Interview: Sarah Kendall, comedian
AFTER a five-year sabbatical from stand-up, Sarah Kendall is back with plenty to say about women, feminism and stereotypes. And she doesn’t give a damn whether you agree with her or not – just as long as you laugh, writes Claire Black
Sarah Kendall was last in Edinburgh five years ago. Since then she’s done a bit of TV work, a bit of script-writing and … oh yes … she’s given birth to a daughter. Not unrelatedly, she’s coming back to the Fringe with a whole different stand-up set and a whole different attitude.
“I feel like I’m coming back because I really want to do an hour-long stand-up show, which is the only reason that anyone should ever go to Edinburgh,” she says, sipping a decaf coffee, the novel she’s reading (by David Mitchell, if you’re interested) pushed to one side of the table. “You’ve got to really want to do a show that stretches you. And one that isn’t a 20-minute set. The ideas have to be hour-long quality ideas, and you’ve got to want to talk about them 28 days back-to back.”
When it’s put like that, there’s a bit of me that can’t really imagine why anyone would ever want to come here and do that, but Kendall clearly feels good about it. She says that having gone off and done other things for a few years, she’s fallen in love with stand-up again.
“I started doing stand-up when I was 20. By the time I was 30, I hadn’t done the things that ordinary people experience and do. As a consequence, my shows were getting samey. I wasn’t changing that much as a person or a performer.”
Unsurprisingly, after a decade on the circuit Kendall was feeling a bit jaded with the whole comedy caper. What is less expected, though, is that after a few years off, someone who was the first woman nominated for a Perrier Award in nine years back in 2004 is so smitten with it this time around. It’s partly about enjoying the freedom of being responsible just for herself – “totally your own boss”, is how she puts it.
“You are the writer, director and performer. No-one is going to give you notes at the end, unless you ask them to. Working in other fields, you realise just how spoiled you are as a stand-up. You can have an idea at five in the afternoon and you can bring it to life by eight o’clock that night.”
But there’s also a sense that Kendall has found a different reason for going on a stage every night. After her “sabbatical”, as she suggests we call it, when she tried out her old material it just didn’t fit. It was, she says, like doing someone else’s set. “The jokes were fine, but I was surprised how little of me there was in there.” This made her realise that for it to really work, it had to mean something to her.
“It has to be personal. It’s more engaging for me and the audience. I think that’s how you build up trust and rapport too, and that’s what can make for a really magical set. Not too much – it’s not therapy. But it has to mean something.”
She decided that she would do new material for three nights a week to find out what it was that she wanted to talk about. The result was girls, or more specifically the kind of world girls are growing up in. The kind where Lego for boys (yes, plastic blocks are gender-specific these days) is all about building things, and Lego for girls is pink and is designed to be carried around in their mini-handbags. “Obviously, I’m raising a girl, so that was a springboard. But it’s stuff that I’ve always cared about.”
As to why she didn’t do it before, I don’t even have to pose the question for Kendall to offer an explanation. “I suppose when you get a bit older you sort of think, ‘I don’t give a f*** whether people agree or not.’” She smiles.
“There was part of me that used to want to appeal really broadly, and then I just thought, ‘I’m too old for worrying about that.’” She laughs. “The only rule for me was that if I’m going to talk about that stuff, it has to be funny. It can’t be didactic. I hate shows where you feel like you’re being poked in the chest for an hour.
“My job is not to proselytize. This isn’t a thesis, it’s a stand-up show. You’re not seeing a performance so that you can all say, ‘Isn’t that terrible?’ You’ve got to do something good with it. My ideal situation would be that someone who didn’t agree with my politics would laugh at the show and not even realise that I’d been sneaking my agenda in under the radar.”
I’ve got to be honest, the thought of Kendall doing her stuff, being funny about sexism and feminism, saying what many women think and feel, is exciting. And not without its challenges – Caitlin Moran might be all over the American media at the moment talking about How To Be a Woman, but there are still plenty of girls – and women – who won’t describe themselves as feminists. And how long will it take for this year’s first Why Aren’t Women Funny? feature to appear.
“The triumph of scuppering a movement is that you make people embarrassed to associate themselves with it,” says Kendall, shaking her head. She knows only too well that the “unfunny feminist” accusation is the easiest criticism that can be made and, depressingly, there’s always an appetite for it, “And then I just think, f*** it. From my years in this industry, I know that you’re not going to change certain people’s minds even if you do go out there and do an amazingly hilarious set, because then what they’ll say is, ‘Oh, you’re the exception.’”
I was already converted to Kendall’s cause. Why wouldn’t I be? She’s smart and funny, and she’s got enough of a “who cares?” attitude to make me genuinely interested to see what she gets up to nightly for the next month. And then she clinches it by telling me her favourite anecdote from Tina Fey’s hilarious memoir, Bossypants.
Fey says that she realises how much she loves Amy Poehler when Poehler is larking about in a Saturday Night Live writers meeting and Jimmy Fallon tells her to quit it because he doesn’t find her swearing “cute”. Poehler rounds on him: “I don’t give a f*** whether you find it cute.” And at that moment, everyone – OK, at least Fey and me, and, it turns out, Kendall – cheered, because what Poehler was doing was more than just calling Fallon out, she was making the point that women aren’t only funny for the enjoyment of men and they’re not only worried about what men think.
“The worse thing that someone could say is that you did that and it wasn’t funny,” Kendall says. “That’s what made me afraid to put myself on the line. But why else do you go to Edinburgh? You’ve got to put something on the line.”
Kendall’s already done stints at the comedy festivals in Adelaide, Brisbane and Melbourne. The reviews were good, very good actually. But even those don’t have the power that they once did.
“This is the first time going to Edinburgh that I’m not concerned about criticism. I always used to avoid reviews, but I’m not really afraid of the consequences any more. If it goes great, that’s fantastic, and I want it to. But I’m not going to throw myself off a cliff if it doesn’t. I’m just not feeling as neurotic about it.”
• Sarah Kendall: Get Up, Stand Up, Pleasance Courtyard. Until 27 August. Today 8.30pm.
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Thursday 20 June 2013
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