“You can joke about any subject, but what’s your object in telling it?” | Bethany Black talks throwing comedy at the walls and seeing what sticks

How did you get into comedy?

I find the how a lot less interesting than the “why” which is a pathological need to be liked coupled with a crushing inability to truly enjoy anything.

The how is that I’d wanted to act, then I met performing arts students when I went to college and decided to write and direct. I dropped out of University in my final year and came out and transitioned, and lived back with my parents in the North West, and there was no film industry in Chorley. I couldn’t afford to live on people’s couches whilst I got the experience to get a job in media in London, so I quit and took a job doing data entry.

It was so soul crushing and I knew I needed to do something creative, and whilst I was looking a friend asked if I’d host a rock cabaret night and I said sure, and that’s how I fell in to this.

Give us the rundown on your comedy career so far.

In August 2002 I hosted that cabaret night, Club Fuzzy in Preston and I loved it! First joke I ever wrote that got an audience to laugh and I was hooked, I spend a bunch of years getting better, I got nominated for Best Newcomer at The Leicester Comedy Festival in 2008 and later that year I did my first Edinburgh Show, Beth Becomes Her. Since then I’ve written and performed stand-up all over the world, played Glastonbury, done some panel shows, written comedy for TV and radio. It’s been wild.

This zine is published April 2022. Where are you right now in your life and career?

Ha! Ready to move on from stand-up!

In life, I’ve never been happier, more secure in my self and relationships.

In my career I’m doing great, I make enough money and I’ve been in some TV shows. Unfortunately due to Covid, a show I was supposed to be co-hosting with Joe Lycett, Rosie Jones and Suzie Ruffell didn’t go ahead over Christmas, but these things happen. I’ve been around long enough to know that nothing will make or break you really and you’ve just got to keep plugging away.

What’s your favourite fun fact?

That “oid” as a suffix means “looks like but isn’t” so humanoid, looks like a human but isn’t; cuboid, looks like a cube but isn’t; factoid, feels like a fact but isn’t. There you go, the least fun fact, haha.

What’s the funniest joke you’ve ever heard (and who told you it)?

I think Barry Cryer’s “man with half an orange for a head” joke, which is a long, shaggy dog story of a pub joke is the funniest joke I ever heard and the one that I love telling as a gauge of someone’s sense of humour.

What’s your trick to finding the funny side of dark topics?

Knowing the difference between the subject and the object of the joke. You can joke about any subject, but what’s your object in telling it?

To be analytical we use humour in three main ways: Firstly, to bond us together. Secondly, to exclude out-groups; and finally, to gauge if what we’re saying is accepted by the rest of the group. If I tell a joke about a “taboo” topic, it’s usually to bond us as an audience in recognising the universality of the experience. It’s not to exclude a group who has already been marginalised and create an “us” who are laughing at a “them”. It’s us laughing at us. And I’m not testing if you all agree with me that “us” by our very “us-ness” is better than “them” and their very “them-ness” in a way that I can then exploit.

At its core it’s that; not “punching up” or “punching down” but whether we include or exclude.

Tell us about your cat (and please can we see it?)

I have three cats; Spruce who is 13 this week and who is a “perma kitten”, she was a rescue who was originally found in a bin when she was a kitten and has never grown to full size. She’s my best friend in the world. She doesn’t hunt, she’s scared of most animals including birds and any buzzing insects, but she loves bringing home cooked meat. She’s a big fan of pastry too and will bring home sausage rolls, and steak bakes. She brought a whole McDonald’s through the cat flap a few months ago.

Our second child is Albert. He too was a rescue, we think his mum was a pedigree Abyssinian who’d got out whilst she was on heat and I got him from Leigh Cats and Dogs home. He’s mute and very unperturbed by other people and so he’s the one you see in my publicity shots.

Our youngest is Fred, we got him from a woman who lived round the corner from us when we lived in Levenshulme, I think he’s part panther. He’s a very big lad. 8kg of decorative predator and I’m so glad he likes me because I don’t think I could win in a straight fight with him.

What crime would you most like to commit?

I’d like to do a jewel heist.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in comedy now?

If you can think of literally anything else you’d rather do with your life work on that. I became a comedian because I can’t do a 9-5 and when you fail at other things in the way I did and you have the specific skill set that I do, then comedy’s really the only thing that I could do to make a living.

The comedians who make a living from this and don’t go and become huge TV stars reasonably quickly are pretty much the ones who didn’t give up. If the audience doesn’t laugh it’s not because they’re a bad audience (mostly) – it’s because you don’t have the skills to make them laugh at what you want to talk about.

The job is figuring out how to make strangers laugh. And those strangers all have jobs that they don’t enjoy, and lives they wish were better and nowhere near enough free time. If they’re prepared to come out of the house to watch stand-up then you need to respect their free time and try to make them laugh.

What are your hopes/expectations for comedy as an industry in 2022?

I think the live circuit is getting better as it has constantly since I started out 20 years ago. There are more, diverse comedians doing all sorts of different things to different audiences. Comedy has never been healthier. The percentage of gigs that are run by straight white blokes who book acts who look and think like them and end up playing to audiences that look ant think like them is falling to the point that when I see one of those gigs’ line-ups it’s a rarity rather than the norm.

Have you got anything exciting coming up that we should look out for?

My performance at the Blizzard comedy club!

Other than that, I’ve a lot of projects on the go that’ll likely come to nothing, but that’s the excitement of this business. You keep coming up with better ideas and throw them against a wall and each time a few more people discover you and go “maybe not this one, but I can’t wait to see what else they come up with!” and in the end something eventually gets made.

Book your free ticket to see Bethany Black performing at Blizzard here.

Get this piece – and lots of other cool content – as part of our August 2022 zine here.