Interview: Fern Brady

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By Poppy Tohill

As the days and nights get colder, we need something more to laugh about than the unpredictability of Auckland weather and lucky for us, The New Zealand International Comedy Festival returns (kicking off this Thursday 26 April) with yet another stellar line up of local and international talent for 2018 and whilst we’re not here to pick favourites - we highly recommend that while you check out as many acts as you can, do yourself a favour and make Fern Brady one of them.

From working as a stripper to taking out third place in the ‘So You Think You’re Funny’ finals in 2011, then being voted 99 in Scotland’s 100 Hottest Cultural Contributors in 2013 and selling out her first three Edinburgh Fringe runs on word-of-mouth alone, the Comedy Festival sees Fern make her New Zealand debut with her show SUFFER, FOOLS! which she tells us more about during our recent chat.

You seem to have had quite a number of interesting jobs throughout your life thus far. Who or what sparked your interest in comedy and did you ever imagine yourself as a stand-up comedian?

I intentionally did a lot of weird jobs because I thought I was going be a writer. I also unintentionally did a lot of weird jobs because I was poor and just did whatever came along. I did want to be a comedian but everyone around me - my family, my then-boyfriend, friends - were just baffled by the suggestion and told me not to do it. I did have teachers tell me to do it at school but they were usually saying it angrily.

How did you get your start in comedy and can you tell us about your first gig (if you remember it)?

A magazine I was working at got me to try stand up and write about the experience, which I now know is a very hack article idea that gets done a lot and comedians hate people who do it. It still took me a full year after that article to get the confidence to book gigs and start stand up for real. Everyone apart from one friend was like ‘why on earth would you want to do that to yourself?’

Being described as bold, brash and sometimes brutal, how would you personally best describe your comedy?

I think if I was a guy I wouldn’t get these descriptions. Women are socialised to be very sweet and polite and I’m not sure why but I’ve been the way I am since I could talk so I’m not putting it on for comedy. I do feel like I fit in better with Australians and Americans because a lot of British humour is based on innuendo and euphemism and not saying what you think which is a problem for me as I can’t do that.  

A lot of people talk about the vast differences between British and American humour - what is your take on American humour and are you a fan?

I love a lot of American comics and they have a much stronger history of forthright female comics than the UK. When I was growing up there wasn’t much other than sort of twee dance hall stuff like Victoria Wood. I like Natasha Leggero, Chelsea Peretti and Doug Stanhope. In Melbourne I've seen a few women who have made me excited about feminist stand up all over again: Beth Stelling, Kate Willett and your country's Rose Matafeo.

How do you go about writing your material, does it all flow naturally or do you tend to start off with an overall idea or topic?

I usually get annoyed about the same topics for long periods of time and it takes me a while to try it out on stage or get it right. I prefer to say stuff on stage first, record the gig then transcribe it, rewrite it and try it again.

How do you (if ever) get over that fear that people may not understand your jokes, or find them funny?

I just gig a lot. When I was new, a UK comic called Gavin Webster said “you have to not give a fuck” but that’s hard to immediately put into practice when you're still green, you can only get it from gigging loads. A big part of it is getting over the need for approval from the audience, so a lot of my best gigs are when I’m so tired or busy that I don’t even have time to get nervous or worry what they think. Having said that, usually in a new country it takes me about three days to adjust to which references are going to work and figure out how to make jokes specific to that country.

Have you ever experienced one of your jokes working well in one country or city, but perhaps not being so well received in another?

YES! So I went on a little tour of Estonia, Latvia and Finland just before coming to Australia. I felt like I’d met my people. They’re all pretty serious, don’t like small talk, occasionally mutter ominously about the Russians and love dark comedy. Any jokes I do about violence, knives or how I worry I’m going to murder my boyfriend in his sleep, got huge cheers. I said “this whole time I’ve been getting told my comedy is too dark but I was just Estonian!” and had about 300 Estonians go daft with applause. It was unexpectedly one of my favourite run of gigs.

Speaking of shows, we’re very excited to welcome you here for your New Zealand debut! Can you tell us a little bit about your show ‘SUFFER, FOOLS!’ and what we may be able to expect from it?

The way I wrote the show, I was thinking about how a lot of women think that there will be a thinner, better-looking version of themselves in the future and that they’ll be able to really live their best lives then. Then I thought of the two times in my life where I was really thin and how they’ve been the unhappiest times in my life. Then I wrote about that.

How much thought goes into the title of the show and is there a story behind ‘SUFFER, FOOLS!’?

I called it this cause my dad was telling me about my gran and great gran and how they’re horrible. He said “your great granny booted Aunty Monica down a flight of stairs. She didn’t suffer fools.” Then wistfully he said “you remind me of her” and I was like uh, ok, thanks dad.

We don’t want to exclude anyone from coming along to the show, but do you think there’s a particular audience or age group the show is more targeted towards, in terms of who would get the most out of it?

I’ve performed the show in about ten countries now and noticed I have a very consistent type of audience: bearded gamer guys who like craft beer, metal music, wrestling and/or work in IT and women who were also teen goths like me and recognise a fellow weirdo when they see one.

Recently I’ve started getting more hot lesbian couples in my shows and I’d like more of that audience, please.

When it comes to audiences and performing, what is the weirdest live experience you have had?

There are depressingly too many things to choose from. Maybe the time I had to gig in the room next to a funeral? And the people at the funeral were having a better time. Or the time a man kept taking his glass eye out and putting it back in while watching me. Or the time a woman rushed the stage to punch me? Or the time I had to run away from my gig because the whole audience hated me? Or the time a woman kept shouting at her greyhound who was also called Fern throughout my set? Seriously, this is like 1% of weird stuff that’s happened.

Do you have a special pre-show ritual to hype yourself up before taking to the stage?

No, I just go poop. If it’s a TV thing I still get nervous so I’ll listen to a recording of my set beforehand while tugging anxiously at my clothes and fidgeting a lot. Then poop.

What is the most rewarding part of being a stand-up comedian?

Getting to be yourself as a job. I used to get in trouble for being too honest in old jobs. Also I like sleeping in.

You’ve received some well-deserved recognition and accolades throughout your career as a stand-up comedian to date, how do you feel about where your career is at right now and following this show, what is next for you?

I have a very superstitious anxious mindset as a result of being brought up by extreme Irish Catholics and at the moment I’m very happy with work so I’m worried I’ll be punished and die young.

Lastly, what are you most excited for in terms of bringing your comedy show to our shores for the very first time and to hand all the reins over to you - Why should we come along?

Well I heard New Zealand audiences enjoy story telling shows and there’s some of that in my show along with conventional stand up.  Plus a few of you kept tweeting me to come to New Zealand so if you don’t come to this show I will be FUMING.

Fern Brady

Friday April 27th: Basement Theatre, Auckland

Saturday April 28th: Basement Theatre, Auckland

Tickets via iTicket