Sara Pascoe likes big questions. When she’s not appearing in panel shows (QI, Have I Got News for You), acting in TV series (W1A, Campus), or writing for her forthcoming first book (Animal: How a Woman is Made), she occupies herself with dissecting big questions via her critically-acclaimed stand up routines.
History, the apocalypse, and truth itself are among the foundational subject matters to have fallen under the blade of her comedy scalpel. Now in her latest show, the 34-year-old is tackling religion – more specifically, religion at Christmas time.
Andrew Youngson: Tell us a little about the show.
Sara Pascoe: At this stage what I can tell you is it’s Christmassy and that it borrows lots of Christmas myths that already exists, but it’s changing them, moving characters around, putting different religions in, combining Greek myths with the Jesus story, and stuff like that.
What inspired that?
Just that I thought it would be funny. I’m really interested in religion, but I’m not religious. So I think that means you can be a little bit disrespectful and have a bit of fun.
I guess comedy is always going to step along the borders of things that are touchy and sometimes across them. Do you worry about that at all?
As long as things are done with absolute love. The things that tend to upset people are when you denigrate, or send someone up or try to say their religion is pointless, or that the religious figures who they love are in any way bad – that would be bad.
But this is not that; it’s silly. It should be just as enjoyable to someone who’s deeply Christian as someone who doesn’t care at all. Because we all have the same stories, whether we believe in them or not. In this country in particular we all know the Christmas story whether we’re religious or not, you can’t avoid it.
What prep work has it needed?
I’ve done some research, it’s been really interesting. For example, if you look up ‘religious figures’ on the Internet, I didn’t realise that Prince Philip is worshipped on an island.
No, this island in the pacific had this myth that a woman would arrive with a man and that he would be their spiritual leader. So when the Queen turned up in the ’90s with Prince Philip they said: “This is it! This is the guy!”
How big is the cast of the show?
I’ve got a choir of 12 every night, they’re part of the British Humanist Choir. I’ve got three young actor/musicians who work at the BAC who are part of their homegrown – I did a scratch with three of them and they did loads of beat-boxing for me and I just adored them so they’re in the show as well. Then I’ve got my friend Vanessa from university, and my boyfriend John (Robins) and his best friend Robin who’s a musician. I’ve written them into the show in their own roles too, so you’ve got these two-levels going on of us in our real lives and us in the show.
That’s great, to be bringing your family with you.
The truth of it is, Christmas gigs are horrible for standup comedians, because the audience changes when all these work dos come in. And the thing about work dos is, nobody wants to see standup comedy. Maybe one person had to arrange a thing, so brought them all along but everybody else wants to just have a drink and talk to each other. So that means they’ll only talk to you if they want to make fun of you. So December is kind of horrible for comedians. But then the BAC called up with this option to get me out of Christmas gigs, so I said ‘yes please!’ And then, John my boyfriend is a standup as well so I thought I would rescue him from the circuit.
Sounds like the perfect solution. Outside of work, what is Christmas to you?
Do you know what, I don’t come from a very Christmassy family, so I think I’m probably very cynical about Christmas in terms of consumerism. I think Christmas, if I’m honest, is a myth. It’s us trying to think there is stuff we can buy or eat that will make us feel better, and I think it can be a very lonely time for people who don’t have a family. Although people do get charitable around Christmas, so good can come out of it, but I worry that they disappear again in January.
What do you do at Christmas, family-wise?
I’ve got two young nieces and we only really do presents for them, and not each other. Sometimes we’re very very lazy around Christmas, because it’s just me, my mum, my two sisters and their boyfriends. Yeah we watch a bit of telly, and enjoy the fact there’s a day off. But it’s not gathering round the tree to sing carols, or anything like that.
What do you hope your family says about you when you leave the Christmas table?
I think someone thinking you’re silly is a really nice compliment. And I think especially with my family it’s a sign we’re all getting on rather than being tense and tetchy. I really like it when I’m able to be silly, when that’s my role. Especially as we’ve got children now in the family, it’s great when you’ve all got a silly joke going and you’re all really laughing. That’s the best.
Are you the comedian of the family?
I would say I’m definitely not. I was never the class clown growing up. I’m very earnest and often crying. Both my sisters are really funny, they tease each other a lot – I’m the oldest – and my mum is just an idiot. So when were not rowing it can be really funny.
What kind of things do you row about?
Any kind of criticism. Obviously with my mum, who will have cooked the food, any criticism around that won’t go down well. One year my sister bought me a book of literary criticism called, ‘How to Kill Your Mother’, and it’s about different authors and how their relationships with their parents have influenced their work. Anyway, my mum saw the hardback and was absolutely furious, whereas none of us would have thought she would take offence. She was sure my sister had given me a manual for murdering her. That was a bad one.
Okay, I’m going to play the Ghost of Christmas Past. What are some of your best and worst memories of this time of year?
I once spent Christmas on my own cat sitting for a friend in Queens Park. I’m not saying it was the worst, but it was kind of a pointless exercise. I just remember watching lots of her Curb your Enthusiasm DVDS while eating a lentil curry. My mum was so sure I would change my mind and she would have to come pick me up. But I just said, ‘I don’t think I really care’, because I didn’t really, and I didn’t miss out on much. But really, I wondered what I was trying to prove.
And the best?
Probably last year. My eldest niece is now four so Christmases have become fun because she knows what’s going on. I think she described it as being her birthday, but for everyone. I thought that was really nice. (Laughs).
On to the Ghost of Christmas Present: How have you made yourself feel proud this year?
I’ve written a book, or rather I’m just finishing the second draft of it now, so it’ll be done by Christmas. When I’m having my rest over Christmas I’ll be like, ‘oh you deserve it this year, you’ve worked so hard’.
And finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. What does 2016 have in store?
Fun stuff really. I will maybe try to write another book, but have a few months off first. I’m doing the Melbourne Comedy Festival, and I’ve got TV stuff planned but I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about it yet. But yes, I’ve got fun stuff planned already in the diary.
I recently interviewed Will Adamsdale, your co-star from Channel sitcom Campus, who’s also performing at the BAC this Christmas (See the Exeunt interview here)
I asked if he had any questions for you and he came up with this: “Where do you get your energy from?’ I don’t know how she does it. Maybe it’s being a vegan, I don’t know. I would just say: ‘Could I get some a little of that?'” What’s your response?
It’s so flattering that Will thinks I am energetic, it’s probably only that I am always pleased to see him. I am a bit anxious so that’s where my energy comes from usually – a nervy ‘so much could go wrong’ place. And yes also the wonder-powers of veganism!
Speaking of nerves, before you go on stage what state of mind are you in? Any pre-show rituals?
I don’t have any because it’s so easy to get superstitious and magical about stuff that I have to stop myself. So usually the ritual is generally me being a bit quiet and tetchy until the show starts, that would be it – me going inside myself and being a bit moody.
That’s quite an odd frame of mind to be in before going on stage to be all jolly and funny.
Yeah, but I think it’s just how I react to anxiety now. I don’t tend to get butterfly nerves, I just get a bit moody. ‘Oh no, I’m going to go on stage and do this in a moment’, but then it melts away in seconds when I’m on stage. Unless, of course, it’s Christmas audiences and work dos. (Laughs)
Sara Pascoe’s Christmas Assembly is at the Battersea Arts Centre from December 14 to 23. More info here.