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Rachel Parris “There are so many things to rail against in the country at the moment“: Rachel Parris on comedy, politics and changing minds

Comedian Rachel Parris is coming to The Leadmill in June with observational and political songs and stand-up.

A woman with blonde hair, wearing a bright pink top, looks directly at the camera.

Rachel Parris

Karla Gowlett

Rachel Parris came to the public eye when her segments on The Mash Report went repeatedly viral, but the comedian already had a fan base for her stand-up and musical comedy before it reached our screens.

Ahead of her Sheffield show, she spoke to Now Then about the role of comedy in changing minds and altering perspectives – while speculating on the outcome of the next General Election.

Congrats on the new tour. How is it going so far?

Good. I'm getting ready at the moment doing work-in-progress gigs, checking all the jokes work, writing songs, and then it kicks off in mid-April.

A lot of people enjoy political satire, we can see that from viewing figures. Do you think it also has the power to change minds?

That's a good question. Here's what I think it does have the power to do: I think it's cathartic for people. I think it's very therapeutic.

I think that's not changing minds. It's when people are feeling like screaming about a particular issue and they want to find a release for that anger. Actually laughing at someone talking about it can be a really nice way of dealing with your worry or frustration.

I think occasionally it can change minds. But I think at the moment, in the last 10 years, changing minds in politics is a really, really hard job.

People are very entrenched, including myself. But yeah, I think occasionally it can.

But more than anything else, often you can make a point about things that people don't disagree on. For example, I've done a piece on violence against women and girls. No one thinks that that's a good thing.

So you can find comedy and make interesting points about the need for the Met Police to do more and for the government to do more, and where to put the blame and where to lay the responsibility for those incidents.

And that can be done through comedy. But there's no need to change minds because everyone thinks that's a bad thing.

From your point of view, is it cathartic as well? Is it cathartic for the person performing it?

Yeah, a little bit, perhaps.

I've noticed I can write a really nicely crafted joke about Tory policy, but then I'll get a much bigger reaction sometimes when I'm live or on The Mash Report if I just call a politician a name.

And I think that speaks to what people's appetites are at the moment in terms of politics. There's so much anger out there.

So actually, yes, they want comedy, but it makes you sometimes feel a bit dirty as a comedian and I try not to do that. I try not to give them that because that's not comedy. That's only catharsis. That's not jokes.

So I try to be quite disciplined with myself and be like, don't just take the yummy crumbs of enthusiasm from people wanting to slag off the Tories. I try to actually make sure I craft it into a joke.

This is relating hard as a journalist.

Yeah, I can imagine.

The misogyny segment that you mentioned, I thought that was beautifully crafted, and something you did that was very clever was when you were talking about the suggestion that women should download an app to track our movements to keep us safe, you presented the absurdity of that to people when, if you’d argued with them, they might not have listened.

So even if you're not changing minds, do you think you sometimes get your perspective over because of it being presented as comedy?

Yeah, absolutely. I think that's it.

It's not necessarily wholesale changing someone's opinion. But it's much easier to get someone to listen to you.

And like you say, it's about reframing the point.

Even from my point of view, working with Geoff Norcott on the show, who I think is a very, very funny and very intelligent man. I don't think he would even vote Conservative anymore, actually, but I think that he used to.

He has different viewpoints to me on some things, but when he came on the show and did a funny bit about it, you listened. And you were like, “Oh, actually, that is a bit true. And I see what you mean.”

Because he's funny, and it's worked on me. So it must be possible.

There's something quite disarming about your comedy, because the way you present yourself is quite sweet and gentle. And then you can say things that people might not expect you to say because of that presentation. Is that deliberate?

Yeah, it is deliberate. It's a really complicated situation I got myself into.

I auditioned for The Mash Report as a comic actress. I was a comedian, but my role on that was as a comic actress. So the first few weeks of the series were very much in character. One character was called Rachel Parris, but it was a social media wall presenter.

A woman wearing a mid-length green dress poses and looks at the camera.

Rachel Parris

Karla Gowlett

And then after a few weeks, things changed. They invited me to start writing on the show and we did more serious issues like the sexual harassment one, and it started moulding into a mixture of the character and myself.

So that was quite a complicated line to tread but I will say, the sweetness and the trying to get away with saying things by being smiley and sweet, yes, that was deliberate at the start, and it continues to be deliberate. It is a useful tool to use.

Having shouty voices and quiet sweet voices hits different people in different ways, doesn't it?

Yeah. And it worked well with Nish Kumar. Because Nish was so passionate and often livid about what was going on. And the contrast between his very forthright fury, and my fury that’s under this veneer of smiling calmness, made for a good contrast.

I'm interested in the impact it has on you as a person. Do you feel there's a responsibility on you now, an expectation that you take on these big issues and do something clever with them? Does it take a personal toll?

I now try to limit what I get active about. Because while I was working on The Mash Report, you cover such a huge range of topics and there are so many things to rail against in the country at the moment.

But I find trying to maintain friendships and family and a relationship and kids, I can't do all of that. So I make an active decision of the things that I'm going to work on.

And violence against women and girls is one of the ones that I continue to try and be active in.

In terms of being a spokesperson for certain political attitudes, I try to shy away from that these days. I did it for the show. But in terms of going, ‘These are my opinions,’ I don't think I can keep that up for the rest of my life, not least because I do think most issues are nuanced.

And there often isn't, on social media, room to show what your view is in a nuanced way. Things have to be seven or 10 seconds now.

So yeah, I would do it for The Mash Report, I would do it in a longer-form show. But I don't miss the responsibility that carried.

You also incorporate music into your comedy. Do you find that that attracts a different crowd than if you're doing just speech?

I had an audience before I did The Mash Report. It was smaller, but I had an audience. And there was a political vibe to my shows then, but not as much heavy politics.

But then I did The Mash Report. And in the years since then, quite a lot of my audience come to the show expecting it to be very political all the way through.

But what I've found is that they are pretty happy to find out that it's a bit more varied than they were expecting. So they come for a political diatribe and they get me singing ‘Candle in the Wind’, but it's about Liz Truss, which is in the new show.

The material is not just about politics. It's about much more run-of-the-mill everyday stuff, quite relatable observational comedy.

I find it as long as it's funny and it's still in my voice, then I think they're happy. I don't know that they know what they're choosing. But I haven't seen anyone run out of the theatre.

And are the pre-Mash fans still coming as well?

Yeah. So that's good. Hopefully they're all joining together and making friends.

I don't fully expect a serious answer to this but… Are the Tories going to win the General Election? Can comedy do anything to stop it?

I don't think they've got a chance, have they?! I don't want to jinx it by saying that, but I don't think so.

I feel like we – I’m saying we, you know, people who want Labour to get in – we’ve had so many elections where we keep having hope. And then the Tories get in. We keep having hope, maybe this time! And the Tories get in.

But it feels like surely this is the one. Going on all the by-election results, it looks like they're going to get trounced. Have you seen they've lost the over 65s? They've lost the countryside voters. They've really fucked it.

So, I think that the main job of comedians is going to be to not be too smug.

You're coming to The Leadmill in June. What can people expect?

They can expect a show that has a lot of variety. It's got a bit of politics, it's got a bit of song, it's got a bit of stand-up.

A lot of it is about people's expectations. What do people expect a comedian to look like? To feel like?

I've been accused of having poise. And I've been accused of not seeming like a comedian and not appearing like a comedian, which makes me go, what do you think a comedian looks like?

Hand in hand with that, a few years ago, I did a show called Best Laid Plans that was about not having a house and a marriage and kids and a pet and all that kind of thing. And I now have a house, kids and stepkids, and I never thought I would have those things.

The show's looking, in a funny way, at what it’s like when your life changes wholesale. And looking at all those things in a funny way.

This interview has been edited for length

Learn more

Rachel Parris will perform Poise at The Leadmill on 12 June at 6.30pm. Her new podcast with husband Marcus Brigstocke launches in March. It's called How Was It For You?

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