadn’t thought of myself as a feminist but early on in standup I was called a feminist comedian. At that time, I would look at my routines and I would talk about going on the bus, being in Tesco, wearing a bra, and then I thought: “Oh, it’s just because I’m a woman talking about those things.” It’s a really visible part of yourself that you don’t think you’re expressing, but the fact that you’re there, means that you are. I’m never a person on a bus, I’m a woman on a bus and because of that I became hyper aware of it and did start writing more and thinking a lot more about it.

I didn’t really identify as a woman that strongly until I started doing standup and people kept telling me I was a woman. I really did feel like a person, until I was a minority in a job where I’d get to gigs and people would go, “Oh it’s nice to have a woman on the bill”. What a strange greeting when you walk into a room, when you just think you’re a person.

Where do you stand on the feminist label that’s still given to you?

My Wikipedia says “feminist vegan” and that’s quite often my intro on panel shows. The reason I find it hard is, I don’t have any jokes about those things because they’re not things that I necessarily joke about. Whereas if they just said, “she’s a ditsy Essex girl”, I would feel safe that we’re in a realm of stuff we joke about.

I have this worry that being a feminist is going to put some people off my comedy – which isn’t hectoring, which isn’t manhating – and actually the problem is a misunderstanding of what feminism is. It’s odd because it’s like someone saying, “This person is not racist” in their bio. Actually, most people do believe that the sexes are equal, so why does it need a big F at the beginning of it? Why is that a descriptive term?

What’s it like being a ditsy Essex girl in comedy?

It’s fantastic because people expect very little of you, there’s a lot of stereotypes that are there to be broken, and also you still have a lot of fun. We’re a brilliant laugh.

What’s an important lesson that you’ve learned from being a standup comedian?

That you’re only as good as your last gig. There’s something wonderful about that because you’re always starting again. You write the best jokes of your life, you do the best show, and you have to start again. You can never go, “Hang on guys, I did that two years ago, let’s all laugh at that again.”

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

My dad is a jazz musician who lives in Australia. I told him that after university I was going to do a postgraduate certificate in education, because I should get a teaching qualification so I could pay my rent. He said, “Don’t do a teaching qualification. Make it work or starve to death.” He essentially said, if you have a backup plan, it’s far less likely that you’ll get to do what you want to do. I didn’t think it was necessarily good advice at the time, and my mum hated it. – Guardian

Sara Pascoe is at Vicar Street, Dublin, on March 23rd, 2023; Everyman, Cork, on March 24th, 2023; and Ulster Hall, Belfast, on March 25th, 2023