Musical comedian, art historian, queen of the jingle: Awards Alumni Coordinator Gemma Higgins talks to Funny Women Awards winner Harriet Braine about admirable show titles, automata on Venus and why we probably shouldn’t be expecting dick jokes…
Photo credit: Credit: Karla Gowlett
Gemma Higgins: Harriet, the last time we spoke you were gearing up to take Apocalibrary to Edinburgh and you’re about to tease your new show at The Objectively Funny Showcase on the 14th. We’ve been told to “expect art history and dick jokes” – can you tell us anything else?
Harriet Braine: Haha! Hmm… you’ll be pleased to hear I had no idea that “expect art history and dick jokes” was going up on TicketText as the description of my new work. Which, by the way, is a complete departure from art history and is my first attempt at a wholly “family friendly” show… so no dick jokes (although did anyone ever really expect dick jokes from me?). I think it’s a bit of a laugh on the part of my lovely production company, Objectively Funny. It’s funny. To them. My show is actually about amazing women from history, some of whom I did bits about in the first series of The DesignSpark Podcast (formerly known as History Makers), so it has a science and technology theme. God knows I love a theme. It’s also about my “journey” as a performer (school plays, choir, being in the “alternative” theatre society at uni, and other wank). I’m basically putting the achievements of important women in STEM next to my achievements and seeing what happens. It might be a huge mistake.
GH: Where will you be taking it? Will we be seeing you back at The Fringe?
HB: Yep, back at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, this time with Gilded Balloon, and I’ll also be doing previews in London, Leeds, Buxton and more. I’ll also hopefully be taking it to Sweden, as Lund Festival have said they’d like to have me back, which I’m chuffed about!
GH: You’re currently responsible for people across London bellowing “So Much Trauma” into their fellow commuter’s ears and have everyone humming along to your dulcet tones thanks to two awesome podcast jingles recorded for fellow Funny Women alumni Sofie Hagen and Jodie Mitchell’s Secret Dinosaur Cult and Sofie’s Made Of Human – how different do you find it writing jingles for other people to writing comedy for your own performance?
HB: I cannot adequately express the joys of jingle writing. They are short, I don’t have to perform them, and I can mess around on Garageband in my room to my heart’s content. Performing is great, but I have real issues remembering longer sets (an hour is very difficult, but here we are and I’m on my third one), which puts me on edge a bit.
GH: You’ll be on the other side of the microphone joining Robot Wars’ Dr Lucy Rogers and the hilarious Bec Hill for The DesignSpark Podcast Live at the end of the month. You’re talking all things tech: past, present and future – the latter being the setting for Apocalibrary, in which Trump had succeeded in breaking the internet –literally. What has it been like to prepare for?
HB: It’s so much fun to prepare for, as I love writing within set parameters and so having six very specific topics to research and play around with is good for me. I also love Lucy and Bec, and getting to see how their ideas develop and then seeing it all gradually come together is really cool too.
GH: It’s billed as tech gags, songs, sketch and facts, and we know you love a fact. What’s the best one you’ve come across in your research?
HB: One of the coolest topics I’ve been looking at is automata, or mechanical self-operating machines. Wind-powered automata go back all the way to 8th century Baghdad, and they have been developed usually with an emphasis on art (because they can look really cool). Now Nasa is developing a wind-powered automata instead of a robot to explore Venus for practical reasons, because Venus’s harsh conditions, particularly its surface temperature of 462 °C (864 °F), make operating electronics there impossible. IS YOUR MIND BLOWN YET?
GH: You’ve been described as a “gifted musical chameleon” who swaps “effortlessly between styles” and have said in the past that you were always obsessed with comedy that was musical in some way, but when did you realise you were funny?
HB: I don’t remember a precise moment. I remember being able to make family members laugh when I was young, but they were all funny as well, I didn’t feel like I stood out. It was the same in school, I had a hilariously funny group of friends and I really don’t think I was particularly stand-out. I can think of a few who were, and often think they would smash the comedy world if they weren’t so busy doing real important jobs. So, I probably realised quite late, towards the end of uni when I did my first couple of performances of my first art history songs. I didn’t have the bright idea to call it “comedy” until about 3 years after that. I’m slow.
GH: What – or who – convinced you to enter the 2016 Funny Women Awards?
HB: I can’t remember exactly, but there’s a real buzz around new act competitions in the open mic scene, so I reckon I got swept up in that and just went for it.
GH: You have a unique style that you’ve stayed true to since winning the Awards in 2016. Your mentor for the Awards was the incredible Ellie Taylor, who is a very different performer. How did working with her influence your comedy? How do you feel it has evolved since your win?
HB: I loved spending time with Ellie, she was so sweet. As we are very different as comics, we focused more on the emotional side rather than the technical, and she gave me great advice about staying happy and positive in the biz. I think my comedy is gradually evolving, I’m still working on my stage presence, as I can be very wooden still (I certainly started off very wooden). I think drinking prosecco with Ellie directly before going onstage at the awards might have helped! Although when I watch that performance back I think I might have been a bit too relaxed… I was way out of tune… but hey ho no one seemed to mind.
GH: You have a real talent for making pretty intellectual subjects accessible to even those who know nothing about them, and your shows often involve an element of audience participation. When you write, what are you hoping people will get out of your comedy?
HB: A very lovely comedian (and fellow FW alumna, Katie Lane) told me just last night that I “really spread the joy”. I want people to laugh. I haven’t even been that fussed about them learning anything until the podcast, really, which is actually very educational. I also want people to know that lofty subjects like art and philosophy or whatever are just as laughable as what goes on in the bedroom. Not the bathroom, though. Toilet humour ranks highest.
GH: Getting an audience involved in a show is a brave thing to do. Have you had any hilarious/disastrous experiences as a consequence of actively encouraging shout outs?
HB: I do a song about Capability Brown (landscape architect, top dead lad), and it’s a game where I get the audience to shout out alternative nicknames for him based on clues I give them – Liability Brown, Vulnerability Brown, etc etc. One of the clues is “He was always off balance, and always falling over”, to which I expect a resounding “Instability Brown!” from the audience. One of the first times I ever did the song, it was quite a small room at Brighton Fringe, and my Mum was there, it was the first time she’d played the game so I don’t think it was malicious, anyway, she shouted “Disability Brown!”. It was really funny so I stole it.
GH: The titles of your shows are always genius, any chance of an early reveal?
HB: Yes! It’s called Les Admirables. I haven’t been keeping it a massive secret, I’m just shit at publicity.
GH: Metro named you as one of nine “hilarious women to look out for” (Rosie Jones being another of our Awards alumni on the list). Which funny women do you think are the ones to watch in 2019?