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When you’re on stage, you can say whatever you like. But people judge you first on your appearance. At my first comedy gig, seven years ago, I was blonder and heavier than I am now and wearing a denim jumpsuit. At the end, a man excitedly came rushing up to tell me that I reminded him of Victoria Wood. “Thank you so much,” I gushed. I could hardly believe it was possible. A dream come true! And at my first gig! “Oh, you don’t understand,” he added, “I don’t think you’re funny. I just think you look a bit like her.”
I never quite believe anyone buys these supposed “truths” that certain kinds of people are automatically funny (or unfunny) because of the way they look. Anyone and anything can be funny. But it’s easy to get trapped within a stereotype. And the idiotic idea that women can’t be attractive as well as funny is one of the worst traps of all.
Christopher Hitchens articulated the idea 10 years ago. Former Disney chief executive Michael Eisner said the same last year. A recent survey by the University of Kansas concluded that, while women find men more attractive if they’re funny, “the relationship between humour and attraction did not work the other way when women were trying to be funny”.
But I wonder if Eisner had seen Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosting the Golden Globes wearing Antonio Berardi and Stella McCartney before he said that “the hardest artist to find is a beautiful, funny woman”? Or the witchcraft Sarah Silverman must have woven to make jokes and look like a model at the Democratic National Convention in July? The voluptuous blonde stand-up, writer and actress Amy Schumer has appeared on the cover of American GQ in a Princess Leia bikini, and on the cover of US Vogue in a scarlet, off-the-shoulder Dolce & Gabbana gown. Neither of these things made her any less funny.
Perhaps the rise of the glamorous comic (glamic?) has come about because there are simply more women in comedy (at last) and because they come in all shapes and sizes. Funny is no longer a type. When I started out, three stone heavier than I am now, I made myself the punchline.
“In order to appear more attractive to you tonight I have worn a statement necklace,” I would announce at the start of my set. “The statement is: ‘Sorry I’ve put on a bit of weight. Focus on the necklace.’ ” I occasionally referenced having a pouch, “something that is socially acceptable only if you are a kangaroo”. I would wear control underwear that made me blue in the face and make jokes about it at my own expense. Women applauded because most of them were blue in the face too.
But the jokes began to wear thin. I got bored of getting easy laughs — and often louder (crueller?) laughs than I had intended. This kind of humour is fine if it fits with who you are, but making myself the butt of my own jokes wasn’t great for my self-esteem. More importantly, it didn’t feel like the real me. (Even where there was plenty of butt for the jokes to refer to. Ha! Ha!)
Other things just irritated me. At a casting I was told I would “really clean up” if I gained more weight. Another director told me I was “surprisingly self-possessed on stage for someone who is not exactly slim”. What a charmer. In acting, “overweight” tends to mean morbidly obese. And while the thought of overdosing on doughnuts was tempting, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to fit the “ward matron or midwife”-shaped casting hole I was being directed towards. It felt like code for middle-aged and cuddly.
I didn’t want to be cuddly. Nor did I want my weight to be the first thing people thought about when they saw me. Instead of a comedy prop, my weight began to feel like a literal barrier between me and the audience. So I got rid of the barrier.
It wasn’t entirely conscious at first, I just began to change things. I had started out on stage barefoot because it felt more comfortable. (In reality I looked like a bag lady who couldn’t afford shoes.) I switched to heels and sequinned cardigans. My jokes became more structured. And this sense of order spilled over into my real life.
I lost the weight over the course of two years. Not an overnight change. But a big change nonetheless. It’s been incredibly liberating. Instead of drawing attention to my appearance as soon as I walk on stage, I now feel I can talk about anything without having to tick a box first. My Edinburgh show Be More Margo is inspired by Penelope Keith as Margo Leadbetter in the 1970s TV sitcom The Good Life. One would be letting Margo down if one didn’t channel her louche suburban glamour. So I have upgraded the sequinned cardis for maxi-dresses and pussy-bow blouses. I swish around sporting the biggest possible Farrah Fawcett hair without feeling self-conscious. Plus, I feel like I’m on a night out. Which is handy as I now have no social life.
Is it a new image? Or is it the real me who was waiting to come out all along? I don’t know. But my stage persona does seem to fit in with the comedy creations I have always loved: Lucille Ball, Joan Rivers, Goldie Hawn, and Patsy and Edina in Ab Fab, women with a firm sense of the ridiculous who send themselves up without putting themselves down. Silly, fun and sparkling but also cutting and caustic when the moment demands it. My all-time favourite, Marti Caine, one-time queen of Saturday night British TV, owned the stage in floor-length lurex, ordering the audience about like an irascible pub landlady.
It’s time to bring back those days of unapologetic, old-school glam. I just hope I can get a refund on the matron’s uniform.
Viv Groskop’s Edinburgh Fringe show ‘Be More Margo’ is at The Stand until August 28, edfringe.com