Sara Pascoe is talking to me about hoovers. Well, specifically, Henry the Hoover and his wife, Hetty. Nope, she’s not comparing their cleaning powers or dust-bag capacities. She’s discussing their personalities. ‘Hetty can never leave Henry,’ concludes Pascoe, after she’s talked me through their complicated relationship. ‘He’s the only other hoover with a face, after all.’
There’s a reason Pascoe’s thought long and hard about these vacuum cleaners’ relationship status. Anthropomorphism is one of the many themes in the Essex-born stand-up’s show, Animal, which she’s bringing to her home county for two dates in the coming weeks.
Over the last decade, Pascoe has become of the most in-demand and hardest working stand-ups in the country. Ten years ago she was a struggling actor. These days she’s a panel show regular – on Mock the Week, QI, Have I Got News For You and more – and has hugely bumped up her acting CV with roles in The Thick of It, W1A and Twenty Twelve. And as the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award-nominated comic’s popularity has increased, her comedy has become increasingly intelligent, focused and politically engaged.
2016 was a big year for Sara Pascoe – Animal is her biggest tour yet, and coincided with the publication of her first book of the same name. So, what can we expect from her two beastly creations?
Is Animal the stand-up show very different from Animal the book?
Yes, they’re sort of two halves. The book came first and deals with evolution and humans beings as animals – particular female humans as animals – but after writing it I realised there were lots of other areas that I hadn’t been able to touch in the book that I have now mined for the show.
The show covers a big range of topics, from evolution and Oedipus to Lewisham wildlife and Jason Donovan. How easy is it to mix such a range of subjects?
It’s about trying to find light and shade in things. The unspoken theme of the show is how we empathise with other people. So it’s dealing with that, but with really silly stories in between. I’m trying to talk about things that really matter to me, but in a way that isn’t like a boring TED talk.
Do you feel, as your audience grows, that you have a responsibility to use your platform to educate?
It’s tempting, because you want to feel like you’re a really good person. But you have to be careful how you do it. I have to remind myself that I am a comic, I’m not a politician, I didn’t say, “Oh, hey guys, I’m going to sort everything out for you and it’ll be perfect.” At the end of the day, sometimes it’s just trying to be funny.
Do you mind if punters disagree with what you say on stage?
I’m really happy for people to disagree about certain things, and they should. Sometimes, when you’re talking about a challenging subject, you want to stimulate debate, and your opinion is neither here nor there.
You also talk about veganism in the show – you’ve been vegan since 2009. Was there a catalyst for that?
I did [comedian] Josie Long’s project: One Hundred Days To Make Me A Better Person. My two things were a prison letter writing scheme and becoming vegan.
You describe yourself as a rubbish vegan. What does that mean?
I still have struggles with it. I talk about being a “rubbish vegan” because I think trying to be better is good, and sometimes that makes you feel like a failure. People shouldn’t feel bad if they slip up. Everyone has had struggles or accidentally ate chocolate or ate a whole lump of cheese when they were drunk; those things happen and I think it’s all right to talk about it. But there are a very small number of vegans who would have us killed. They would have us killed and wear our skin.
Is it a difficult subject to talk about on stage?
As a comedian, if you sound like you’re about to be superior – and that’s what people think about veganism; that you feel that you’re morally better – you have to undercut yourself, and then it’s fine. Talking about being a rubbish vegan is funny. Talking about being an amazing vegan is not. No one wants to hear, “I have far reduced rates of the likelihood of having lung cancer!”
And are you still keeping up the prison letter writing?
No. But I’ve started again. One of the guys wrote back with very, very sexual letters, so I’ve spent about eight years working on my reply to him [laughs].
Before you started stand-up you wanted to be an actor. When did those ambitions start?
I remember being around 11 or 12 and making my sister do really long plays with me, just in the bedroom. Then at 14 my mum made me join a drama group as a punishment for having a party when she was out the house, and I fell so deeply in love with it that I knew I was going to dedicate my life to putting on hats and voices.
Your first paid acting job was at the Millennium Dome, aged 18. How did that come about?
I originally got a job in the ticketing department, but then I managed to get an audition to do street theatre in the zones. It was the best job in the world. I just had to be a different character for an hour and run around and talk to people. It was amazing! I went to the O2 Arena last year to do the Great Ormond Street gala. It was the first time I’d been back and it was so weird, 15 years later, walking into the building that now looks really different. I felt so nostalgic! It was like going back to my school or something.
What made you then decide to try stand-up?
It wasn’t a decision. I thought stand-up was really stupid. I thought all comedy was stupid. I had done open mic nights with my guitar, and I’d done spoken word nights with poetry; I was trying everything in order not to shrivel up. I went to watch a friend do stand-up and I thought absolutely everyone was terrible. I hadn’t realised that you could take words up on a piece of paper, I thought all stand-up was improvised. So when I saw all these skinny boys with pads in their hands being rubbish I thought: Oh, I can do that. So I started it very arrogantly. But I did a stand-up gig and it was like: Oh, now I know what my whole life has been leading to, every job I’d done, it all made sense.
After stand-up, acting and writing, is there anything else you’d like to try?
Professional gymnast! No, but I do think about things. I’ve been thinking about Strictly Come Dancing recently.
Have you been offered it?
No, not Strictly. I was offered Tumble. Not the same. I watched the last series of Strictly and I loved it so much, but I thought: I’m not having my teeth whitened and being fake tanned, and I’m not wearing dresses! One of the great things about comedy is it bleeds out to everything else; people think you’re qualified for things that you’re not. But I think it’s more of the same for me rather than diversifying. Unless it’s Strictly Come Dancing.
You’ve said previous that you’d like to go into politics. Is that still the plan?
No, I’ve changed my mind. In the last 12 months I’ve spent a lot more time being around politicians, and what I’ve realised from meeting them is that you’re so imprisoned. You spend your entire time mediating and apologising. I realised that I have so much freedom as a stand-up to talk about what I want.
You’ve also said that stand-up has made you happy. How so?
Firstly, it’s given me all of my friends. People say, “It’s so important to have friends outside of your job.” I don’t. I only have comedian friends – I love their work and I love that they understand my life. But also stand-up is a form of self-improvement, if you choose to use it that way. You use it to work yourself out and to forgive yourself. It’s a form of self-acceptance. So that’s why it’s made me very, very happy.
Sara Pascoe’s Animal tour comes to Colchester Arts Centre on March 24 and the Palace Theatre, Southend, on April 22. More details at www.sarapascoe.com
Interview by Ben Williams