JH: The first question we’re going to ask you is why do you – and we use the word ‘art’ – but why do you do what you do?
PE: I do think there is something inside me that needs attention a lot and I just love making people laugh, probably more than anything in the world. I love standing on stage and creating something that’s me. I find it interesting we’re all kind of the same but we have our own way of looking at things. So there’s some kind of validation in going “Well, this is what I think about spaghetti bolognaise, which is probably what some of you think about spaghetti bolognaise but you’ve never been able to phrase it in quite the same way I can.” So then we have a moment where we all laugh about spaghetti bolognaise together. Then it’s gone. Whether that’s through writing or through improvising. Improvising obviously comes out in the moment and that’s really exciting and you can do a show from a the suggestion that someone says – someone said “barn owl” – you’ve ended up in a circus in Toronto, that they can see how you got there and you’ve created something together, that then disappears. So you’ve created this thing altogether and only you’ve had that experience. That’s both wonderful and horrific. For example, last night we did Showstopper! It was a really great show. It’s gone now. Those people will all leave saying “what a great show! That’s the best show.” Then they could come again and it could be ok or it could be crap or absolute rubbish. So there’s some excitement in that as well, that maybe I’m always testing myself.
JH: Is that something you do everyday?
PE: Probably everyday I do something. I mean I count Twitter as working because it’s either admin (“come and see my show”), or thinking of funny things because they say you should put five jokes on there before you put an advert for something otherwise people will stop following you if you’re just saying “come and see my show”. So I try to think of five interesting or funny things that are happening that day. So I probably do something creative everyday. Although recently, I’ve got very excited by this quote from Socrates: “Beware the barrenness of a busy life”. I was finding that I was super busy, making myself busy, but to the point where I wasn’t enjoying anything I was doing and I realised I was doing a lot of gigs to make money – that’s how I pay my bills. But I wasn’t enjoying a lot of them. A lot of them are in proper comedy clubs, most of it just shouting. I like winning – I like doing a gig and then someone heckles me and I win. But it doesn’t feel creative, more like saying “you’re a cunt.” So I said to my agent, after December, I want to cut back. I’ve cutback already on gigs and I’d rather go and work in a shop two days a week so I can do more interesting, creative things than be stuck in this world doing the same 20 minutes Friday, Saturday and Sunday, paying my bills but completely unsatisfied with anything I’m doing. Which is interesting because in many ways I’ve succeeded.
When I told myself I wanted to be a comedian, this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in comedy clubs. But then when I got to the comedy clubs, it’s actually not satisfying and a lot isn’t about doing a great job as a comedian, it’s about making sure people are entertained for the twenty minutes before the bar opens again. There was an interesting documentary that Johnny Vegas did in Benidorm, because he’s in a show ‘Benidorm’ so he went to talk to talk to the comedians there. A lot of the bar owners there said, “We only hire mediocre comedians because if the comedian is too good, people won’t buy drinks.” They don’t have musical acts because if they have musical acts then people will listen to the whole song because a song is a song, whether it’s funny or not. So that’s the horrible side of the business. I understand the need for that – they need to make their money and that but it kills the actual comedy and then those people think that’s what comedy should be and feeds a deathly cycle.
JH: And what do you think being in the arts, being a comedian, doing what you do, brings to the rest of your life?
PE: Um, paranoia! [Laughing]. Well, improvising – I really do think it brings great life skills of accepting people, going with the flow, having to reject your own offers. For instance, say there’s a suggestion from the audience of “marigolds”, and in your head, you’ll have 700 ideas: gloves, washing-up, my mother, flowers, garden, teatime. Then someone comes on and starts the scene and says “Jupiter is looking good today” and you’ve 700 ideas in your head that you just have to throw into a bin and say, “Yes, Jupiter is great”. That’s a really good skill to have in life. A) To be listening to other people because there’s nothing more infuriating than to be talking to someone about marigolds and for them to say “did you see the football last night?” They weren’t listening to anything I just said! Or B) being ready to accept other people. Whether that be a horrifically racist sentence; how do you turn that sentence around, how do you listen to that person’s opinion before you jump on them and say my opinion is the right opinion? So I think improvisation with life skills are great.
I think humour just improves everything. Being able to laugh at yourself is probably the skill I had to learn as I took myself very seriously until I was about 27. Then I think having a kind, understanding husband made me realise that sometimes I’m a dick and accepting that. And speaking more in my own voice in the last year since Sunday Assembly started has meant that I’ve had to accept who I am as I’ve always created these characters who aren’t me but probably have aspects of me that aren’t very nice. For example, Loretta Maine, the main character I’m doing at the moment is a singer-songwriter and a hideous, hideous person but quite clearly comes from somewhere in my brain. I know I can become that person really easily so maybe Loretta Maine is just me with an American accent. I think it really helps my understanding of people. Even going to the comedy club shows and doing those horrible gigs, it shows you a different side of life that maybe I wouldn’t see because that wouldn’t be my idea of a great night out. But to go to those clubs and see there are people who just want to laugh at bums and cocks. I mean I love cock jokes but seeing this other world of people who I wouldn’t normally meet and seeing a whole other side of life. It’s a fascinating way of meeting people.
JH: How do you – or do you – reflect on your practice and what you’re doing?
PE: Well, the immediate feedback of comedy is of course laughter so there’s that. But recently, as I said, coming back into my own voice, what is it I actually want to say? I don’t want to be a preacher comedian or a political comedian who makes big points or anything. I don’t think that’s my skill. I’d like to be called an entertainer rather than a comedian but the word ‘entertainer’ has a lot of connotations so do with sex; ‘entertainer’ sounds like ‘lady of the night’. What I love is old town, when you sang a song, said a couple of jokes, did a magic trick, pulled out a ball and asked how much it weighed. I’d love to do more of that kind of stuff.
I did The Artist’s Way and found that really useful but a lot of people sneer at that book. I thought it was brilliant for me. I hit a real rut when I was at Melbourne Comedy Festival last year. I was invited and paid to go to Melbourne, do my show and then tour around Australia for six weeks. It should have been “Ta-da! You’ve arrived!” but I found myself really miserable going “What am I doing? Why am I here?” So when I did the six-week tour, I thought what I’ll do is think about what I’m doing and whether I want to return to this when I get back. So I did the pages everyday and went for walks. Did all the –for want of a better word – hippy shit in that book that you sort of feel embarrassed to do but sometimes you do need to think about and realise that I did want to do comedy but what I didn’t want to do was twenty minutes in comedy clubs.
I think a lot of that came back to that schooling of having, “Where do you want to be in ten years time?” questions. I thought I wanted the Pippa Evans show on television, but actually I don’t want the Pippa Evans show on television. That’s not my goal. So I was talking to my friend Holly and she said, “Well, what do you want?” I said, “I think I want to get to 60 and have an amazing canon of work.” It’s much more freeing because it stops it from being, “I have to have a TV show otherwise I’ve failed”. But also a canon of work can be anything. My next project is called ‘100 days as a biscuit’, which I start doing in September. My mum, when I was a kid, well a young lady, said “you must always wear mascara otherwise you’ll look like a biscuit.” Which I think is a really funny phrase. Because I’m so pale, if I don’t wear mascara, my face becomes a rich tea biscuit. I think it’s something her mother said to her. I thought, it’s a very funny phrase and it’s also quite a thing to say to a young lady: “You must wear make-up otherwise you won’t be pretty”. I thought, “what would happen if I didn’t wear make-up for three months?” and see what happens. We’re obsessed with make-up and in fact there’s even a ‘no make-up’ look so you apply make-up to make it look like you’re not wearing make-up. So how does if affect me as a person? How do I feel when I don’t wear make-up? I don’t wear a lot of make-up but I wear more than most people will know because it’s drilled into your head. I’ve got the ‘no make-up’ look right now. It’s just an interesting idea; if I went to a party or a wedding with no make-up on as putting on make-up is part of the ritual. How much is grooming and how much is put upon us by society? I’m just quite interested to see what happens. So it’s kind of an art project, with a blog and photos, but also talking to people about it. I know lots of people who don’t wear any make-up and fight make-up almost. And I know make-up artists who would never dream of, well actually you meet make-up artists who don’t wear make-up because they don’t have enough time to do their own. I find it interesting.
Things like that are more interesting to me than going to a comedy club. I probably won’t make any money from it but it feeds a different part of me. It’s that balance you have to make. You can of course be the artist who lives in a brick room and just makes papier-mâché statues of their feelings. But maybe that won’t pay the bills. So how do you pay the bills and still make your papier-mâché? Probably do a few nights at a comedy club and spend the rest of the time looking like a biscuit.
JH: The nature of your practice means you’ve talked about this quite a lot but to what extent are other people – either audience or collaborators – important in your practice?
PE: Obviously in performing, they’re really very important. It’d be really embarrassing if it was just me on my own. It’s quite interesting though, because I don’t mind the size of the audience. I’ve performed to thousands of people and two people. Once you’re over the fear of having two people, you can actually make this lovely thing that is just for two people. One of the things you don’t appreciate when you start doing comedy are the skills required. You think the skills you need to be a comedian are to make funny jokes but actually the skills you need are to judge a room, see what’s needed, be able to communicate with your audience without talking to them, just being to draw them in, to be willing to change, to do the show.
There’s always the question, do you do the show you want to do or the one the audience wants? How much give and take do you have on that? For me, the audience is always the most important person in the room actually. Because you don’t want the audience leaving going “well, that was self-indulgent”. You want them to say, “She was funny and I really felt a part of something.” That’s what I really like – the shows where you might have done the same material but you feel like you’ve had a show that no one else will have other than that. Obviously with improvisation, the audience is everything because without them is nothing. There’s an interesting thing now with improv shows where you don’t ask the audience for anything – you just sit on the stage and the audience comes in and then you just start but that’s not an improv show, that’s a clown show. The improv show is all improvised, but learning to improvise, is that the audience give you the suggestions and then you work on their suggestions. So I don’t know where you break the line there in terms of, if I’ve paid for an improv show, do I just want to watch two people making stuff up or do I want input in that? Do I want to say “birds” and see what happens? Or am I happy to watch people make things up? I think I’d personally want to say something, or add something or give something.
JH: Finally, what piece of advice might you give to either a professional or everyday artist to do something they’ve never done before?
PE: Say “yes, and”. The basic building block of improvisation is saying, “yes, and?”. So someone says, “would you like to come and paint this room?” “Yes, and I’ll bring some paint.” Yes and, always.
JH: Thank you very much Pippa Evans.