Interview: Sarah Millican's stand-up is in the worst possible taste

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WITH HER SLEEVE ROLLED UP and fist defiantly clenched, Sarah Millican's embodiment of the iconic "We Can Do It!" poster, urging women into munitions factories during the Second World War, is one of the most striking images of this year's Fringe.

The winner of the if.comedy best newcomer last year makes an intriguing poster girl for feminism. The 34-year-old from South Shields is endearingly sweet but utterly filthy, her sing-song Geordie accent as liable to be heard reciting routines about rape as cake. And she rejects the perceived wisdom that it's tougher for women to succeed in stand-up.

"I've never believed that. If you're funny you get on and if you're not, you don't," she says to me before a performance at the Kilkenny Comedy Festival. "There are a million reasons why I might not do well at a gig. But none of them are because I'm a woman. In a way, it's slightly easier for girls because we stand out. I'm doing a gig tonight with three blokes and they've all got to establish themselves as 'the guy that does one-liners', 'the guy that does surreal stuff', whereas I can just be a woman and I'm automatically different."

She's certainly that. Pleasantly chatty, bespectacled and wearing one of her favoured flowery tops, she maintains that "it just so happens that I write rude jokes that contradict how I look. But that's what I'm like, it's not manufactured. I might look like somebody who lives next door but I've a dark, twisted sense of humour."

Isn't that the classic profile of a serial killer?

"'She was always so lovely'," she deadpans. "'But on stage, she spoke a worrying amount about rape...'"

Today is Millican's birthday and having cheerfully admitted that she celebrated with a cake for breakfast, she says of her new show: "Having got divorced for the last one, I can't really generate a massive life trauma again. I'll just have an abortion this time, it'll be fine ..."

Her poster's look of steely resolve betrays the burden of expectation following such an acclaimed debut. Yet she's increased the pressure by tackling a subject normally perceived as one of the hardest in stand-up – the differences between men and women. She shrugs and nonchalantly explains: "I thought 'well, let's just get it sorted once and for all'."

To this end, she sent out hundreds of questionnaires, asking men and women about their perceptions of the opposite sex. She was careful to make it a representative study, asking some people she knew and some she didn't.

"I don't know many men who aren't comedians and I wanted to ask proper men," she laughs. "Comics will try to be funny and it's up to me to make it funny. It was really interesting to see how brutally honest people can be with a complete stranger."

Without revealing too much, certain gender stereotypes were debunked, while others were reinforced. A surprising number of men envied women's aromatic bathing rituals, while an entirely predictable number seized the opportunity to imagine themselves playing with their own hypothetical breasts.

"One reason I would never want to be attractive on stage, is that women have a tendency to judge you a bit more than men," says Millican. "It's probably a generalisation to say this, but occasionally I'll see a bloke who laughs only after he's checked his girlfriend did. I tend to imagine that's a rocky relationship, to be fair."

Nevertheless, "you can't generalise, 'this is what men do, this is what women do'. All of my stuff is based on personal stories to back up my arguments. It's not a lecture, it's still comedy. I think a lot of comics forget that you can have a theme but that it shouldn't replace the jokes. There's a section of the Fringe Guide for talks and some comedy shows really should go in there. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy comedy that isn't based on facts. But I like to see someone nudging the person next to them saying 'you've done that!' I love that. Because it's true."

Tellingly, Millican's recent profile-boosting appearance on the BBC's Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow prompted a surge of nerdish men to her website's mailing list and e-mails from women enquiring where she'd bought her dress.

Such empirical evidence of behavioural division along gender lines was obviously compelling, but she's keen to stress that "no comic likes a single-sex audience. You want a mix of ages and backgrounds, couples and groups. Still, I love it when I see tables of blokes howling at my stuff, because I often think 'you never thought you'd laugh tonight'."

Regularly approached by audience members after gigs, she receives "a lot of feedback that I bet many comics don't. One woman told me 'ooh, I could live with you!' It wasn't in a weird, stalky way and it's nice that I'm seen as normal." By way of contrast, she reveals that her boyfriend, the dark, clinical one-liner comic Gary Delaney, often gets high fives.

"He'll come off stage sometimes and there'll be five or six members of the audience who want to shake his hand because they think he's awesome," she says proudly. "They might not necessarily want to be his friend but they still think he's the dog's bollocks."

Millican's preference for a hairy man was memorably described in her last show and she outlines the ways in which they're a conventional couple. Variously described as the George and Mildred or Terry and June of Twitter by fellow comics in regard to their cyberspace exchanges, Delaney, who lives in Birmingham, stayed in Millican's Manchester apartment while she was at the Melbourne Comedy Festival and he "broke my flat!"

"Because I'm a feminist, I rang my dad, an electrical engineer, so he could tell me what to do," she recalls. "But as I was chatting to him, Gary fixed it. And although I'm capable, sometimes it's nice having someone do something for you and it's nice for them too. Often I'll let Gary open a stiff jar because it makes him feel all puffed up and masculine, even though I could have done it myself!"

In November, she begins recording a Trisha-style show parody for broadcast on Radio 4 this winter. Featuring scripted "experts" but a real audience, the plan is for it to be semi-improvised. So is she a fan of the daytime show format?

"I don't like the shouty ones, because us comics only get up at 11," she admits. "They're too negative and it's certainly not going to be like that. Nobody is coming on saying 'I had sex with my brother', it'll just be normal problems. We'll try to make it upbeat as well as funny."

She recalls a woman who came to one of her gigs, having seen her two months before, who told her that she'd just dumped her boyfriend as a result. "But I never talked to her during the show, it was just the fact that she saw me, that I was divorced and doing OK. If I release one woman into the wild at every show then I've done a good job!"

Coincidentally, she recently applied her vocal talents to the BBC's natural history footage for Walk on the Wild Side, Jason Manford and Steve Edge's update of Johnny Morris's Animal Magic, alongside fellow comics Rhod Gilbert, Jon Richardson, Isy Suttie and Gavin Webster. And she's in the early stages of writing her own sitcom for television.

Right now though, she's focused on the Fringe, yet can still afford the time to offer sartorial advice to any aspiring female comics.

"I wear dresses over jeans because I want to look feminine but not too girly and certainly not too vulnerable. I'm all about the empowerment of women, but you've got to be really careful in comedy. You can't just shove the word 'feminism' out there, because then everybody goes 'oh no, she's going to burn her bra!'

"I got heckled once with 'wear a bra!' and that was truly scary, like being heckled by Trinny and Susannah. So I got them properly measured and sorted out. Now they're up where they belong."

&#149 Sarah Millican can be heard chatting to Susan Calman on Funny Friends, available on BBC radio iPlayer over the next week. Typical Woman is at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, 5-30 August.