Abi Roberts: In the Kremlin Doing Susan Boyle in Russian for Putin? Watch This Space.
Abi Roberts first rose to fame in a series of sketch shows featured both on the London stage and at the Edinburgh Festival; debuting in the satirical comedy Newsrevue, followed by Bleeding Arts and A Touch of Roberts and Roper, the latter co-written with the British stand-up Matt Roper at Jermyn Street Theatre.
She has taken to the stage on a number of occasions, most notably appearing in a UK tour of Eve Ensler‘s The Vagina Monologues,and the debut of Jonathan Harvey‘s Taking Charlie at the Edinburgh Festival in 2004. She has also toured both the UK and the United States, performing both musical and straight stand-up comedy. In 2008 she recorded her travels in the States, in search of Bette Midler, who Abi has often been compared to. This footage eventually became the film, Beached, winning critical acclaim at more than a few independent film festivals.
Abi is also quite the impressionist, including both musical impersonations (Lady GaGa, Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Cher, Duffy, Susan Boyle and Tina Turner) and spot-on impressions (Mrs Thatcher in her elderly years, Marge Simpson, Gary Barlow, Janet Street Porter and Sarah Millican).
Right now, you can catch here around the UK and she will also be puting in an appearance at this year’s Edinburgh Festival but I’ll leave her to explain all of that before we get down to a good old chat with her:
Before you took to full time stand up you worked in quite a wide array of jobs. I believe that the majority of your previous work was in clothes shops. How was that compared to stand up? I also hear that your experience as a shop assistant rubbed off on your normal daily life, how so?
Yes, I tended to end up working in clothes shops whilst I was ‘resting’. You’re on your feet a lot and dealing with unhappy customers (hecklers) so it’s uncannily similar to stand-up in that respect. It got to the point where I’d worked in so many clothes shops that at home all my hangers started to face in the same direction and if anyone came into my bedroom I said ‘can I help you with anything?’ And one night I said to an ex-boyfriend ‘how would you like to pay for that sir?’ That’s when I decided enough was enough. I’ve actually been asked to write something on exactly this subject for TV. Exciteballs. I don’t even know if that’s a word.
I believe you even worked for the children’s shop, Trotters in London, dressed up as a pig. Sounds like the sort of thing Delboy would have got Rodney to do. At least no one will have recognized you like that, right?
Wow, that was my first job out of university. They knew that I’d done a bit of acting at uni so they asked if I’d like to promote the new shop in an erm.. costume. I thought ‘Yes, this is my big break’. Next minute I was in a giant pink pig’s head, complete with padded body, little waistcoat and checked trousers. I looked like a fat Rupert Bear (if he’d been a bearpig). I had to tap dance outside the shop handing out leaflets and singing ‘Putting on the oink’. One hot August afternoon I took my pig head off and had it under my arm like a spaceman’s helmet. I turned round and came face to face with my ex-boyfriend. And his mother. Perfick.
Before you got into comedy you trained as an actress at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and you even sang as a career for quite some time. You even sing in your comedy gigs now – your Susan Boyle impersonation springs to mind. How has your past experience helped you be the stand up comic you are today?
I was very fortunate to get into RADA and Bristol. I chose Bristol because one of my all time favourite comic actors Gene Wilder is an alumnus. It was also out of London. It gave me some great grounding for the performer’s life I lead now. We had to tour a lot in our first year. Our first tour was The Nativity. I was cast as an angel because I could sing. We had to get up at dawn’s crack and quite often we’d been in the pub the night before. I was so hung-over during one show, I was sick into the Myrrh box. It only just missed the baby Jesus. I’ve always sung as my Dad was a professional guitarist and we grew up with all the best bands. Contrary to popular belief, I am so not a fan of musical theatre. I am a massive fan of Blues, Motown, Soul and great Gospel. To me that is real singing. If God had wanted us to sing through our noses he would have put tiny mouths in our nostrils. I decided to focus on comedy fairly recently and I still use my music knowledge in my set. If I’m doing a pure stand-up club like The Comedy Store I don’t do any music or impressions. But I live in hope as that is how Jim Carrey started out…. Come on!!
What can you tell us about the very first time you got up on stage to do a comedy gig? I believe it was at the Comedy Store in London. That must have been pretty daunting as it’s not exactly a local open mic competition.
You betcha. I had gone along to the famous Gong Show but I was in the audience. I was with a couple of friends and suddenly the compere (the excellent US comic Dave Fulton) asked if anyone from the audience wanted a go. I found my hand going up… and the next thing I know I’m on stage in front of 400 people doing 5 mins. It went by very quickly indeed. I got through the 5 minutes and beat the gong! It was the most amazing feeling in the world. I find that the higher the stakes the better I tend to do. For instance at the end of last year I was supporting Tom Stade and Bob Mills. I was in the middle doing 20 minutes. Now that’s a fucking great sandwich to be in. I’ve since met some great comics. One of the most supportive was Adam Bloom. You never forget the good ones.. you also never forget the dickheads.. it’s only a tiny list at the moment which may one day go into my memoirs. Just kidding. No, that’s the title of my memoirs.
As a ‘female’ comedian I imagine, just as in many celebrity professions, some promoters take it for granted that you’ll do anything to get a gig. Is it true that there is a comic casting couch with a *big fat Santa waiting for female comics to come and sit on his knee and tell him what they want for Christmas? Have you ever been made an indecent proposal?
Oh God yes. The comedy industry is very like the music industry now. I’ve lived a bit so nothing shocks me that much. I’ve been propositioned myself. I told them that even though I gave the best blowjobs my 20/30 minutes of comedy was probably better value for money. As a result I got a well-paid gig out of it. These promoters, who shall remain nameless, only cross the line because some young female act has been desperate to get on.
NB: If you’re really good the only thing you need to get your mouth round is a mic.
* Never trust a man with a beard and a big sack.
Recently on the ITV programme “Show me the Funny” one particular comedian was criticized for being “TOO” pretty to be a stand up? Do you think this is a fair judgment? Why do people think that comediennes have to be ugly to be able to concentrate on the jokes?
Do you know what? I actually agree with this. I mean I don’t think you have to have a face that frightens children and animals but you need to be the kind of woman who doesn’t immediately threaten other women. You must be their best friend as a comedian. You are not there to steal their husband or boyfriend. You can be sexy and feisty but you should appear to be ‘one of the lads’ otherwise you’re fair game for the hecklers. It’s like the playground at school. Remember the pretty little girls in cute little dresses and the boys would chase them. Well, I was the girl with crazy hair who chased the boys wearing my jeans and a t-shirt with Bungle on it. As a ‘female’ comic you absolutely have to defy convention. You have to have similar qualities to a politician. Funnily enough, politics is known as ‘Show business for ugly people’. Don’t get me wrong there’s some damned attractive men and women in comedy but they’re not going to be in Vogue any time soon.
Disclaimer: Having said all that, boyfriends or husbands may still want to sleep with you. It’s tough but someone’s gotta do it.
You studied in Russia. Have you ever done gigs over there? How would you compare Russian comedy to British comedy? I can’t imagine the Russians laughing at Peter Kay’s joke about Garlic Bread! Maybe if he changed it to Vodka Jelly….
I lived in Moscow for a year as part of my studies at university and also studied singing at the Moscow Conservatoire. It was an amazing time. There was a real feeling of change there. I am planning on doing a show all about Russia and doing bits of it in Russian with translation. Both here and in Moscow. Recently Dylan Moran did shows over in St Petersburg in English with simultaneous translation and it didn’t work so well because they have a completely different idea of what is funny. We’re all about the words over here but there is so much more to being universally funny. What about your face and your body? Lee Evans would go down well because he’s physical and larger than life. No other British comic has done shows over there in Russian – so you may see me in the Kremlin doing Susan Boyle in Russian for Putin. Now that’s not a sentence you read every day.
YouTube is becoming a comedian’s best friend lately and you are no exception. You got 18,000 hits on YouTube in just 3 weeks for your “Susan Boyle” and “Celine Dion” speeding car impressions. How much of a role has YouTube played in gaining a wider audience for you?
YouTube has been invaluable, not only for widening my audience (ooh, matron) but also in getting promoters to sit up and take notice of me. It’s like ‘yes, here I am in front of 200 plus people making them laugh a lot for half an hour’. My ‘Celine Dion’ speeding car got me through to the final of The Comedy Store Costa Light Competition at the end of last year. I’d only put it up as a joke but then suddenly it’s getting more hits than all the other comedy videos put together. One of the things that I’ve learned over the last couple of years is that the audience is the only judge that really matters. We forget that they have paid good money to see comedy and our job is to entertain them. If they laugh and clap and leave happier than when they came in… my job is done.
I saw on Facebook the other day that you rejoiced in glee when the Tom Hanks movie “Big” was on TV. If you could go back to your childhood to change something or if you could give your younger self some sound advice what would it be?
I absolutely adore the movie Big.. In fact, most Tom Hanks movies are phenomenally good. My all-time favourite has to be Turner & Hooch. God, that makes me laugh so much. Tom’s physical comedy is second to none… see we’re back to physical comedy again. Ok.. back to the question.. if I could go back in time I would say to my younger self, ‘The great feeling in life is to love and be loved’. Take a minute to look around you every day – life goes really fast. And be thankful for your curly hair’.
I also believe you take second preference to your husband’s video game console as he’s a massive fan of Call of Duty (Modern Warfare 2), Sid Meier’s Civilization V and Napoleon Total War. Does he never try to get you involved in his gaming sessions? What does he do to make up for it? And no, I didn’t mean that way!
I can honestly say I love the fact my husband has his gaming time as it means I can watch whatever I want on TV. We are actually quite gender typical (God, I sound like Germaine Greer) but we do absolutely adore watching Big Bang Theory together. That is by far the best comedy to come out of the US. I actually laughed so much the other night at the miniature Spock episode I snorted Bolognaise sauce out of my nostrils. A nice, sexy image for you. And he more than makes up for it.
So what have you got lined up for the immediate future? Do you have any plans to return to your musical roots at all?
My music will always be there to add to what I do in my comedy. But I am very focused on my comedy career for the next few years and getting to be one of the best I can be in the UK (Abi National) and all over the world (Abi International). See, I’ve got it all covered.
I’ve been invited onto a show at the Edinburgh Fringe from 5th-17th August. It’s a stand-up show hosted by comedy legend and all-round good egg, Paul B. Edwards, called Paul B Edwards’ Last Minute Comedy at the Whistlebinkie’s, South Bridge and Niddry Street), Edinburgh EH1 1LL (PBH Free Fringe Show, Venue 19).
- Monday 6th 7.45pm
- Wednesday 8th 7.45pm
- Friday 10th 7.45pm
- Sunday 12th 7.45pm
- Tuesday 14th 7.45pm
- Thursday 16th 7.45pm
A few quick shot Questions:
Too many to list. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, “Turner and Hooch”, “Jagged Edge” any of the “Back to The Future” trilogy. Not forgetting “Anchorman” and “Blades of Glory”.
Worst Movie you have ever seen:
I love sci-fi normally but the two worst films I have seen EVER are: “Battlefield Earth” and “The Battle Of Los Angeles”. Terrible dialogue and acting in both.
What are you reading at the moment:
“My Life” – Tony Curtis’ last autobiography.
What songs are you listening to at the moment?:
Being an ex muso means I listen to EVERYTHING. On the player at the mo: Carole King, Tim Buckley, Bruno Mars, Ian Brown, Kula Shaker, Weller, Morrissey, Ray Charles, Curtis Mayfield, AC-DC, The Shamen. Most of all, Aretha Franklin.
My other half likes CODMW, Men At War and MoH, but I really like him playing the Total War ones because the music in them is stunning and frequently I have to listen to it. To play? I’m afraid I still like Tetris. It’s a Russian thing.
Which rising comedian would you like to see more of?
Spencer Brown. He really makes me laugh, which as a comedian is a tall order and Paul Chowdry who is a comic genius of the first order and just has funny bones. Ones you won’t have heard of maybe…yet … Norwegian comic, Daniel Simonsen, who just is naturally funny and someone you warm to as soon as he is onstage. I was MC’ing at a club called Monkey Business earlier this year when I first saw him and he bowled me over. Mark my words – you heard it first on PPSF – we are going to hear a lot more about him over the next year. Also (a shameless plug, I know), if you’re in Edinburgh for the Comedy Festival, come see me. I’m with Paul B. Edwards’ Show (top bloke and a fabulously funny comic) called Lastminute Comedy at Whistlebinkies on Niddry from 5th to the 17th August. It’s a cool funky venue and I’m very grateful for being invited to do it. Or if you want to catch me live around the UK, check out the “Gigs” section on my website.
5 Useless Facts about Abi:
- Abi speaks Russian, Italian, French, a little Norsk, Danish and Klingon. She wants to learn Mandarin. Having a Geordie hubbie means that she is also learning Geordie.
- The house Abi grew up in was once used as a set for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – the original one with Alec Guinness.
- Abi once sang for President Gorbachev. In Russian.
- Abi hates the very idea of burlesque, the sound of ukeleles and the stench of Weimar Cabaret.
- Abi starred in a film called The Good Ship Citizen with Vic Reeves for the Millennium Dome, but for some inexplicable reason, it was never aired. In fact no-one has ever seen it, probably because, as word has it, the film was considered “off message” and Tony Blair didn’t like the sentiments in it. If any one has a copy of it, let Abi know!
Abi will also be guesting at various other shows at the fringe including Funny Women at Bosco, Assembly Rooms (2pm-3pm) and also Spank! At the Underbelly (late show).
For further details about Abi and her upcoming gigs please check out the links below: