“What’s inside the closet is way scarier than what’s outside.” | Dian Cathal talks queer comedy in the UK, US and Trans*Atlantic at Vault Festival

CW: Reference to transphobia, homophobia, racism, murder.

Tell us about the show you’re bringing to the Vault Festival, Trans*Atlantic.

It’s a one hour comedy show about being a transgender American living in the UK, because I get equally abused for both, so I thought that would be funny for an hour.

I started a year ago. Last January I rented a theatre. I wrote it three weeks before it was on. Then I did it. And people said to me, “You should go to Edinburgh Fringe.” So I very quickly figured out how to do that, because I’d never done it before. I booked in for the Free Festival. I did half a month there and then I put it on at the Soho. Now we’re here at the Vaults.

It’s almost like the reverse journey of everyone else.

What are the main differences you’ve noticed between living in the UK and US?

I talk a lot about the language difference. Because I’ve done a lot of research about how American English is based more on Dutch, and English English is more Germanic and more French. So that’s why we have words like “cookie”, because it comes from the Dutch.

There are also differences in the way people interact with each other. For instance, in America, if you say something that someone finds offensive, they will confront you in the moment. They’ll be like, “What did you just say?”

However British people, like you’ll see on Love Island, will grab you a week later and say, “Can we have a chat real quick? I just wanna talk to you about that thing you don’t remember saying a week ago. It was offensive.” And you sort of think, “Well I can’t do anything about it now, and I haven’t learned anything. Good chat.”

What inspired you to write a show exploring the gender binary?

I started doing comedy in the States, but I was too young to go to proper clubs due to alcohol laws, because I wasn’t 21 yet. So I had to go to weird restaurants to do comedy and it was great.

I moved to the UK when I was 20 and at first I did a lot of my old stuff. I found that I got really good at doing comedy when I started doing stuff about being transgender. But then it became very dangerous to do my comedy. Not in like a hate crime sort of way. But in a way that I’m looking around the room and no one looks queer, so I don’t know what’s about to happen.

I’ve built it into sets to say “I’m transgender, does everyone know what that is? Seriously, you’re between me and the door, I need to know now.”

So I realised that I hate going to gigs at ten o’clock at night and not knowing what’s going to happen. So I decided I was going to put on an hour long show and only invite people I know aren’t going to beat me up. And that’s how it began.

And now it’s at the Vaults on Valentines’ Day! Are you lonely and queer? Those are two demographics that would really enjoy my show! Or, do you have a Tinder date and don’t want to get murdered? Come to my show.

The subject of this show is tied into your identity. Does it get personal?

It gets personal and upsetting towards the end. The beginning is very funny, but I do drop in getting murdered a couple of times. Like, “I don’t have one night stands because I don’t want to get murdered.” And then at the end, it’s about the idea of bravery.

Sometimes when you’re queer, you get called brave. But what you don’t realise is that no one really comes out until they have to. People who can stay in the closet tend to do that. It’s not until you realise that what’s inside the closet is way scarier than what’s outside – and I’ve mentioned murder three times tonight. That’s the reality.

In terms of how personal it gets… comedy is personal to begin with, because you think it’s funny. No one says a joke they don’t think is funny. I have a working theory about comedy where if you write a joke, you believe in the point of the joke.

I can’t stand when people say something racist or homophobic and then say “but it’s just a joke.” My point is that you wrote that joke. Your mind came up with that and worked on that and you still thought it was okay to say. I don’t know anyone who has thought, “This joke is not funny, but if I made it racist in a way I don’t believe, it’d be super funny.” I don’t think that’s ever been a thought process.

Was it difficult putting so much of yourself onto a comedy stage?

I think it wasn’t so much difficult. I think it gives you a good USP very quickly. Thankfully there are now more queer comedians out there. There are a lot of completely queer comedy nights in London and it’s like, “Oh great, we’re all here and now I have to write new jokes.” They’re gonna be really relatable but you know the punchline already because you’ve lived it.

It wasn’t that it was difficult, but I put more effort into finding where to perform, rather than just go up to the Facebook pages and take an open sport wherever. I’d have to research the night and ask around, “Is this a cool night? Is it going to be okay?” I didn’t have to do that when I was presenting as female and not talking about being queer.

What do you hope people take away from your show?

I hope people take away that trans* jokes are hilarious when we tell them and never any other time. And that the answer to diversity is not to shoehorn trans* people into the media. It’s to hire trans* people.

Do you have any shout-outs for shows or people that do a good job of providing that platform for representation?

The Soho Theatre is absolutely about getting queer people in to make sometimes ridiculous but always amazing things. Soho Rising, the festival I was a part of, is made of people from the Soho Young Company who they take and say “They’ve made a thing, let’s give them a West End theatre now!” Most of us were queer. It was really incredible. Of course, it is Soho and it’s across from the gay Wagamamas, but even then, it’s incredible just to have them go “We’re making a stand, this is who we are, this is who we support.”

Teddy Lamb set up a queer meet-up in Edinburgh group that was basically “You’re queer in Edinburgh, come talk about how hard that can be. Let’s all get together and support each other’s shows.” The Soho is now supporting that meet-up, every month, in London.

Teddy Lamb is great, they’re doing amazing work, they support everybody. Shout out to them.

Are there any other shows you’re looking forward to at the Vault Festival?

Yeah, I’m looking forward to Frankie Foxstone a.k.a The Profit: Walking Tour, This Bitch Can Heal, First Time, David Ferguson: Forgivable and Teddy Lamb’s Since U Been Gone.

Do you have any advice for anyone looking to break into comedy?

It’s going to be super scary. It’s going to be one of the scariest things you’ve ever done. But then you quickly stop giving a fuck.

There’s a thing I call the fuck it valve, which is where you get to a point in your process where you go, “I can’t do any more. What’s happened has happened, so we’re gonna pull the fuck it valve and see what happens.”

There’s this weird thing in comedy. You’ll find with a lot of straight male comedians, if the joke doesn’t land, they get very mad. They’ll be like, “Fuck you that was funny, laugh at me.” And then people laugh at them for the wrong reasons and they get even angrier.

But you get to a point with comedy where, if your joke doesn’t land and you realise the bit you’re about to do isn’t going to work, you go “Oh it’s about to get real weird then. This is great. I’m gonna give you my weirdest stuff and we’re gonna see where it lands.”

There’s this weird switch in comedy where you’re very scared and then you try very hard and then you do enough gigs and you realise, “These five minutes don’t actually matter, so I’m gonna do what I want, and it’s gonna get real weird if you don’t laugh, but I’m gonna have fun.”

Have fun. It’s horrifying, but if you don’t enjoy it, there’s no point in you doing a five minute gig. It’s a weird concept that we have. You have five minutes to impress these people and if you don’t, be ashamed. Just have fun with it. It’s just a five minute gig.

Dian is performing Trans*Atlantic at Vault Festival on 14th February.

Book your ticket here.

Find out more about Vault Festival here.

You can keep up with other stuff Dian has going on by following them on Instagram and Twitter.

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