During the early 1940s, America folk singer Woody Guthrie had a stark message emblazoned upon his guitar: ‘This machine kills fascists‘. Guthrie wasn’t the first person to express a hope that popular culture could carry real political weight and nor will he be the last. In our own tumultuous times, many performers are trying to tackle the same thorny issue.
The show has changed considerably from Long’s initial plans for it early last year. Speaking exclusively to Northern Soul, Long says: “I set out to write a show that was all about activists and how proud I was to know people who have politics in their lives in a really positive way, people that are getting on with good stuff. But then Brexit happened and I just found it impossible to write the show that I wanted to write because it was so all encompassing and so big. It became a show about trying to deal with modern political events after Brexit and about trying to get back to the place where I was, a place where you can still find a lot of optimism and excitement in the world around you, even when things are really bleak and dour.”
“I arrived the week after Trump was elected, so suddenly it became this sort of crazy intense experience where everyone around me was completely at the rawest stages of grief. I really recognised it from after Brexit. I could feel that people were going through the same sort of things that people I know had gone through. Everyone was just like, ‘what are you doing? This is too soon’. It was really interesting, because I felt like I was able to come and say, ‘I am the ghost of Brexit yet to come. I have been through this grieving process and I can provide some insight.’”
The idea is for the show to keep evolving during the tour. “Everything’s changing so rapidly. Things are happening that are so momentous and the show has to kind of acknowledge that. It’s a weird time to be a comedian at the moment, though, because you want to do things that are light and warm, but it’s hard not to be like, it’s the end of the world! – which I don’t think is helpful for anyone.”
Long first started performing stand-up in her teens, but says it was the 2010 UK general election that politicised her.
“That was when I really, properly felt I had to try to lead a more political life and get involved in politics. Then, after the 2015 election, lots of my friends were saying, ‘I really feel like I have to do something and get involved, volunteer or just do something useful’. And again after Brexit, there was a whole new swathe of people. I feel like, if there’s one thing that difficult times provoke, it’s that people who do have anything spare, be it time or money or anything, feel desperate to be of use to people who might not have that going on at the moment.”
Understandably, then, Long became one of the co-founders of Arts Emergency, a fine British charity launched in 2011 to provide mentoring and access for young people to higher education in the arts, humanities and social sciences.
What can comedy do to make a difference, though? Memorably, the late, great Peter Cook once said that his live satire club The Establishment had been inspired by “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War”. So, what difference can stand-up make?
“I’ve definitely thought about that lot recently,” Long says. “I would really love it if I felt like stand-up could destroy fascism, but I’m sort of scared that it can’t. I look at someone like John Oliver, who I really think is the best in the world. He’s so wonderful and [his HBO show Last Week Tonight] is so powerful and bold and well-researched. But then when Donald Trump still manages to get in, it’s hard not to be like, ‘Oh, God!”
“But I do truly believe that what comedy can do is to keep people going and give them a bit of good cheer. I always see it as my goal to help people who are better than me to keep going and hopefully inspire them to do something that’s interesting that I can get behind. I think that comedy is good at giving people a bit of solace in difficult times. I also just think, sometimes it’s good to know you’re not alone, to know that other people are going through all this madness together. It always helps to get through things if you’re able to have a bit of a laugh with it.”
In recent years Long has developed a side career as a broadcaster, as host of the Book Shambles podcast (with fellow comedian Robin Ince) as well as the acclaimed Radio 4 documentary series Short Cuts. She always sounds infectiously happy to be on air – “I am usually smiling”, she admits – and as much as her stand-up has shaped her broadcasting, she thinks the reverse is also true.
“Broadcasting has definitely opened me up to the idea of writing more dramatically, performing things that are slightly more more serious and not necessarily straight comedy. As well as that, though, I just really enjoy the fact that, especially with Short Cuts, you learn so much about your voice about how to use it. Really, what I love is the intimacy of it. I feel like that enriches your creative voice as well, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. So yeah, I think it works both ways, it really does.”
Long is a prolific presence on Twitter, a place where it’s not always easy to stay positive. “Yeah, but it’s my own fault. Well, it’s not my fault. I was going to say it’s my own fault for being a woman, but I should learn. What I mean is, I seem to remember at some point, a long time ago, that Twitter was fun, but I don’t think it is any more. Again, it’s a similar thing to the idea of ‘does art make a difference or does it not?’. You might think that if you say something on Twitter it’s going to have some meaningful effect on anything, but it’s really just tricking your friends while the world burns. I do think sometimes Twitter can be really helpful for me, though, in terms of learning a bit. Like, I’ve learnt more about what racism is and what racism isn’t, and I’ve learnt a lot more about the concept of white supremacy. So I do think, in lots of ways, it’s a wonderful resource, but at the same time it’s like, oh my god – it’s a really great place if you want men to shout at you.”
“It’s a strange thing, but it is tricky. It’s hard to get off it. It’s just like an addiction, you know? Because where else are you going to tell people you just had a really good orange? Like, a really good orange?”
Main image: Josie Long by Idil Sukan
Josie Long: Something Better is currently on a national tour which includes dates in Sheffield, Hull, Leeds, York and Manchester. More details: http://www.josielong.com/gigs.php; http://arts-emergency.org/