Sex and the female stand-up

Sara Pascoe is one of the most exciting voices to emerge on the comedy circuit in recent years. She talks to Yvette Huddleston about sex, existential theory and the new generation of female stand-ups.

Comedian Sara Pascoe appeared in the BBC sitcom W1A
Comedian Sara Pascoe appeared in the BBC sitcom W1A

Sperm selection was not necessarily a subject I thought I’d be discussing on a dull Monday afternoon in early January, but then Sara Pascoe isn’t your average conversationalist.

A bright, thoughtful and witty voice on the stand-up comedy circuit, Pascoe has been described as having a magpie curiosity and it’s the well-informed nature of her humour that puts her in a different class of observational comic. Her new show Sara Pascoe vs History comes to Yorkshire next week and the topics covered include famous historical couples (such as Napoleon and Josephine, Hitler and Eva Braun and Adam and Eve), existential theory, and monogamy as a cultural conceit. That’s certainly not your run-of-the-mill comedy routine.

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She blends a girl-next-door approachability with a razor-sharp enquiring mind which is a combination that’s hard to resist – and the warm, down-to-earth Essex accent doesn’t do any harm either. The show went down a storm at the Edinburgh Festival last summer, getting four and five star reviews before being nominated for the Fosters Comedy Award for Best Show. Since then, for her UK tour, she has developed and expanded it from its original one-hour format so that she can delve into some areas in more depth.

Comedian Sara Pascoe appeared in the BBC sitcom W1A

“I wanted to write a show about falling in love – from a positive point of view,” she says. “And as I was researching monogamy and whether it was natural or not I read a book about the evolution of sex.” That opened up a whole new line of enquiry for her as she says it triggered memories of her mother telling her how men and women were different and that men were programmed to find lots of women attractive whereas women were more naturally monogamous.

“This book disproved that,” says Pascoe. “It explained that those theories had been developed in Victorian times and they had basically ignored women. Women are also very sexual and are competitive for mates.” (It was at this point where the discussion moved on to sperm selection – the idea that, in fact, competition occurs when females have multiple partners thereby increasing the chance of producing more viable offspring). “I was trying to work out how to talk about all this on stage without it becoming a lecture, so I speak about cultural things as well and female sexuality which means you can discuss that in a historical context.”

Pascoe’s act also contains some personal elements – like many writers she mines her own experiences for material, something which she admits can be problematic.

“I think very naturally it doesn’t occur to me that I shouldn’t say some things,” she says. “Obviously certain things are very private – but I tend to use a lot of personal stuff in my shows. What I have got good at doing is checking with people first.”

Her partner John Robins is also a stand-up comedian and that helps, in that they understand the parameters within which they can both work.

“We learned very early on what we can and can’t talk about on stage,” says Pascoe. “I will say to him, ‘I’m thinking of describing you like this’ and he is very good – he has never said that I can’t talk about him like some previous boyfriends have. But it can get difficult because you do fictionalise certain things and you might use something that an ex-boyfriend did and then people think you are talking about your current partner, so you have to be careful.”

Tackling intellectually challenging concepts – such as existential theory, for example – is something she enjoys and she approaches it in a characteristically inclusive way.

“I think analogy is very powerful and everyone can get on board with the idea,” she says. “I want to be able to explain the joke in a way that everyone can understand it. I never want to talk down to people or make anyone feel stupid. I want to come from the position that ‘you probably already know this, but I just learnt about it’ – and anyway there will always be people in the audience who know more than you about a subject. It is important to be flexible. I never want the audience to feel bulldozed into agreeing with me – I think it’s important to allow that space for debate and disagreement.”

The trick of good stand-up is to make it look easy – and Pascoe is a very relaxed presence on stage – but there is a lot of hard work involved. As she explains, writing a new show typically takes her around a year.

“My way of surviving the Edinburgh festival – because it can make you feel very small or inconsequential – is to start thinking about the next show. I will start reading and researching through August. Then September and October is a wonderful time because you get lots of new material nights where you do five to 10 minutes just holding a piece of paper or your notebook in your hand and you find out ‘are people interested in me talking about this?’

“In January to March there tend to be longer try-outs which are sometimes fun for the audience but they can be ‘ideas heavy’ and ‘comedy light’, then April to June you are honing and adding to the material.”

Writing is obviously a bit of a passion for Pascoe and she is delighted that other opportunities to put pen to paper have come along. She is currently writing a book –due out in March 2016 – which grew out of her current show.

“It is using my autobiography and my thoughts on culture to talk about how a woman’s body has evolved and how culture has been influenced and stimulated by the science of it,” she explains. “Being a comic you do have a lot of spare time – there are days when you don’t have much to do, so we are lucky really; and it’s good to have something to get up in the morning for.”

Despite a huge amount of evidence to the contrary, there still exists in some quarters the lazy assumption that ‘women aren’t funny’. This recurring debate was further fuelled by the BBC’s decision last year to stop doing men only panel shows and introduce a kind of quota system for female comedians. Pascoe has appeared, very successfully, on several of the most popular shows – Mock the Week, QI and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, to name just a few, and many with other broadcasters too – and, at 33, she is part of a new generation of women stand-ups, which includes Katherine Ryan, Josie Long, Sarah Millican and Bridget Christie, who clearly are very funny indeed.

Pascoe believes that the stereotypical view is part of a much wider issue. “I think there has been a lack of interest in women’s experience as a whole,” she says. “So when we had comedians like Jo Brand or Victoria Wood, people would say that they were like a man or they were just angry and hated men – Jo Brand got a lot of that.” However, she is optimistic about the future. “A comedy goer in their twenties is not going to think like that – it is a lot easier now and it’s the audience that has changed it. So many more girls are starting in comedy now because they can see that it’s something that women do. I don’t think we will even be talking about this in six years’ time.”

Her own route into comedy came through acting. She says that she had always wanted to be an actor since being involved in amateur dramatics as a teenager and she had enjoyed some modest success, getting a variety of roles, although she hadn’t been to drama school (she studied English Literature at the University of Sussex instead) and didn’t have an agent. Then in 2007 she landed a job as one of a troupe of actors in a sketch show. “We had to write our own sketches and I really enjoyed that bit,” she says. “At that point I hadn’t really seen stand-up and I hadn’t realised before that comedians wrote all their material down and that it was crafted. There was a comic in the cast and we all went along to see him at a club. All the acts were terrible and I suddenly thought ‘I can do that – I can stand on stage being terrible’, so I thought I would just try it as an experiment.”

She had become a little disillusioned with acting in the sense that she felt that often theatre was created by and for the middle-classes (“So few people who go to drama school aren’t middle-class and I used to get so upset at the interval chat at theatres”) whereas comedy felt like something much more all-encompassing – and, in a way, liberating.

“Stand-up comedy goes everywhere and it talks to everyone and it happens in places where people get drunk. There is no censorship and it felt like a real sharing of ideas. After about six months I had fallen head over heels in love with it and I realised that this was what I wanted to do with my life.”

• Sara Pascoe, FruitSpace, Hull, January 19,; The Duchess, York, January 20,; The Wardrobe, Leeds, January 21,; and Harrogate Theatre, January 22,