What's so funny about William Shatner, US politics and manspreading? Ahead of the Glasgow International Comedy Festival we ask three funny women – Ashley Storrie, Jena Friedman and Fern Brady – to share their stories.
Move over Fifty Shades of Grey. When it comes to erotica, Ashley Storrie tells it how it is – right down to her Flintstones duvet cover. Storrie will share this and other titillating nuggets when she appears at the Glasgow International Comedy Festival.
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“Last year I read from my teenage diaries and this time I have some erotica I have written,” she says. “It is based on my sex experiences. You know how in Fifty Shades of Grey and those kind of books, it is all very flowery? I have written what I believe that, realistically, erotica should be, which is probably quite strange. It’s not a big man puller when you come back and are like: ‘Hey, check out my Captain Kirk cut-out and Fred Flintstone duvet …’”
The Glasgow comedian’s show includes a kooky collection of tales about “being my awkward self and William Shatner trying to set me up with men on the internet”. The latter, it transpires, happens on a regular basis. Storrie, 29, and the Star Trek legend have developed a Twitter banter since he wished her happy birthday three years ago.
Shatner has often attempted to play matchmaker. “He’s was trying to set me up with some guy from Outlander – a big handsome ginger fellow,” she says. Sam Heughan? “Yes! That’s the one.” Heughan, who plays dashing highlander Jamie Fraser in the television drama, frequently converses with Shatner on Twitter. “I was mortified,” says Storrie.
Jamie Fraser may have set millions of hearts aflutter, but Storrie’s devotion belongs to one man alone: Captain James T Kirk. “I have been a Star Trek fan since before I can remember,” she says. “I wanted William Shatner to tweet me so he knew I existed.” That dream was realised when Shatner posted: “Here’s what I want to know – what is Ashley’s ‘Storrie’?”
Storrie has never met Shatner and is content with a virtual friendship. She believes Shatner views her as an “odd bod” and secretly prefers her mother, fellow comedian Janey Godley. “Mum has never watched Star Trek and doesn’t care, so she talks to him like he’s Uncle Bill.”
For a long time Storrie railed against a career in comedy. Her first acting part was aged three playing “the wee girl in the metal tea urn” in the movie Alabama. At five, she was cast in an advert for Fairy Liquid soap powder, directed by Ken Loach no less, and aged 10 had the lead role in the independent film Wednesday’s Child.
“When I was a kid I was convinced I was going to be an actor,” she says. “I had this plan that I was going to die on Casualty or The Bill and that would be my big break. It would be such a compelling death that I would go on to play Evita and win Oscars.”
At 11, Storrie performed her first stand-up routine at the International Women’s Day celebrations in Glasgow. Her Edinburgh Festival Fringe debut followed two years later. But then, says Storrie, her aspirations foundered as teenage angst struck.
“I did comedy until I hit puberty – literally until I got boobs – and then I was so crippled by adolescent shame I couldn’t go on stage,” she says.
Storrie was 27 before she began gigging again. A big part, she concedes, was wanting to escape being known as “Janey Godley’s daughter” and carve her own identity.
In the intervening years she studied filmmaking, wrote for radio and had “more jobs than you could imagine”. A catering assistant, karaoke host, bingo caller and a receptionist among others (Storrie was sacked from a law firm for building a pyramid of soft drinks in the conference room and dismissed by a car company for making jokes over the PA system).
“Anything I could do to avoid comedy,” she says. “I didn’t want to be compared to my ma. People would tell me I should do comedy and I would joke: ‘I don’t hate myself enough.’”
These days it’s less about hating herself and more about being comfortable in her own skin. Storrie says her style is “blatantly honest”, adding: “I don’t get embarrassed by the things that embarrass other people.”
As soon as Storrie was old enough, she kept her mother company on the club circuit. She and Godley, who will also perform at this year’s Glasgow International Comedy Festival, have forged a tight-knit bond. “We have a symbiotic relationship that to other people would seem weird,” says Storrie. “We are incredibly close, but she is very much my mum – I’m almost 30 but she can still tell me off in public.”
Godley ran a bar in the east end of Glasgow. Storrie has halcyon memories of that time, until a seismic family rift following the death of her grandfather, when she was seven, saw them evicted with their belongings in bin bags.
“It is a weird psychological thing to happen as a child and it did have an impact on my development,” she says. “I became a homebody. For a long time I thought we were going back to our old place and didn’t accept what had happened.”
Storrie lists her comedy heroes as including Barry Cryer, Roy Walker, her mother, French and Saunders, Glenn Wool and pretty much any drag queen. “I have always liked the way drag queens can be absolute dicks and get away with it,” she says. “That is something I have utilised in my set because visually I’m non-threatening – I look like a giant toddler – so I get away with saying things other people might not.”
Ashley Storrie and Other Erotica is at Blackfriars Basement, Glasgow, on March 11, at 7.30pm
There is a fearlessness to Jena Friedman that is slightly scary and awe-inspiring in equal measure. The New York-based comedian doesn’t flinch from often unpalatable subjects, be it tackling contemporary cultural sensitivities, skewering the American Dream in all its commercialised glory or providing a searing, acerbic insight into the presidential race.
If you’re not familiar with the inimitable Ms Friedman, let me bring you up to speed: she has been a writer for the Late Show with David Letterman and is a former producer at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Friedman is behind the viral web series Ted & Gracie (parodying the saccharine New York Times wedding videos), Mothers Without Boundaries (a leftfield swipe at overbearing matriarchs) and Refugee Girls (a satirical spoof of a US doll brand).
Recently, Friedman, 33, pulled off a feat many of us of who watched Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer had dreamed about when she got former prosecutor Ken Kratz to admit on camera that he came across as a bit of “a dick”.
Her self-described “dark, feminist comedy” show, Jena Friedman: American C*** is at the Glasgow International Comedy Festival next month.
The presidential race is the proverbial political hot potato, providing Friedman with a slew of material.
“I can pretend I’m independent but I’m backing Hillary [Clinton],” she says. “On the Republican side it is almost scary the lack of options for a candidate who is inclusive and could actually get things done. There are no legitimate choices: you have [Donald] Trump or [Ted] Cruz. That is terrifying.
“On the Democratic side, I love Bernie Sanders, a lot of my friends are into him and I think he’s a great person – but I make a case for Hillary.
“I think it is funny when people pretend to hold their cards close to their chests politically,” she adds. “The whole system is so broken that to not have an opinion makes you part of the problem.”
What are her thoughts on the Trump juggernaut? “From a historical perspective, it is interesting to watch a country slipping into fascism in real time,” says Friedman. “Trump scares me less than Ted Cruz because I do feel he’s all talk.
“He is like a caricature of a billionaire, but I don’t think he is as harmful as some of the other candidates. I can’t imagine Trump becoming president but, then again, that’s perhaps why I’m looking towards the UK and Europe to do more comedy, because I might have to move there …”
Friedman grew up near Philadelphia and studied anthropology at university in Chicago before she moved to New York. She started doing comedy in 2006, mostly improv and sketch work before gravitating towards stand-up.
“I was doing stand-up and bartending in New York when I got a job writing for David Letterman,” she says. “A year later I shifted over to the Daily Show. I was there for three years.”
This will mark Friedman’s third time performing at the Glasgow International Comedy Festival. She credits the event’s director, Sarah Watson, as helping nurture her raw talent.
“Sarah saw me in New York after I moved here and has been so supportive,” she says. “It was incredible connecting with her because I have always liked comedy in the UK. The grass is always greener, but I think American comedy is less dark. She was also the one who encouraged me to do a solo show at the Fringe [in Edinburgh last year].”
When we speak, Friedman is shooting a mockumentary in New York. She cites her heroes as including Jon Stewart, Bill Hicks, Doug Stanhope, Sarah Silverman, Joan Rivers and Richard Pryor.
“I wasn’t a class clown,” she says. “I was captain of my high-school tennis team and well adjusted, but I had this natural, dark streak. My dad supported it and would find me Edward Gorey, Roald Dahl – all the weirdest, darkest stuff because he knew I liked that.
“My mom was terrified that I wanted to be a comedian but once I was able to start paying my rent by writing for Letterman she calmed down. She is my biggest fan which is another problem because she will call me and talk about online comments on videos. I have to tell her: ‘Mom, we can’t, you have to stop.’ She is really funny.”
There has been a raft of top-drawer big-screen comedies of late including Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s Sisters and Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck. Friedman will direct her self-penned feature film this autumn (“a grounded story about a woman who falls in love with a serial killer”).
She gives short shrift to the long-flogged debate women aren’t funny – one that has waged in peaks and troughs since the infamous 2007 Vanity Fair essay by the late Christopher Hitchens asserted that men being funnier was an evolutionary quirk.
“It isn’t worth the dialogue of trying to work out why people feel that way,” says Friedman. “One thing I think is more timely and interesting is the rise of internet trolls and misogyny online. That is something we have only seen in that past few years.
“If people are saying women aren’t funny, that isn’t even part of the ‘women aren’t funny’ debate – it’s the fact that a large swathe of online commentators are sexist, misogynistic trolls.”
For Friedman, comedy is more than making people laugh. “OK, I’m going to go on a rant for a second and then I’ll let you go,” she says, before deftly highlighting the minimum wage, fracking and the ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan which has left 100,000 people with lead-poisoned water too dangerous to drink or even use to cook.
“I do feel comedians have a power that politicians are losing,” she says. “With many politicians what it takes to get elected is the opposite of what it takes to be a good leader.
“They are so worried about getting elected or campaign financing, that they are not helping the people who are putting them in power. In America, our cities and infrastructure are crumbling because we don’t have leadership. You have comedians who are shining a light on these things.”
Jena Friedman: American C*** is at Saint Luke’s, Glasgow, on March 19, at 8.30pm
Social class. Manspreading on public transport. Mums with kids in coffee shops. These are among the many teeth-gnashing topics that Fern Brady takes aim at in her show People Are Idiots.
“I always thought I did normal observational comedy but then people have described it as being quite dark,” she says. “I’ve also been called grumpy. I think because I have a young face and a babyish voice people don’t always take you seriously if you are an angry woman. They don’t find it appealing, so this year I’m trying to be a nice lady.”
That perhaps depends on your definition of nice. Brady, 29, has added new material ahead of the Glasgow International Comedy Festival that may raise some hackles.
“My family is really religious so I had to go to church every week until I was 16,” she says. “I haven’t talked about being a Catholic before – even though a disproportionately high number of comedians are Catholic or Jewish.
“My gran is a big pro-lifer and used to make me wear badges that were tiny baby feet. I also talk about how Catholics believe in ghosts and think our dead relatives are watching us all the time.”
The eldest of three children, Brady hails from Bathgate in West Lothian. Her mother Catherine is a retired supermarket checkout assistant while her father Paul works in haulage. “I was quiet at school and studied a lot,” she says. “I used to do my homework on the bus home. I was a bit too keen.”
Brady talks frankly about being diagnosed with depression and obsessive compulsive disorder in her teens. Between the ages of 16 and 18 – viewing herself as the self-dubbed female incarnation of Begbie from Trainspotting – she veered off the rails. “I wanted to fight everyone,” admits Brady.
She was removed from school and placed in a pupil referral unit for youngsters with behavioural and mental health problems. “I wasn’t middle class, but I did grow up getting piano lessons and studying hard,” she says. “I was put in this unit with absolute nut jobs. I ended up making friends with them all. My parents decided it was a bad influence and hauled me back out again two months later.”
It was a period that inspired her sitcom, Radges, whose pilot episode aired on BBC Three last autumn. While BBC Three didn’t pick the show up for a full series, there has been interest elsewhere.
“Bizarrely Billy Crystal’s production company in LA got in touch with me because they had seen it,” says Brady. “Then last month I got a call to say BBC Worldwide want to buy it and make an American version. I have signed with a writing agent and waiting to see what happens.”
After her teenage walk on the wild side, Brady enrolled in a degree in Arabic and Persian at Edinburgh University. She recalls how on her first day the tutor laughed upon hearing she was from West Lothian. Brady later transferred to English Literature.
She trained as a journalist but dropped out two months before her course finished. A magazine had suggested Brady write an article where she “faked it” as a comedian at the Fringe. After one gig she was hooked.
Bold, whip-smart and unabashedly honest, Brady has steadily grown her profile. Earlier this month, the London-based comedian had the surreal experience of joining Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder and former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone on a panel show for TV channel Russia Today.
“It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever done,” she confirms. “I was worried I hadn’t done enough research on the topics but Shaun Ryder had done nothing. He was like: ‘I don’t give a f***.’ He was really nice. Ken Livingstone seemed a bit up himself.”
When approaching Brady to set up this interview, the mere mention of challenging the enduring misconception that women aren’t funny had her inwardly groaning.
By her own admission, she still regularly finds herself as the lone woman among a sea of male comedians. “It is definitely worse on the Scottish circuit,” she says. “In London I’m not usually the only girl. I was up doing The Stand recently on new material night and there was all these acts on that were old middle-aged men. I had people patronising me as if it was my first gig.”
While Brady believes the comedy circuit to be meritocratic – “if you are funny you will get gigs” – she admits television can be an uneven playing field. “For TV the most important thing is to be a big-titted beauty,” she says. “A lot of male comedians have to drop weight once they start doing TV, but if a woman had the equivalent looks of Dara O’Briain, Sean Lock or Jimmy Carr, she wouldn’t be on TV.”
Her frustration is palpable. “Before I started doing comedy I would read interviews where female comedians would endorse gender stereotypes by saying things like: ‘Oh, a lot of women drop out because the food is awful and there is a lot of travel.’ I remember thinking: ‘Are you kidding me? We’re not in Victorian times. How do women cope in other jobs?’”
Brady’s comedy ambitions have no such self-imposed limitations. “Move to America, polish off my accent and become the new Craig Ferguson,” she says.
Fern Brady: People Are Idiots is at Blackfriars Basement, Glasgow, on March 24, at 8.30pm
The Glasgow International Comedy Festival takes place from March 10-27. For tickets, call 0844 873 7353 or visit glasgowcomedyfestival.com