How do you define success? Health and happiness, a corner office and company car or scoring Ben Hemsley tickets on your phone while doing a headstand twerk? How about hosting Live at the Apollo, becoming a sell-out stand up comedian, writing and starring in your own sitcom, becoming a Sunday Times bestselling author and having a baby after thinking it’s not going to happen?
Success means different things to different people but what does it mean to comedian, broadcaster, actor and author Sara Pascoe, who explores the ups, downs, heartbreak and humour of the subject in her new standup show Success Story?
Taking a break from TV after her recent BBC 2 Sitcom Out of Her Mind, hosting BBC2’s The Great British Sewing Bee and appearing in Katherine Ryan Backstage, as well as BBC’s Last Woman On Earth, on top of her appearances on a host of popular TV shows including Frankie Boyle's New World Order, Taskmaster, Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You?, the 41-year-old is spending the next six months touring around the UK and Australia with a 50-date tour that arrives in Scotland at the start of next year then heads off to Australia.
When we catch up over Zoom Pascoe reveals what will be in Success Story, her first stand up tour since the 2017’s LadsLadsLads which focused on the breakdown of her four-year relationship and self-imposed celibacy and went from Fringe sell out to the London Palladium and a BBC special. Since then she’s married Australian comedian Steen Raskopoulos and become a mother, giving birth to a son in February this year.
“The first half is sort of an origin story about my ambitions when I was a teenager and wanting to be on television and what I thought it would be like, and then funny stories of things that have happened along the way. I do lots of name-dropping, so I talk about being on a radio show with Buzz Aldrin and being booked to do stand up for Hugh Grant’s birthday and ruining it and singing to Geri Halliwell on a Christmas Special where it all went horribly wrong.
“In the second half I talk about thinking I didn’t want children when I was younger because I was really focused on my job and then meeting my husband and deciding we did and not being able to, then IVF and then finally talking a little bit about my son, but very respectfully and in a way that hopefully he won’t be too embarrassed by when he’s grown up.”
In person Pascoe talks in long sentences that cover a lot of ground and take you on entertaining tangents, but if we can just rewind, can she give us a preview of the Geri Halliwell story?
“Oh I don’t know if it will make sense out of context, but essentially when I was 14 I auditioned for [Michael] Barrymore’s My Kind of People, and didn’t know when to come in on my song so I cried, then a couple of years ago when I was asked to go on All Together Now for a celebrity in inverted quotation marks Christmas Special, my agent thought I shouldn’t do it, because you’re supposed to have some street cred and I said ‘oh it’s really important to me to go on it for my 14 year old self’, and then it just went really badly. Essentially Geri Halliwell told me I couldn't sing and then my therapist didn’t believe me - she thought I was making it up.”
This is the short version and a hint of some of the things that weren’t a success for Pascoe, and no she hasn’t met Geri Halliwell since, but she has become someone with a different take on success.
“I think there’s a rebranding now thanks to people like Elizabeth Day and her How To Fail podcast where it’s like failing is part of the journey and it means you do better next time. I love that quote of Samuel Beckett, ‘fail, fail again, fail better. For anyone who’s trying to be creative or make things or even be vulnerable because something matters to you, failure is part of the journey. And sometimes things that might externally look like successes can feel like failures and vice versa. What I found when we were struggling with infertility was that people’s lives can look externally like they’re going really well, but you can have very personal, private sadnesses or painful experiences.”
“But when you’re a comic you have to do gigs and be funny and you might not be feeling like being funny at all, but that’s literally your job. You can’t go ‘do you know what I just don’t feel like laughing today, so we’re not doing any comedy, sorry you’ve all paid your money…’.
After deciding they did want to have children she and Raskopoulos embarked on IVF and success was defined in a very different way. For someone whose experiences are intrinsic to their comedy it followed that she address this in her standup.
“When I was doing IVF they talked about success rates so much it was hard having the word used in that context because I’d only ever thought about it in a TV programme context, or with comedians where there’s lots of things we judge to be successful like selling out or getting a good review. So whether an embryo implants or we get past 12 weeks, all of a sudden success was in a completely different context and I realised I wanted to reflect a little bit on what IS successful. Because going through IVF and having a baby has completely changed what I think of as successful. When my baby, who sleeps very badly, ever does a three hour chunk, I consider that more successful than getting a booking on a big panel show.”
Now nine months old, Pascoe’s baby has changed how she sees the world.
“Well I’m completely exhausted, my brain feels like it’s scrambled egg now, but… I was really worried that it would affect my comedy. Lots of people said ‘oh you won't be able to think of certain words with the tiredness’ and actually because I do standup it very rarely happens that I’m properly like ‘oh I don’t have the words’. I’m coping.
“It feels like there’s lots of perspective. Someone called it rightsizing. After having children it’s not that other things aren’t important, it’s that the perspective is right on things. So family, health, basic things like we’ve got food in the fridge, the heating’s on if it’s chilly, those kind of things are the most important.”
So would she describe her son as her biggest success?
“Yeah, I think he is, and I think I’m incredibly lucky that - it was IVF - but I managed to have a baby at 40 years old and for lots of people that’s the finishing line, and it does make things a lot harder, so it was something that I was just about giving up on when after two years of Covid and lots of setbacks, it managed to happen.
“So it’s a huge achievement and it’s different to any other work success where, if you have this amazing gig, like you might get booked for Live at the Apollo and feel like oh my god I’ve arrived and then when it goes out on TV or you see the edit you can be very disappointed, you can feel different looking at it externally than how it felt inside. Where I’m never going to look at my son and think no, I’m over it, I don’t like this version of it. It’s always going to be a huge positive.”
Pascoe’s comedy is very much autobiographical and of the bare it and grin variety. She’s willing to put herself out there with all of her vulnerabilities and invite the audience in to share in the heartbreak as well as the humour, and Success is her most personal show yet. Does she find it hard to be so open?
“With comedy you don’t really have a choice in the kind of comedian you become. You can’t sit down and go ‘OK I don’t want to talk about personal things, I’m going to do one-liners’ because you won’t just be able to write those kind of jokes. So it’s almost like the jokes, the things that were funniest that I was writing were always the ones where I was being most honest about myself and sharing and trying to connect certain things. It does feel sometimes exposing, but more often than not it feels like being really open with a group of friends who agree with you, or at least understand, so I find it very cathartic.”
She also finds it fun, appreciating a Scottish audience in particular, as a veteran of the Edinburgh Festival - among her many awards is best show at the 2014 Fosters Edinburgh Comedy Awards and winner of the 2014 Chortle Breakthrough Award - and is looking forward to performing here.
“I’m really excited about coming back to Scotland, really big venues, and obviously Scottish audiences are always fun because you’re clever and savvy, and never take things too seriously - and you’ve had a drink most of the time before the show.
“I remember the last time I was in Glasgow it was probably the best show of my tour because it felt like a party, which is just always magic.
It’s also a change from television, having a live audience with whom to engage and keep her in the moment. “I really like being on television too, it’s a nice life, but being on stage is very exciting and I guess much more focussing, in that you’re so in the flow of what you’re saying and your communication with the audience, that you have no other thoughts in your mind the entire time and and there’s something about that that feels a little bit like a break from yourself. It can be quite meditative, restorative…. And of course you’re flooded with all of the lovely feelings after a gig when everyone has been clapping you, which is obviously very nice as well.”
What’s also very nice is the response to Pascoe as a host of The Great British Sewing Bee, which she took over from Joe Lycett this year and she has just finished filming a new series, to be shown next year. It’s also led to a new interest and a plan to take sewing classes over the Christmas holidays.
“Because the baby grows out of clothes so much - obviously you give lots a way - but I would really love to make a quilt out of all my favourite babygros.”
Another lifestyle change for Pascoe has been the way she writes, after making a name for herself as an author with Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body, published in 2016, about the female body and evolution, followed by Sex Power Money in 2019, about transactional sex and male sexuality, with an accompanying podcast that has millions of listens and multiple award nominations.
For Pascoe it always comes back to conversations about sex education and what are we teaching young people, with the funny and fascinating podcasts being a world away from the biology based cringe-fests endured by the comedian herself at school. Which have been the most enlightening episodes for Pascoe herself?
“One was talking to Kitty [Velour, a pole dancer] in the second series and also I spoke to Jason Domino [sexual health activist and sex worker] about PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), a drug people can take if they might be at higher risk of attracting HIV. I had absolutely no idea about that at all. I was quite amazed or ignorant about lots of things and it was a real privilege to get lots of people telling me no, this is going on and that’s what happens and this is what my experience is.”
Her latest book is a departure - often literally when she taps away on a laptop in the back of a car on her way to a gig or appearance, and in genre as it’s a novel.
“It’s fiction so it’s about… god I haven’t got used to describing it yet… It’s about a woman who works in a pub and it’s very much her inner life and having a huge crush on someone she used to work with.”
Pasco credits becoming a parent as the catalyst for change.
“Part of it was I didn’t have time to research,” she says. “I think I could have written another non-fiction book and had ideas but in terms of time to research it - my second book took two years - and knowing I was about to have a baby, I wouldn’t have a lot of time. But the beauty of writing a novel is you can - though it’s not great - with a screaming baby on your chest, do 20 minutes or 40 minutes, or I was getting uber rides to gigs so would have 45 minutes in the back of a car with my laptop, so that was the reason really. I really wanted to tell a story and I’ve always wanted to write fiction and thought that would be a great way of writing a book without having to do tons of research.”
“I knew I wanted to write an unreliable narrator, a character where their version of events was slightly different to what was happening and we knew the difference because we could see both, so that was the starting point.Then the story sort of evolved and grew up out of itself.”
Sounds like another success story in the making, but we’ll have to wait until next year to find out. In the meantime, what does Pascoe’s new standup leave us with after her jokes and ruminations on the subject of winning at life?
“I think there are a lot of external pressures, things going on in the world that are really, really hard, so it's not to dismiss those, there are lots of reasons why people might be struggling in a variety of ways, but I think there are a lot of internal pressures that we put on ourselves and recognizing that we are doing it to ourselves. Because having a little newborn and thinking about success because I was writing the show, I kept thinking, honestly, you just want someone to have a long, as much as possible pain-free life, and most parents, absolutely that's what you want for your child - health and a long life.
“I think that the audience are all somebody’s baby, and we should treat ourselves slightly more like we would treat a baby, and with that kindness. Be your own mummy occasionally, say ‘it’s all right, you’re doing great, I like you’.
Sara Pascoe: Success Story, Glasgow Pavilion, 3 February; Aberdeen Music Hall, 4 February, see www.sarapascoe.co.uk/sara-on-tour for tickets.