“I worked with Dawn French recently so I can die now and it would be fine.”
Ahead of Hench, a bit more live Hoovering and in the midst of the one Brexit that’s actually funny right now, Awards Alumni Coordinator Gemma Higgins talks to 2010 Awards Finalist and “absolute powershed” Jess Fostekew about the vulnerability in strength, gender, rage, anarchy, the thrill of a mid-scene snack, how, if you’re quiet enough, it’s possible to knocker feed a six week old under a BBC Radio mic and chasing her ultimate dream of spending a whole half term in Center Parcs.
Photo Credit: Idil Sukan
Gemma Higgins: Jess, I mean, where do I start?! After the success of your 2018 epic comedy horror-story The Silence of the Nans, you’ve just finished the preview tour of your latest stand up, Hench, ahead of taking it to Edinburgh in August. Nominated for Best Show at the Leicester Comedy Festival, it explores your strength, and how a feminist might take the term as a compliment…which apparently looks a bit like a snake eating. What can we expect?
Jess Fostekew: It’s a show about strength which includes admissions of absolute vulnerability because I think that’s a big part of strength is. Theme-wise, I flirt with gender and rage, especially in the context of having a really wild toddler who I’d really hoped would be a nice easy, fat, stagnant baby. Also, I think it’s a funny kind of madness that people are still so frightened of seeing women in big muscly bodies, including in those of us who have them. I don’t feel like I’ve made it sound very funny. It is. I’ve had two years to write this show and I found I was writing about strength and ‘femininity’ a lot anyway so this one has been a joy to put together. It’s the most excited I’ve ever been about finishing and sharing a show.
GH: This month you’re kicking off a mammoth run of Robert Khan and Tom Salinsky’s Brexit. How much fun has that been to be involved in?
JF. Yeah – lots of fun. The cast are amazing. The foresight of the play is amazing. Right now we’re only two shows in and I’ve already learned so much. One: I’ve got time to eat something during scene eight. Two: the light switch in the backstage toilet is too loud to turn on before scene 10 when it all gets a bit serious for a bit and three: if the director gives you a note you don’t love you can just shout “NOTED.” And finally four: when the theatre manager told us that we have a list of people we have to report it to if we enjoy ourselves, that was actually just her accent and we should leave all the people on that list alone, unless we injure ourselves.
GH: Your stand up is relentlessly hysterical, and as a comedy writer, host and performer you hold the stage with the ultimate blend of fiercely smart, powerfully feminist and infectiously silly: you clearly embrace the role of “modern, talking clown”. Growing up, who made you laugh and how did they influence your own comedic style?
JF: My Dad is the funniest person I know. If he isn’t angry he’s being really funny. So sometimes up to half of the time, he’s being really funny. Him, French & Saunders and Rik Mayall were my childhood comedic idols.
GH: You’ve been described as “consistently hilarious”. When did you realise you were funny?
JF: I think I had that quite standard thing of being a pretty weird, wonky kid at school who wanted in with the cool crowd. I couldn’t be the cleverest (and luckily, I still really tried), the sluttiest (and luckily, I still really tried) or the best looking (and luckily, stopped trying around aged four) but… I could make them all laugh. It was my only social currency as a teenager, so I treated it like the precious ore that it was from then. I still find it boggling that I’ve ended up having it as a whole job though.
GH: Comedian, actor, podcaster and writer, your natural versatility as a performer is not only unique but utterly flawless. Do you feel innately drawn to any particular medium or do you find the range allows you to express different aspects of your comedy that a single medium wouldn’t?
JF. Well, you’ve put this more articulately than I ever could. I love stand up, acting and writing and I suppose it’s what successful polyamory might look like?! There are times where I’m so deeply, obsessively in love with one of them but then an opportunity comes up from another, she looks at you in a filthy way, and that rekindles that fire you get in your belly and the other things step back for a bit. One thing that binds writing, acting and stand up is that they’re all muscles that need working for you to keep improving, and there is always and will always be improving to be done. And I get such different senses of reward from each thing – that in itself is worth ‘doing everything’ for. One interesting thing is that as a stand up, you get such a basic bitch level of obvious reassurance and praise at the end of every single joke, that you do have to watch yourself as an actor and writer that you’re not then all morose and needy because no-one’s clapping at laughing you every minute or so in those jobs.
GH: It’s been almost a decade since you reached the Funny Women Awards Stage Final. What – or who – convinced you to enter?
JF: I went to watch my friend Sara Pascoe in the final about a month after my very first gig and saw Katherine Ryan win, and Sara and my now also beloved friend, exquisite writer and actor Rachel Stubbings, both came runner-up. There was an anarchy about Sara and Rachel and of course Katherine’s the most sophisticated, composed comedian – even when they were all so new. Even in a competition final. So impressive all of them. Anyway – yeah – that’s probs what made me give it a bash. Those three exceptionally brilliant women.
GH: Since 2010 you’ve well and truly continued to throw your comedy around, true Jess Fostekew style, “like a walnut in a sock”. I know they’re big questions, but how would you say your work has changed and evolved over the years, and looking back, what has been your proudest moment?
JF: Oh God – this is a whopper. I’ve moved away from club comedy, with the occasional exception. I realised about a year after having my son that if I didn’t want to be doing it when I’m in my 50s then why am I giving it all of my energy now? Just like anyone going from 25 to 35 I’m just much clearer about who I am. And that’s made it much easier to write comedy with conviction about things you care about. I’m still growing in that respect, but quite fast at least, now. I’m slowly learning not to take too much on. Too slowly. And I’m aware that I am always changing, generally, so I try not to bother looking too far ahead. And that’s where I’m up to so far. Oh, I don’t think I answered proudest moment! I worked with Dawn French recently so I can die now and it would be fine.
GH: Although registration for the 16th Funny Women Awards‘ Stage category has now closed, both the Comedy Shorts and Comedy Writing Awards are open for entry until the end of July and there are regular opportunities to try out stand up or test new material at our TOTM workshops. What would you say to any women out there thinking about putting themselves forward?
JF: Yeah, just crack on, mate. Get in there.
GH: It’s been wonderful to witness so many new comedy partnerships, friendships, even relationships forged through the Awards. You regularly share The Guilty Feminist stage with Funny Women alumnae – Sophie Duker, Catherine Bohart, Bisha K Ali, Rosie Jones and Sindhu Vee to name just a few – and past Hoovering guests have included Cariad Lloyd and Desiree Burch. Have you kept in touch with any other of the Funny Women you met in 2009 and how do you feel sharing the experience helps build such long-lasting bonds?
JF: Oh yeah! I was in the final in 2010 and I’m still friends with Helen Arney who lives round the corner. Our kids go to the same gymnastics class. Her kid is much nicer than mine though. Once I asked mine on the way out “what did you do in gymnastics?” And he loudly bragged “I didn’t listen”.
GH: You only have to look at your doings to see just how hard you work – not taking into account your prolific writing for TV and film, and acting roles at production stage – I mean when they say you’re an “absolute powershed” they’re not wrong! All this, before we even get onto the “real life” stuff: you balance an intense career with motherhood and family. Do you have any advice for women out there starting out in comedy whilst juggling busy personal commitments – relationships, children, family – of their own?
JF: I’m in this Brexit play with the amazing Margaret Cabourn-Smith at the moment and I think she summed this up perfectly – having kids, as well as a busy career, means you can still do things but only the things that you really want to do. It turns out I really want to do absolutely loads of work. Haha. I’ve just learned as I’ve gone along – upping childcare here and there, making sure there are gaps in the chaos to just ‘be’ with my son as often as possible. And saying no. I’ve had to start saying no to loads of stuff. And no reply to every single message I get. And that’s fine. I still don’t find it easy, but it’s just that – you’ve got this much time, this much things you love – decide how you’re splitting it up. In terms of Mumming I am really grateful that I don’t have to go somewhere for nine hours every day and just see my kid at the beginning and end of each day – that’s a huge coup. And he’s had some adventures already because of my work. He was knocker fed inches under a BBC R4 Extra microphone (luckily quite quietly) before he was even six weeks old.
GH: You have two feature films – Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets and Michael Winterbottom’s Greed – pending release, The Guilty Feminist shows no sign of slowing down, Hoovering is going from strength to strength, you’ve got new another podcast – X, Y, Z Boom – in the pipeline and you’ll be going on tour in 2020. Looking ahead, what are you most excited about?
JF: These things are ALL so exciting! But touring my own show, Hench, early next year – it looks like I might even be going to some really warm, far away places I’ve never been to before so I am on cloud nine about that happening. Yeah – touring is the end game really. The fact that people are coming to see me now honestly still feels like the greatest gift, it’s everything I’ve ever worked for. That and one day I’d like to be able to afford to go to Center Parcs during half-term, but I’m still quite a long way off from that, financially.
GH: You’re a self-proclaimed “professional twerp” and have built a phenomenally successful comedy career through pursuing the creative passion you love. What is the best thing about being funny for a living?
JF: The freedom and the potential and the feeling you get when you are offered work you really want, which is as amazing as the feeling you get once it’s happening and it’s going well. Once you’ve made peace with what’s happening tomorrow often changing at 5pm the day before – you can really revel in having such an exciting, unpredictable life. And yeah, the fact that like today, on a random mid-week day, I can just keep my kid off nursery and take him to a farm, because why not? I’m not working until the play tonight and I’ve nearly finished this interview now!
GH: Metro once listed you as one of the “hilarious women to look out for”, and I mean damn did you prove them right! You regularly work with some equally big names and established comedians, but who are your favourite newer funny women on the scene right now?
JF: There’s a really brilliant sea of newer women in comedy, ones who’ve made me really laugh recently have been Priya Hall, with exceptional poise and storytelling, she’s over in Wales and in London, Chloe Petts who’s just SO funny and Kemah Bob, same deal, just a force of incredible personality and light.
You heard the woman, people: “Crack on, mate. Get in there.” Pretty hench advice, that…
See Jess in the one Brexit that currently does have a leave date at the King’s Head Theatre, London until 6th July. For tickets and more information, click here!
For a full list of Jess’ (many, many) doings, click here!