“Write whatever you think is funny and hone it with someone you click with and trust. Two lassies hitting each other with frying pans – not sure we’ve had that.”
Ahead of taking ‘Must Watch Show’ Duvet Day to the Fringe, Alumni Awards Coordinator Gemma Higgins talks to 2017 Funny Woman Awards finalist and “rising star” Susan Riddell about surrounding herself with funny women, the importance of going off-script, the value of the odd reminder to “just keep going” and why there’s always time for a lie-down.
Photo Credit: Mark Liddell
Gemma Higgins: Congratulations on your debut Edinburgh show, Susan! “Championing laziness in an increasingly manic world” and named by the Glasgow International Comedy Festival as a ‘Much Watch Show’, what, just over a year since you properly hit the circuit (?!) you’re heading to the Fringe with to debut Duvet Day. I mean, that’s huge! How are you feeling about it?
Susan Riddell: I’ve been on the circuit for two and a bit years now (sporadically) and I’ve been to the Fringe the past couple of years. The first year I was doing the CKP Lunchtime special. So five up and comers doing their best 20 mins. Then last year I split the bill with my pal and did half an hour and this year I’ll do my hour. I think it’s just ticked along nicely and I’m glad I’ve had experience with the fringe so I know what I’m in for.
GH: We’ve been told to expect “ponderings on relationships, marriage, growing up, and why pyjamas are always a sensible outfit choice (100% with you on this – as a freelancer I really don’t feel the ‘day pyjama’ gets the credit it deserves).” Can you tell us a bit more about the show and what inspired you to write it?
SR. The show is a reflection on how lazy I am in all areas of life. I think everything is so extreme these days. One example being our appearance. My wee niece has better make-up than I do. Young lassies are watching make-up tutorials and they’re buying all the best of gear. They’re all doing 12 step Korean skincare regimes. Then there’s twenty-year-olds getting botox. I’m like STOP making all this effort cause it just means I have to make more of an effort. It’s mental. Contouring and stuff is normal now and I’m like why must I think about my skeletal structure before a night out. It’s just a wee bit like, where does it end? I sound like I’m really against all this stuff and I’m not, I actually love watching make-up tutorials but I don’t buy any of the stuff. I just find it soothing.
GH: “Formidable, fearless … quick with the audience. She’s sharp, make no mistake. When did you realise you were funny?
SR: I realised I could write funny when I went to Australia for a uni exchange thing and wrote the first chapter of a comic novel for a writing class. I always wanted to write and it just came out funny.
GH: Growing up, you’ve said your love of comedy was instilled less by stand up and more by sitcoms; Tina Fey’s performance in 30 Rock and Kath and Kim being two you cite as being particularly significant. Looking back, how do you feel those influences shaped your performance as a stand up?
SR: I just think everything you find funny will probably influence you in some way. I love heightened daft stuff. Although I like comedy dramas which seem to be the fashion at the moment, I just love lighthearted, uplifting stuff that doesn’t take itself too seriously. I’d love to write a female kind of version of Bottom. Two lassies hitting each other with frying pans – not sure we’ve had that.
GH: Your “astute observations and sparkling wit” have delighted the critics and seen you recognised as a true “rising star” on the scene, but you hadn’t planned for a career in comedy and were studying English Literature at Glasgow before dropping out to pursue something you were clearly born to do. How did you fall in love with stand up and what prompted you to pursue it?
SR: It was a wee bit of a different trajectory than that. I left school in fifth year and studied beauty therapy, went to Glasgow Uni to study English directly after finishing the beauty course and had the biggest culture shock of my life. I did not fit in there. I hung around with a taxi driver and a wee neddy lassie who honestly looked like a Chewin’ the Fat extra. I was just clinging on to anyone who wasn’t from a private school. I hated it. I dropped out and worked as a beauty therapist for five years – this was before folk were mad about beauty and before people got Hollywood waxes and all that stuff. After five years of hating beauty therapy, I went back to Strathclyde uni and it all changed when I started writing a funny novel as part of my course. I haven’t really fallen in love with stand up. We’re seeing other people! I sneak off with my scripts and my sketches and stand up turns a blind eye.
GH: Not just brilliant stand up but you’re a talented, hugely versatile writer (Susan created and starred in sketches for BBC Short Stuff and for BBC One’s spoof cop show Scot Squad – in which she also had a role, and penned hilarious regular columns for the Daily Record), you won one of four coveted places in the in BBC Writer’s Room Fast and Funny and said only last year how much you’d love to collaborate on a female-led Scottish sitcom, you’re now doing just that! Are you able to reveal anything about the pilot?
SR: I’m working on two very different scripts. One is a more traditional flat share type thing focusing on two lassies living in Glasgow. It’s mental that there hasn’t been this kind of female-led sitcom already. I think people are crying out for it. The other script is more about gentrification and the collision of different classes in modern-day Glasgow. That’s all I can say.
GH: Anyone familiar with Scot Squad will know you also had a small part in the last series. You said you found writing for the show more exciting than performing in it, but you were great! Would you like to do more acting work? Will we be seeing you pop up in this sitcom of yours by any chance?
SR: I think I’d be up for acting in one of the sitcoms. I don’t class myself as an actor at all. I’ll just do what Jerry Seinfeld did and surround myself with the best to distract from myself.
GH: There’s a massive difference between shooting scenes in a studio and performing to a live audience, and watching your stand up it appears you get a real buzz being up on stage with a crowd to share the experience. Is that the case? What is it about the nature of stand up and the interplay with the audience that makes it so special?
SR: Well the only time I really enjoy stand up is when I feel like me and the audience are clicking. It’s like anything. Sometimes it clicks, sometimes it doesn’t. I like when I’m relaxed enough to riff a bit. I don’t get a huge buzz from stand up though. Of course there’s those special gigs that feel amazing but I’m not chasing a buzz like some comedians do.
GH: You’ve said the best advice you ever received from another comedian was “Go up with nothing to say and see what happens”, which I guess doesn’t apply to your Edinburgh run but is great advice! In turn, you’ve said that your advice to anyone considering stand up but lacking confidence is “Just give it a bash.” Lucky for us you did, eh?! What made you enter the Funny Women Awards?
SR: I honestly don’t know why I entered. I can’t bloody remember. I was entering a few competitions because that’s the advice I was given from other comedians and stuff. Funny Women was a nice one to take part in, others weren’t so nice. I’m only really interested in female comedy at the moment. I’ve had enough exploration of the male psyche. I suppose that’s why I liked Funny Women. I like watching other females, seeing what they’re up to and what they’ve got to say.
GH: Your “original comic voice” won us over, and since 2018 you’ve really come to command it – when they say “formidable and fearless” they’re damn right! Who was your mentor and do you feel their individual style and narratives helped you further develop and own that voice?
SR: So my mentor for Funny Women was Sindhu Vee. It was nice to be paired with her because I met her the year before as we did the CKP Lunchtime special at the fringe. I found it really hard. I was chucked in at the deep end. I had only done like 20 gigs and barely had 20 minutes of material. I died on my arse often. I wasn’t at the stage where I felt confident enough to talk to the crowd. Sindhu was more experienced than me and she reassured me and was actually the one to say “get up there with nothing to say, without a script and see what happens.” She was really nice to me and I’m grateful for that cause it’s very tough at times.
GH: With Sindhu’s advice in mind, have you ever actually gone on stage with nothing to say? How do you think improvisation strengthens your craft as a writer and has your approach to developing material changed off the back of this advice?
SR: You have to do it. Stand up isn’t just going up with a script. It would be a lot easier if it was. Any live stuff has to have an element of improvisation because no show is ever going to run 100% smoothly. It’s the best part of the show to just hit out with stuff on the spot.
GH: The industry is a unique, crazy and, at times, terrifying beast, and having an established comedian who knows exactly what it is to be new to the scene can make every difference when you’re starting out. How do you feel having a mentor impacted your journey to where you are now?
SR: I think someone just saying to you, “you are funny and just keep going” can be all you need. It’s like any job, you’re going to look to people who have experience and go “am I doing okay?”
GH: Over the years we’ve seen new comedy partnerships, friendships, even relationships start at the Awards, and many of the Funny Women Alumni will also be performing debut shows in Edinburgh. Will you be in the audience cheering on anyone you met at the competition?
SR: Yes I’ll try and see as many of the other Funny Women Alumni as I can – and just funny women for that matter. it’s the only thing that doesn’t bore me. Because I’m writing scripts I’m always looking for funny lassies to play characters I’m writing should the scripts take off, so there’s that too.
GH: The Funny Women Comedy Shorts and Comedy Writing Awards are open for entry until the end of July and with more and more female-led sitcoms being commissioned (yours being one of them), arguably it’s a particularly exciting time for new writers and producers to enter the industry. With the doors finally opening up for more women to develop comedy content, write scripts, produce and direct original work, what do you think those entering in these categories can do to make sure their stuff stands out?
SR: Just write whatever you think is funny and hone it with someone you click with and trust.
GH: Previously you’ve said you “aspire to be the Scottish Tina Fey: dead rich and respected but still under the radar”. It’s a great goal, but for now, with Edinburgh fast approaching and a BBC sitcom in the making (did we mention that?!) what’s the ‘Tina Fey’ for the next few years? I hear you wouldn’t mind a Netflix show…
SR: I wouldn’t mind a Netflix show but I want everything I do to be good quality. The Tina Fey thing just means having more than one string to your bow and being in it for the right reasons. To be very rich, you know.
GH: You’re curating your own ‘legends of comedy’ line up, which this time last year was in an Aussie phase, but as a “Scottish talent on the rise” which newer funny women on the circuit do you think we should be watching?
SR: Steff Todd who debuts with her show Reality Check. If you’re into reality TV go see it – I am and she’s just great at all the impressions. My friend Rachel Jackson is always up to something. She’s a comedian and actress and she’s so naturally funny. She cracks me up. I’m gigging at Monkey Barrel 5 this year and there are some really funny lassies – Amy Matthews and Krystal Evans. There’s loads of funny lassies around just now on the Scottish scene. Too many to mention!
GH: In Duvet Day, you’re flying the flag for allowing yourself a bit of time out from the increasingly relentless pace of life that modern day society has come to expect as the norm. Even without the demand to keep up with today’s ‘always on’ culture, sometimes – as the show explores – life itself just makes you want to hide under the blankets and comedy is about as full on as it gets. But when money is tight and there’s a pressure to seize every gig or writing opportunity you’re given, how important is taking the odd duvet day, not just for your health and your happiness, but for your creativity?
SR: There’s always time for a lie-down. If you’re not lying down you’re not living. Plan your lie down time in. If you’re struggling just have a wee break and it’ll refresh you. Nothing wrong with relaxing.
GH: On the flip side, when the last thing you want to do is prise off those pyjamas, what is the one thing that gets you out of them?
SR: My dog Annie. I do have a tiny amount of pride in my appearance and I don’t wear my actual jammies when I take her out. Don’t want people thinking I’m an unfit dog mother.
A ‘Must Watch’ Edinburgh show, two sitcoms in the pipeline and a plan to be very rich…keep an eye on this particular Scottish lassie, people – it sounds like that Netflix show might just be in the bag. With or without the frying pans.
Fringe bound? Join Susan for a Duvet Day at the Monkey Barrel 5 at 7.30pm on 2nd – 11th and 13th – 25th August. For tickets and more information, click here!