British stand-up comedian Zoe Lyons, fresh out of Edinburgh Fringe, will begin touring the UK with her new show Entry Level Human. The University of York alumnus and regular on Mock the Week and Live at The Apollo describes her new show as a piece to explore her fears for humanity. She sat down with Deputy Muse Editor Andy Young to talk about her time at York, her new tour, and women in comedy.
Zoe was at York from 1989 to 1992. “I studied Psychology, but I’ll be honest, I wasn’t the most academic,” she said, “I turned up for tutorials but largely because it was warmer in those rooms than it was in my appalling student rented accommodation. I spent most of my time joining ridiculous sports and social clubs and generally avoiding work.”
Remembering how she felt as a fresher she said, “It’s the first time you leave home for most people, so it is exciting and terrifying in equal measure. I threw myself into it wholeheartedly. I made friends on my first day with people I am still really close to today.” When I asked what she learned from her time at university, “Don’t wash your whites on 60 degrees with one rouge red sock in the wash. Pink has never been my colour, but I had to endure it after that mishap.”
How and why did she get her big break in comedy? “Still waiting for it, mate!” she quipped. “Back in the day when there was less endless choice of entertainment an appearance on a big show could really change someone’s career. My career has been a slow and steady climb in tiny increments. I will be fucking huge by the time I’m 80!”
As a student, Zoe had an active interest in comedy. “I went to see all the comics who came to the Uni. And there used to be a gig in town too. I remember seeing Jo Brand there and loving it. I also spent most of my time at York involved with the student drama group and I was frequently cast as the comedic maid.”
Before she decided to become a comedian, and inspired by her time doing drama, Zoe wanted to become an actor instead. “Acting is a brutal profession where you are dependent on others giving you roles,” she confessed, “whereas comedy is a brutal professional where you can make your own work. Neither of them are easy paths to follow but if you can do stand-up you can give yourself more options.”
“It’s very pretty with a good supply of roast dinners and cake shops” of the city, she recalled: “I enjoyed being there, but I used to jump on a train to Leeds to go see the bands that never came to York.” The lack of a major music venue is something which York students today continue to lament. Zoe’s tour will be coming to Leeds on 13 December.
Said of her new tour: “It is very loosely themed on the idea of human stupidity in all its glorious forms, but it does wander all over the place. It touches on Brexit, Buddhist monks and drunk flies so I think there is something for everyone.” Zoe has been a prominent figure in comedy since 2004 and loves it as much as ever. “I am my own boss. I don’t have to deal with any office politics. I get paid to be (a slightly exaggerated version of) me.”
There has been a lot of debate about sexism in the comedy world; whether there aren’t enough women comics or the way women are treated drives them away. “There are tons of them and lots of brilliant ones at that,” Zoe stressed, “The problem lies with our visibility on TV, though that too is getting better, but it has taken ages. It’s so ridiculous that it took eleven series of Mock the Week before they featured two women on the same show.”
Streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and NOW TV have revolutionised consumption of entertainment, and stand-up comedy has been no exception. Netflix produces many comedy specials which make stand-up accessible to a wide audience from their sitting rooms.
“Comedy is always best live,” Zoe argued, “Not in an arena, that’s a bloody awful way to see comedy sat in what feels like an NCP carpark with crappy seating. Theatre or club environments are best.” Despite this, she acknowledged the good streaming services have done for exposing great stand-up: “the Netflix effect hopefully boosts those live show sales.”
Does Zoe have any advice for young comics hoping to make a name for themselves? “See loads and not just big pro acts, go to smaller gigs and open mic nights and watch as much as you can. You get a feel for how things work, what makes a good performance. Don’t try and imitate anyone. Be your own person.”