Zoe Lyons: interview

Posted: Tue Mar 23 2010

The award-winning Zoe Lyons tells Time Out about being singled out by Germaine Greer, being voted the country's eighty-first most influential gay and why she was flown 12,000 miles for eight minutes of work.

Zoe Lyons is one of the most accomplished performers currently working on the British comedy circuit. Her combination of sharp, biting, well-crafted jokes and hugely likeable personality have won her many fans as well as the Nivea Funny Women Award and a nomination for the if.comedy
Best Newcomer in 2007. She also won the Dave award for Funniest Joke of the Fringe in 2008 for a quip she made about Amy Winehouse, but not everyone saw the funny side.

We understand your joke about Ms Winehouse provoked some controversy.
'Well, one person in particular - Germaine Greer. It was quite odd being slagged off by her of all people. She described myself and Joan Rivers as “having the potential to be astonishingly vicious”, which I thought was brilliant actually. I'd made it. Having my name in the same sentence as Joan Rivers! It gave me a real bounce to my stride and a newfound sense of purpose.'

What was the gag?
'It was: “Amy Winehouse - I find her so irritating, I don't know why that woman has to self-harm. I can't believe she can't find someone to do it for her!” And the tagline that I added was: “It's a joke, self-harm isn't funny. It's just a joke and I for one am not going to beat myself up about it.” Which is the quote I gave the press when they asked me about the whole debacle.'

Do you think it was 'vicious'?
'No, it's not. Germaine said it was a joke that she thought most women would find extremely unfunny. “Women” would find it extremely unfunny? That's just not true and it's an incredibly patronising thing to say. I actually don't think I'm a vicious comedian at all. I mean, I'm a bit wrong at times, but not vicious-vicious.

It angered me, because if a woman takes the piss out of another woman she's just being a bitch. How dare she! Does she not know how vulnerable we are? But if a man takes the mick out of another guy he's just “being a bloke”. It's a very narrow-minded view. Would it be the same if I made fun of Sarah Palin? Would that be bitchy or satirical? It's actually a slightly misogynistic view. What are we going to be doing tomorrow, crying into our hankies? I thought we'd moved on a little from that kind of view of women.'

Was this the inspiration for your show, 'Miss Machismo'?
'Partly, yes. Also in the same year I got voted the eighty-first most influential gay in Britain. And that was another moment where I went: “You're joking!” I literally spat my coffee out. The two things came together so I thought I'd write a show about having a bit of a swagger. And then, like most shows, you start off with a kernel of an idea and you end up talking about gay penguins and the Pope.'

Of course! So are you the eighty-first most influential gay in Britain?
'Apparently! It's funny because my material's so non-gender-specific. I occasionally mention it when I take the piss out of myself, but I'm not a “lesbian” comedian. Although some people still think of me like that. I did a radio interview the other day and the woman asked me: “So, when are you going to lose the 'lesbian comedian' tag?” I replied, “That's not a tag I put on myself, it's lazy journalists who say that, my dear.”

Though it's not always journos who say silly things, I do still get some peculiar comments from people in the audience, even the women. One came up to me after a gig and said, “I had no idea women could be funny.” I just wanted to take off my shoe and beat her over the head.'

Why do you think that outdated misconception still exists?
'I haven't focused on it that much, because it doesn't really bother me. But I think it probably goes back to the old tradition of blokes sitting in pubs telling each other jokes. Men told jokes and ladies gossiped. But that's all nonsense. Like I said, it's not something I really focus on. I'm not a flag waver of any kind. I just enjoy going out there and making people laugh. I think if you can't hack it don't do it.

I'm quite a sensitive person, but you've got to put your head down and get on with it. I just feel really lucky that this is my job and it's given me some amazing opportunities. Last year, for instance, I got flown to New Zealand to do a Christmas gala for telly. I got there and said, “How long do you want me to do?” and they said, “About seven minutes.” Wow. Seven minutes of material took me 12,000 miles. That's amazing. I did eight.'

But you started stand-up relatively late in life…
'That's because I was a world-class procrastinator. I fannied about for a lot of my life to a point where I had taken it to an Olympic level. I am one of life's plodders. In the story of the tortoise and the hare, I'm holding the towels. I'm properly ploddy and things take a long time to become clear in my head. Because of this ploddiness it took me a while to get round to it, even though
it was something I'd always wanted to try. Now I'd like to get to a point where I could do a reasonably big tour and be recognised as a very good stand-up - that's the dream, anyway. That's what I want - but it might take a while.'

Zoe Lyons' 'Miss Machismo' is on at the Bloomsbury Theatre, Apr 8.