As winner of the Funny Women Awards 2015 and with her debut hour-long show as a straight stand-up on the horizon, Desiree Burch is certainly on course to dominating the UK stand- up scene. Desiree is no stranger to solo shows, however. Her 52 Man Pick Up, a frank examination of sex and relationships, and Tar Baby, a Fringe First award-winning show about race and capitalism, met much acclaim. The Yale graduate can also boast impressive credits as writer, actor and storyteller. I was privileged, therefore, to meet Desiree, a vastly likeable and naturally funny lady, in the bar of the Soho Theatre, as I picked her brains on the Funny Women Awards and the state of comedy at large.
CP: Let’s start with the basics, how did you get into comedy?
DB: It’s one of those things where I won’t say I always knew I wanted to do it, but I figured out I was funny from a young age because I was a fat kid and I needed to survive and being funny is typically a good way to do that. In High School I would watch stand-up on TV. I sort of was like ‘Oh, I could do that’ and that made sense to me. The one desire to make people laugh. Right before I went to university, I discovered solo performance and had a professor there who specialised in that so that’s what became my nature and I took it in the direction of creating longer form pieces that included comedy. My first solo show had a section that was stand-up in it but I saw a longer form medium as a way to be able to be funny but also talk about things that were a little more serious. It’s interesting that it seems like stand-up comedy here in the UK is maybe in some way more of a medium in which people can get a little more serious. Obviously they still have to entertain their audiences but it seems like they might take on some subject matters that are a little more dense. I think that there are some notable American comics that do that but It think that the goal is always getting a certain number of laughs per minute. Whereas, I think that both artists and audiences here are that little bit more patient to see an idea through which is exciting so being here is making me want to bridge those world’s a little bit more. Even this new hour solo show that I’m doing, I’m trying to find ways to make things a little bit more artful or weird because that’s the kind of work I like making but I do want it to feel like you’re laughing, this is a stand-up show, and those moments that are a little more tender or tragic or interesting are these gewy centres inside the sweet pastry that we’re eating.
CP: You mentioned as a child watching stand-up on TV. Is there any defining moment where you saw someone and thought ‘that’s it, that’s what I want to do’ or any other broader moments or people that you saw that made you want to get into performing/ comedy?
DB: I think that there are couple of them. I grew up in the eighties and nineties so a lot of the comics that I saw were old school comics, against the brick wall like ‘Paula Poundstone in a blazer with shoulder pads’ or something like that. There were, at that point, a lot of big haired women comics. I hate to say it one of the earliest things I saw was Bill Cosby himself and he just sat in chair and he told stories and that was one of those moments where I was like ‘oh, he’s not even standing up he’s telling these stories and they’re funny and engaging and about his life but they relate to people’. It’s depressing that he’s become what he’s become but that was one the earlier influences. When I was 16 or 17, I moved onto people like Eddie Izzard and Bill Hicks who I think is probably one of the bigger influences in terms of just listening to his stand up and understanding that, in being funny and sardonic and looking at society, you definitely have a sort of higher purpose. And it’s this thing where many comics wanna be this rockstar and preacher and hear what you have to say because you have this insight on the universe and must be shared and must be told. I don’t have any Messianic complexes but I do think I have a sort of way of talking about things or looking at things that is useful to people. I’m trying to get my work to be funny, raunchy stuff in stand up and the more thoughtful stuff that I do in performance. I’m looking for ways to bring those two things together more.
CP: What age did you realise that you had something to say?
DB: Probably not until getting affirmed at university. I was an actor when I went to college. Part of it was meeting this professor there who worked with a lot of off Broadway shows and the downtown New York performance scene. He taught us to develop our own writing into solo performance and that was a way of doing things that empowered me to go ‘oh people make a career out of this’. My intent was to be an actor because that was the first place that I found a sense of self and later in High School had been like ‘this makes sense, this is my community’ and I’d never felt that before in my own family. I was always the odd one out. It was finding that ‘bohemian’ community of weirdos that you feel like you are a part of and you can be vulnerable around. Being an artist, especially on a stage, is one of those safe spaces to be vulnerable. Sometimes it isn’t necessarily as safe in one’s own life to be that and to be seen and shine and find out what’s in you because you’re willing to let it come out. So I think it was starting in High School but it wasn’t really until college and putting my own words onstage, that was like ‘oh apparently whatever I have to say to people is worthwhile because it was getting a response’. It’s one of those things where you don’t really know until it works.
CP: Were you ever on the open mic scene in the US?
DB: I’ve never really been on one scene for any length of time. It was really only in New York because that was where I lived when getting out of College until the past year and a half where I’ve been here. I did open mics but I’ve never really been on the scene. A lot of the stuff I did was for developing solo pieces and that was more the storytelling scene and performance stuff. I used to work with this place called Galapogos Art Space which has moved around a lot but is currently in Detroit. They used to be in Bloomsberg in Brooklyn and it was a lot of different writers, storytellers, comics, sketch artists- a variety night- and I would host that and tell stories but that was more a place that I would introduce new work rather than at an open mic coz I was more committed to that than being a comedian- not that there’s anything wrong with that! But, even now I don’t know if I’m gonna be a comedian and that’s what I should call myself. It’s hard to answer the question ‘what do you do?’ So, yes and no, I have done open mics but no-one would ever be like ‘oh yeah, I see you a lot on the circuit’.
CP: Could you elaborate a little on what you said earlier that ‘stand-up comedy here in the UK is maybe in some way more of a medium in which people can get a little more serious’?
DB: I will start by saying I am not an expert in either scene but having worked in both, I’ve seen that audiences in the UK are a little bit more patient. One, there is a larger culture of going out to see live performance whether it be theatre, comedy, cabaret, whatever it is. I think part of that is underpinned by a strong drinking culture because art and booze go well together. People go out, they wanna meet up and do something besides talking to the same friend they’ve been talking to their entire lives. I’ve always been amazed that UK shows have an interval. I mean, bigger shows in the states are gonna have some kind of intermission because they know they’ve made these people pay 25 bucks a seat plus a two drink minimum so they’re gonna wanna stay and see the whole show. You’ll go to a comedy club, you’re paying a table fee and two item minimum and it’ll be a bottle of water that is 5 dollars. I think here that they know people are gonna drink and hang out so they rely more on that performers can get paid from the ticket sales and the bar isn’t gonna get paid off of that. Most American comics I talk to here are always amazed that they have like fifteen minutes and all the same people go outside, have a cigarette, get a drink and they all come back whereas, in the States, if you had any moment for anyone to leave you’d have like ‘oh I saw my friend, I’m gone’. I think that people in general here have more of a respect for comedy. In general, I see comics that are a lot more comfortable with silence because audiences are more patient for the pay off. That’s not to say people don’t heckle here, because people definitely heckle here but audiences aren’t going to be like ‘I haven’t laughed in thirty seconds, this person is shit’.
CP: In other news, congratulations on your Funny Women awards win last year! Could you tell me a bit about the experience?
DB: Thank you! Entries opened around March. What I remember there was a heat and then the semi-final and then there was a final and it was like ‘boom boom boom’ so whatever those guys did with the heats everywhere, they made it a really efficient process. You’re just in smaller rooms of funnier people every time. The final was in London at the King’s Place over by King’s Cross which was so weird because obviously most comics are always performing in bars and suddenly we’re in this whole theatre and everyone’s sitting comfortably having had posh drinks and then there’s hair and make-up and we’re like ‘AAH this is making me freak out!’.
CP: There was hair and make-up?!
DB: Yeah because Benefits is a sponsor. Which is funny because everyone was already on edge and now it’s like ‘AAAH’.
CP: What do you think is the value of competitions for, firstly, comedians at large and, secondly, having a competition specifically for women?
DB: I think that, clearly we’re in a country where comics get reviews, which isn’t a thing that happens very much in the States unless you have some big show. So you’re not getting known until you’ve been on TV like ‘Last Comic Standing’ or you have an agent and doing college gigs and you’re touring that way. So, in a place where you are recognising up-and-coming comedic performers on the scene, I think a competition does add a lot of clout to someone. Like it’s something you put on your CV, you put on your emails when you’re looking for gigs. It immediately gives you a foot in the door beyond knowing someone and that’s a huge deal when you’re trying to succeed in a career like this. To have someone to be able to weed through people and be able to go ‘okay you have clearly impressed enough people for me to be confident to put me in your show’. It’s important for women to have an avenue to get that kind of thing.
I think there are a lot of great multi-talented female performers that are getting a lot more credit over here than the states. I think in New York, not that there aren’t female comics winding up with shows that are on Comedy Central or doing other things, but I think that there are a lot of women I know from New York who are women who are still busting their ass and shoyld have graduated to more paid work a long time ago and there’s still that thing where it’s still very superficial and cosmetic in America. It’ like ‘yeah, you can be a really funny comic but we’d prefer it if you were hot’. But I don’t need my comic to be hot coz no-ones looking at Louis CK like ‘ahh’. You could be a tub of crap and get out there and be hilarious. There’s no difference having a woman come out and do that. It’ still very Hollywood. I think at some point we’ll get to the place where Funny Women won’t be necessary anymore because things are more integrated.
CP: Can you tell us a little bit about the competition this year?
DB: Well, firstly I would say, you should definitely sign up for the competition this year because it’s a really phenomenal experience and way to be seen be known and be part of an incredible community and also to win some cash! We all like cash. There’s a slightly new format this year. Instead of having a semi-final and a final, they’re having heats and a regional final, picking eight candidates and putting them with a mentor. For example, Zoe Lyons, Sara Pascoe, Shazia Mirza etc. Every year the benefit of being involved is getting a lot richer. Beyond that, I think it’s a fabulous network of talented women.