From online dating to millennial woes, what happens when a 21st-century writer spins her life stories for laughs? Christobel Hastings takes the mic to find out…
Google the words ‘women’ and ‘comedy’, and somewhere along the way you’ll come across a think piece mansplaining exactly why women aren’t funny.
Thanks to a pervasively sexist worldview that has persisted throughout history, professional funny gals have previously been pushed out of the spotlight.
If there was ever a woman who could single-handedly provide a sharp riposte to the naysayers, it’s Miriam “Midge” Maisel, the fierce, funny and fast-talking Fifties Jewish housewife-turned-comedian at the heart of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, the award-winning Prime Video series created by Gilmore Girls show-runners Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino.
There’s much in the sharp-witted Midge that I can relate to: unconventional relationships, a touch of the vulgarian, cutting takes on institutional sexism.
And while I consider myself in possession of a pretty good sense of humour, the thought of stand-up comedy gives me the same chills that prompted me to skive drama class for three years in secondary school.
Which is why, for one week only, I’m making like Midge and entering the world of stand-up to see what facing one of my biggest fears will do. Can I find my stride on the comedic road or will I fall flat on my face?
On the first day into my new showbiz career, I moonlight the day away in a newsroom, and work on my comedy material at night.
When I’m back home, I start to brainstorm material for my set.
I trawl YouTube for inspiration, taking note of Katherine Ryan’s Taylor Swift jibes, Tiffany Haddish’s unapologetic candour, and Tig Notaro’s droll monologues, before embarking on an SNL binge.
The thing that makes each set sparkle, is that each comedian spins intensely personal episodes into side-splittingly punchlines. As Midge says, “comedy is fuelled by disappointment and humiliation. Who the hell does that describe more than WOMEN?”
True to form, she plumbs her own slowly deteriorating personal life for material: failed marriage, parental disapproval, sexual politics.
Feeling inspired, I’m soon putting pen to paper. Spinning the perils of freelance life, the pitfalls of online dating, and any other aspect of my millennial life, I scribble a script about my everyday problems into joke form that will hopefully get the laughs I want.
Practice makes perfect
As we pass the midweek point, my nerves begin to build.
My friends who run a comedy collective reserved an area in our local on Friday night alongside a gaggle of other waifs and strays, so there’s no chance of storming the stage half-cut and going full-on confessional like Midge.
And while I’m not in pursuit of perfection, performing a comedy routine is a whole different ballgame to cracking jokes to your mates, and I don’t want to bomb.
I invite one of my closest friends over that evening to rehearse, who sprawls comfortably on the sofa eating from a family size bag of Kettle crisps and critiques my set.
“Stop trying to memorise!” she shouts in-between handfuls.
“Talk to me, not at me!”
And, her favourite: “Stop speaking so formally, you’re not giving a sermon!”
Taking the stage
The day of my stand-up debut arrives and my tummy spins cartwheels.
When I arrive at the pub, my first act of self-preservation is to down a drink.
I sit quietly going through my prompt cards, reflecting back on all my nerve-wracking dates, job interviews and every excruciating piano exam in my lifetime – this outstrips them all.
After what feels like an eternity, my friend stands up, takes a long swig from her pint and welcomes everyone, though I barely hear my name being mentioned because I’m mouthing my intro like it’s my last words.
Just as I’m considering dashing to the loo and doing a runner, someone nudges me and I realise I’m up.
My knees feel like they’re about to give way, but I try to channel Midge’s supreme self-confidence. “I’m amazing!” she frequently responds to anyone who questions how she accomplishes anything fabulous in her life.
“Thanks for coming out to this reputable establishment this evening,” I smile at the group gathered around me.
“I’m Christobel, and before you say it, I’m fully aware that my name sounds like it’s been brainstormed on a Mumsnet thread for Boden-esque baby names.”
“You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I’m not actually a Londoner.” Curious smiles.
“Took me seven years, but I reckon I’m only two piercings and a protest away from throwing off my suburban identity entirely”. Smiles all round.
Time to move things up a gear.
“You know, I was trawling Twitter the other day, and apparently, your Viking name is your first name spelled backwards, plus ‘the’, then your worst trait. Trouble is, it’s hard to choose mine. Lebotsirhc the procrastinator? Lebotsirhc the judgemental? Lebotsirhc the “in constant need of validation’? Doesn’t have much of a ring to it does it?”
I’ve broken through, and finally there’s laughter.
Just like that, the fear in the pit of my stomach starts to dissipate, and I segue into another section called ‘My Millennial Life’.
Not all my jokes land; one offside about the joy of reading barbed Amazon reviews only garners some low-level murmurs, but when my five-minute mark is approaching, I suddenly hit my stride.
“Seriously, though, is there a support group for twenty-somethings on the cusp of turning 30 who realise they’re a complete mess? They say as you approach the big 3-0 you’ll have financial security, a long-term partner and the job of your dreams, but I dunno guys, all I’ve managed is crippling anxiety, mismatched tupperware and a gaggle of stray cats that follow me down the road to my flat”.
Before I know it, my friend’s calling time and someone pushes a drink into my hand as I sink back down onto the seat. I actually did it…
Thank you and goodnight
After everyone’s had their turn and the pub is filled with drunken chatter, we debrief.
I’m still high on adrenaline from the fact that I actually made people laugh spontaneously. But before I sail away with the idea of a new career, my real-life comedian friends have a few sage words of advice: keep it conversational, pause for dramatic effect, and most importantly, build on the momentum of a laugh.
After all, one performance in a smoky pub does not a comedian make: stand-up is a fine art that requires continual trial-and-error.
Like most new experiences in life, trying stand-up initially seemed like it would be an exercise in humiliation.
But with plenty of preparation and a positive mind-set, a la New York’s most unapologetic New York housewife, I conquered a long-standing fear of stepping into the spotlight, and actually had fun doing it, too.
Sure, I’m never going to match Midge’s pitch-perfect monologues, but ultimately, I’ve learned more from watching her than how to spin a sharp one-liner.
In a society that all too often expects women to be supporting characters, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel shows us sometimes, you have to grab the mic yourself if you want to get noticed.
For more comedy inspiration, make sure to watch season one and two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel on Prime Video now.