Josie Long: For the first time ever in my life I am talking live on stage about sex!
She may be more used to discussing politics, but Belfast-bound comedian Josie Long isn't afraid to tackle some rather, er, saucier subjects ... even in front of her boyfriend's mum.
Not long ago, Josie Long did something that would make many comedians quake with fear. She performed her new show, which deals in intimate detail with the end of her relationship with her ex, while her current boyfriend of a year, Simon, was in the audience. With his mum and her partner.
"It was really tricky," she says. "I feel very comfortable with mucking around and going, '(my boyfriend) is in tonight, he could be any one of you!' - I enjoy that. But with his mum I felt like, 'Oh god, this is so awful!'."
But, come the end of the show, what did Simon's mum think? "I was so worried, I was thinking it was going to be so awkward forever if she hated it. But no, she was so nice about it. Thank god!"
Long has done plenty with her 32 years. Oxford graduate, radio presenter, scriptwriter, fanzine editor and, since 2005, professional stand-up. Above all of that she is possibly best known for her stridently left-wing political views, which have dominated her last three shows. From questionable wars to bankers' bonuses, public sector cuts to politicians' expenses, the last decade has been a fertile time for comedians eager to get angry on stage. But last year Long decided it was time for a change and her intensely personal new show, Cara Josephine, is the result.
"I still care really passionately about politics, but I felt like I didn't have anything new to say about it at the moment," she says. "I'd had all these experiences of emotions and relationships, and I really wanted to talk about that for a bit."
The new show, which comes to the MAC in Belfast on March 27, picks over the bones of the aforementioned traumatic break-up, as well as delving into Long's childhood and her relationship with her family - the show is named after her niece. Having spent so much time talking politics and current affairs on stage, it required a lot of soul-searching - how much of her private life and emotions was she willing to open up to rooms full of strangers?
"It's been a really interesting and weird and vulnerable process," she says. "How much do you share? What's too much, what's not enough? You don't want to feel like the crowd know everything about you, because you don't know anything about them.
"Also, talking about people I've been out with, I don't want to be slagging people off who can't defend themselves. It was a really unusual process for me. With politics I was really clear and strong about how I felt about these things, and this is so much more of a nuanced exploration - 'This is why I think I did this' and 'This is what I think I feel about this'. And trying to find humour out of things that were really hard and sad has been really interesting. It's been quite cathartic but it's also meant that I've carried things around for a long time, thinking about them. So I've definitely examined my childhood and my relationships in a lot of detail that maybe otherwise I might have left alone."
Long is a far cry from warts-and-all comedians like Sarah Millican or Katherine Ryan, as her act has never before ventured into the bedroom. But now that it does, she sounds almost giddy about it.
"For the first time in my life I'm talking on stage about SEX!" she exclaims. "It feels so bizarre to admit that part of my life on stage. I'm proud of the show because it is very honest. I talk very openly about what I've been through. It does feel weird but I quite like it too because I think when people enjoy it they really do appreciate the fact that I have been true to what happened and shared my experiences, so if they identify with it they know it comes from a genuine place."
We know that new boyfriend Simon has seen the show, but what about Long's ex? Any communication from his end? "He hasn't seen it and I don't imagine he will," she says. "It's funny, when I first started writing the show, I was so angry at him, but now I think we've both made peace with it and it's all fine, really. He's probably a bit annoyed, but he's a songwriter in a band, so a part of me thinks, 'Oh well, he'll probably write bitchy songs about how he doesn't like me'. I think if he saw it he wouldn't be that impressed, but at the same time it's not that mean. I think when you're writing about other people, you're really only writing about yourself."
And surely if you date a comedian or a songwriter, there's an implicit contract that you're probably going to get written about at some point. In this case, it worked both ways. "Absolutely, and I did not fully appreciate that when I started going out with him," says Long. "Comedians are just the worst. Especially when you're trying to write a show, you're trying to steal from everything in your life for material."
A review of one of Josie Long's shows is rarely complete without words like "optimist", "joyous" and "generous of spirit". She seems to have a childlike zeal for life that, even down the phone, is infectious. So is that the real Josie? "I definitely am an optimist and I can't really help that," she says. "I find that, even if I feel absolutely at my worst, there's a part of me that kicks in and can't help but be hopeful and excited for the future. It's lucky with stand-up because you can really work hard on your show to make it work and be a good thing. In real life, I don't think I'm as good as that by any means. I'm just some shambling idiot. But I would much rather write stand-up that feels generous and warm than stand-up that's just cynical and mean. There's enough of that."
And, given the topics she deals with on stage, the political injustices and the personal heartache, is it hard to stay positive? "I think it is initially, but what's so good about making it into a comedy show is that there's laughs and fun and silliness," she says. "Actually, it is quite cathartic to have spoken about it. So all of the bad feeling comes through it and then you focus on the fun and the silliness and on the future. I do tend to end shows that I write with something about what's next.
"Sometimes it is really difficult to be optimistic about what's going on because, politically, things can be so bad, and when things happen to you personally that are just bad, but you don't have to be completely optimistic about everything. You don't have to pretend everything's great. You just have to try and keep going. That's optimistic enough, I think."
Don't think for one second that Long is finished with politics, or that she doesn't care any more. She's at her most animated when talking about the one political issue that has gladdened the hearts of left-wingers everywhere - the recent victory of the anti-austerity Syriza party in Greece. Predictably, Long is bubbling over with thoughts on the matter.
"I am so happy about it," she beams. "It's funny because already, friends of mine on the hard left have been like, 'They're not left-wing enough', but I'm just so happy that someone is openly challenging the austerity narrative because it is a lie and it is disastrous and it is only helping the richest people. Anything other than that is not accurate. It's so nice for me to have people who have been elected who are like, 'Right! This is a lie. This isn't good enough. We need to change. There are alternatives'.
"I think they've got a very daunting task ahead of them because so many people with power and money are against them. Who knows how successful they are going to be allowed to be? But at the same time, the fact that they've already been like, 'Right, no more that! Change that! Do that!' - it's brilliant, so heartening."
And while the chances of anything similar happening in the UK appear to most observers to be slim to non-existent, this arch-optimist is keeping her glass well and truly half-full. "I don't think there's a cause for despair," she argues. "Look at the Green surge. Look at the Scottish referendum. Admittedly it didn't go the way that I would have wanted, and all my friends up there would have wanted, but it showed that people want to start grassroots things and they want change.
"There's always more going on than you think and it's very inspiring. There are some times when I've got depressed about a political issue and then you find that there's a whole campaign of people working on it to try and fight it.
"You're never alone. There's always other people. And sometimes those people are brilliant."
Josie Long plays the MAC, Belfast, on Friday, March 27. For further details, visit www.themaclive.com
Leading ladies of laughter ...
Other female stand-up stars giving the boys a run for their money right now include:
- Sarah Millican - the accent is unmistakeable, the laugh is infectious, and Sarah Millican's everywoman brand of observational comedy has made her a star. And yet it wasn't until she went through a divorce 11 years ago that she decided to take it up
- Katherine Ryan - Canadian-born but based in London, Ryan's humour is bone-dry, which has endeared herself to British audiences and made her a panel show regular. Before taking up comedy, she worked as a waitress in restaurant chain Hooters
- Sarah Pascoe - another latecomer to stand-up, the Essex comedian took up the trade in 2007, initially as a hobby, and insists that she would much rather be a stage actress or a writer than reappear on Live At The Apollo. TV producers and comedy fans, however, seem to have other ideas
- Shappi Khorsandi - like Omid Djalili, Khorsandi is of Iranian parentage. Unlike him, she was actually born in Iran - her family was forced to leave during the revolution because of a satirical poem her father had written. Khorsandi has become a regular on our TV screens, including a slightly bemused appearance on BBC NI's The Blame Game last year