BY NATASIA LANGFELDER
Comedian Rosie Wilby has been making audiences laugh around the world for years. Wilby is based in London, but she has performed in NYC, Australia, the Edinburgh Fringe Show and various other venues in her career. She also has a popular podcast. An out lesbian, Wilby pulls no punches when it comes to calling out sexism and homophobia in the entertainment industry. I sat down with Wilby to chat about the competitive world of comedy, coming out to audiences night after night and the crazy things that happen during a live show.
How did you get into comedy?
I was a singer songwriter fronting my own band in my twenties and used to always chat between the songs in a fairly self deprecating way. Audiences often said I should have a go at comedy. When the band broke up, I entered a few competitions and found myself getting through to finals and semi finals. There was quite a protracted period where I was doing a bit of both and couldn’t decide between music and comedy. I didn’t really want to do comedy songs and mix them. They’re separate in my head as music is something I feel quite serious about.
The world of stand up comedy is super competitive. How do you stay in the game without losing your sense of humor?
I think I’ve handled the competition factor by carving out my own niche. My solo shows have tended towards very personal narratives that blend genres (theatre, storytelling, multimedia, comedy). I mean, if I’m telling my own life story, surely people can’t say they’ve heard that somewhere else. Whether they want to hear it is another matter.
As a lesbian comedian, you must be coming out to audiences continually. Does it get exhausting?
When I started stand up, I would sometimes try and de-gay my set for straight audiences. However, I was getting chatted up by men afterwards. So I thought well maybe I should be honest and gay it up again and hopefully I will get asked out by women. I’ve tried to make my stuff about relationships dwell on the universal aspects and, in general, audiences are cool about queer stuff. I think agents looking for comedians for TV, radio etc often assume that gay acts who talk about their sexuality will be too niche. It’s frustrating because it’s not really the truth. If gay people can listen to straight love stories, then straights can enjoy gay stuff. We are all humans.
You’ve been pretty vocal about the underlying homophobia in comedy. Personally, I love stand up comedy but I’ve been to shows where the comedian takes cheap shots at gay people and it’s definitely led to me going less. Do you think any progress is being made?
When I started, there were a few good comedy nights catering specifically for a gay audience. If Comedy Camp in London hadn’t existed then I probably would have never started comedy. But it was a wonderful event where gay acts and straight female ones would often steal the show. It was frustrating then to find the dynamic reversed at the more ‘mainstream’ events. A lot of these gay comedy nights have now stopped running. There’s an argument for saying that’s a real shame and a valuable space has been lost and one for saying it’s a sign of progress and that gay audiences now feel more comfortable going to mainstream nights. It’s the same uneasy paradox of progress that sees all our historic gay venues here in London closing down. In one way, it’s good that we don’t need them any more. But in another way, profoundly tragic to lose that sense of community. The really interesting thing alongside all this is that women’s comedy nights right across the UK have really grown over the last few years and there are some very good events putting on female acts for (largely) female audiences. Men are welcome in the audience but few come. The events are largely populated by lesbians who clearly feel that mainstream nights still don’t really cater for them. But it’s odd to think that female comedy needs to be a sort of specialist niche that only women will enjoy. Perhaps sexism is more of a persistent problem than homophobia now.
Maybe you should interview some of my exes! I don’t name them and make things too specific. In fact, my ex-partners have all sort of merged into one generic mass of eccentricity and neuroses. So nobody really knows which one I’m talking about… And sometimes, neither do I.
What is the craziest thing that has ever happened at one of your shows?
Animal invasions often cause mayhem. I once had a dog run onstage and start eating my props then its owner ran onstage to grab it. Another time, a huge scary looking insect landed on me and I batted it away but it flew towards a bunch of girls on the front row who went absolutely nuts screaming, running around, standing on the chairs. Fire alarms have gone off during crucial moments and everyone has to be evacuated. Lots of disruptions like that.
Do you have any shows coming up?
I have my Edinburgh Fringe run coming up. I will be on at Sneaky Pete’s on Cowgate from 8-15 August at 5pm.
(Fan of Rosie’s? You can buy tickets for her Edinburgh show here!)
Any advice for queer lady comedians?
Queer lady comedians – be yourself, enjoy it, talk to and support each other.
Need more Rosie? Find her at www.rosiewilby.com , Facebook.com/rosiewilby and on twitter @rosiewilby