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Jessica Fostekew “I’m a chaos lady”

Comedian Jessica Fostekew talks to Now Then ahead of her Leadmill gig about why "storytelling is one of the most powerful things we've got". 

A smiling woman has metallic paint across her face.

Jessica Fostekew

Matt Stronge

Jessica Fostekew has a new comedy show coming to Sheffield, and when we heard it was full of passion, pace and purpose, we knew we had to talk to her.

What resulted was a conversation with refreshing honesty and thoughtfulness about purpose, community, and the evolving role of comedy and storytelling in this chaotic world.

So, congrats on the new show. It's about passion, pace and purpose, which is intriguing. What I'd like to talk to you about is the purpose bit in particular, have you always been someone with a very clear purpose?

Absolutely not, no! What a lovely question. And what a quick and simple answer: no way.

I am chaos. I'm a chaos lady. And I need it. I'm thrilled by stress and unpredictability. And actually, the older I get, the more I’m aware of that and the more pronounced that feels.

I've just turned 40. I think I'm meant to have settled. I have got a very settled life. I'm in a relationship. I've got a kid, I live in a house. These things are all pretty stable.

But my actual mind and heart are chaos. And every time I try and introduce, for my sanity, some kind of regularity into my life, I feel driven to destroy that and bring the chaos back in.

And yeah, the show is about purpose. It's about trying really hard. I think that's gone out of fashion a bit and I think social media is entirely to blame. We are individualistic, and we've all got a brand, and we fake it til we make it.

It's taken me 40 years to realise I am nothing without the constituent parts of the rest of the universe. I'm so dependent on everyone else around me. I only exist within the context of my community and in all the communities that I'm part of – online or physically.

I'm suddenly desperate to be present in the world. I've done all these decades of working out who I am and doing all these shows about identity.

And now I've worked out who I am, I want to talk about what the hell is going on out there.

And that's where the purpose comes in. I know it's not cool to obviously be trying very hard. But I don't care.

I want to make it fashionable again to put some grind in, to work really hard. How much better things feel when you have earned them is worth it. Even if you don't get them, enjoy the trying.

I think that way happiness lies. It's selfish in that sense as well. But also, there are so many big things that we can only fix if we're all in them together.

Do you have a gut instinct about what your principles are? Or is it something you have to give a lot of thought to? Are you instinctual or is it something you're quite intellectual about?

I don't trust my instincts. I've learned not to trust them. I did a brilliant A-Level called Philosophy, Religion and Ethics.

Everyone should have to do it because actually it was about disconnecting from your instinct, realising someone else might have an opposing opinion to you, but that doesn't make them evil. It doesn't make them wrong.

You might even be wrong. Woah!

A woman with muscular arm stares at the camera while opening a jar of jam. She has metallic paint across her face.

Jess Fostekew

Matt Stronge

And I remember the teacher straight away just going, “Let's hear what you think about capital punishment.”

I was well into it. And then maybe 20 minutes of listening later, I was like, “Okey dokey. Yeah, I'd never actually considered it from the point of view of the person that was about to perish. I'd never thought about it from the point of view of what that says, as a society. I'd never thought about it beyond the instinctive reaction.”

And so from that day forth I've tried – most of the time, it's sometimes really hard – to question my instinctive reaction and then pick it to pieces and see where that leaves you.

I quite often can't finish an opinion on something. And I think that's fine.

You mentioned community and the importance of community when thinking about purpose. How do you get people on board?

Oh, such a good question. I think part of being a comedian is being at least a bit persuasive.

How do you get people on board? There's a lot you can't control. And it's not my number one goal.

To be clear, my number one goal is to make you laugh out loud for an hour. If I end up with you on board with any of my opinions, that's a bonus.

But saying that, I do think in terms of taking action, to make people aware of things, especially things that they might be doing that they need to stop doing or change their behaviour, storytelling is one of the most powerful things we've got.

I find it much easier to do stand-up about something than have a one-to-one conversation with someone. It’s far less personal, it’s going to hopefully incite a bit less of an instinctive defensive mechanism. And I try and make sure my comedy is as self-deprecating as possible. So telling stories, being honest about my own failings.

Hopefully, they're the ways in which I am persuasive, if I am.

And being funny. If you can be funny, I think that gives you some power, maybe.

With this show, I talk about a couple of things where I know there are going to be some audience members that disagree with me.

I'm doing it on purpose, because I want us to get more comfortable being uncomfortable. I want people to be able to laugh at things even if they're like, “Well, we're not voting for the same people!”

Stand-up has changed from, say, 20 years ago. There is more of an expectation now of a story or a purpose or a message, isn't there? Does that feel pressurising from your point of view? Do you feel like it has got to be in service of something?

There is a pressure to do that, yeah. And I think once you've done it once, you are then beholden to at least give a bit of yourself to each show.

But you're opting in! I had this conversation before I started building this show, because loads of comedians opt out of that. No one knows or cares what Rob Beckett or Sarah Millican’s politics are and it doesn't make them less of a comedian. Sarah is seriously iconic, like, I think one of the greatest comedians of all time, so it's not a necessity.

It's a pressure that I've unfortunately entirely put on myself. It is knackering. And I might one day just do a show called Jokes in a Row, where you learn absolutely nothing about me as a human.

Yeah, bring on that lovely day.

So you're coming to the Leadmill in June. What can people expect if they come along?

A high-energy hour of laughing out loud. A couple of bits they might disagree with, but I think we're all going to be fine.

I'm on a bit of a mission with this show. I've been doing stand-up for 16 years. And when I started, it was very fashionable to have a sad bit.

I am going to start a new genre of comedy – I want brand-new comedians copying this – I want it to become normal for there to be an angry bit.

I am here for this.

I'm really championing the angry bit with this new show. Hopefully never in a genuinely frightening way. But there are bits where I get really impassioned, and this show’s absolutely rammed with that.

It's the first show I've ever done where I haven't preceded it with an Edinburgh Fringe. If you tour a show that you've already done at least once a day for a month, you come away with quite a muscular show. But it’s also quite scripted, something that you're quite tied to in terms of structure and tone and rhythm.

But I haven't had that this time, for the first time ever. I am coming in fresh with all my chaos. And I want to try and leave that in this show as far into this tour as possible, because it brings me great joy, and it makes me very present in the show and in the room.

So that's new, and that's exciting.

And I'm ready. It's made. It's made me the most excited I've ever been to take a show on the road because I really don't know what's going to happen.

This interview was edited for length.

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