Lucy Porter is a comedian (do they not call them ‘comediennes’ any more?!) who has successfully conquered the stand-up circuit and who has also been seen a lot on our TV screens in recent years on comedy quiz shows and, one of my favourites, the hilarious Broken News. Lucy attracts some great reviews by virtue of her very confident, cosy and warm delivery style and individual subject matter. I saw one review which said she had a pixie face and a docker’s mouth, although these days I suspect dockers would blush when tuning-in to reality TV shows.
Lucy is also a busy comedy writer, thus being involved in two of the most difficult and dangerous professions known to man (and woman.) I tried comedy writing for a time and, believe me, it’s not funny! Lucy tells me that although she is too young to remember the sixties and seventies first-hand or to be a mover and shaker in those illustrious decades, she is a big fan of the ‘genre’. So, with this in mind, she kindly agreed to undergo Digger’s interrogation for www.retrosellers.com….
Digger: Why and how did you get into stand-up comedy and comedy writing?
Lucy: I was always a fan of comedy – radio comedy in particular. I used to huddle under the bedclothes listening to Radio 4 and that was first alerted me to the alternative comedy circuit. There was a programme called ‘The Cabaret Upstairs’ hosted by Clive Anderson that featured the new breed of comics, and I was inspired by people like Claire Dowie, Hattie Hayridge and Pauline Melville. Then I got into comedy on TV via shows like Friday/Saturday Night Live and then I moved to Manchester to go to university and discovered the live comedy circuit. There was a booming comedy scene in Manchester at the time, and acts like Caroline Aherne, Steve Coogan and John Thompson made me think I’d like to have a go at performing. I wrote five minutes of material, mainly about being a short, 22 year old woman, and did my first gig in 1995 at Alexander’s Jazz Bar in Chester.
Digger: How do you test-out your stand-up material?
Lucy: I try to work in new material at most of the gigs I do. I work most nights of the week and it would get incredibly boring doing the same thing every time, so I do new material to keep it interesting for me as much as anything else. That said, there are old, tried and tested routines that I still really enjoy performing.
Digger: Who were/are your inspirations in the world of comedy?
Lucy: Victoria Wood is a huge heroine because she was the first primetime female comedy star I was aware of. My dad also introduced me to the delights of Dave Allen and Billy Connolly and I think every comic dreams of being as good as them someday. My favourite comedy writer is Woody Allen – his stand-up was pure genius, a mixture of sharp one-liners and charming stories. Currently I’m a huge fan of Sarah Kendall, Josie Long, Julia Morris, Chris Addison, Lee Mack, Michael McIntyre and loads of others – there’s a wealth of great talent on the comedy circuit at the moment.
Digger: Can you tell us about the differences between performing your material and writing for somebody else?
Lucy: Writing your own material is easier because, obviously, you know your own turns of phrase and have a fairly good idea what stuff you’ll be able to deliver with conviction. Writing for other people poses more of a challenge because you have to attune yourself to someone else’s delivery and mindset. I’ve been really lucky in that most of the people I’ve written for have been naturally funny and can take the germ of an idea and customise it to fit their style. I know other writers who’ve written for presenters who can’t deliver jokes, and that must be slightly heartbreaking – watching material that you’ve slaved over being delivered to silence, coughing and the awkward shuffling of feet.
Digger: Okay, so tell us about your interest in the sixties music and movies?!
Lucy: So, music, what were the classics as far as I’m concerned? I’m going to do you a bit of a list here: Aretha Franklin – although most of my favourite Aretha songs came out in the seventies, her sixties output was amazing, my particular favourite being I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You.) Candi Staton/Bettye Swann; Both these women made amazing records in the 60s, although, of course, Candi flourished during the disco boom of the 70s. I came across them both on a Southside release of their early work and I would nominate Bettye’s ‘Make Me Yours’ as one of the most effortless vocal performances of the 60s. Diana Ross and the Supremes’ ‘Love Child’ 1968, one of my favourite songs of all time. Gladys Knight and the Pips’ Everybody Needs Love, their third Motown single in 1968 – what a voice. The Temptations’ I Can’t Get Next To You – 1969, one of the early funk records and hugely influential as far as I’m concerned. Marvin Gaye – I Heard It Through The Grapevine – just snuck into the 60s, and is still one of the songs I’ll turn up the radio for.
My favourite movie of all time was made in 1960. It is still the funniest, coolest, most charming film I’ve ever seen, and is the romantic comedy that I wish I’d written. It stars Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, it’s directed by Billy Wilder and it is, of course, The Apartment. It was challenging, edgy and brave at the time, and even now it’s a spunky little film that I could watch every day and find something new to love. Butch Cassidy, To Kill a Mockingbird, Midnight Cowboy … I could go on, but films of the 60s are still eminently watchable today.
Digger: Are you nostalgic, do you live for today or look forward, or a combination of these? What’s best about the past and what do you look forward to in the future?
Lucy: I am very nostalgic in a slightly dewy-eyed, maudlin way. I think it might be my Celtic heritage – you go to any Irish pub and it’s full of people singing songs about the good old days and having a bit of a weep. Of course, I try to live for the moment, seize the day, put my best foot forward and other clichés, but sometimes it’s nice just to wallow in memories. I worry that I’m typical of a fairly selfish, rude generation and I’m constantly trying to remember to be respectful, generous and kind in a way that’s quite hard in a noughties world where we’re all in thrall to global capitalism, Krispy Kreme donuts and Youtube.
Digger: What makes you laugh, what makes you hopeful, what makes you sad and what makes you angry?
Lucy: Most things make me laugh, I find it hard to be serious, but I probably belly laugh most at innocent, silly but deceptively skilful comedy like Harry Hill. Travelling the world doing comedy and meeting people makes me hopeful because you realise that there are a lot of decent, kind people out there. I’d like to say that what makes me angry is poverty and injustice, and of course they do, but what makes me cross day to day is probably the British rail network. I’m sure they’re trying hard, but if I have to go on one more bus replacement service I may snap.
Digger: What do you see as your biggest achievement to-date?
Lucy: Gosh, that’s a hard one. I suppose just following my dream of being a stand-up and keeping at it really. I love my job and I try to maintain a balance between earning enough to stay afloat and having time for my friends and family. But like so many people, I find that a massive challenge in itself. Performing at the Las Vegas comedy festival at Caesar’s Palace was quite a thrill just because playing Vegas made me feel like Elvis for a night.
Digger: What professional ambitions do you have?
Lucy: I’m a huge fan of radio, because that was what got me interested in comedy in the first place, so I’d like to maintain a presence on the radio. I think my ambitions now lie more in the world of writing than performing because I’m not sure that I can stand travelling on the British rail network for much longer.
Digger: How brave do you have to be to stand in front of strangers and make them like you and make them laugh within a few seconds?
Lucy: It’s not so much bravery as stupidity I think. When you stop to ponder what you’re doing for a few seconds you think it’s incredibly arrogant to expect a roomful of people to hang on your every word, but the rewards are so huge that it’s incredibly addictive.
Digger: Which topics are the most controversial and which are the most popular in your routines?
Lucy: It’s very hard to predict what people will adore or, conversely, despise. I tend to find that it’s most successful when I talk about the universal subjects – love, death and shopping. I adore surreal comedy – I’m a massive fan of the Mighty Boosh for example – but when I attempt flights of fancy it doesn’t seem to work so well (I had a long routine about being a mermaid that died every time I tried it.)
Digger: Do you keep a book to jot down ideas and lines for your routines?
Lucy: I do, but I’m not as diligent as some of my friends. I work better when I have a deadline – for example an Edinburgh show or a tour – then the ideas seem to spill out of me just in the nick of time.
Digger: Can you describe yourself in a few words?
Lucy: Constantly trying to be a better person but failing miserably
Digger: What are your inspirations for material?
Lucy: Whenever people review my shows the phrase ‘self-deprecating’ seems to come up. I think I try to make people feel better about themselves by describing how bad I am at negotiating life. That’s not to say that I’m consumed by self-loathing, but I think it’s funny when people admit that they’re pretty crappy at the things that really matter. Perhaps that’s why I love Woody Allen’s stand-up so much.
Digger: When are we going to see you with a show of your own on TV?
Lucy: Hmmm. ‘When I get myself organised enough to write one’ would be one answer. I think that in order to justify the huge expense of making a TV show you have to be fairly confident that you’ve got a great idea for it. As of yet I’ve never felt that confident. As I mentioned, I’m a huge fan of radio and I’d like to do a really good radio show that slides seamlessly onto TV.
Digger: Have you had a chance to watch Steve Coogan’s new ‘retro’ show Saxondale, which I think is hilarious in an understated way? What comedy do you watch/rate? What about contemporary music?
Lucy: I adored Saxondale. You’re right, it did have a nice ‘retro’ feel to it. I wish there were more ‘period’ comedies on TV, I loved Channel 4’s ‘Hippies’, although it didn’t last long. There’s lots of good stuff on TV at the moment, although my TV got nicked six months ago and I’ve only recently replaced it, so I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Musically I’ve also
been a bit neglectful lately. I used to be a huge fan of live music, but lately I always seem to be working when the gigs I want to go to are happening. I am, however, a huge fan of Amy Winehouse because I love her retro sound.
Digger: What would you be doing if you weren’t a comedian?
Lucy: I honestly don’t think I could do anything else, I’ve been out of the labour market too long. I harbour a secret desire (not so secret now I suppose) to go back to Uni, do a social anthropology course and make documentaries.
Digger: I spoke to Jonathan Lynn, creator of Yes Minister, and Alan Simpson, creator of Steptoe and Hancock, and they both said that comedy couldn’t be and shouldn’t be analysed. What’s your view on that? Can it be? Should it be? Are there formulae and are there tricks of the trade you can share with us?
Lucy: Erm, I’d hesitate to argue with Jonathan Lynn or Alan Simpson, they’re amazing! The thing I love most about comedy is that it’s utterly unpredictable. As every stand-up knows, you can perform the same material to two different audiences on subsequent nights and get a totally different response. I do have some tricks of the trade, but I’m keeping them close to my chest.
Digger: Who would you describe as the leading players, in any area of life, in the sixties and seventies and why?
Lucy: David Bowie is king of the seventies for me. I was born in ’73 so I wasn’t massively aware of what was going on in that decade, but I have strong memories of his look and sound. The one artist who sums up the sixties for me is Dusty Springfield, hers is a voice I will never tire of hearing and a look that I’ve been trying to emulate all my life.
Digger: What’s your view on where this planet and the human race is heading?
Lucy: Is ‘to hell in a handcart’ too depressing? No, actually, I am fairly hopeful that we will shortly see the error of our ways. My solo show is called ‘The Good Life’ and although it’s really got nothing to do with the sitcom of the same name I hope that the principles of self-sufficiency, local action and rejection of material goals that it espoused will become more popular. We do need to act urgently. Recycle, re-use and really panic, that’s my motto.
Digger: Can you tell us what your current projects are and what you might have lined-up for the future?
Lucy: Professionally, my current projects are: A national tour, details of which I’m about to post at www.lucyporter.info . A new series of Parsons and Naylor’s pull-out sections, which I’m writing and performing in for Radio 2 in the spring. A series of podcasts for The Guardian, which will hopefully appear on their website at some point soon. Personally, my current projects are: Saving up for a sofa and trying to be a better person.