“To be honest, the thing I am most proud of is not giving up”.
Acclaimed Writer, Critic, Broadcaster, Journalist, Stand-up comedian, MC, Podcaster, Bestselling Author (yes, you read that right: ALL OF THOSE THINGS!): Awards Alumni Coordinator Gemma Higgins talks to 2012 Funny Women Awards finalist Viv Groskop about the Trump delusion, comedy rites of passage, taking risks and why true friendship means sharing your hairdresser.
Photo credit: Steve Ullathorne
Gemma Higgins: In your “manifesto” celebrating women and the art of public speaking How To Own The Room you explored the vastly different ways in which brilliant female orators with very different personality types and narrative styles hold their voice in public. As someone who has openly said they still struggle to own the room at times and yet performed 100 stand-up gigs in 100 days as “an experiment in doing what you want, even if it is terrifying” what were the most powerful take outs from writing it in terms of your own personal performance?
Viv Groskop: No-one “owns the room” all the time. Or if they think they do, they’re delusional. (Or possibly they are Donald Trump.) Oprah Winfrey said after her speech at the Golden Globes in 2018 that she was sick with nerves and desperate for a drink of water. For me, the most important thing is to remember that any nerves or anxiety are not personal to you: they’re a human trait. They’re often a sign that you’re doing the right thing, that this is something that you care about. If you can lock into that idea, de-personalise it and recognise that it’s just a natural reaction, you can relax and get on with whatever you’re supposed to be doing. Again: some people might actually be too relaxed about this. (Hello again, Donald Trump.)
GH: You’ve just kicked off the second series of the podcast offshoot – the first seeing you speak to the likes of the formidable Mary Beard, the delectable Nigella Lawson, the brilliant Sam Baker – with the wonderfully humble Stacey Dooley… have there been any particular conversations that resonated from a comedy perspective?
VG: I hosted Stacey Dooley’s book tour (which is how I got the podcast interview) and we had a lot of funny moments, mostly around her teasing me for fancying Kevin Clifton. I loved what Mary Portas said in her interview about being terrified of being on panel shows with comedians because she feels pressure to keep up with them. She said it’s the one thing that intimidates her (apart from the idea of doing Strictly Come Dancing).
GH: You have an exquisite and unique range when it comes to writing; your talent transcends so many mediums. How different do you find developing a stand-up show to writing a book, column, opinion piece or critical review?
VG: These things all sound very different but really they’re the same: you’re always trying to find a way to say something that means something to you that will resonate with other people. “I think this. Do you think this too? Have I got this right?” The biggest difference with stand-up is that most of the time it’s your work and it’s unedited (although you might have a director/producer — Jess Fostekew directed my last Edinburgh show, Vivalicious). With stand-up you have the most freedom — and the most risk.
GH: You’ve been described as “charmingly leftfield with a warm, oddball sense of humour” and grew up with the “gloriously silly, eccentric” Blunderwoman as one of your comedy muses. When did you realise you were funny?
VG: I liked making my grandma Vera laugh when I was a kid. She used to make me do an impression of the character comedian Jimmy Cricket for her. I don’t think she was laughing because it was a good impression.
GH: What – or who – convinced you to enter the Funny Women Awards?
VG: Funny Women felt like — and feels like — a rite of passage. Once you have done a certain number of gigs, it feels like the right thing to do. Take a risk, put yourself out there. I was inspired by women who had done it just before me: Katherine Ryan, Rachel Parris, Pippa Evans.
GH: Following the success of I Laughed: I cried, the five-starred Say Sorry To The Lady and Be More Margo, last year you took Vivalicious, an exploration of your becoming your best self through embracing the gospel of Oprah Winfrey, to Edinburgh. Will you be heading back to The Fringe this August?
VG: I have a terrifying deadline for a new book coming out next year, so after five years at the Fringe I’m taking a year off this year. Instead, I’ve been supporting Lucy Porter on a few dates on her tour with her show Pass It On.
GH: Over the years since we’ve seen new comedy partnerships, friendships, even relationships start at the Awards. Have you kept in touch with any of the Funny Women you met in 2012?
VG: 2012 winner Gabby Best is a good friend. I thought she would win on the night and I was right. In recognition of her greatness, I have done the best thing any woman can do for another: given her access to my hairdresser.
GH: You’ve achieved so much since reaching the Awards final in 2012 – 100 stand-up shows in 100 days; five acclaimed Edinburgh shows, three incredible books, two short-lists for the PPA’s Columnist of the year, documentaries for Radio 3 and Radio 4, regular TV appearances – not least presenting The Week’s political round-up as WonderWoman…what has been your proudest moment in your comedy and/or writing journey?
VG: To be honest, the thing I am most proud of is not giving up. To get towards any of those things you need to rack up a gigantic number of failures. Behind all the things listed here is a towering stack of rejection slips, ignored emails, scripts that hit the cutting room floor and dud book proposals.
GH: “Brilliant delivery, total cool and charisma”, “a natural, warm rapport with an audience”, “rides [a grove with] authority and elan”…when do you feel you most own the room?
VG: I’m happiest when I’m so familiar with a show that I’ve written that I can go off-piste, improvise and really tailor it to the people in the room.
GH: What would you say to anyone out there thinking about entering the Awards?
VG: The same as I say to anyone thinking about trying stand-up: If the thought has entered your mind, just do it. It’s really important to do things and accumulate information about what it feels like to do them, rather than speculate about that in your own mind. Or spend forever thinking, “I wonder what would have happened if I’d done that.”
GH: You speak to so many incredible women through your work, and have hailed Doris Schwartz as the ultimate reason you took up stand-up…what qualities do you think make a funny woman and who are your favourites right now?
VG: Doris Schwartz is a fictional stand-up from The Kids From Fame who probably never would have made it in real life (no offence). Although, just like Mrs Maisel, she was pretty great to watch on the small screen. In real life, my all-time favourite is Tig Notaro: her live work is inventive and original and she’s also a great actor, currently doing a brilliant dead-pan face in Star Trek Discovery.
GH: Viv, I’m with Judi Dench: “My God, girl, you’ve got some guts”.