Speaking to delegates as part of the First Women Summit, comedian Sara Pascoe explored some of the themes touched upon in her recent book and emphasised the importance of not making any subjects untouchable.
From her roots in acting, Sara Pascoe has become one of the most recognisable faces on the British comedy circuit – regularly appearing on shows such as Live at the Apollo, Mock the Week and Taskmaster.
However, her new book – Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body – provides an insight into the forces that mould and affect modern women. It was some of these themes we wanted to pick up on in our exclusive interview.
Sara Pascoe, what was your route into comedy?
Like lots of people, the career i’m working in isn’t where i thought I’d be. I wanted to be a very serious actor doing political theatre. I have been an actor since 18 years-old, but for ten years I never earned very much money.
I never got an agent, but wrote lots of letters as I was very industrious. Stand up was done as an experiment to not creatively shrivel. Before that I didn’t like comedy – I thought it was stupid. I also thought comedy was improvised. I’d seen Harry Hill, Jack Dee and Billy Connelly and thought they were making up – that they were geniuses.
But then I saw an open mic night, and it was just skinny boys with pads. Doing it as an experiment to get some stage time, I ended up really loving it. To start with it was just a hobby alongside acting.
Was there a big break moment?
There was’t really a big break moment. Most people in every single industry and career are looking to the future thinking “what do i do next and improve” – you don’t ever really turn around an punch the air. But when you find something you love that financially supports you, that is a brilliant line. That is the beauty of stand up as the gig side of it you are in control of. As long as that is never taken away from you then you’re able to pay your rent.
Is there a type of comedy that you like doing most?
It is very different everywhere I go. Most people I do comedy in front of have come to see me, rather than them not knowing I’ll be there – so they have engaged already. My style is quite confessional, so people who come to show after show know the background. For me, comedy is an authored craft, you take yourself and your own thoughts and options and then you create them into something light and hopefully entertaining.
How have you dealt with heckling and then more so when you have social media?
Again, people think comedy is different. The notion of putting yourself out there, that’s just what happens when your job matters. If you wake up in the morning and don’t care what you’re going to do, you shouldn’t be doing it.
The things that make you feel anxious and nervous and stressed, it is because it matters – and that is a sign you’re really engaged with what you are doing. With criticism, some people’s opinions are helpful to shaping your work. But your own critique is already quite harsh and you need to leave other people’s alone as it can stop you working. Part of getting older and becoming more confident is to say that is relevant, I can use that improve, and that is something else and I’m ok with that.
What was your approach with your book?
It’s a book on female evolution, how the female body evolved. I did a year of research because I’d been reading lots of science books and they’d all looked at evolution from a male perspective. I wanted to write something that was very accessible for men and women, but there are biological differences that are fascinating and need addressing. Women have double the body fat on average, and that is for an evolutionary reason. There is a culture that doesn’t teach us properly why we have body fat and why our bodies change during adolescence.
Do you really not think any topics are untouchable?
I just don’t believe in censorship, it’s really dangerous to say you can’t talk about this topic. Joking about sexual assault is always a big topic. Some people do and it’s one liners, and people find it triggering. If, as an industry, you say lets not talk about rape, then someone who wants to talk about their experience of rape on stage suddenly can’t.
The show that won the Perrier Award last year was a man talking about his experience of being raped. I know that doesn’t sound like a funny show, but it was such an important one. It was so exciting him talking about what he’d been through and that only happens if you have absolute freedom.
We have to be really careful to protect free speech, even when we really disagree with what people are saying. I can get really offended with what a comic says, but still think it is really important to let people talk about everything.
How do we expand that to wider life?
I think it’s about how we listen and break it down. When someone is intending to hurt you that is very different to hurting you accidentally. That is why hate speech is a crime or inciting a riot is a crime. Saying something that hurts you accidentally or because you are ignorant is different.
If we just tell each other off or shout or shut each other down we are not improving. Post-Brexit there is lots of insidious racism rising up. That was there before, it had just been stifled – there wasn’t communication. As scary as it is we really have to be discussing those things as they don’t go away.
What about social media and the internet?
You can really control how you use the internet, it is a door and you decide how you open it. I don’t check my @ messages on Twitter, and that’s because I’m over sensitive. If someone says something, I spend all day arguing with them in my head.
Six or seven years ago at Edinburgh festival, back when I checked twitter all the time, I did an article in The Times. The byline under my picture said Sara Pascoe uses her writing and work to make the pain ok. A man tweeted me and said “go do something useful and cure ebola!”. I still every day think about this guy.
The internet is great for sharing things like podcasts, ted talks and articles, but you shouldn’t worry too much about those that don’t want to engage with us.
Are panel shows things you enjoy or are they just about building your career?
I really enjoy them, and I wouldn’t do anything I didn’t enjoy. I think you don’t do good work if you don’t enjoy it.
I know not everyone likes to watch panel shows, but I love to do them. They give you wine in a mug and you sit there chatting to you friends and they edit it together to make it look less boring.
With gender, people assume there will be problems with testosterone. But I don’t think that’s the right word. I speak over them just as much as they talk over me. Being on a panel show it reminds me that it’s about a team – the audience will only enjoy it if everyone gets a turn.
Can women be sexy and funny?
I have a problem with that statement. I mean how dare we exist post-puberty and not be arousing penises all the time.
It is used against us all the time, no matter what you achieve, that you should crumble if someone doesn’t want to give us a kiss.
The thing with ignorance, and that’s what that statement is, they are trying to put us off track and steal our power by telling we don’t have it or are not capable of it because of a chromosome.
I once got into a taxi, and the driver was talking about books. He told me he didn’t read books by women as they weren’t as well researched. Now, either we can spend our entire lives arguing with that man (and I asked him who his favourite author was, and it was Andy McNab), or just fly – and they are in our shadow and behind us.
We don’t have to convince everyone, it isn’t your job or my job to prove I can be sexy. Why? Who for? It’s all for you – do what you want to do. It is getting better all the time as we have these discussions and care about it.
If you’re enjoyed our Sara Pascoe interview and want to know more about the First Women programme, including the upcoming tenth annual First Women Awards, have a look at our event website.