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Sarah Bennetto is a Melbourne-born, London-based comedian. As well as playing comedy clubs in London, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, Sarah is also a stalwart of BBC Radio, plus hosted her own radio show on Dalston’s NTS Radio “Sarah Bennetto’s Mix-Tape”, as well as at her cult favorite annual show from backstage at Glastonbury Festival. Sarah is the brains behind Storytellers’ Club, which tours internationally, and guests regularly on huge UK podcasts like Global Pillage, all the great comedy panel shows. Sarah has performed a variety of solo comedy shows for Edinburgh Fringe, Adelaide, Perth Fringe and Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
Listen to Episode #6 here:
Standup Comedy: Looking For The Humor In Life with Sarah Bennetto
Our guest is comedian Sarah Bennetto, born in Melbourne and lives in London. She’s performed throughout the UK and Australia, including Melbourne Comedy Festival, Edinburgh Festival Fringe and her shows are fascinating. For example, depicting the true story of a lunch with Prince Charles and a not so true live staging of her own funeral. She also hosts a radio show called Sarah Bennetto’s Mix Tape. Welcome, Sarah.
Thank you very much, Peter. It’s nice to be here.
Sarah, if you weren’t doing comedy, what would you be doing?
I enjoy music radio and I have one foot in that camp. I feel like if it all went kaput for comedy, that I would ease my way into music radio.
You’d be a DJ?
Yeah. I love it. I could talk about music endlessly. Live gigs, records, rock stars, all of that. I love it.
How did you get into music?
From a very young age, I went to see live shows and all through a British band called The Cure. I remember staying up late to watch an Australian music video, a TV show called Rage, which is like pivotal to any Australian indie kids musical school upbringing. It was a back-to-back collection of music videos by The Cure. From there, I fell in love with that band and then I started getting into other bands, contemporaries of The Cure, New Order, Depeche Mode and stuff like that. Anything contemporary that had I supposed been influenced by that scene, that Britpop scene, that Euro magic scene. Then from the age that I could start going to live shows, I started going to live shows.
What age is that?
Probably, here it’s eighteen but I was going at sixteen with an older friend or a relative.
With a fake ID?
Yeah, but if my mom and dad are listening to this know, no. “I still haven’t been to a live gig. What are you talking about? I never had alcohol or anything worse than that.” That’s my life. I love it.
I once spent three weeks in Estonia and there’s a Depeche Mode bar in Estonia. Put that on your list. They played Depeche Mode all the time.
I love Depeche Mode, but I feel for the stuff. That’s funny because now I’ve met a lot of these people, my musical heroes through the work that I do. I host a backstage show at Glastonbury Festival every year, which is an incredible event. A week-long, I’m camped backstage with the bands and interviewing them and going to see the headline sets later that night. It’s amazing. I also curate the comedy stage at the Music Festival every year and I have done so for thirteen years now.
Which one is that?
End of the Road Festival, which is named after a Bob Dylan’s song, not a Backstreet Boys song. We get the best comedians you’ll ever see playing every year and bands as well, Flaming Lips, David Byrne. That’s been great for meeting my heroes and almost always making a klutz out of myself in front of them. I wish I could say, I’m like stylish, a graceful lady, but I am who I am.
First of all, I disagree. You walked throughout the streets of Melbourne trying to find this place and I was the one lacking grace.
We had a lovely time. This building is gorgeous.
Have you seen this movie 24 Hour Party People?
Yes, I have about the Madchester scene. It’s great.
Steve Coogan breaks the fourth wall in the movie.
Yes, that’s true and also I believe there’s another comic, Simon Pegg is in it. He has a cameo. Comics crossover a lot into the music world and into the film world, very clearly. I don’t know if people know that. Comics are very useful in lots of realms. We never say no and that’s a problem and a blessing. There’s a lot we can draw up on.
Do you think that’s a problem that comics don’t say no?
It can be.
This is an issue that I have is the people think they don’t have to pay comics.
It depends on the scene. It depends where you are. I know that in America that is a big problem. There’s a different understanding that stand-up comedy is a means to an end. People are perfecting their three to five-minute routines in the live clubs so that they can end up writing for Conan and Letterman or whatever to get off the circuit. Whereas in the UK, I pay my rent, people buy houses on just live stand up alone. That’s their life, their career. It’s a good income and it’s a viable career. If you’re a pro, you get paid. That’s how it seemed. Maybe on the open mic circuit you might gig for free for one or two years while you’re still new and then you work your way up to what we call middle bracket as a stand-up. Where you’re polishing a fifteen-minute set and the second you hit twenty minutes of your live stand-up that promoters have seen you do, they’re like, “She can do the clubs.” The magic number is twenty.
They talk about your 20 or 30 minutes if you’re doing an extended set, like I did at club in Tasmania the other night and I did 45. That’s because they know that I can because I’ve done something like seven, depending on how you look at it. Seven to ten solo shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, Melbourne Comedy Festival, Perth and Adelaide Fringes, all of those. They know, “She’s got many one-hour shows.” She can draw upon that to do an extended set at our club. Once you’re there, you’re up and running. The understanding here is if you’re doing twenties, you’re getting paid in the Melbourne, the Australian scene, but there are fewer gigs because just of sheer population difference between here and the UK. You’ve also got to fly around a lot more. If you get on the university circuit in Australia, it’s like the college circuit in the States, you’re flying always. You’re staying in tiny, crappy motels, but you’re earning.
How do you feel about being on the road?
It’s tough. It’s different for women too. Safety is an issue and there are things that have come up in our industry that are now being exposed like what it’s like being a stand-up who happens to be female. It’s hard. Dodgy promoters, sleazy fellow comedians, safety, getting home from shows late at night alone, staying in hotels alone. I know of lots of my contemporaries who’ve had fellow male comics or bookers come into the hotel room late at night, drunk, “We should get out.” You just have to laugh it off or what are you options. Will I do that gig again?
That is obviously hopefully going to change. It’s an interesting life. I don’t think it’s conducive necessarily to having stability or a family or even sometimes financial security because you take a lot of personal financial risk. It’s not conducive to holding down a relationship. I dated another comic for many, many years and that seemed to work because sometimes we would do it together, never been on-stage together, but we might do the same club in the same night. It’s interesting.
It’s more than interesting. It’s super hard when you look at it from the outside as you’re looking at anyone trying to make it on the road. For the issues that you described as a woman, what’s interesting is people will often make an argument that women aren’t as funny as men and they’ll point to the professional ranks as evidence of that. I’ve always chafed at that idea because it’s like saying that women can’t do medicine as well as men because there are more men doing this.
If you were to say something like red-headed people can’t do medicine or law, it would be like, “You’re clearly a lunatic because that cannot be based in fact or science. It’s about exposure, visibility. That’s the problem. There was a controversial policy put in by the BBC in the UK a few years ago. I’m not sure if this is a thing in the States, but TV comedy panel shows are must. Everyone says, “All the money’s in formats.” People would come up with an idea for a new funny quiz show for the TV. They make millions. What they would tend to have is an all white male panel. I was like, “That guy so hilarious,” and they are funny. These are stand ups generally or comedy writers that have earned their chops, learning how to do this off camera.
Then you put them on camera, they’re brilliant and they often all know each other. There’s a repartee between them that is hilarious. What they used to do were plunking a very pretty model or TV presenter who happened to be a girl and that would be our representation and she would be daunted, intimidated, and wouldn’t know the other guys. She didn’t have that relaxed banter with them. She wouldn’t disrespect them in a funny way. She would be well-mannered and reserved and then people who watch that show and damn all women because of her. All of us represent. If one of those male comics had a bad gig or didn’t say much, you wouldn’t say, “Men aren’t funny.” You’d say, “That guy isn’t funny.” It’s disappointing that we have to be represented by one woman on a panel.
They put in this policy that on all TV comedy shows because it’s such a booming type of show in the UK and in Australia I think, they put in this policy, there must be at least one woman. It had ensured that there would be one woman, not one female comic. Once in a while they have a stand up who’s a woman on it and some examples are Roisin Conaty, Katherine Ryan, some fantastic British comics, Canadian comics. They would rock it and people will be like, “Except for her. She’s pretty good.”
[Tweet “”Are you calling me a nerd, Peter?””]
She would get comments like, “I don’t normally like female comedians but you’re good,” and that is not a compliment to those people. I get that off to some shows. “I don’t normally like women.” I’m like, “Then you haven’t seen enough,” because we’re out there. We may not be visible, but the more that we push through, the more that people will get favorite female comics or, “I like one-liner female comic.” I disagree with the term female comic to start with. If people insist on using it, then I will use the term male comic, which I think is fun. “This is Larry. He’s a great male comedian friend of mine.”
“I don’t normally like male comedians.” We are learning hard on the circuit. We do these live shows where it is sometimes brutal, sometimes fun, drunk and whatever. You don’t know what you’re going to get. If you become one with standup comic on the live circuit, you’re unstoppable. You put us on panel shows and we can do it. We can do it as well as the man. We can take the piss out of the man. We can take the Mickey out of them and we can play with them and it’s fun watching people who are ready for it doing it.
This was coming up at universities. I teach a marketing management class and we have teams and there’s debates with how to create a team structure which is similar to creating a panel structure. The question is do you want diverse representation? Across all the groups, do you want to have, for instance, at least one woman to have some diversity in the groups so you don’t have a group of all men and these classes and there’s few men or do you want to have an ally structure, which is you never have one woman in a group? You have two or more.
It’s more comfortable for that, for any group, let’s say that person of color, disability or women. Isn’t it funny we’re still 1% of the population and we’re never represented in that way on TV. We are represented like we’re a minority, which is so interesting, which is why we do need lifting up because we’re not even a half way yet, we’re more than half of the population. For example on panel shows, when there are a few women especially who know each other from the circuit or know the men as well, it lifts everyone’s game. You can see like, “They’re sparring at a level that they are contemporaries of those men on screen.” There’s a comedy panel show podcasts that I’m a regular, a team captain called The Global Pillage.
Their Twitter handle is @GlobalPillage and it is a podcast and the idea behind it was what if rather than having one person of color or one woman to lift up the diversity, what if rather than that was the exception, that’s the rule? All other type of people and it is a fantastically funny podcast and it doesn’t necessarily say, “If you noticed, the whole panel is women.” “Have you noticed that there’s a person of color?” They do it and they have a funny format that is hilarious rounds and quizzes and facts about history and the world. It is funny in and of itself and that is a successful experiment. They are in talks about getting it piloted for a radio show or TV show and I’m not surprised because it proves that it’s as funny regardless of background. Maybe even more so because you’re getting these interesting voices, different stories.
Throughout history, there’s always bias and prejudice and so then when it happens is there is a structure built around that bias and that structure reaffirms the bias. Whenever there’s a change that allows true competition, meritocracy, you find out those biases are indeed biases. The famous one is turning the blind auditions for symphonies. At the time, symphonies were all men and the reason nearly all men because it’s like, “Only men can play the trombone. Only men can play these big instruments.” You put up a screen, you have people take their shoes off when they walk across the stage and perform behind the screen and lo and behold, women were getting it. There was a time in the United States were all basketball players were white, because non-whites weren’t allowed to play.
Literature, the Canon, Dead White Men.
I want to ask you a little bit about beyond stand-up comedy. You do these fun shows, you do sketch. Tell me a little bit about that?
The Edinburgh Fringe every year is a wonderful testing ground for new ideas and you can be avant-garde with your one-hour show. The understanding on that circuit and I would include Australia on that circuit because they have the Melbourne Comedy Festival. It’s called the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. It’s amazing, Montreal as well. You are expected to have a brand new hour of stand-up or whatever. What the award-winning shows are now doing is they’re injecting like a narrative arc. It’d be the true story of the time I went to the circus or whatever and it’ll be a collection of funny characters and there’s a moral to the story at the end. It may not be that ham-fisted. You get this overarching idea of the performance politics.
It’s a great chance to express something a bit more than you would just get in a standard twenty-minute club set. It’ll still be funny and they’ll still have setups and punchlines, but you can inject characters and ideas, avant-garde stuff. I’ve played parlor games with my audience in my Edinburgh show two years ago. It was cold. “Sarah Bennetto: Fritters Away an Hour of Your Life… Mmm, Fritters.” It’s a long title. I enjoy a long title. I had so many people tweeting me about fritters that month. Pictures of fritters laid down in cafes and stuff. I’m like, ” I did not anticipate this.” I had a lot of audiences leaving and going and was disappointed they didn’t talk about fritters. I’m like, “No. I don’t. I’m so sorry.”
I don’t know if you grew up with a game called Wink Murder or Murder in the Dark. It’s like a kids party parlor game, where the parents would normally switch off all the lights in the room and then someone gets tapped on the shoulder by the parent to tell them that they’re the murderer and then the lights come back on and we all sit there and look around the room suspiciously and someone winks at you, that means you’re dead. I thought that’d be fun and I found a way to make it work in a theater. I would set one audience member up to be the murderer and they had the rest of the show as I was doing stand-up on stage to kill off the audience and that audience member would have to put up their hand and say, “Sarah, I’m dead.” It was so exciting. People are like, “It’s going to be me next.”
They’re paying attention to you but then they’re looking around.
They’re looking suspiciously.
If I see you winking at someone else I’m like, “You’re the murderer.”
We had a vote at the end. You get three guesses. I had a guy that killed the entire audience down to two people maybe. Normally, it was three or four people and that was a pretty good hit rate I found in this experience.
How big were these audiences?
A 70-seater theater and I had to have the seating in an arc-theater style. This is the thing, people wouldn’t think about the way seating can have impact on a show, but it had to be a certain way for my audience to be able to see each other and me direct sight lines. This guy and he got everyone down to one. Obviously, if you’ve been killed by him, you know who it is. The last three or four I think it was did not know and they were terrified. It’s so funny. At one point, I think it was the end, I said, “It’s time. We’re going to vote. Put your hand up if you think you know who the murderer is?” The lady put her hand up and said, “Is it that lady?” She said, “No.”
Now, we know that ladies out, this lady is out and of the two last people I looked at the guy that I knew I’d picked as a murderer and he looked at me and he put his hand up and I was like, “Oh my God.” Inside my head I was thinking, “There’s no rule to say he can’t.” I said, “Who do you think the murderer is, sir?” He said, “Is it that person over there?” I went, “No.” He won. He managed to eliminate everybody else. Then everyone screamed, they realized it was him and he used his guess to throw the same, genius. It was pretty cool. I played scrabble, name scoring with the audience, all sorts. The joy about writing a new Edinburgh Fringe show and then touring it to the other festivals as well, is that you can do anything with that hour. It’s yours. You can be as crazy or as straight as you want.
The audience expects it.
The audiences are up for it. They want you to use the full 60 minutes of that and you can be as interactive or as immersive as you want. A lot of people do setup, punch, setup, punch for one hour, which is long. If they don’t punch for one hour, one-liners, but it can be incredible if they pull it off. A lot of the award-winners have gone on to be film stars and whatever, just birthing these ideas that show their full skill set.
Is that going to be you?
Yeah. This podcast is timeless. By the time you’re listening to this, I want to thank you all for my Academy Awards, for my Grammy’s, with that, I went into music as well, Emmy’s.
The Tony Awards, you’re going to do theatre.
The Nobel Peace Prize, Nobel Prize.
If you’re lucky to be here.
You should be. You’re privileged.
These are clearly creative ideas. How do you come up with these things? Besides supreme talent, do you have methods, tricks? Do you have ways of doing this?
You’re always looking in your waking life, on the way to a show, on a train on the way to a festival, when you’re hanging out with friends, when you’re watching people in a café. There are a lot of people watching and you’re always open to ideas. There’s a famous story about, and I’m going to name these comedians because I think it’s gorgeous and it’s funny and people can tweet them if they want to. There’s a wonderful British comedian, super posh called Hal Cruttenden and another comedian called Joe Bor.
Joe, after this happened was driving me to a show in Brighton and he said, “The last time I drove to this show, I was driving Hal Cruttenden.” I said, “I love Hal Cruttenden,” and Joe said, “Yeah. He’s great. This funny thing happened. We were talking about global terrorism and the dark side of that and it’s horrible, isn’t it?” I said, “Of course.” He said, “I was talking about something I never normally disclose that my girlfriend at the time and myself were involved in the attacks on London, 7/7, in the tube there were bombings and on the buses there were bombings. I went through this, “He’ll tease it out of me and I didn’t feel comfortable talking about it.”
I said, “I need to talk about it.” He said, “No. Tell me. That’s horrible.” He went through the whole story about how his girlfriend is a nurse and she jumped off the bus when they saw the one in front of them explode and she ran and she started treating people. As he got off the bus, he said he was partially deaf temporarily at the time and he is terrified and he said, “There were body parts all over the road,” and he was frozen, but he was inspired by how ready she was to help and to act. She looked at him and she started pointing because she knew that in this part of London there was a medical school just there and she said, “Go in there and get anyone you can to come out and help. Student, doctors, nurses.”
He said, “Okay.” He run in there and he said, “I’ll never get over it.” Then he said at that moment, he was telling the story, this silence fell over the car and Hal Cruttenden went, “You lucky bastard.” Joe went, “What?” He goes, “There’s an Edinburgh show in that.” That’s what comics are like. It is so terrible, morally bankrupt like, “You lucky bastard.” The joke, because all comics I know that I performed with, we know that Hal Cruttenden story. Whenever something bad happens, you spill over or drop your coffee, you look at your friend and go, “You lucky bastard.” They say nothing’s off limits.
What you are saying is you’re on the lookout all the time?
Sure. You’re mining your life. It’s not just about pondering it for gags. It’s not that cheap. It’s about pondering it for understanding. You’re trying to understand like all of us. You’re trying to use your art for them to understand life, if that doesn’t sound too grandiose. You’re trying to like make sense of this mess.
That’s one step though. I can pay attention to my life all the time and then create a bunch of stuff that’s boring and not original and not funny. Do you do twist it? Do you turn it? Do you flip it? What is going on there when you take this thing that you’ve noticed?
You’re looking for the humor in life and if it is dark aspects or strange aspects, it is sometimes beneficial to laugh at these things. Sometimes therapeutic to push through and go, “That was a particularly weird or dark time in my life or I can’t believe I made it,” or the peculiarities of hard and strange times where all this is going on and yet a bird pooped on your head or something. These are terrible examples. It’s about catharsis I suppose. We are aware of all these horrible things and yet isn’t it all stupid? It’s not just looking at grandiose stuff, but the minutiae of life. How silly these little things are, foibles.
[Tweet “Being able to laugh at yourself is a great rule for life.”]
I usually ask my comedians to be PG 13. You could even pick it up a little bit.
I do shows for adults and I will definitely pepper it with your F word here or there. Let’s just say a light seasoning, but maybe at the beginning or the end, we don’t know. They’ll be two grains. I get booked to do a whole children’s comedy circuit, like Pro Gigs in theaters and sometimes the industry is booming. Sometimes the shows will be 600-seater theaters in New Castle, in Sheffield, in London. That is a whole different way of thinking about comedy.
I’ve never heard of it. It’s like a comedy show for children.
There’s a few different clubs over there, but the chain that I do is probably the first and the best. I think I love them. They’re called Comedy Club 4 Kids. They tour all around. It’s a huge business. Parents bring out their little kids, anything from toddlers up to fourteen, fifteen. They’ve published a book on how to do stand-up comedy and they give it out to the kids. Maybe when they grow up they’d like to be a stand-up and it’s got some tips. Don’t steal material from other comedians. Write your on jokes, never punched down, always punch up, just introducing kids to that.
All the things that the adult should be doing.
Girls can be as funny as boys. I also think great rules for life. Not punching down is a great rule for life. “Yes, and” is a great rule for life. Being able to laugh at yourself is a great rule for life and often sometimes, if someone’s being patronizing or mean to you, a great way to win or come back from that and show like reserve and poise is to, “Yes, and…” them. Go, “Sure. I am a butthead like you said but I’m a great butthead,” or whatever it is. If you can laugh at yourself, you win.
Is it about being nice as a comedian? Tell me as a rule in life.
Not about being nice. There are certain people we don’t have to be nice about, certain politicians, the patriarchy. I don’t particularly need to be nice to the patriarchy. We went to a feminist gig. My sister and my mom and I, and we had a tight turnaround to try and make the show. It was a free community show in honor of Adela Pankhurst who is the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, the very famous British suffragette who got us to vote. Emmeline threw herself into the king’s horse, died, and then a few years later we got to vote. That’s what it took. Extreme acts like that. Then her daughter, Adela, survived. She had daughters, but she moved to Australia and led the suffragette movement out here with other women like Vida Goldstein, etc. We went to a show, which was in honor of 100 years exactly to the date that Adela Pankhurst was imprisoned for political activities and trying to fight conscription for men in World War I.
As we walked into this show, it had just begun. My mom and I had been coming from a ferry to get across town and we thought it was still worth going to. We would slip in and there was a man on the door and he was greeting two lovely elderly women who came before us. I heard him say to them, “Nice of you to turn up on time,” sarcastically, passive-aggressive. You don’t know those ladies stories. They were obviously embarrassed about being late, but you don’t know if they had childcare issues, you don’t know if they were ill or they had trouble finding the cab, whatever their story is. Certainly for us this was the only time we could arrive or we didn’t get to go at all and it wasn’t going to interrupt the performance. Anyway, I heard him say that to those women and they were all like, “Sorry.” He was like, “Go on in. You’ve missed half of it. Go on in any way.” They were like, “Oh gosh.” Then he got to us and he said that to my mom and my sister and I heard him use the same lines. This is clearly what he’d been doing to women all night. He was enjoying it.
He’d try this little line on us, “Nice of you to turn up on time. You’ve missed half of the show.” I looked at him and I went, “Huh,” and then walked in and my sister was like, “Burn.” It was so good. No one speaks to my mom like that. It’s a feminist gig celebrating the suffragettes. Are you serious? Are you going to stand on the door greeting women in a passive-aggressive way? It was the worst time he chose to do that. It was great fun. I enjoyed it. I don’t mind. You don’t have to be nice all the time, but you need to know the enemy and it’s important that as a community and we’re helping each other. The time for being doormats is over. I’m done. I’m past the point of worrying about molly-coddling, pandering to people. I’m a fair person. I’m a warm and kind person, but I’m tired.
I don’t blame you. In the United States, obviously, this stuff is coming out and it’s going to continue.
People like being able to get away with murder because of their place, their position is pretty bad because they feel like they’re admired. That Louis C.K. apology, the word admiration appeared something like four times in it. I know that you admired me and thus I exploited your admiration for me. He somehow flatters himself throughout that whole apology. That may or may not have been true, but it’s not for you to say. It’s for your audience to say, “I admire you.” Let them say it at least.
There is just the thing in Twitter between Dan Harmon and one of his writers that was very public. Obviously, the world of comedy, the world of entertainment, the world of politics is just going to continue to grow.
If you’re an ally right now, everyone has to be careful and everyone has to think. We’re all guilty in some way. We’re all complicit. Every time I’ve laughed off advances of a booker or a promoter or a fellow comedian or found a way of dealing with it that was palatable to the patriarchy, I let the team down, but equally some of the women who challenged were never booked again or were considered like hard work and it’ll be great when we’re free of that bullshit. I think it’s terrible.
You’re doing a children’s comedy show. What’s your opener for 600 children?
Here’s the thing, structurally and technically, it’s totally different. Kids don’t have the attention span of adults. You could not do a one-hour show like your Edinburgh Fringe. What they do is they run a club format where normally proactively, you’ll be doing 20 to 30 minutes. The kids comedy circuit, the bookers get you to do ten, that’s pro. The kids have about that much attention span. Then they quickly changed and there’s a new act who’s different, different to look at, different tone and speed. You’re doing a pro ten-minute act and it isn’t as easy as taking the swear words out of a pre-existing routine because you’ll find that most of your routines when you sit down and think about and not stuff that kids would care about, like living in a flat chair or being at university or this annoying guy at work or whatever.
That isn’t of interest to kids. I’ll tell you what works, butts and farts or trumps as they called them in the UK. Isn’t that great? Did you know that that’s what trump means? It’s a polite kid’s way of saying fart. They love that stuff. You could talk about that. They like movement, shapes, colors, voices. They like sound effects, but that works right across the adult club circuit. If you were to say like report speech and then my mom said to me, “Pass me that jar.” People would be like, “Okay.” but you’re missing an opportunity there. It lifts the performance in a stand-up club for kids or adults. Then my mom said, “Pass me that jar.” People will all of a sudden go, “That’s funnier,” and it’s unconscious. An audience won’t know, but they’ll love you more for it. That is not one of my punchlines. “Pass me that jar.” I should make that very clear. You can definitely still see me live. If in fact if you do like it, I will do the jar routine, which I will invent for you.
For instance, if that was a punchline, are you consciously changing that? Your intonation and the way you’re doing it?
For sure. It’s so boring, the behind the scene stuff, the behind the curtain stuff but you will do loads of new material on nights in London, in Melbourne, wherever you are, where you don’t mind not getting paid because you’re given ten minutes normally and it’s a cavalcade of pro acts doing ten minutes at that night to polish up new ideas for their pro set. It’ll be probably a club run by a comedian. They know the form. They know how to make it work best and they will make it nice, like a lovely, safe environment of fun muck about or fuck about. It’ll be that kind of environment. It would be fun. All the acts will be having a few drinks. They’ll be chatting to the audience, very workshop-y and you’ll develop these ideas and develop them and develop them over a series of weeks or months until they’re ready to go in your pro set. It will be stuff like subtleties like I changed an and to a the or, or to a but. It will be the emphasis you put on, not just a word but a syllable in a word can change. It will totally lift the joke or take it on a different direction.
You have a lot going on, that’s clear to me. A lot of comedians, they seem from the outside to have a leisurely life. It’s not obvious that this stuff is happening in the background. When an outsider sees a comic sitting in a café with a laptop, drinking a coffee feet up. You work an hour a day. Tell me about your days. What is going on in your typical day?
The first thing is that there’s no typical day. You’re always on the road. You might wake up in Tasmania, Victoria, the UK, wherever. You might be at a festival every night for 30 nights. The big pro festivals, Edinburgh Fringe, Melbourne Comedy Festival, Montreal or whatever, they tend to be, if you’re doing the full run, a one-month long festival. You are booked by a theater to do your show at 7:30 PM. That’s prime time or 8:00 PM every single night for 30 nights. You go in quietly mad. You wake up in a flat that you’ve privately rented with maybe four of your colleagues to stay up in Edinburgh for the whole month and you go out, you do club sets, you do chat shows, you’re booked to do appearances on podcasts or late shows to promote your solo show.
Then you go to your solo show. If you’ve been doing it right, it’s packed out every night and then the same words every night for 30 nights. How can you not go crazy? All comedians are a little bit bonkers. When I’m on to it, for example, right now I’m in Melbourne, Australia, when I have any type of normality, I’m at home in London, at home in Melbourne, I find, for me, I’m at an age and a point with my career where I want routine. I want early mornings, I want writing throughout the day. I want any meetings to happen throughout the day and then an evening show or writing or meetings or whatever. For me, I like to see the daylight. It’s good for mental health and it’s good to feel like you’ve got some control of your waking life and interaction with human beings.
A lot of comics, we disappear into the shadows. We stay at home. We write. We’re only up at the nighttime and it can be really unhealthy. You get the malaise of the artist. It’s true. It’s the same as an unemployed person or a student. You can sink. Also, swimming is my form of fitness. If I can swim every day for 40 minutes, then I’m on the right track and not just for like toning up reasons, but for mental health stuff. I find the swimming very meditative. Maybe ten minutes into my swim, I realize my brain’s turned off. I’m in this Zen state where I might be like, “I’m thinking about this email that’s been troubling me. How do I respond to that problematic producer, agent, whatever it is? I can just say this.” There’s the solution. Solutions rise to the surface when I’m swimming and that’s useful. Sometimes comedy lines emerge. I’m like, “That’s how to say that punchline.”
Did you got out of the pool and write this down? How do you do it?
Totally. I’ve moved to electronic. My entire gig calendar is on my iPhone and I use the little microphone emoji in front of the address and whatever the address and the name of the club for every single club. I have the microphone emoji so that way when I go back and I’m doing my tax return at the end of every year, I can look up the microphone emoji and see where I was on any given day, which theater around the country or world. I also have iPhone notes where I have ideas.
What are you working on right now? Give me a couple of examples.
Moms love iPads. I think that’s true. Does your mom love iPads? Aunties, older ladies freaking love iPads.
I have not noticed that.
I have noticed that.
What do you do with that idea?
I’m thinking that there’s something that might form part of a joke, words just to throw it away when I’m maybe doing a funny routine about my mom and I might make mention of the fact she’s on her iPad because she’s on her iPad. Moms are always on their iPad. I feel like there’d be a percentage of the audience that will go, “Yes,” and put their hands up. They’re like, “My mom too.” I’ve also got here waterbeds.
I think that there’s something about water beds. What happened to them? Where are they? Is there like a refuse dump for water beds? Pestle and mortar. I just think that’s funny, the grinding. My sister makes her own pesto. Who makes their own pesto? My sister. At one point I wrote and because it was a throwaway in a routine I did on stage about accidentally finding my brother on Tinder and I said that I deleted the Tinder app, reset my phone and kicked it into a volcano. I’d just written here kick it into a volcano because I thought that was a funny turn off phrase.
Is it okay to still do Tinder jokes?
The moment has passed. He’s always handy if I’m comparing, and it has come up or someone in the audience, if you’re bantering and chatting to an audience and they’re like, “We met on Tinder.” I’ll be like, “Oh,” and I could quickly insert that as a throw away. I feel like dating app materials are pretty tired, but it’s okay to use it. Some people have some brilliant stuff with that.
[Tweet “You can fail but how you handle rejection and how you handle failure is a true test of your mettle.”]
In Boulder, I feel that marijuana jokes are tired.
Same here, the same with States. It’s always a young man and they’ll always be doing jokes about getting caught masturbating by their mom. That’s a big new male act thing to do and they think they’re the first. Then my mom will do, “Oh.” It’s like a pull back and reveal, we call it. There are some famous comedians, Lee and Herring that had a TV show, Stewart Lee and Richard Herring, in the UK and they had a recurring sketch on the TV show that would end with, “And then I got off the bus.” It was a weird scenario, this man was doing this horrible thing and then like implying that it was the bus driver or he was doing something on the bus. It’s like a pullback and reveal. Kerchief like handkerchief, that’s a funny word.
You’re skilled with language. That’s obvious just listening to you.
I have an English degree from the University of Melbourne where you’re currently working, Film and English, super useful according to my parents. They’ve been supportive.
You have a grasp of language, that’s clear to me. It’s not just that you have this great accent and it’s not just that you have different words than I’m used to hearing but you can use language well.
I enjoy it. Genuinely, I’m a word nerd. My favorite board game, I’m already just opening a sentence with my favorite board game is pretty nerdy, but it’s scrabble and I play other comedians internationally on Scrabble right now. There’s a comedian on here right now, Janet McLeod, she’s in Melbourne.
I’m going to interview Janet. She’s on my schedule.
She’s fantastic. I love her. She’s led an interesting life too.
She’s like a thing here.
She ran the cult comedy club when I was at university and graduating and starting to go see a lot of comedy. She ran a club called The Prince Pat and that was the big alternative comedy. Anyone she wanted, she could get. She would host the show and she was good. She’s not hosting so much, but she was one of the best alternative comics of time and also watching her host the show and be on the stage with The Doug Anthony All Stars with Dave Hughes, with Dave O’Neil, these big Aussie stand-up comics.
Tim Ferguson gave her name.
He’s great. They were heroes of mine. Watching her at the helm of that show, made me think, “I can do it too.” We’re allowed. Women are allowed. I knew at that point I’d be years off going pro like that, but it encouraged me and now she’s a dear friend of mine and real inspiration.
A new place, Scrabble against her.
I do and currently I’m winning, but that will not always be the case. She’s good and you don’t want to leave a triple open because she’ll take it.
You’ve studied English.
And Film. Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne and then Honors. I had a car accident halfway through my Honors year and I had to do it over two years. I did the coursework from my hospital bed. It was a pretty serious car accident. I was in there for two, three months and then back home, but with modified house. There’s a governmental organization called the TAC, Traffic Accident Commission and they’re unique to Australia. They’re famous to my British friends as well who come and do the Melbourne Comedy Festival.
If they put on the TV here, they see these TAC ads. They are horrific. It drills in, “Don’t take your eyes off the road for a second, don’t drink and drive.” They are incredible because they have impacted on people. You do think about those TAC ads when you’re driving and you take any risks. You just don’t anymore. TAC are a fund that pay for you after you’d been in a huge incident like that. They covered everything and I feel like one day, I’d love to shine a light on that, payback of what was done for me.
We have universal healthcare here too, Medicare. In the UK we have NHS and those systems struggle because we have fairly right-winged governments at the moment that aren’t funding them enough, but they are still there. If you need basic healthcare, you have it and they’re things to be celebrated. I did all my coursework for my hospital bed while I was learning how to walk again. Then once I was back at home in this modified house that the TAC paid for, bars everywhere up the stairs and assistant chairs and stuff is amazing. Then I wrote my thesis over the next year from home and that was a manuscript for a book. I’ve always had a love of writing.
What happened to the book?
It was probably a novella in length. I want to say 40,000 words and I think novels are 70,000. I don’t know. It’s good but I was on a lot of morphine and when I’ve been back since and re reread it, it’s good. I got the killer mark but I was heavily drugged at the time on pethidine and morphine. It’s out there. You can get your university manuscripts published, but I didn’t even know anything about how to approach publishers. I believe then the university takes the profit of anything because it’s coursework. That can happen.
A lot of my colleagues have been published in other fields, science or whatever. I’ve been in talks with an unnamed publisher, a biggie in the UK. We’ve had a couple of meetings. They are looking for female voices who are comic but don’t mind talking about darker stuff. We are at the coffee stage of meetings about potentially writing something for them. We’ll see. I don’t need to take on anything more right now, and if I did that, I’d need to step aside. I need to free up some room in the calendar to do that. I’m going to have to make some harsh decisions about what I want to pause on for awhile to write a book.
What’s the secret to success that everybody knows, but no one can seem to do or very few can seem to do?
Confidence and a belief in yourself in a way that’s palatable to others. Like there are so many arrogant stand-ups who are like, “I’m incredible at this.” Sometimes you’re like, “Let the audience be the judge of that.” Being able to learn, for me it was a learning experience. Being able to say, “I’d be good for that gig. I could do that. I’d be right to compare your show.” Oftentimes people will ask you, “Can you think of any one for my gig? I’ve watched so many of my contemporaries go, “Get me,” and I would always go, “How about Peter McGraw? Peter is great. I talked with Peter the other day.”
If you’re too kind and well-mannered, empathetic, you will let all those take the opportunities, but learning to stand up and put your hand up and say, “Yes, please.” Like Amy Poehler’s book, it’s called Yes Please and she goes into that whole thing about learning to put yourself forward and to accept offers when they’re given to you. I think also a good improviser or set of rules that improvisers use, ”Yes, and” and blocking. Someone who blocks and someone who shuts down a suggestion like, “Would you like a coffee?” “No.” That’s not following the idea through and seeing what’s there, exploring the possibilities. “Yes, and” is a good rule for life.
This idea of confidence is an interesting one. I feel like I took my career to the next level when I started to ask, “Why not me?” That was my form of trying to create more confidence.
Sometimes you’re convincing yourself not even others. It’s about going, “I would be good. Why not me?” Also on stage, if you’re selling your material because the writing is not even that important. It’s important to me, it’s important to all of us, but some people have material that is thin but their on-stage persona is so hilarious and so confident and so unique that that carries it. I’ve heard people say it’s 90% how he tells them and 10% what you’ve written. I think that’s true. That’s where confidence is equally important. Is if you’re on-stage telling a material like, “This is going to work,” because I’m overtly saying it, but you look like you’re in control. You look like you’re unafraid. You’re honest, but you’re relaxed, then the sky’s the limit.
How are you doing on the confidence skill these days?
I’m pretty honest with myself, but I’m confident. I do a lot of new material and that’s why you’re allowed to make mistakes, so you’re pretty chilled about making mistakes. Then you take that to the pro rooms and you’re like, “I’ve done this for this three or four times and I know its fallibilities and its limitations. If it goes wrong, here’s what I would do. I’ve got to get out.” Sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “That was a new material,” and the audience will say, “She is being honest with us.” You can fail, but how you handle rejection and how you handle failure is a true test of your mettle.
Sarah, this is great. I appreciate you doing it, especially under unusual circumstances.
I love it. Who wouldn’t come to a library? I can see they’ve got music DVDs over here and I can see New Order. I can see Twin Peaks, Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime. The whole collection. I can see Seal. Van Morrison’s great. Now, this has been a lovely place to come and immerse ourselves in the world of literature and music and arts and talk about my weird art form.
Thanks so much.
Thank you, Peter.
- Sarah Bennetto
- Sarah Bennetto’s Mix Tape
- Glastonbury Festival
- End of the Road Festival
- The Global Pillage
- @GlobalPillage – Twitter
- Melbourne International Comedy Festival
- Hal Cruttenden
- Joe Bor
- Comedy Club 4 Kids
- Yes Please
- @ComedyClub4Kids – Twitter
- 24 Hour Party People Official Trailer #1 – Simon Pegg Movie (2002) HD – YouTube
- The Cure – Pictures Of You (Official Video) – YouTube
About Sarah Bennetto
Charming stand-up, comic storytelling and characters by the Melbourne-born, London-based comedian. As well as playing comedy clubs in London, Ireland, Wales and Scotland, Sarah is also a stalwart of BBC Radio, plus hosted her own radio show on Dalston’s NTS Radio “Sarah Bennetto’s Mix-Tape”, as well as at her cult favorite annual show from backstage at Glastonbury Festival. Sarah is the brains behind Storytellers’ Club, which tours internationally, and guests regularly on huge UK podcasts like Global Pillage, all the great comedy panel shows. Sarah Bennetto’s past solo comedy shows for Edinburgh Fringe, Adelaide, Perth Fringe and Melbourne International Comedy Festival include: a sitcom about office temping, the true story of having lunch with Prince Charles at the Palace, a hour-long ode to board games and Victorian parlour games, a study of her insanely good luck (she’s won a car, holidays, the lottery), staging her own funeral live, and this year: every mistake she’s ever made, presented in list form.