The last time comedian and broadcaster Josie Long took a stand-up show out on tour, namely Something Better back in 2017, it looked at ways to actively improve our world during troubled times. In the three years since, two very different things have happened. In some ways the world at large has grown grimmer, darker and uglier, whereas Long herself has become a mother. In fact, she opens this interview by saying: “I have to warn you that I’m in the car with my daughter and she just seems to hate me being on the phone. I’ve been making a sock puppet and pretending it’s a duck and pretending to eat her hand and it has been going down quite well, so I’m going to keep it up.”
Long’s new show, Tender, considers both of these big changes, the personal and the global, and seeks to find humour in the overlap. It is, Long says, “totally” informed by motherhood. “I always say it’s about bringing someone into the world when everyone around you is telling you it’s the end of the world. It’s about the intensity of being a new parent and the smallness and the vulnerability and how beautiful it all is, but then at the same time you’re still in this big, confusing, chaotic world. It’s about trying to get through it with a bit of joy and a bit of silliness.”
Many, many comedians have written about the experience of becoming a parent, so did Long feel any resistance to taking that well-worn route, or was it simply a case of thinking ‘this is what’s happening to me so that’s what I’m going to write about’?
“I think exactly the latter of those. Basically, I always want to write, and I think being a stand-up is about sharing with the crowd exactly where you personally are at that time. You’ve got to do that. You’ve got to be as honest as possible about who you are, what’s been happening to you, what you’re interested in talking about. I don’t necessarily mean that everyone should only talk about their personal experiences, but I think if you’re only really interested in narrowboats or whatever, you can’t do a show about whether or not people like going to Tesco. You’ve got to do the show about narrowboats. The way I feel is, being a parent is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me, so yeah, I’ve been kind of desperate to talk about it.”
In some respects, attitudes towards such things have shifted since Long began her comedy career 20 years ago. “I do think times have changed, but I remember when I first started doing stand-up I got a lot of people pre-emptively telling me that women comedians only talked about certain experiences and that those experiences were boring – people who weren’t women. So, I think in my head I built up that perhaps I wasn’t allowed to talk about pregnancy or childbirth – look baba, quack quack quack! – sorry! – but basically, the way I feel is that it’s so massive I have to share it.”
It can be tricky, though, to look around at the world today – especially as the parent of a young child – and always try to accentuate the positive.
“I do think it is a uniquely difficult time, especially in regard to the climate crisis. It does just feel so scary and so brutal and so unfair on the next generation. But I’ve kind of just come to the conclusion that it doesn’t actually matter whether you’re optimistic or not. It doesn’t even matter whether you’re hopeful or not. There’s this interview with Greta Thunberg and they asked her how she stays hopeful. She basically said ‘I don’t care. If everything’s really hopeless, we have to still do what we can.’ I really love that. I love the fact that she’s like, ‘hope is bourgeois, get it done!’. As long as you’re willing to be an activist, as long as you’re willing to try and treat the world in a positive way, to give it a go, I think that’s better than having to always have that pressure to say that everything’s fine and it’ll be alright. What helps is taking action, in your community, getting involved. Whatever you manage to do will have positive ripple effects, no matter how small. That’s the important thing.”
As it happens, Northern Soul was speaking to Long in December, just over a week before the general election, when talk of remaining optimistic depended to some extent on events then yet to come.
“It’s a tricky thing to talk to you now because in nine days we’ll know different. Like, after the election we will know where we stand. If Labour manage to form a government, things will not be getting bleaker. If they don’t, yeah, I might be somebody who’s saying ‘yeah, it is a bit harder now and it is even more of a challenge’. But I don’t know. One of the things I say in my show is ‘we all know that the game is rigged but unfortunately that is the game we are playing, so game on’. It’s all you can do. You’ve just got to keep going really. Oh, ducky! The ducky’s gone crazy!”
Alongside various other activities – co-hosting the Book Shambles podcast with Robin Ince, co-founding mentoring charity network Arts Emergency – Long is the presenter of Short Cuts, the much-acclaimed BBC Radio 4 documentary series of beautifully told true-life stories. Now onto its 21st series, Short Cuts may well have had its own impact on Long’s stand-up work. She says: “I think that show has given me a chance to write thoughtfully and literally to speak in different tones, to speak more gently and write more poetically. I’d really like to think that it has influenced my comedy as a positive. When you’re doing a few different types of thing at any one time, it takes the pressure off. It’s taking the pressure off the stand-up as the main thing, so that when I come back to the stand-up, I’m really thrilled to do it and I don’t feel the slightest bit like, ‘oh no, this again’. So yeah, I’d like to think it’s really helped me as a writer, because I do get to write things for it that are a little bit more poetic and ruminative and not strictly comedy. Hopefully that kind of broadens the repertoire of what I’m writing.”
Tender, then, promises to be a joyful, thoughtful night out.
“It is a fun show. It does have quite a lot in it about pregnancy and birth, but it’s designed to share that with people, even if they have no interest in doing it themselves or talking about it. What else is it about? It’s just a lot of fun. I really am proud of the gag rate in it. It’s me chatting on stage for an hour – which is, you know, a big treat for everyone. Quack quack!”
Images by Giles Smith
Josie Long: Tender is currently on tour, playing Manchester Dancehouse on February 8 and Sheffield on February 9, 2020.
To read Northern Soul’s 2017 interview with Long, click here.