Ahead of Funny Women’s 18th Birthday Party, Awards Alumni Coordinator Gemma Higgins talks to 2006 Stage Awards Winner Suzy Bennett about confidence, comedy crushes and costumes, and why beach-based dating shows need more pasties.
Photo: Meg Harris-Smith
Gemma Higgins: Suzy, It’s been 14 years since your Funny Women Stage Award win and you’ve packed a lot in since! For anyone who’s not already familiar with your comedy (and if you’re not, people, stop everything and go check out Suzy’s showreel immediately!), how would you describe it? And yes I am asking you to be your own compere here.
Suzy Bennett: I would describe my comedy as an amplified version of myself: telling silly confessional stories about life and my views on the everyday, nothing too ‘edgy’ or political or particularly groundbreaking but I have been told I am warm, friendly and relatable. Sometimes saucy, seaside postcard humour, all wrapped up in a delicious Devonshire accent!
GH: You stormed the circuit from day one with your “chatty style” of storytelling, and continue to regale us with anecdotes from your life – not to mention a rather eventful stint as a Butlins Redcoat! You must have so many stories to choose from – what is it about those that make it into your repertoire that inspires you to include them?
SB: I started out in comedy at 30-years-old (which the legendary Jo Brand told me was a good age for stand up) which meant I had a bit of life experience behind me and some varied jobs! From clumsy waitressing (dropping mushy peas on a Naval Officers lap) to market researcher, via bingo caller, Butlins Redcoat (crashing Noddy’s Car), bar ‘maid’ and overseas holiday entertainer (being thrown into the pool five times a day), dresser in the West End to mingling with wax celebrities at Madame Tussauds (disciplinary for getting TOO hands on…). Many of my stories have a grain of truth, some are exaggerated and I like to keep the audience guessing. I still don’t know what I want to do ‘when I grow up!’
GH: Your first full-length show Dancing on Thin Ice saw you cracking some of your trademark jokes about the single life and pulling (or not pulling), whereas your second show, Gumption, was a far more personal and vulnerable account of some of the more challenging times in your life, including the death of a close friend, delving into those darker narratives must have been incredibly emotional both to write and perform. How much do you feel working through those experiences helped you process and come to terms with the things you spoke about?
SB. My first solo show was a learning curve in lots of ways. If I could go back in a time travelling Delorean I’d tell 2013 Suzy not to rush to Edinburgh with a solo show that year but to take time to really think about it (I’d also give her some winning Lotto numbers). I loved that I got to talk about my love of Torvill and Dean, dress up in a ‘bespoke’ Bolero outfit (thanks Mum), but there were some personal parts of the show that I took out when I performed it later and the show felt better and more fun. I’ve never been comfortable with being too truthful about emotional matters and if I do mention something particularly painful I’m in a hurry to diffuse the tension and get to the punchline! There are many comics I admire that are highly skilled in taking the audience on a raw and honest journey that has them in tears and I am in awe of them, but if I ever did an hour long show again I think I’d keep it light. Saying that, my second show Gumption did indeed “delve” into a darker subject when I talked about the death of my friend. During the previews I was putting off doing the ‘bit’ about the funeral and my good friend said “just say it out loud”, and I did, and it was funny. I found it easier as I was talking about my friend rather than my own feelings, and we have all been affected by grief in some way so it didn’t feel so personal. He was there when I started out doing gigs to three people in a room above a pub for no money so it felt important to pay tribute to him and what he taught me about friendship and laughter. I’m sure he would have been laughing louder than anyone and would have loved the homemade gold hot pants I wore in my special finale dance for him (again, thanks Mum)!
GH: You’ve said that you were always a bit of a show-off and used to do impressions to make your family laugh, but when did you realise you were funny?
SB: The main impressions I used to do were Margaret Thatcher, Kenny Everett and characters from Hi-De-Hi, and my family used to laugh but I’m guessing they were being polite. A primary school friend’s Dad used to call me Mad Suzy Bennett, so I was obviously doing something comical around him but I don’t remember being told I was funny until leaving school and coming SECOND in ‘Funniest girl in the school’ at the ‘Leavers Disco’ (I refuse to call it a ‘prom’). I demand a recount!
GH: You’ve spoken a lot about your childhood comedy influences, which included powerhouse women such as Victoria Wood and French & Saunders. Speaking of which, Dawn herself has been an outward champion of yours. There weren’t many solo female comics to look up to when you were younger, so now there are so many incredible women on the scene, who do you think you’d be watching if they’d been around at the time?
SB. I adored Victoria and would listen to her cassette tapes all the time. I met Dawn French a couple of times and she was as beautiful and friendly as you can imagine. Local girl too! I’ve met so many amazing female comedians through the years and a few have become household names, but I admire them all in different ways. There are some funny women I follow on social media but haven’t met in real life.
To name a few who have inspired me and constantly have me laughing either on or offstage I have to champion Katherine Ryan, Jo Brand, Sarah Millican, Sooz Kempner, Anna Keirle, Sajeela Kershi, Jenny Bolt, Luisa Omielan, Kerry Godliman, Debra-Jane Appleby, Aisling Bea, Angela Barnes, Carly Smallman, Shazia Mirza, Hayley Ellis, Sha Wylie, Cally Beaton, Amy Schumer, Sandi Smith, Louise Leigh, Jenny Collier, Lucy Porter, Ellie Taylor, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Rachel Parris, Gabby Best, Diane Morgan, Catherine Bohart, Tiffany Stephenson, Harriet Kemsley, Cerys Nelmes, Lou Conran, Rosie Wilby, Shappi Khorsandi, Kate Barron, Laura Lexx, Miranda Hart, Lara A King, Athena Kugblenu. Just a few (started writing and still couldn’t stop thinking of people)! I’m pretty sure back then I would have had everything Melissa Mccarthy and Kristen Wiig ever did on VHS too!
GH: Having loved being on the mic and earned yourself the reputation of “the funny one” when working as a Redcoat, you bravely signed yourself up to a stand up evening class. Can you remember anything about it, and what it was that officially got you hooked?
SB: It was before social media when I was working in London and I literally signed up to the first class I found in the paper. It was run by circuit comic Rob Hitchmough and went from about 25 people to five as the weeks went on and people realised that stand up maybe wasn’t for them. It was a guy in my class that persuaded me to enter the Jimmy Carr competition that got me my first gig: a five minute spot at The Comedy Store, introduced on stage by JC himself! I was a natural on the mic after my years as a holiday entertainer so the real challenge was to form a routine!
GH: We saw you flash some rather fetching Victorian crinoline in Channel 4’s The Diets That Time Forgot’ and as one of the Evening Herald’s ‘Coolest Plymouth Women’ you regularly take those proud Devonian roots of yours onto local radio. How different do you find having a live audience or host to bounce off as opposed to performing on-set to camera? Are we likely to see you on our screens again anytime soon?
SB: I tend to be a bit ‘rabbit in the headlights’ with a camera pointing at me, I’m not a natural unless there is someone/something to bounce off. I enjoy chatting on the radio with someone else in the studio but have to imagine there’s a crowd listening and I’m not just talking into the void. Nothing beats the buzz of a live audience. I had fun on that show, made some friends, lost some weight…which I have found again! Never say never though!
GH: Speaking in 2018, you said that whilst your persona hasn’t changed since you started out, you’ve become more “confident, natural and less ‘apologetic’ about [your] material”. That’s pretty big, and something that can really only come with doing the time. How do you think that has impacted your performance and – possibly even more importantly – your enjoyment of it?
SB: Early on I remember doing a gig which had a big group of men at the front and becoming a little shy and apologetic about some subjects that were a bit more female-oriented and afterwards being told (by a man) that “funny is funny” and to have more confidence and defend my material. Over the years I have really taken on that advice and have won over seemingly difficult audiences for instance a ‘Gentleman’s Evening at a Golf Club’, stag nights and Football/Rugby shows without feeling the need to change my material. If it’s funny then I’ll say it with pride!
GH: You reached the final of Jimmy Carr’s Comedy Idol on your first ever gig, “accidentally” won the Funny Women Awards on your sixth; there’s a glorious unpreparedness woven into your comedy. Do you think there’s anything to be said about the power of approaching stand up with that element of ‘Let’s just see what happens…’ or a lack of expectation perhaps that requires you to improvise and think on your feet?
SB: I have often wished I could be one of those organised people who sits at a keyboard and both writes and treats comedy like a 9-5 job but I like sleeping and daytime TV too much! Seriously though, I’m a born procrastinator and rarely prepare. I occasionally write notes if I think of something funny (which seems to happen in the shower or middle of the night) and before I go onstage I take a quick look at my notes, which I call ‘Dumbo’s Feather’ as I don’t really need it because it’s all in my head, albeit scrambled up in a big mess. Some people have said they like my conversational style; as if I’ve only just thought of it, so it seems to be working for me! I enjoy new material nights and tend to write panic notes just before then see what comes out on stage. I record them and occasionally something slips out that remains in my set.
GH: For both of your solo shows the material followed the ‘narrative arc’ of a story, but when it comes to planning shorter sets and MC gigs, how much structure is there in the planning of your stage time and how much is purely based on the vibe of the crowd? There’s such a natural flow to your sequencing, that even with the off-the-cuff stuff, you make it look so effortless. Is it?
SB: I sometimes get nervous MCing as you’re responsible for setting up how the night feels in terms of atmosphere and creating a nice vibe for the acts. I can usually tell in the first few minutes if the audience are on board and want to be spoken to. More recently I’ve compered at some bigger London weekend clubs which can be daunting but find myself having great fun by talking to them like friends and staying on the right side of ‘taking the mickey’. I throw in material now and again but the best gift is a lovely front couple of rows with people who are open to interacting. You learn to read the body language and make the audience feel at ease so they that you aren’t going to make them feel silly and that we’re all jst there to have fun. My warm, “charming” accent helps.
GH: Mic-dropping deliciously on-point retorts when faced with hecklers, your quick wit and ability to banter with the crowd is undoubtedly one of the things that makes you such a brilliant MC. Anyone who’s seen you will know that your warmth is infectious, and you’ve said how much you love the buzz of the festival scene, but as someone who’s described worry as their “default setting”, how do nerves fuel such an unflappable stage presence?
SB: I think I may have covered this a bit in the previous question. I may seem unflappable but there have been moments where I’ve had to think quickly to defuse a tense moment from a drunk heckler without spoiling the atmosphere, and luckily the audience are usually on your side. I generally find ‘less is more’ and a quick sarky comment or sympathetic smile then moving on is better than a tirade or trying to destroy them. I will NEVER be in a Roast Battle (unless it is the last five minutes at a Toby Carvery).
GH: Do you have any pre – or post – (I’m thinking The Scummy Mummies, who recently changed their showtimes to make sure that there’s time to get to the restaurants for their nightly curries while they’re on tour) gig rituals? Are you still working off “lip balm and blind panic”?
SB: Hahaha The Scummy Mummies are my food heroes! I have had to knock the post gig ‘dirty chicken’ on the head as that was getting into a bad habit so I try to eat before now. Occasionally I’ve had a couple of wines before stepping onstage, never more than two… unless it is a new material night which are generally shambolic anyway! But yes there’s definitely something to be said for keeping the lips hydrated and panicking!
GH: “Vibrant, gorgeous and extremely funny”: audiences and critics alike continue to fall for your hugely relatable and delightfully humble humour, Stylist Magazine named you one of their favourite circuit comedians and you’ve impressed some big names (including Funny Women ‘Matron’ Jo Brand, who you’ll again be performing in front of at Funny Women’s 18th Birthday Party in April) with your comedy. What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?
SB: I think one of the nicest things said to me recently was by a local BBC Radio host who was discussing self care and asked me if I knew how much good I do just by making people laugh and smile and forget about their cares for an evening. A guest at one of the hotels I worked at abroad wrote me a card telling me to “never forget the healing power” that is making people laugh. I have it on display in my room.
GH: The industry can be tough, and at times competitive, but there’s an incredible camaraderie too. There’s a lot of pressure on new comedians, and often it’s difficult to fight the urge to compare, so what do you think people – and women in particular, who in general struggle with that all-too-familiar beast that is Imposter Syndrome more than men – build up a resilience to withstand the former and find themselves in circles that ooze the latter?
SB: I started out when I was living in London but moved back to Devon almost four years ago now for various reasons and at first I was scared there would be no gigs for me, but the complete opposite is true. I’ve never had a fuller diary and have improved so much in my ability and confidence. There is a thriving scene in the South West and I have made great friends that I gig with more often than I would if we were in London (where sometimes you won’t see colleagues for years as there are so many gigs and many are gigging ‘North of London’ as it is easier to travel). I visit London (and gig both there and on the outskirts) when I can and it is nice to ‘show my face’ and get more work, but down here I feel respected and comfortable and I have no plans to leave anytime soon! I have had my moments of doubting where I am and whether I need to go and get myself up to Edinburgh with a new show and network with agents / TV people etc and promote myself more, but I’m content with making people laugh and feeling part of a scene with genuinely good people. My show in 2015 was on the free fringe: no PR, no big posters, just a show I liked about looking after myself and surrounding myself with the positive and those I love, so I’d rather spend the summer in my home town at the Tinside lido – my favourite place – with my favourite people than stressing myself out in Edinburgh amongst the thousands of others trying to get noticed. I admire and applaud those that do and wish them well. “To compare is to despair”. As Mama Ru Paul says: “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love anyone else?” Can I get an Amen up in here?
GH: Over the years, the Funny Women Awards and workshops have sparked friendships, comedy partnerships, even relationships, since your win you’ve returned to perform at gigs across the country with the many other brilliant comedians. Are you still close to anyone you met in 2006 or have had the pleasure of performing with since?
SB: I am thankful to Funny Women for getting me started out in comedy, and for the opportunity to meet so many brilliant female performers that I maybe wouldn’t have had the chance to at ‘circuit’ gigs. Most of my female friends in comedy I’ve met either directly through Funny Women or via a tenuous link via gigs or people who’ve helped out with them over the years.
I have a wealth of great memories: road trips, carshares, shows and nights out with the Funny women crew’. Sarah Dean is a really lovely person, and very funny too. She was in my semi-final and gave me a lovely card on the night of the final which I still have. I’m grateful to have met (2003 runner up) Anna Keirle, who brings me joy every time I see or speak to her. Lynne Parker has become a good friend (sometimes an Agony Aunt too!) and we always have a giggle.
GH: Funny Women has just turned 18. Looking back at your comedy career, what advice you give to a 18-year-old Suzy with dreams of going into stand up?
SB: “Suzy, finish your Performing Arts course, keep up the tap-dancing, embrace your Devon-ness, hang around with your funny friends, don’t give that comedian your phone number and believe in yourself more.”
GH: Similarly, for anyone thinking about going along to a Funny Women workshop, open mic night or contemplating entering the 2020 Awards, what do you wish you’d known back then that you think would have helped you at the time? What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
SB: Be yourself, don’t worry too much about what other people think and enjoy it – if you enjoy yourself on stage, the audience will too. Workshops are a fun way to gain new skills and meet people. Take a leap of faith and try it. I just entered the competition to have another go at stand up, I never imagined I’d win!
GH: I know you were putting the feelers for panto and would love to take to the West End, is there anything on the cards? Looking ahead at what you’ve got lined up for this year, what are you most excited about?
SB: Obviously I am excited about the Funny Women 18th Birthday Party but I have some exciting things ahead. I’m doing a warm-up for an evening with a famous footballer (could become a Plymouth wag?), some charity shows for a cause very close to my heart, supporting some big names locally and am even going back to my old school to do a careers talk for Year sevens! Rosie in ‘Mamma Mia’ is definitely a dream role – I can see myself crawling along chairs singing Take a Chance On Me to a petrified blonde gentleman!
Panto would be fabulous, and I appeared on stage at the beloved Theatre Royal Plymouth as a little girl singing along with Danny La rue so it’d be nice to get a credit on the poster this time! I have drunkenly offered myself to a Dancing On Ice’ Producer as a future contestant but I don’t think they allow those little penguins to lean on that they give children at the rink. I’m also intending to pitch a Plymouth seafront-based dating reality show called Love Lido which will feature middle-aged people in slimming swimwear eating pasties on slowly deflating unicorn inflatables. Casting Directors: I can still do the splits!
GH: You’ve been open about just how lucky you feel to be doing this for a living. What’s the best thing about making a career out of something you love?
SB: Being my own boss and simply just making people laugh.
GH: And what’s the worst?
SB: Having to do a Tax Return and people thinking you must be rubbish if you aren’t on Live at the Apollo or Mock The Week. They mean well but it can be frustrating.
GH: As a gigging comedian and former host of our Awards, you’ve both witnessed and performed with some of the incredible new comedians breaking onto the scene. Who would you say are the ones we should be watching right now?
SB: The fabulous reigning Funny Women winner Laura Smyth, Jessie Nixon, Jen Ives, Helena Langdon, Jenny Bolt, Abi Clarke, Eva Bindeman. Oh and Suzy Bennett, who has been “up and coming” and “one to watch” for about 14 years now. Website still in ‘Procrastination Mode’…
Want more Suzy in your life (of course you do)? Find out when she’s next being funny near you on the Twitters (where she’s always funny).
Join Suzy, Jo Brand and the Funny Women team at our 18th Birthday Party on April 21st. For tickets and more information, click here!