Edinburgh Festival Fringe comedians on doing stand-up about infertility: “Everyone’s really awkward about it”

Infertility affects as many as one in seven couples in the UK. Jay Richardson talks to the Fringe stand-ups making it part of their acts

Sara Barron. Pic: Matt Stronge
Sara Barron. Pic: Matt Stronge

“There wasn't ever a time when I wasn't going to talk about it,” Jay Lafferty says of her struggles to get pregnant. “I'm a stand-up who shares themselves and truth is always funniest.”

Similarly, Daniel Muggleton finds himself increasingly talking about problems he and his wife are having conceiving, “because it's inherently funny, everyone's really awkward about it.

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"You're talking about coming in your wife, which is generally not considered good table conversation,” the Australian smiles. “But because it involves a grandchild, my mom's like 'how's it going?' Mom, you never had an interest before!”

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Infertility affects as many as one in seven couples in the UK. And traditionally, it's not been viewed as stand-up material, let alone dinner party chat. Recently though, comedians such as Laura Lexx, Rhod Gilbert and Sara Pascoe have disclosed their personal experiences. And at this year's Edinburgh Fringe, several others are opening up about their joy, heartbreak and the sheer, unrelenting slog to have children.

Josh Pugh and his wife recently had a son. But they experienced a stressful, perpetually postponed “cloak and dagger” fertility process between pandemic lockdowns, not telling family because “we didn't want the extra pressure”.

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“You need to be relaxed for IVF. But there we were, rushing to get my sperm sample to the hospital in 45 minutes and us living 40 minutes away on a good day. My wife with the engine running as I finish doing what I need to do and we race through the traffic. It was absolutely mental.”

After four rounds of IVF over a decade, Glaswegian comic Lafferty and her playwright husband Keir McAllister had decided to stop trying when they finally conceived, with their son born just before lockdown. A remarkable yet relatable saga for many, it's been a feature across her Fringe shows in that time, with 2019's Jammy, performed whilst eight and a half months pregnant and subsequently adapted into a three-part BBC Radio Scotland show, attracting responses from as far afield as France and Canada. As an NHS-designated “geriatric” mum, still only 40 now, Lafferty's egg reserve was so low that there was, supposedly, more chance of her winning the lottery five times than successfully giving birth.

Will Duggan. PIC: Ed Moore

“I feel like I owe it to people to talk about the journey because it doesn't stop when you're successful” she says. “We would really like for him to have a sibling and it's sad it's not as easy for us. But even with losses along the way, we still feel incredibly lucky because some people's journey doesn't end in happiness.”

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A sign of stand-up's evolution is “that I can talk about this in my Friday and Saturday night club sets now” she reflects. “I only have a tiny platform. But if I can make one person feel that they're not alone, then it's worth it, because fertility is a big issue. I talk positively because so much of what we're taught in school is 'don't get pregnant!' If I'd known in my twenties some of what I know now, I could possibly have saved a lot of heartache and money.”

Casey Balsham empathises. The New Yorker has already recorded her Fringe debut Inconceivable as a special. But the show remains literally embryonic, as she and her comedian husband Robby Slowik underwent their fourth egg retrieval in the week before she came to Scotland, and she finds out if she's pregnant while in Edinburgh.

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“I can't just yell at young people to get their fertility checked” she observes. “These jokes are for everyone. But I can see some people really listening into it.”

Daniel Muggleton. PIC: Thom Davies

Mitigating her fury at friends who've accidentally got knocked up “getting drunk in Mexico with their husbands”, she finds “making jokes about it has allowed me to process what's been happening. Sometimes it doesn't feel like I'm the one going to the doctors and taking the shots. But when I actually sit down to write it, I'm like 'holy shit, this has been four years of my life'. I've been on hormones and out of my mind. Writing helps get me through it.”

Although she jokes with her IVF-born son about being a science experiment, Balsham's fellow American Sara Barron says she “had no real interest or disinterest in writing about fertility or miscarriage”. Yet gradually it became the closing third of her show, for when “I've made sure we're all trusting each other, when I've proven myself comedically” she explains. “The joke rate remains relatively high. But there's acknowledgement it's a heavier subject that does something to the alchemy of the room.”

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Outwith stand-up Ali Wong, Barron can't think of another comedian who's talked about their miscarriage on stage. “I'm hoping for 80 people a night,” she says. “So 40 of them will be women. So like, 10 will have had a miscarriage or be struggling … I hope it feels good to hear someone else talking about it. I accept it will be upsetting for some.”

She's embracing the challenge of making her loss entertainment. “Once we knew my pregnancy was in the clear, I was completely trigger-free on all topics. I wouldn't have chosen [the miscarriage]. But I like feeling like a lady who's been through a little bit more and knows a bit more. It was scary but it doesn't feel a sad thing. And in terms of the story I'm trying to tell, a really crucial detail.” Returning to it nightly, “what scares me is not desensitising myself to an important part of my life, it's looking gross. If it's too gross or weird, I've lost control of the narrative.”

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Jay Lafferty. PIC: Trudy Stade

Meanwhile, Will Duggan shouldn't be performing a “quite glib show about why we're all furious”, he shouldn't even be in Edinburgh. His hour turns on the fact “that I'm angry that I should be at home not sleeping with this tiny little baby.

"We have to talk about this” he implores. “It can't be a dirty little secret that it happens one in four times, that there's more chance of having a miscarriage when you're pregnant than getting a hot sausage roll in Greggs. I didn't learn about this in sex ed in the 1990s and my girlfriend didn't either. A 25% chance of something happening, not being mentioned until you're lying on the floor of an A & E department? We deserve better for ourselves. But then I go back to dick jokes and do a song at the end.”

Although he's “mourning the loss of a child”, the miscarriage is the sole section of “substance”. And he sets it up so he resists the Fringe cliché of “the sad bit at the 40-minute mark”.

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Regardless, he reckons audiences ought to get used to such material. “With more pregnancies in lockdown, some of those will have been absolutely terrible” he suggests. “Plus, I think Edinburgh is changing conceptually. Comics have talked about big issues. But the only new big issue has been Covid, so they're starting to look inwards. Plus, the festival's now less economically viable so there are fewer young comics. Fewer acts talking about ketamine and kissing. More at a time where they're talking about trying for a family.”

Heidi Regan and her GP partner have been trying for three years, with a significant difference for same-sex couples being that “you have to first try to get pregnant through a private clinic to prove you're infertile. You can't go to the NHS straightaway, you have to pay and say that you've been trying for two years.”

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Although the quirky Australian touches on all the frustrating bureaucracy they've endured, with typically silly multimedia flourishes, this is Regan's most heartfelt show to date, performed on the Free Fringe because of the fertility costs they've incurred. Yet she says: “My main focus has been to keep the show fun and light and I'm really trying to balance that with conveying how the NHS is struggling and is amazing.”

With her partner the one trying to get pregnant, Regan has “naturally slipped into the role of hopeless 1990s sitcom husband with unrealistic catch of a wife”. Her show is an opportunity “for me to say how great she's been and to talk about something that's taken over my life in a fun way, while reminding everyone, God bless the National Health Service! They do incredible work.”

Jay Lafferty: Club Sets, Scottish Comedy Festival at The Beehive Inn, 4.30pm, until 28 August (not 14 or 17 August); Daniel Muggleton: Oh, More Mr White Guy, Laughing Horse at The Counting House, 7.15pm, until 28 August; Josh Pugh: Sausage, Egg, Josh Pugh, Chips and Beans, Monkey Barrel Comedy (Monkey Barrel 4), 2.10pm, until 28 August (not 15 or 16 August); Casey Balsham: Inconceivable, Just the Tonic at The Mash House (Just the Cask Room), 5.05pm, until 28 August (not 15 August); Will Duggan: Iceberg, Pleasance Courtyard (The Cellar), 3.25pm, until 28 August (not 15 August); Sara Barron: Hard Feelings, Pleasance Courtyard (Upstairs), 7.15pm, until 28 August (not 16 August); Heidi Regan Gives Birth Live on Stage Every Night or Your Money Back, PBH’s Free Fringe at Voodoo Rooms (French Quarter), 5.55pm, until 28 August (not 20 or 21 August).