Note – lots of extremely sensitive topics are discussed below.
So, hi! How did you get started in comedy? Who are you? What’s going on?
I started doing stand-up in 2019. I’d been working on a book about my mental health issues and the editor I was working with said “I can see this being an Edinburgh show, would you ever consider performing it or doing stand-up or anything?” And because I’m a massive people-pleaser I said yes.
And she also said, from the perspective of book sales it’s nice to have a platform, so I think I’m one of the few stand-ups who went into it to try to get an audience for a book that’s not been published.
So then 2020 happened. And did that change your trajectory or where you were trying to go with it?
So, it was interesting, because actually I’d had some big gigs booked, which I was probably actually not ready for, that got postponed due to the pandemic. And at the time, I was really upset. But in hindsight I’m quite pleased.
I am a big believer in doing stuff before you’re ready but I also think there should be a smaller gap between your… you should be closer to being prepared than I was.
It was interesting because I didn’t miss stand-up during lockdown. And I know lots of stand-ups missed it a lot. Some people were born to perform and I’ve never felt like that. I did a few comedy writing things over lockdown, I co-wrote a sitcom pilot with another comedian, and I also did the Now Show writers’ room for the first time and I just felt very much like I wanted to focus on comedy writing.
And I think also because in the past when stand-up hasn’t gone well, I struggled to be thick skinned and be resilient about it. At that point I felt well maybe because stand-up does feel so much more exposing and I feel so much more vulnerable when I’m on stage than when I’m writing. With writing you can go back, you can redraft it, but with stand-up it’s live.
It’s such a public learning curve. You can’t go away and become a good stand-up in your room and then just come out. Whereas with writing you can. But I was lucky enough to do some writing for a quite successful comedian over lockdown, and he was very complimentary about my work and he asked me about my stand-up and whether I was planning to go to Edinburgh. And I said I was actually now going to probably just focus on the writing.
You know they say you have to put in 10,000 hours to become good at anything, I said to him I feel like I could put 10,000 hours into writing and become a brilliant writer or 10,000 hours into stand-up and just become a decent stand-up. And he basically said that if you only started in 2019 and it was a bit soon to be ruling myself out. And I’d also talked about how demoralised and sad I got when gigs didn’t go well.
Every time when I tell people that, they… I often feel a strong sense of shame too, which people don’t… people talk about being sad after a gig goes badly but I don’t often hear people talk about shame. So when I told him about the shame I expected him to go “oh well, maybe stand-up’s not for you then”, because I think most people would agree that it’s not healthy to feel that level of shame several times a week. But he was like, “oh you know, it might be worth it”.
I had entered the stand-up competition “So you think you’re funny” before lockdown happened and was planning on pulling out of that, but after his pep talk, I decided to still do it and I decided to do other gigs in preparation for that. And just found I enjoyed it so muchmore than I thought I would and so carried on after.
So that segues quite nicely into my next question, which is… we talked about this a little bit after your funny femmes show in Battersea last week. Your material is – I’m guessing – you’re going to get a lot of different audience reactions. And at alternative nights and nights where you’re expecting to be challenged, they’re gonna come with you. But I’m curious to know, has it been too much for some audiences and is that why you are coming out of it feeling shame or you’re not getting that much out of it because of that?
I do believe that if you’re a good enough stand-up you’re gonna be in a position to talk about more controversial or more challenging subjects and I definitely feel that you can bring the audience with you. I saw Isabelle Farah’s show, Ellipsis, in Edinburgh and it’s a part theatre, part stand-up piece and it’s about her experiences of bereavement and in it she talks about how there’s levels of the stand-up, and the better you get the more difficult topics you can approach, but when you’re a beginner there are topics that you’re not a good enough stand-up to tackle.
And that really struck me because it had never occurred to me that, say, if I talk about a more difficult and emotive subject like rape it never occured to me that I would have to wait until I’m a better stand-up to talk about this.
In terms of the shame thing, it is harder for audiences to laugh, or at least it is harder for some audiences to laugh at mental health stuff I think. Especially if they’ve not experienced it, there is an element of “oh dear, do we need to be worried about her?” And I’ve definitely been in audiences sometimes where I’ve been worried about the performer on stage. [But] I think the performer has more power than they think they probably do. But there will be some people who are fundamentally uncomfortable with it all.
I guess the reason I asked that is that your joke writing is so good and your material is so tight and… it’s almost like you’re daring the audiences sometimes not to laugh at it. Because it’s so funny and it’s set up so well. I’ve seen you now a couple of times and in both shows I was laughing very loudly and I was like, “is my laughter helping other people have permission to laugh as well? Am I helping? Am I being a good audience member?” I was more having a go at the audiences than suggesting that you need to rein it in or… but the thing you said about earning the right to do more complex material is a really interesting one, and brings me to my next question, which is where you’re planning to go next with your material. Are you planning on tackling more complex issues… how do you see yourself developing as a stand-up?
That’s an interesting one. I think I’m going to have to… You know from our conversation that I’m thinking about doing some material about Shamima Begum…
And for me, I’m going to have to think carefully about how I do that. So, I have some jokes to do with rape. And I’d hesitate, I wouldn’t necessarily call them “rape jokes” just because of the connotations of that. But basically I feel like that’s a punching up joke and it’s about my experiences. I say, I’m so used to hearing about men who have raped and killed women, every time I’ve heard that a man’s killed a woman and not raped her first I’m like, what a gentleman”.
And I genuinely remember reading news articles in the past and reading, “oh he killed her… didn’t rape her, ok, so maybe he’s not completely irrideemable.” And to me that was meant to be a joke about rape culture and my messed up mind.
But I had this experience where I performed it on stage once and one of the audience members left and was clearly visibly upset, and I noticed it the moment I used the word rape. I noticed all her friends looked at her. And I knew she’d been affected by it. And as soon as I came off stage I went to the toilets and she was crying, and I just felt awful. I felt so awful about it, and I said “I’m so sorry”. And she said to me, “I want you to feel like you can write jokes about whatever you want to write jokes about”, it’s just she was saying for her there were bits that were triggering for her.
And I, in that moment – and I come off very badly in this – but in that moment I was so horrified that I’d reminded her of such a painful, difficult experience that I said, well, I just won’t do that joke any more. I won’t. I hate the fact that i’ve done this. And I didn’t do the joke for a while.
And I spoke to quite a few people about what had happened and, again, because I was really upset, because that’s the last thing than you want, to make an audience member cry. I didn’t deal with it for a while and I kept speaking to people… and it was interesting because a lot of other comics were like, “no, you need to do the material; it’s really unfortunate that that happened, but you need to do your material and you need to talk about these things.”
And there were some comics who were like, “you do need to talk about this material but maybe it’s a bit much for a five minute set, maybe it needs to be like in a solo show where people have kind of agreed to enter your world, and you can do content warnings. And then even when you came and saw me at Battersea, and I will say it’s very much a hit and miss… so yeah, obviously I started doing it again because… you know, I still feel conflicted about it and there are times when I don’t do it.
I have tied myself in knots about it, because also I want women to feel – and obviously this applies to all survivors – because of the statistics I’m thinking women. Statistically when I do that joke there’s a very strong chance that I am performing it to someone who’s experienced that, and some people have told me they find it cathartic; and obviously for other people it’s a reminder of a really horrible experience. And I had to remind myself that I’m not the reason they had that experience. But I don’t want to remind them. So I’ve tied myself in knots…
When I did it at Battersea, I remember thinking… sometimes it goes really well and sometimes it goes quite poorly, and I felt that it went particularly poorly that day. And then I came home and I read the news and I was like, “ah yes. Sarah Everard’s [killer was sentenced]. Front and centre. It is such a weird thing, but basically I think part of what I love about going on stage is the adrenaline and if I go on and do stuff that feels completely within my comfort zone I feel sometimes I’m cheating myself. It’s about finding a balance between being brave enough to say what I want to say, but to understand that there may be consequences and I might make someone cry. And I have to be willing to deal with that.
I remember asking Sharlin [Jahan] how much of her stage persona is her, and I have a feeling if I was going to ask you for a nominal percentage it’s a lot higher than the one she possibly presents. Would that be fair?
Everything I say onstage is true, and anything that’s not true – most of it – I think it’s very clear and obvious that it’s not true. And I just find it quite a fun challenge to make it as true to myself as possible.
But I’m working around that, because my partner also does stand-up, and he says sometimes I limit myself be being well this has to have happened, or…
Basically I love the trust audiences put in you, and I know the audience are signing up to laugh and that they’re signing up to… hoodwinkery is a part of that and that’s fine. It’s just something I feel more comfortable with when it’s closer to my life. I guess it’s just what I know.
Most of my stuff is true. I’ve done a few jokes about wanting to sleep with my dad. I’ve never wanted to sleep with my dad. And truth be told, it’s that I came up with it, it made audiences laugh, and I’ve not come up with a joke that’s better to swap it out for.
You went massively viral. What the fuck was that like? Was it annoying? Even though you went viral for something really cool and funny?
I wouldn’t say it was annoying. I will say that I was massively underprepared for it. I don’t have a massive twitter following even now but back then I had, like, I wanna say maybe 400 followers, and I hadn’t used any hashtags… I put it online just because when you do art you’re always told “oh, put it out there”.
I found it both amazing and terrifying. I’ll be honest with you – I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to chase that high. And it’s also sad because I’ve done stuff that I think is better or funnier or wittier and I still average about four likes on a tweet.
In terms of being unprepared, when it went viral I had a lot of people asking me for prints of the artwork and t-shirts… and I’m very much an over-thinker, and when I’m anxious – which is all the time – that translates into indecision. And so I’m like “oh my god, people want T-shirts, but I want to do this ethically, but I don’t know the best way to this ethically, and I also want this to be in people’s price range, and shipping, and… so I was very slow off the mark to make money off that.
What a lovely feminist answer. “I was very slow off the mark to monetise it”, and people even said to me at the time, if you want to [do it], it needs to be in 24 hours, and I was a nineteen year old art student with anxiety.
And though I have been offered cool things off the back of it, it is strange because I’m now more interested in comedy and comedy writing. I wouldn’t say I have fans, but there are more people who are aware and who have been exposed to my art than my comedy, so that’s an interesting thing in terms of even my website. Because I could put the comedy stuff front and centre, but most people who are clicking on my website are doing so because of the artwork.
I ended up creating a separate comedy instagram because I didn’t want people who wanted to follow me just for the art I didn’t want them to have to see me at 110 open mic gigs. But I have far more followers on my art account than my comedy account.
But there were some very cool things. I was invited to go on a BBC news show to discuss it. And I remember getting really worked up about it because it was going to be my first TV appearance, and I got very decidedly unfeminist about it. I remember before, I spend a lot of time thinking about how I’d present myself, and mentally psyching myself up for the barrage of insults I was going to get, because some men don’t like women having opinions.
But that day someone who was meant to resign, decided not to resign, so the BBC decided that was more important reporting than my thing, which I’m in complete agreement with and am frankly astonished that there wasn’t always going to be something more important than this art student going viral…
Alex Bertulis-Fernandes is doing a show at the Nottingham comedy festival on Sunday 21st of November. Tickets here.