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Having The Last Laugh: An Interview with Susan Calman


If laughter is indeed the best medicine, then Scottish comedian, actress and writer Susan Calman should be designated GP. Having imbued her diverse and far-reaching career with promoting mental health awareness via her own personal experience, Calman talks to Brian Coney about process, profile and positivity ahead of appearing at Belfast’s the MAC on February 5 (tickets and full info here).

Hi, Susan. You’re setting off on a string of tour dates in February. How are you feeling about the shows? And tell us more about this particular show, The Calman Before The Storm.

I’m really looking forward to getting out on the road with the show. I love doing radio and TV but nothing beats performing in front of a live audience. It’s my tenth anniversary of becoming a stand-up and the show is all about the expectations that people might have of me before they come to the shows. It’s a fun thing to be able to play with the stereotype of a Radio 4 comedian, or a feminist, or a Scottish person!

Do you like the whole process of travelling around, staying in hotels, etc.? Is there reward to be found in the monotony, or is it a case of focusing on the positives?

The only thing that I dislike about touring is being away from home and staying in budget hotels! I have woken up in the middle of the night in a panic not knowing where I am! It’s important to stay positive and focus on the fact that at some point I’ll get to go back to my house and my cats!

You used to be a corporate lawyer and have worked in Death Row in the States and the United Nations in Geneva. To what extent do you think that life, and those experiences, moulded or informed your desire to professionally make people laugh?

There isn’t a direct correlation between what I used to do and my job now but I think that elements of my past life do help. For a start I turn up to things on time and treat comedy seriously! I think if I’d started in the business when I was younger I would just have got caught up in the social aspects of the circuit. Because I had a “proper” job I get up early every morning and work hard. And fundamentally I think having a broad world view helps when I’m writing stand up. It’s good to consider the bigger picture.

Published in May last year, Cheer Up Love is a book born from – if not inspired by your own depression. But what spurred you on to take the next step – when was the moment you thought, “I have a way of helping people here…”?

I wrote one of the episodes of my radio 4 show about the fact that I have depression and the response was so overwhelming that when my lovely publishers approached me and asked if I had any ideas for a book it was the first thing that I thought of. It’s clear that many people suffer with the same condition and starting to discuss it openly can only be positive.

I’ve read several reviews of the book, all of which commend how you tackle the subject – “warmth” and “intelligence” were two descriptors that regularly stuck out. What did you hope to achieve with the book?

I had a few aims. I wanted to start people talking, I wanted to show people that you can live with depression and still be positive and I wanted to give people with depression a book that they could give to their spouses or friends or colleagues to help them explain how they felt. Depression is a tricky thing in that everyone suffers through it in a different way, Cheer Up Love might help. I hope it does anyway!

Without having read it (yet), the synopsis – particularly calling your own personal black dog your “crab of hate” – had me amused. At the root of it, do you believe “ownership” of one’s condition, whether talking about it, through re-defining the universal “pet” name or otherwise, is important?

It certainly helped me. Although the main point in the book is that no one can tell anyone how to cope with their own head. All I try to do is say what had helped me.

You’ve been very busy recently filming for various shows including Pointless Celebrities, Countryfile and your usual slot on The News Quiz. What drives and inspires you to keep busy and to build your profile beyond the stage and comedy-specific platforms?

I’ve always loved presenting shows and I’m delighted that I’m getting a chance to do more of that. In the next couple of weeks I’m filming a new daytime BBC One quiz show called The Boss which is very exciting. Comedy is fantastic but it’s important to work in lots of different genres, and I’m lucky to be doing that a lot recently.

What kind of things have made an imprint on your current material? And how do you generally go about writing?

I take inspiration from things that have happened to me over the past couple of years or news stories that have piqued my interest. Around September of any year I start thinking about themes of a news show, then I do a preview tour to get the material ready. I don’t write it down as such, rather I try it out on stage to see if it works. It’s also how I get the material into my head! There are a lot of words to remember over 2 hours.

So many people, myself included, find it difficult to unwind. Your BBC Radio 4 show, Keep Calman Carry On, finds you attempting pursuits your friends find relaxing. With it in mind, have you learned that moving from without your comfort zone is important for anyone wanting to de-stress?

I am very fixed in my ways and I have to force myself to make changes or jump from my comfort zone. It’s important though because life is full of unexpected challenges and I have to be ready for them! My wife is amazing at helping me do things differently, she knows that if I had the chance I’d stay in my pajamas in my house for the rest of my life!

While a little perhaps exhausted at this point, “laughter is the best medicine” is a phrase that certainly rings true more than most. If you would distil the over-arching ethos of your show, book, radio show and guest experiences, to just a few lines of advice for those who might seek some escape or help via comedy, humour or laughter, what would that be?

Every morning I wake up making a choice to be positive. Sometimes it’s difficult to maintain optimism but I try to. Kindness and empathy towards others, the desire to change the world for the better, laughing until it’s sore. These are all the things that I try to incorporate into my life.

is the editor of The Thin Air. Talk to him about Philip Glass and/or follow him on Twitter @brianconey.