She might be best known for her self-titled TV sketch show and for a stint on Doctor Who, but live performance is central to Catherine Tate’s comedy.
She trained as an actor at the Central School of Speech and Drama, and had performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre before she became a TV star. So when Tate finally got her own show in 2004 (featuring some characters developed in an Edinburgh Fringe show), she scheduled some live shows to trial her material. She’s been using audiences as sounding boards for her TV material ever since.
“When I tape new shows or specials, I always put an audience in for the camera run so you can test stuff,” she says. “You don’t want to be finding out if something’s funny first with the audience you’re recording with.”
In 2016, Tate returned to her live sketch roots, with a theatrical version of her TV show, with entirely new sketches featuring the old characters her fans know and love: Joannie ‘Nan’ Taylor, Irish nurse Bernie, the definitely not gay Derek and even Lauren ‘Am I Bovvered?’ Cooper.
While she had hours in make-up to transform from character to character on a TV set, on stage she has mere minutes to change costumes, makeup and wigs, assisted by a team of quick-change experts.
“I just stand there backstage and have people just do stuff to me, and as I’m running on stage I’m going, ‘Who is this? What’s the next character?’”
Tate will make her live Australian debut with the show in November. She says it came as a pleasant surprise to learn that she had a devoted local audience, many of whom had discovered her show through YouTube.
“You’ve got no idea where the show is going out or anything like that,” she says. “When the promoter said ‘Do you want to tour Australia and New Zealand?’ I said ‘Well, I don’t know. Is that a good idea? Will anyone come? Does anyone know who I am there?’”
Tate is certainly well known at home in the UK, and a decade after the sketch show went off the air still has strangers repeat her character’s catchphrases back to her. None of those phrases was ever even intended to endure.
“I don’t think you can sit down and write a catchphrase,” she says. “It’s too arch a thing to try and do, because it’s the audience that makes something popular. I didn’t realise that anybody would repeat anything I was saying or even remember it.”
Tate says she felt immediately at home when she returned to her sketch characters (and their catchphrases) in 2016. They made her a star, and were all developed through observing the people she met. But Tate says she has never really turned that observational eye upon herself.
“There really isn’t a character that I’ve modelled on myself, but then maybe I’m too vain to admit it… I probably was Lauren and at some point will turn into Nan.”
The acid-tongued Nan is Tate’s favourite character to play for two reasons: she gets a huge response from the audience and is allowed to be as outrageous as she wants, partly because of her age. Not that Tate speaks through any character: “Nan’s views do not necessarily reflect my own,” she says.
But Tate’s comedy can be particularly provocative, and she’s had no shortage of complaints over Nan’s foul-mouthed tirades, and earlier this year attracted criticism for a joke she made while hosting the Olivier Awards. She says the world of comedy has changed significantly since her TV show debuted, in part because audiences can make their responses known immediately online.
“I think definitely the prism through which we see stuff has changed, and that’s a good thing. But what I would hope doesn’t happen is that we all stop laughing or find a reason that we mustn’t laugh.
“You can’t think ‘I won’t do what I want to do in case someone from Reddit doesn’t like it and makes it known.’”
Tate’s comedy often pokes fun at stifling social structures by exposing a character’s hypocrisy or insecurity, whether that’s Lauren’s defensiveness to any confrontation, Derek’s terror that he’ll be seen as gay, or the absolute cruelty underlying any moment of Nan’s sweetness. Tate says she never set out to make a show with any kind of overarching theme, even though she can see connections between the sketches.
“Maybe it’s all some happy coincidence if it’s got some nice meaning, but it was never meant to be that. I certainly didn’t try to do anything other than make people laugh.
“I find the awkward funny, the difficult funny, and I also find the rude funny. And the only thing any performer can do is put yourself out there and hope it finds an audience – and I hope it continues to.”
The Catherine Tate Show Live is at the State Theatre from November 24 to 26.