Tiff Stevenson interview: comedy, Buffy, Whedon and more

Tiff Stevenson chats about her new stand-up tour, Fringe, Buffy, Joss Whedon, Portlandia, Sherlock and Jason Statham....

Heading on tour around the UK this month is Tiff Stevenson. Her new stand-up show, Mad Man, is about to get underway, and she spared us some time for a chat. It got quite nerdy…

I’ll start with the obvious one, and then we can go nerdy. You’re going on tour with a show called Mad Man. What’s it about?

It’s about identity really. Who we are as people, how much of our personalities are made up of what we think we like and what we put out into the world, and how much is chewed up and sold back to us through various advertisements and social media and everything else.

Do you have specific examples you’re tapping into?

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Yeah, sure. Advertising is a huge thread that runs through the show. For example, some Americans who came to see it were quite shocked to see that Jack Daniels is marketed over here as ‘good old times in the South’. To which I made the point that 150 years ago in deep south America was not good times for everyone.¬†The idea that we would be buying a drink and enjoying it, that’s trading on its racist history, is quite abhorrent.

Also, what makes the personality, and what makes the person. There’s a huge chunk in the show about people wearing band T-shirts. For bands that they don’t actually know! They’re sold as fashion items now. I constantly see Ramones T-shirts on 17-year olds, who don’t know a single one of the songs. You need to own at least an album!

About three years ago, there was an explosion of ‘geek’ T-shirts on the high street. From people who hadn’t even taken a Star Trek exam…!

Yes! It’s not allowed! If you know that there’s more than one type of Cardassian…

Cardassians over Kardashians!

Yeah, exactly! There you go.

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I accidentally saw you at a gig towards the end of last year. I went to an Ed Byrne gig, and you were supporting Ed on his tour. You walked out with a glass of wine in your hand, and asked who the drinkers were in the crowd, and got about three murmurs. I don’t think I’ve ever sat in a packed house at a comedy gig before with an audience less up for it.

I thought it was a hugely impressive gig, though, because I’d never seen two comics win back such a tough crowd so skilfully.

What goes through your head when you get an initially dead response like that? What tactics do you go for?

It’s rare to hear that few people cheer, especially considering that the follow-up joke is a pro-choice joke, without giving it away! I’m not too fussed if people aren’t drinking, because it’s more about establishing who I am. So if they’re not drinking, it’s fine. Sometimes it means in some ways you can be more long form, you can be more intellectual than you can be with a rowdy crowd who don’t have the attention span. I can put all the detail in.

I have an idea of what I want to do. I tailor it a bit. But really what I want to talk about and say on stage is the main focus. When you first start out, you panic about it if they’re not liking things. But you can chop and change and throw everything at it. Whereas my technique, certainly in the latter part of my stand-up career, is they’ll come with me. If I take it slowly, they’ll come with me. The reverse applies to a rowdy crowd!

You often see people panic at rowdy shows, and go on the front foot. They go to the front of the stage, go to the audience, and fire stuff out at them. I’ve found the reverse works. If you actually sit back, and go right, you’re going to come to me: what I’ve got to say is really funny and interesting, and if you shut the fuck up, you’ll enjoy it! And sometimes an audience likes being told how they like to behave.

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Is that a little bit of the old Steve Martin approach: if they don’t laugh, assume they’re the ones in the wrong, that it’s their fault for not getting the joke?

Yeah, yeah! Kind of. With something like the gig you were talking about, if I’d sat back and taken the energy from the room, it might not had worked. But instead, if the energy’s not in the room, I’m going to bring the energy. I’m going to perform the shit on it, and then you get on board. You do tailor it to the room.

I’m always confident in the knowledge that what I have to say is good. I know that sounds incredibly arrogant, but I have to think if you don’t like this, that’s your problem [laughs].

That’s surely experience though isn’t it? You’ve been doing stand-up for 10-15 years if I’ve got my maths right, but this tour you’re taking on now, this is your biggest solo tour?

Yes. I did a little mini-tour last year, but this is my first proper one.

Even then, compared to someone like Ed who’s doing 140 dates or so, it’s smaller. But that’s how everyone starts out, playing rooms around 100-150 seats. The biggest room is around 300 seats, that’s what I’m playing. I did 10 or 11 dates last year, and some of the people who went to them have rebooked. That’s nice, that you’re building your audience, and they want to come back out to see you.

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Also, an important thing in comedy for me is I like jokes, but I like to think I’ve thought about something, and asked questions. That’s what I want people to get out of the show.

I know that the show is a great show. There’s less nerves, more excitement. It’s a really satisfying thing to be able to get to a point where I can tour on my own, and people will come out just to see me, and hear what I have to say. That’s an amazing feelingSometimes on a tour show, people take a punt. But most of the time, they know and like what you do, so you can stretch your legs and relax. On Ed’s tour, the audience weren’t expecting me, so there’s a bit of work to win people over.

When you’re the support act, is that the end of level boss of stand-up?

Sort of! It’s interesting. I’ve done the odd tour spot for Russell Kane, and people like that. But not a lot of female comics were asked to do tour support, and I think some of the big male comics were missing a trick there. It’s a really nice contrast and complement to their act. That’s part of the problem with women coming through. A lot of the boys got to do it early doors. Josh Widdecombe I think got to support Stephen Merchant. Romesh Ranganathan¬†supported Kevin Bridges. I guess the idea is that if you do support slots, you do them as you’re working your way up, or in bigger rooms than you’d be in for your own tour. An end of level boss is a good way to describe them.

When I was reading other interviews with you before this call, it struck me that most people want to ask you about gender. That said, there was a lovely piece in the Big Issue about bird watching, though. But I’m curious: what do you wish people would actually ask you? I’m falling into the role of the stereotypical male interviewer if I’m not careful here by bringing up gender at all with you. It struck me instead though: is there something that you wish people would ask you about but they never do?

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Yeah! Gender obviously does come up in a way that doesn’t with the guys. You never hear ‘what’s it like being a man in comedy’.

Which is why I don’t really want to go down that road!

I do like birdwatching. I like playing golf. I’m into boxsets binge watching. I love stuff like Fringe. I’m a big Buffy nerd. Big Joss Whedon fan.

I suppose gender does come into it, because one of the reasons I love Joss Whedon so much is that he created one of the great heroes in Buffy Summers. It’s been a long time since we had someone like that. Maybe Jessica Jones now? Jessica Jones works on different levels, talking about sex trafficking as well as being a superhero piece.

We’re so bereft of female role models though that when I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road at the cinema, I actually cried. I cried and I thought the movie was amazing. You [guys] always get to see yourself in that role, and we never get to see ourselves in that role. I have to go back when I ask when have I seen a female character as good as that? I’m going back to Buffy, I’m going back to Sarah Connor. That’s how far I have to go back to find those women.

I still am Buffy mad. The writing in it is so exceptional. The foreshadowing, the really universal themes. Sometimes people say it’s a real teenage show, but no. Some of Anya’s lines in the later series – “why can’t you just masturbate like the rest of us?” – there’s brilliant, funny stuff the whole way through.

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I love Firefly too!

What would you recommend that you think people may have missed?

Fringe. Fringe I don’t think got the recognition it deserved.

That had a bumpy first season, that hurt the show a lot.

Yes. What was interesting how something like Fringe though is I was asking where are our Walters. You’ve got Walter in Fringe and in Breaking Bad, characters who are flawed. They’re so layered. Are they the hero, are they the villain? They’re brilliant, but also, could be crazy. I still think we see a lot of whingy women on TV series. Especially in comedy: they’re either slut or borderline retarded. They seem to be the two archetypes. I think that’s slowly changing.

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I was really into Band Of Brothers. Archer is one I really love. A lot of the animated series in fact: Bojack Horseman. The first season of that. The second season upped that a notch too. The second season had an episode that was a satire of the Bill Cosby situation.

Portlandia, too.

A great shout.

There are all these ways to find stuff now. Netflix, for instance. Orange Is The New Black is quite rightly lauded, but when I first found it, I was wondering why the show was getting no heat!

Oh, and there’s a show I’m in, which sounds mad! People Just Do Nothing, on BBC Three. Have you seen it?

No, not yet!

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Obviously The Office is a huge influence on the guys who have written it. Someone described it recently as a Spinal Tap of grime music. That description, if it gets you, you should give it a try. I thin it’s very, very funny. Really smart. It’s about a bunch of lads who start a pirate radio station in West London. I like that it’s working class characters, but they’re not portrayed as ‘everyone’s shit’. There’s dreams, aspirations, and it’s very funny.

There’s two more series of it coming up, that I’m doing. That’s going online with BBC Three.

I heard a comment from Ian McKellen over Christmas – I think it was on Jonathan Ross’ show – where he said that he feels sorry for those missing the era of you flipping channels and randomly finding something surprising to watch. That it’s all more prescribed and pre-chosen now. I wonder if that’s hurting a few of the shows that you’ve talked about.

I think so. It takes a while to find some shows. You need to watch a few episodes and get into it. Portlandia was that: the first episode, I didn’t quite get the world. I watched a few more and realised I loved it: a brilliant critique on gentrification. Carrie Brownstein is so brilliant in it.

There’s a thing they make now, a friend of mine told me about it. A director friend of a friend told me this, so I’m hearing it third hand. But they’re a reasonably well known director, and they went into a meeting for a job. They said that ‘I need to do some work on the script’. And they said ‘yeah, this is a one-eye film’. As in it’s meant to be watched when one eye is on a phone or something.

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That’s terrifying.

It’s totally terrifying. It shows the modern disease that we have. The idea that they’re catering films that way. We’re heading towards getting what we deserve as an audience if we don’t pay attention and watch.

I don’t know if you saw Sherlock on New Year’s Day.

Yes! Here we go! Robin Ince was talking about it.

I read his excellent blog on it, that’s why it came to mind.

Yeah. He said people were saying they don’t understand it, and he replied ‘lift your head up from the phone’! People didn’t even wait until the end credits to say they didn’t like it.

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When we do film reviews now, we’re up against sites who have a review live 30/40 minutes after the credits have rolled. But it’s gone further here: we’re effectively seeing reviews 30/40 minutes before the credits have rolled.

Yes, yes.

I always wonder how reviewers can review comedy shows if you’re in the process of reviewing it rather than watching it.

That argument goes across anything you review though. I’d argue that as soon as you’re actively conscious that you’re reviewing something, you bring something very slightly different to it.

Suspending your disbelief?

I’m not sure of that. I think there’s something though, that makes an incey bit of a difference.

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I’ve always though that what you should do, though, is have everyone watch the film, and ask someone afterwards who didn’t know they were reviewing it what they thought of it. To get a true audience member’s perspective.

It’s an odd one. We’re also in a culture of review of reviews too, though. We’ve seen this with Star Wars, where people who haven’t been that keen have been attacked online for not necessarily liking it as much as some.

I think a review of a review of a review of a review of a review, it’s gone crazy. I think we live in a world – and this comes up in the show too – where everything is very black and white. The only voices that bubble up are the ones that scream the loudest, so people are trying to do provocative stuff, rather than layered and interesting stuff.

I got annoyed about a New York Times piece, and it wasn’t even a review because you can’t review Goodfellas this far afterwards…

I know exactly which piece you’re going to talk about!

Where it said it’s a guy’s movie, and that’s why women don’t get it. And you go oh fuck off. Actually, the narrator of the piece and the heart of the film is a woman.

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It’s a clickbait thing, isn’t it? With enough gumption to create outrage. The Katie Hopkins and Donald Trumps. We’re in a situation almost like the bigger the arseole, the higher the purse.

I don’t think it’s just screaming the loudest either. I think it’s screaming the fastest sometimes.

That’s interesting. Who’s the first to get it out there?

Yeah. I do think that makes a difference.

Can I quickly talk about one of your other projects before we wrap up? Because I read that you’re doing a documentary about plastic surgery. Is that still active?

Yes. We’re currently in the process of editing it. There are a couple of other people we want to catch to get their opinions.

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We’ve got interviews at the minute with various comedians. Oh, and with Janet Ellis. She talks about ageism. She started as a young actress, and she says something quite interesting. She says that she never defined her aged, other people did it for her. People like Pam Warren, the Paddington rail crash survivor who wore the public mask in public for a couple of years.

Talking to her and seeing how she feels about women going crazy about having plastic surgery on their faces, when she’s had over 200 procedures, not through choice. She was surprisingly unjudgemental. She said that her surgeon had said to her that because she put her hands over her face when the fireball came, that protected her eyes. That was the one area of her face that wasn’t burned. She’s had skin grafts all over the rest of her face, and the skin around her eyes is going to age and will look weird. She might have to have corrective plastic surgery on her eyes to match the rest of her face.

I wanted to get to the core of that. I kind of feel that this ageism is a disease that we’re suffering from, and it’s really important that the next generation of girls see that being a woman isn’t a lifetime of trying to constantly look like you’re 20 years old. Maybe we should celebrate every part of our lives, rather than just focusing on youth.

One final question, then. What’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?

Oh, Spy! Because he’s not the lead in it! [Laughs] The women in that film are phenomenal. I think he’s funny in it, and he comes off well. I didn’t expect him to be able to do comedy, but he’s very, very funny in that film. I think it’s because he’s surrounded by an amazing female cast.

Tiff Stevenson, thank you very much!

Tiff Stevenson’s Mad Man tour begins in January. For a full list of dates, see her website, here.¬†