Glasgow Comedy Festival: Luisa Omielan asks ‘What Would Beyoncé Do?’
AT THE start of 2012, Luisa Omielan was an unemployed 29-year-old who’d returned home to live with her mother. Heartbroken, she’d suffered a family crisis and was struggling with her mental health.
A stand-up for four and a half years, she was going nowhere fast. “I’d never done well in competitions and in five-minute spots I was bombing,” the Londoner admits. “But I know I’m good. I know I’m meant to be doing this.”
So how did she turn her life around? Her late-night Edinburgh Fringe show, What Would Beyoncé Do?, was a breath of fresh air whipped up into a whirlwind. Searingly confessional, her devastatingly funny stand-up was interspersed with high-energy booty shaking through the R‘n’B superstar’s hits. “From the beginning we had to turn people away,” she recalls. “I had people sat on the stage.”
Beyoncé, as Glasgow International Comedy Festival audiences will learn tomorrow night, began in unlikely circumstances on Christmas Day. Some time later, Omielan went to a club with a friend, who badgered her into performing.
“I was a mess,” she says. “I got up and told them, ‘I’m sorry, I haven’t got any jokes’. I just told them what had happened at Christmas. And I got a standing ovation from half the audience, which blew my mind. The power of comedy, that connection.”
Meanwhile, her friends were tiring of hearing about her ex. Comedy suddenly seemed “a real chance to be like ‘this is how I f***ing felt, alright?! It’s not f***ing fair!”
Nakedly ambitious and unafraid of appearing naïve, Omielan isn’t a typical stand-up. “When I watch regular stand-up, I tend to get quite bored,” she says. “Initially I played Beyoncé songs whenever I was bored on stage, to try and boost energy back into the room. It was only later that they became part of the narrative. This is what comedy should be, though. For me, there’s an audience not being catered for, the groups of young girls on a night out, the gay guys who wouldn’t necessarily go to The Comedy Store. Stand-up shouldn’t just be middle-aged men talking about middle-aged problems.”
What Would Beyoncé Do? was Omielan’s solo debut at the Fringe after nine collaborations. “I was in charge of everything. I wrote it, directed it, performed it, produced it, marketed it,” she says.
Analysing the success of breakout “free” acts such as Cariad Lloyd and Imran Yusuf, she “remembered Imran saying he was offered a bigger room but took a smaller one so he would get queues out the door. That’s its own promotion.”
Spreading praise for the show across Twitter and Facebook and previewing it 32 times “because from day one I wanted it to be solid”, she would have been “devastated”, she says, if it had been overlooked by the press and comedy industry.
“I was like, ‘f*** it, they won’t be able to ignore me’. I’d never had any industry attention, begged for it for a long time, and what was nice about the show was that it didn’t need it. It built its own word-of-mouth momentum.”
Beyoncé began with Omielan’s childhood adoration of Whoopi Goldberg, when she used to watch Sister Act incessantly. “My granny’s Polish and doesn’t speak English. I’d do all the expressions from the film because she’d find it hilarious and I used to love making her laugh. That’s how we communicated. And I’ve never wanted to do anything else, just recreate that feeling.”
She spent three months studying improv and clowning at the legendary Second City school in Chicago, whose alumni include Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Joan Rivers, Mike Myers and Steve Carrell.
“I thought, that’s the kind of comedy I want to do, I’m going to learn from the best.” she explains. “And I’ve never felt more at home. It’s a real artform there, respected. There’s a skillset, discipline and training. And I think that’s why my show’s quite fresh and unique. Not just because it’s got music but because it creates a party vibe and comes from improv, a bit of clowning, imitation and characters, but with stand-up and jokes too. Dark and light. Tragic but funny. That’s comedy, the fine line.”
Omielan now hopes to take her show to America and will be reprising it at this year’s Fringe, along with a dating gameshow that she’s conceived with another effervescent stand-up, Patrick Monahan. “I’m not in a hurry to throw this show away. The audience is there for the taking and I want to take it.”
She’s overwhelmed that what started as a coping mechanism has provoked so much response. “I think it’s cathartic for other people, to go away feeling empowered.”
Omielan is a go-to Beyoncé pundit whenever stories about Destiny’s Child reunions and lip-syncing appear. “She’s coming in May and I really want someone who’s seen the show, somehow, to tell her to come along,” she gushes. “I’ve planned the Facebook profile picture of us but that’s as far as it goes, the rest is just blubbering. That’s all I can envisage just now.”
• What Would Beyoncé Do? is at Blackfriars, Glasgow, tomorrow.glasgowcomedyfestival.com.