Josie Long’s charm and energy have established her as one of our funniest stand-ups. Now she wants to change the world. Interview by Ariane Sherine
This article is a preview from the Summer 2014 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
Charlotte Whitton famously said, “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good.” In the arena of stand-up comedy, this is doubly true. I spent a year on the circuit a decade ago aged 23, and encountered audiences who would head for the bar or the toilet when it was announced that a woman was next on the bill; audiences who would yawn and sigh before I had said a word, assuming that a woman couldn’t say anything remotely amusing; hecklers who would yell, “Fancy a shag?” or “Show us your tits!” (Comedian Jo Caulfield’s withering response to this would be: “Why should I be the first woman in the world to voluntarily show you her tits?”)
In the end, I decided that a comic’s life wasn’t for me. I sold the digital watch I wore on stage to a fresh-faced, up-and-coming comic called Josie Long, then watched, impressed, as she took the comedy world by storm. Having won the BBC New Comedy Awards aged just 17, then scored a place at Oxford, she scooped the Best Newcomer award at Edinburgh aged 24. Two of her four follow-up shows were nominated for the Best Show award at Edinburgh, and she also clinched her own Radio 4 show, Josie Long: All The Planet’s Wonders. In 2010, she became involved in political activism with UK Uncut, the anti-tax-avoidance group, and her stand-up became more political, but she retained her good-natured and amiable stage persona.
Long is so busy and successful these days, it is tricky to schedule in time for our interview. She is frantically inking a cartoon when I turn up slightly early at her tiny, creatively chaotic office in Hackney, which she shares with the director of her charity, Neil Griffiths. “Sorry, I’ll be with you in just a minute,” she apologises with a friendly smile.
While I wait, Griffiths tells me about the charity he and Long founded in 2011, Arts Emergency, designed to give disadvantaged and talented students the chance to study arts subjects at university. Fast branching across the country, it now has a thousand contacts and mentors signed up to support and inspire students, including such luminaries as Stewart Lee, Shappi Khorsandi and Jake Chapman. It’s a huge achievement for a woman barely in her thirties, but then, as we’ve seen, Long doesn’t do things by halves.
Cartoon finished, we head outside to try “this really amazing Ethiopian food”. Long is effervescent, enthusiastic and generous: she gets excited about the cash machine dispensing five-pound notes, insists on buying me lunch and enters a friendly conversation with another customer at the street-food café. She is just as grounded and affable as she seems on panel shows. Does she enjoy doing them?
“I quite often find it really upsetting and strange,” she confesses. “There’s a thing that happens with panel shows where, because I’m not famous compared to the other people, the people in the crowd don’t have a clue who I am, and also they’re like, ‘A young woman, ugh.’ The audiences on panel shows are never my crowd, and so you just spend two hours dying really hard. I think it can be hard going. There’s been times when I’ve been like ‘Just don’t cry. If you can just get through this and not cry...’”
She pauses, then adds, “Though it’s a brilliant opportunity to get to do them. I’m often quite detached from the mainstream without meaning to be in terms of my own place and what I see – it’s not deliberate, it just ends up that way.”
I point out that she’s one of a handful of recognisable female comics in the country, with over 80,000 Twitter followers. “That makes me really happy,” she admits. “It’s funny, isn’t it, because I haven’t done that much comparatively. I’ve never had a televised stand-up show, or had my own sitcom, or anything like that. I’m not really very famous in those terms at all, so I feel very lucky that I’ve managed to scrape it so that some people know who I am and want to come to my shows.”
Does she hope to change things through her comedy? “Totally. My dream is a combination of things: I want to write about what’s been important to me and what I’ve learnt, but I also hope that maybe people who are better than me will watch my show and then do better, more important things [as a result of it]. I wrote a show called Be Honourable, about this Kurt Vonnegut book that I really love called Man Without a Country. In it he says that people have to aspire to be saints, and they have to try really hard to change the world. They’ll fail but they might as well try. I was basically saying that I’m an idiot, but that if anyone watching it could go and do some really useful stuff, that’d be great. So that’s kind of my dream. I love it. For example, there were a few people in 2010 who watched the show and went on to write some protest songs and set up some groups – it made me really proud. You don’t know the effect that you’re going to have, if any, but I do feel strongly that it’s worth trying a bit.”
A lot of people who are unhappy with the state of the world just moan about it, I say, and don’t actually do anything positive to change it, whereas she’s been extremely active in trying to change things. She laughs. “I also moan all the time! But I’ve always been the sort of person who likes to get things done. I have to stop expecting what I’d like – the bloody overthrow of this government, which would create all of their deaths in show trials.” She jokes that she’d like “a yearly folkloric celebration where we re-enact the deaths, and a different death for each one, because then there’s like an advent calendar of deaths for the cabinet”.
Has she ever been tempted to change things by entering politics herself and standing as an independent? “I did [think about it] for a while, but politics doesn’t need people like me. I’m really slapdash – I’m a performer, I’m a wanker ... I mean, I know a guy who’s a Labour councillor in Tooting, and he works really hard and is really involved in his community and is amazing. You’ve got to play to your strengths a bit. I think what I’m good at is engaging with people, speaking on stage, sharing my ideas and meeting people, but at this stage of my life I wouldn’t be that helpful as an MP. I’d be like, ‘What do you mean, I have to work 15 hours a day and everyone’s going to call me a cunt? I don’t want to do it!’ But I would love to later in my life.”
Speaking of politicians, can she see Ed Miliband as Prime Minister? “Well, it’s ridiculous, because I really hope he does become Prime Minister. The thought of another five years of Conservative rule is unbearable. I spent the last four years defending him to people, but just recently some of the stuff about immigration and him voting for the welfare cap were hard pills to swallow. He’s legitimised the Conservative agendas on immigration and welfare. Both of these are their toxic narratives that they’ve pushed. He may well be more left-wing than we think in his heart, and I don’t doubt that on a personal level he’s obviously a really nice human being, but I just feel like ‘No! That’s my limit, you voting for the welfare cap, that is not on.’”
Her voice then brightens as she says, “But I still hope [Labour] get in, because they’ve made a promise to repeal the gagging law, which is great. They’ve made hints at promising that they want to repeal some of the NHS bill. One of their shadow education people is seemingly a supporter of going back to £4k [tuition] fees, and obviously as a charity that’s something we really care about.”
So would Long encourage people to vote Labour in 2015? “I would really hope people wouldn’t vote Conservative, and I would also really hope people wouldn’t vote Liberal Democrat.” She likes elements of Labour, “but I also love the Green Party at the moment. They are the only people who seem to have social justice proudly on their agenda, so I don’t think it’s a wasted vote in the long term to try and build up support for the Green Party. I would say people should do whatever their consciences can bear, but I really would recommend bothering to vote and getting involved in your local area, because I do believe that it’s worth it. Mark Thomas is a hero of mine, I really look up to him. When I first became political, I was always texting him for advice. He’d be like, ‘Look for where people are doing things on their own. Look for people in your local area… there are always inspiring stories. There are social enterprises, charities, activists… there’s never a dearth of inspirational stories and people, and you just never know what will actually catch fire.’”
And then she gets to the crux of her philosophy: “I’ve always been an optimist. I’m a massive optimist and I believe that it’s much more important to dream big and also appreciate the small and keep trying. I sound like a wanker, but I’m lucky that I’m an optimist because it never goes away. Even when I’ve felt completely in despair, it still comes back. At my absolute worst in the last few years, I thought, ‘You know what? It’s worth my pretending to be optimistic, because at least it means I won’t be bitter and at least I will hopefully feel optimistic again one day.’ People can make of it what they will, but I would always rather be an optimist than a cynic. Because you have a better life – I have so much more fun!”
There are few comics on the circuit who are as uplifting and inspirational, and who genuinely try to change things for the better. I hope Josie Long’s optimism will carry her even further than it has already.
Josie Long will be performing at The Stand at 8.40pm daily throughout this year’s Edinburgh Festival