Can anyone be funny? We spoke to comedian and writer Stevie Martin to get the low down on lols, imposter syndrome and her brand new solo show, Vol. 1...
Photos: Idil Sukan
How do you become a stand up comedian?
It feels like there are two main ways people become comedians: because it’s something they’ve always dreamed of, or by accident. I fall into the latter camp. When I was at university, my friend’s boyfriend was in the university sketch troupe (The Durham Revue) and they were auditioning. I said I didn’t want to do it. Then I got quite drunk, did the audition drunk, got in, had a lovely two years but couldn’t see it as a career path so became a journalist, then three years later realised I missed doing it so much that I started a sketch group on the side of my 9-5. Now I’m a comedian, but I never say I’m a comedian because I find it incredibly embarrassing. I say I’m a writer which is true, just not the WHOLE truth.
Can you force funny AKA can anyone be funny?
I think anyone can be funny, but being “funny” on stage is definitely an art form that’s completely different from being a great laugh in the pub. Audiences are ruthless and totally changeable – so much depends on the vibe in the room, rather than the actual material. In Edinburgh last year, I performed Vol. 1 every night for a month and every single night the room would respond differently to different bits. If I mess up a joke during a short ten-minute set at a mixed bill gig (with lots of different comedians), it takes a long time to gain an audience’s confidence back and make them laugh again. If I come out really strong, I can stutter over a bunch of lines later on and it won’t affect anything because I’ve already got their confidence. I find that stuff really interesting and, when you get it right, it’s definitely the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done. And I once held my breath for a minute in exchange for ten pogs (I nearly fainted, I was eight, it was exhilarating).
Where do your ideas come from?
I always felt like an imposter because in my head I should be sat 9-5 writing, like when on a deadline for an article. Thing is, I can go ages without having any good ideas at all, and then in one night write half an hour of material that works, without any idea where it’s come from. I don’t know about anyone else’s brain, but my brain works in bursts – I just have to arrange my life so that I’m able to catch the bursts when they come out. That sounds gross….
The thing that gives me the most inspiration for ideas is watching other shows, not just comedy but plays, musicals, any sort of performance. For some reason, seeing someone doing something on a stage just unlocks ideas, and those ideas are never anything to do with what I’ve just seen. I think everyone has their own way, and every way is much more annoying and difficult than you presume it will be. It’s very rare that I’ll suddenly think of a fully formed joke or sketch, I usually brainstorm until something pops up that makes me think “Oooh that would be fun to do” and then it either is, or I perform it to silence in which case, into the “Let’s never think about that again” box it goes.
How would you sum up your first solo show, Vol. 1?
The idea is that it’s an hour of beginnings for all types of shows. From horror plays to stand-up, to the first few minutes of a séance. Nothing outstays it’s welcome and it’s basically all jokes and me throwing myself around for the audience’s entertainment.
Why should we come and see it?
Because it’s pure escapism, I won’t be mentioning Brexit or Donald Trump, and because of the sheer volume and variety of jokes I’m genuinely convinced that everyone will laugh AT LEAST twice. MINIMUM.
What advice would you give an aspiring comedian?
Book a gig, or put on a night with a few mates in a comedy-friendly room above a pub and just do it. The first time you do it, if you’re anything like me, you will try to cancel four times and your friend who runs the gig will refuse to allow you to cancel and then you’ll go to the toilet 700 times and not be able to eat anything all day. Then you’ll do it and feel like someone just injected the sun into your heart because, even if nobody laughs, YOU DID IT. And the next time will slightly (very slightly) better, and then the next time and the next time until you’re a year in and you only go to the toilet 452 times.
How do you start a comedy group?
There are lots of groups on Facebook, but I feel like if you want to start a comedy group, you need to have a relationship with the people you’re working with. I was in a group with two people I knew very well and it was still incredibly difficult at times. A lot of shouting and a lot of tension.
The best bet is to do a comedy course, or some sort of class, so you get to meet other people and, crucially, see if they have the same sense of humour as you do. There’s a really great improvised comedy course in Hackney called the Free Association which spawns a lot of sketch groups and is full of creative people who don’t necessarily want to devote their entire lives to improv, but certainly want to create fun stuff. The Soho Theatre run great comedy courses too.
Is it hard going solo after being part of a sketch group?
In some ways yes, but in some ways no. It took longer for me to comfortable being on stage by myself than it did with two other people, and if I balls up there’s nobody to bail me out (I’m very bad at learning lines I’ve written. Other people’s lines are fine. Mine are not). But on the other hand, when I was in a group, every idea had to be vetted by two separate people before it went in. Now it’s just me. Sure, that means that new material nights (where comedians test out material they’ve never said aloud to another human before) are a lot scarier, but it means that the finished show feels so much more satisfying because it all came from you. You’re not quietly thinking “Well that would have been funnier if we’d gone for my excellent banjo joke there”.
How did Massive Dad come about?
Liz and I were both in the Durham Revue, both tried to get normal jobs and then both missed comedy and couldn’t stop talking about how we’d love to do it. Tessa was in the year below us at university, and in the Durham Revue the year after we left, so we knew of her and thought she was very funny so approached her tentatively. Before long, we were rehearsing and writing in my office after I’d clocked off for the day and doing little gigs in pubs around London. I wouldn’t have been able to do my first ever gig alone, it was hard enough doing it alone after two years of doing it with other people! I would have melted into a small puddle.
What three women would you urge everyone to follow right now?
I love Beth McColl, she’s a writer who tweets at @imteddybliss and always makes me laugh, @meganamram co-wrote The Good Place and is really really funny (obviously) and also Lou Sanders @LouSanders who is one of my favourite comedians and tweets loads of really silly one liners.
Who’s the funniest person you know?
My sister, Gina, makes me laugh in a way that could never be explained or translated to other people. Same with my boyfriend. And all of my close friends. I feel like life is too short not to surround yourself with people that make you need to go to the toilet because you’re laughing so hard about nothing.
Stevie Martin’s debut show Vol.1 runs at London’s Soho Theatre from 17th-20th April. Get tickets here.