Abigail Burdess is an actor, writer, stand up comedian, sketch performer, playwright – basically, you name it, she’s done it.
We met some time ago through comedy ‘stuff’ and then recently got together for a conversation about comedy, acting, and urinating in the theatre.
So firstly, thanks for meeting with me.
No problem dude.
OK, so you’re a comedian, actress, playwright, scriptwriter, and you’ve done TV stuff, radio stuff, stage stuff…
Yeah, I’ve got no focus! No idea what I’m doing! Dance around like a fucking ping pong ball not knowing what to do next!
No, it’s all good stuff! I was just going to ask, what came first and how did you get started?
I trained as an actor at Drama Studio, and I wrote straight after that, so I started writing plays after I graduated. But these were not comedy plays. I wrote an English verse redaction of a French philosophical novel… I mean, I could not sound more pretentious at this point could I? It was not comedy. It was not the cheap crap I peddle these days! It was pretty intellectual stuff.
I wrote some plays, and I was acting in things, and then I directed – this is going back! – I directed a sketch show with a bunch of my mates. And I started doing a double act called Live at the Mausoleum with Cicely Giddings in 2002. We still write together – wrote for Tracey Ullman together this year. Then comedy kind of took over and it became all about the comedy. And less about the French philosophical novels…
I know you’ve written poetry too. I thought All Kinds of Trouble was a very sweet and honest look at love and that kind of “Oh no, it’s happened…” feeling.
Ripping my heart open, and sharing it! Yeah, that’s what poetry is though, isn’t it? You can’t really hide behind irony in poetry. But, wow! I wasn’t expecting you to bring up any poetry! I might start, like, crying and reciting poetry…!
Haha! Sorry! It’s cos you mentioned the whole ‘not doing the philosophical thing’ anymore and your poetry is, I think, quite philosophical.
Is it? I once wrote a musical which was a comedy but I suppose had quite a philosophical bent. It was called Fabulous Creatures and was about a girl who discovers she’s a goat and enters Britain’s Goat Talent.
Honestly, it’d be worth doing just for that pun.
Yes. It was a big metaphor about feminism, so she discovers that she’s a female and that the women are called goats and the men are called humans. So I got to write some poetry in that, because lyrics are like poetry aren’t they? So that was a rare foray into trying to create some actual art, and not… again, the cheap crap that I attempt to peddle today.
I remember a director friend of mine saying that creativity comes from being happy, but I always think it has to come from some kind of conflict or tension. I mean, surely comedy is always pushing against something?
Yeah, comedy runs counter to the mainstream. Or something.
So, I guess, where would you say your comedy comes from? I mean, why do you do it?
I think a lot about… not where it comes from but what it is and what it’s for. There’s always that tension between worrying you’re just being a pointless show off, and being useful. So it’s quite a balance, isn’t it, to decide whether what you’re writing might have some relevance, whether it might… in the most basic way, might cheer somebody up for a second and a half because they recognise something in themselves? But, you can ‘forge the consciousness of the nation in the smithy of your soul!’ but also just show off and dance and dance and dance for the pennies that people throw and make them love you. But that’s a complex tension isn’t it?
Yeah, it is. A while ago a non-comic friend of mine was saying what a gift it is to do comedy and make people laugh. Not that people necessarily laugh when I do stand-up, but I’d only ever thought about what I was getting out of it, not what the audience is getting.
I think that’s quite a generous interpretation your friend put on it, because I think yours is more realistic! Which is that people do it to get the love they never got as a child or something.
Tell me I’m pretty!
Please! Tell me I’m pretty! Look Daddy, I’m dancing! Also, you do have to get to a point where you forgive yourself for that impulse, because nobody would make anything if they didn’t have that impulse. Like, everything we do is an immortality project.
Like having kids?
Yeah, ‘I won’t die, a tiny bit of me will live on!’ I do find that I tend to have an idea and I don’t know what it is – whether it’s a film or play or musical or poem – until suddenly I think ‘it’s this!’ and I try and realise it. But it’s usually only much later in the process that I realise, in the cheesiest possible way, that that was there to teach me a lesson. Quite often I’ll read something I wrote ten years ago and go, “Of course! That’s what the story is, about somebody who is QUITE A LOT LIKE ME!”
I know exactly what you mean. That actually happened to me. I was talking about something once and kind of went, “Wait a second! I’ve written an entire novel about this – how did I not recognise it?!”
Exactly. I read Into The Woods and John Yorke’s got a theory that one of the reasons we tell stories is to create what I think in Jungian terms would be called individuation. A balance between the ID and the Ego – the part of you that wants things and the part of you that has to live within society. So you want to kill everyone and fuck everyone, but you also want safety and security in the group, so how do you balance those desires? Stories are all essentially about that kind of tension, and how an individual might balance that. I’m describing that badly, but you should read the book. It’s a good book on creativity to reference because the structure books I usually read are the shit ones. Like the sort of like real structure bods. “Give yourself a car chase!” “Point three, always give your protagonist a dog! People love dogs!”
Would you recommend Save The Cat? Cos a lot of people say its rubbish but then other people love it.
I love it. I think because I’m quite weird then it’s actually really useful to have a classic structure. I tend to have quite high concept ideas, and I think that benefits from being brought down to earth. To say ‘what is your essential conflict?’, I found all that stuff really interesting. And with plays, not just films. Everyone says film and play structure are meant to be different but … they’re both things you have to hear in one sitting. Although, I mean, in a play you can obviously go for a piss in the middle-
In the interval, or…?
No, just in your chair. Slowly sitting in a puddle…
Depends on the theatre, I suppose. When in Rome.
But apart from that, I think plays and films are the same, but what do I know? Are you gonna ask me about plays now?
I wasn’t actually. Although, no, actually, yeah I do have a play question. Ok, you wrote the play All The Single Ladies, which was your first full length play. How did that come about?
I was commissioned to write the play, and I wrote is while I was breastfeeding so it was super emotional. I was just so sentimental the whole time; I was just like (crying) ‘love is so beautiful!’ It was interesting because it was the first time I wrote something quite naturalistic. As I say, normally I write more high-concept stuff.
Like in terms of sketches?
Yeah, a sketch is usually a concept or a character. And usually very extreme character or high concept. You need to give a lot of information really quickly. So you go ‘oh, I’ve seen what the reversal is. Now I’m enjoying the reversal. Now there’s a punch-line! Yay!’ Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, that makes sense. So how about with stand-up? How do you go about writing material?
Get drunk. What do you do?
I just make loads of notes on my phone all the time, then occasionally look at them and go, ‘Oh, that might be quite funny’.
That’s exactly what I do. I make loads of notes of my phone. I think I’m getting better at developing an idea though, rather than just writing gags, which is just so ideas-intensive. I’ve slowly learnt that there are certain subjects that I write about. Like, addiction seems to be one.
That’s quite a dark thing to write about.
Well, to make you feel better about the shit things in your life! “Have to laugh, love, don’t ya! Eh?!”
Very true. OK, next question, and we’ve spoken about this before, and you don’t agree with me.
So, I think that you’ve got a Bafta, but you think that you haven’t.
It’s not my Bafta!
Yeah, but… like, a Bafta was earned for something you worked on.
Yeah, that is true. I’ve written for a bunch of sketch shows, and I was in That Mitchell and Webb Look. That was a fun show. That was ages ago, and it won a Bafta, so I can say ‘The Bafta winning…’ I’ve got some other things though; I got a British Comedy Award nomination, my friend.
Have you? For what?
I was in Robert [Webb] and David [Mitchell] ‘s live show, so I got a nod for that. But that’s not a real one either.
Course it is! Why not?
Cos it’s for them, not for me!
I dunno Abi, you’re making it sound like you were the tea lady, but you’re in youtube clips of it and EVERYTHING!
No I know! I wrote for it and stuff, and that was a really fun show to write on cos they had a proper writer’s room. It took me a while to be an official commissioned writer on that one too. I’d made a sketch show pilot with the producer for Radio 4 for my own show called Abi Hour. So it was after I made that that I was then commissioned to write sketches on the show. So I had an official ‘in’ to that show! It wasn’t just nepotism cos it was my husband’s show..!
Haha! So is that where you met? (Abigail is married to Robert Webb by the way, not David Mitchell.)
Not on that Mitchell and Webb look. I was going out with him when I got cast in it, but we actually met in a Radio 4 sketch show called Concrete Cow. Olivia (Coleman) dropped out to do Green Wing, so they got me in as her replacement. So for ages I used to get jobs she didn’t want… but now I should be so lucky to get the jobs she doesn’t want!
Um, the next question is a bit serious really… But, ok, so you said online that writer’s rooms can be a bit boysy and there’s obviously been a lot about male/female stand-ups and the ratio of acts, etc. So the question is do you think it’s getting easier for women in comedy?
I think it’s hard to know isn’t it? Cos you only have your own experience. I get really nervous of this question cos it’s really hard to talk about it without sounding like you’re whinging, but then that’s like a patriarchal injunction anyway, isn’t it? “Stop complaining women! About anything that happens. Oh, you suddenly seem quite aggressive! You seem like you’re crying, are you gonna cry now you bitch?!” It’s just a weird thing where comedy is reflective of society in that there are strange powers at work upon us and we do not know what they do, so there are complex questions that a female comic ask herself about what the audience expects. And perhaps male comics have different questions.
Yeah I think that’s fair enough. Changing the subject, I know you used to work for Freedom from Torture, and you won a lot of money for them on The Mr and Mrs Show. Is this something you’re still involved in?
I sometimes hear from them. I’m not as involved as I used to be but I think I should get more involved again. They’re a really good charity, they must be really busy at the moment. It was quite a strange job to do. I was a fundraiser but it was quite specialist fundraising, so I used to write reports for the UN. So it involved a weird combination of statistics and like human interest stories, but obviously the stories were quite extreme.
Yeah I can imagine. It sounds tough.
Well… not as tough as being tortured…!
Yeah but surely those aren’t the only two options!
No, but you do feel like that when you’re working there, “I can’t really complain, my life’s pretty cushty…!” It did make you realise how lucky you are, although it does make you go a bit mad. I definitely broke my brain slightly. Although I was writing jokes at the same time, so I think it changed the bar for me about what was acceptable. I’m not saying it’s a good thing to have a dark vision of human nature, but I think part of my wanting to do stand-up was trying to connect with audiences and getting a better sense as to where the lines are. I mean a lot of comedians and comedy writers have a dark humour. So I think the combination of that and working with files about torture made me not necessarily know where the lines are of what you can talk about and what people find acceptable. So it’s really reassuring for me to go out and do stand-up and see how nice most people are. You know, “don’t say that, that’s mean!” Oh good, I think, people are still shockable!
And you have also been voted one of Britain’s 100 unsung heroines. Did you know that?
I think I do remember that. I think it was my friend who nominated me.
Yeah! Although I did have to go “Nominate me! Please nominate me! I want to be nominated!” Being nominated for stuffs good though isn’t it?
I wouldn’t know…
I’ll nominate you for something! Shall I beat you over the head with my Bafta?
It’s not your Bafta, love.
Actually, I noticed on your acting resume that you say you have intermediate combat skills. Is this true, or do you lie on your profile as much as I’ve lied on mine?!
I do have intermediate stage combat skills! I did Othello once and got stabbed to death in it and I had to do a fight in it. I showed a few moves to my six year old with a light saber. And she was like “Mummy, when did you learn to fight mummy?” It almost made 7 years of fencing worthwhile. She thinks I’m a ninja. That’s worth it isn’t it?
Definitely. I might start learning now so I can impress my little boy in a few years.
So stand-up, acting and writing all appeal to different aspects of me, how about you?
I don’t really know. I think acting is a bit more… I don’t know. Is it more narcissistic? I suppose when I’ve written and performed a sketch in something I am more interested in how the sketches that I wrote went than how the sketches I have acted in went. At least I did at the time; it’s been a long time since I’ve been allowed on TV! I think I’ve moved into a new casting category as ‘old lady’ now…!
Oh yeah, I remember you mentioning that at the time! I got a similar one but it was for ‘very short man’, and I just thought, “which part of my profile says I’m very short?!”
How short are you?
I’m not short, I’m massive. You can’t tell cos I’m sitting. I’m like a giant over here.
You’re definitely taller than me dude. But I have had a lot of casting calls recently for ‘the mother of teenagers who is quite tired’. I got one for chronic headache patient. Before I was too old to be cast as the girlfriend, but now I’m a bit too young to be cast as the grandma. I got one for mum of a 21 year old. My own kid’s like five!
Yeah, but a job’s a job. I’d play a tired mum if I was offered it. Not gonna be precious.
Anyway, tell me about Abigail’s Party.
Ok, so I run a monthly gig called Abigail’s Party which started off really low key and has sort of taken over my life. I thought it might be a nice calm way to do a gig, to a couple of mates, get some stage time. Now I’m like, I’ve created a monster. So I’m doing it in Edinburgh this year. Well I’m gonna have a go. I did it because it’s been a while since I’ve done live gigs that were fun. I was like remember when comedy used to be fun? Instead of miserably trooping up to some club.
This is why I stopped for a while; I love stand-up but I just got fed up with everything surrounding it.
Exactly! The circuit used to be different, you used to be able to try stuff out on character nights and they were all door splits, so you could make a few bob, and it was all mates having a go. It just had a good vibe. Now I feel like there are quite a lot of gigs where there’s more stand-up and less character stuff, so I wanted to do a cabaret night where you could have stand-up, character, songs, and random shit could happen. Kind of a variety night, but as a host I’m part of the variety. We do a double-act, me and my glamorous assistant Dave Tozer. I abuse him for your entertainment, and then we have really good acts. So I guilt all of my friends from telly to come on!
It’s a fun room. There’s lots of fun people in the audience. I just want it to be a place where people can properly try out stuff. So people can come and do 5 minutes of a crazy idea. A friend of mine who is a very good stand-up wanted to do a character who is a bee keeper and I was like, “Ok! Come and do it!” We host it in quite a random way, so we play characters as well, so it’s like “Ladies and Gentlemen, Gwyneth Paltrow” and then I come out in a blonde wig. We play games, and have a recurring thing of the judgometer. So the audience come and we judge them…
That sounds quite mean.
Oh no it’s really friendly! And if they join in and play they get free drinks and biscuits.
So, “Can I have your dignity please? Don’t worry, you’ll get a biscuit!”
Exactly! Blood sugars up, everyone’s happy! It’s a bit like being a mum though, running a comedy night. “Sit down! Be entertained! Stop weeing on stuff!” A lot of transferable skills.
And what’s the other project you’re doing – Cheating?
I’m developing a play at Soho. It’s a play I’ve written called Cheating, about a middle-aged writer who writes a play so she can fuck some hot actors onstage so it does not count as cheating. I did it as a short play and I rewrote it as a long play, then let it fallow for a bit, then rewrote it again. Now I think it’s sort of ready. I’m playing the writer, and Rob – my actual husband – is also playing my husband in the play, who is in the audience watching the play. It’s very meta. It’s a sex farce, it may sounds quite intellectual and a bit, “Oh, it’s all about boundaries…” But it was mainly an excuse for me to make hot guys take their tops off and go through pictures of young actors going, “No, not hot enough. Get another one!”
I must have missed your phone calls about the casting…
Sorry! I was looking for a 25 year old.
What?! I’m young, I can play young!
I have had a lot of that actually! People going they ‘can play 25’ but they can’t. You wouldn’t do that with a female character – they’d just be casting an 18 year old. “Have you got double Ds? Go on, up you go. Are you even an actor? It doesn’t matter, well done, you’ve got the part!”
Yeah, sad but true. So is the play about boundaries then?
It’s about trying to cheat death, I suppose. Hence, cheating. Why are we faithful to other people and what does that mean? But there is a lot of men taking their tops off. And me getting off with them. That’s the main thing. I’m going, “It’s about art. And death. And me getting off with some really hot guys.” Farce is quite difficult to write. It’s all about entrance and exits, and people falling over and getting erections and hiding, and that’s really difficult to time believably. For example, when does somebody lose their erection? Is that realistic for him to have an erection that long? But it’s quite weird because it’s kind of like a love letter to my husband. Another fcking public love letter that makes me look like a schmo.
Ah, like the poem. I can imagine you writing it, going, “Now, she thought, I’m in All Kinds of Trouble.”
Yup. You can ‘ave that one!
But tell your readers to go and see it. Cheating. I won’t be naked, don’t worry. Only the boys will be naked.
I read your article about taking up sewing after being told that you don’t actually do anything fun, by the way. I’ve actually been told the exact same thing – that everything I do has to have some kind of end result all the time – but I don’t actually think it’s a bad thing. I think that’s how things get done! How is that working out for you?
Yeah, but there is a danger when you’re doing a creative job that you start to associate work and fun, so fun becomes a kind of work. But… I mean you do other things that have nothing to do with creativity and are productive, so you probably get your balance that way. If you make all your fun into work and do nothing else, then what other people for fun you suddenly find onerus… It’s like, watching a film, “I’m gonna have to note down all the beats in this movie, and study the structure, and get angry with the person that got cast instead of me…” So you don’t just watch the film anymore. I mean… do you know what I’ve been doing recently for fun? I’ve been watching those zit-squeezing videos.
Oh, not you as well. I’ve actually lost a bit of respect for you. Why do you watch them? They’re so disgusting!
I know! They are disgusting! I can’t believe I confessed it! But I was watching a show and I got a bit bored with it and started watching zit squeezing videos, and I just thought how much effort goes into this brilliant show, and now this zit-squeezing is what’s winning, these videos. I think my new plan for success on the internet is to write some jokes and insert them in-between some really bad pus-filled blackhead squeezing videos. I’ll get five million views.
I bet you would as well, but doesn’t it… I mean, what face do you do when you watch them?!
I have a disgusted face! In fact, I went on the tube yesterday and there was a woman who squeezed her boyfriend’s zit on the tube and then she showed him the contents on her thumb. And I was like, have these videos made this acceptable cos it’s not acceptable to do that? I mean maybe at home, why would anyone want to see their husband’s pus? But with strangers on the internet, I love it.
Ok, so lastly, have you got any advice for anybody who may be reading this and who wants to be a performer or a writer…?
Don’t do it! Ever! We’re crowded enough. Don’t do it if you can do anything else.
Oh, and also, wear a sports bra. Men and women. Especially if you’re a stand-up. Because audiences get distracted by any movement in the chest area and they stop laughing because they’re watching the swing. So wear a sports bra, or a suit of armour.
Abi, it’s been great. Thanks again.
You can find information about Abigail’s Party at the Abigail’s Party Facebook Group