Originally published at What The Frock!
Bethany Black is “Britain’s only goth, lesbian, transsexual stand-up comedian” and a self-confessed “gob-shite” who instantly makes me laugh. I can understand why audience members find themselves joining in with her shows – I feel like I’m chatting to a friend.
Bethany’s comedy style is just like our conversation, packed with “stories about the ridiculous, stupid things I’ve done. I’m an idiot and I’m fully aware that I’m an idiot; every day there is a whole new world of mistakes to be made”.
One mistake was Bethany’s wardrobe choice on a trip to Maastricht earlier this year: “I thought: it’s February, it’s not going to be much colder than it is in England. I got there wearing a T-shirt, jacket and skinny jeans, and realised that it was actually minus 20 degrees!”
Her brand of observational comedy draws on these true stories from her own life, with a few topical jokes thrown in for good measure. “If I do talk about things from the news I try and relate it to my life. Like last year during the riots, I lived in Manchester and everyone in my street got a new telly.”
It’s this easy, conversational style that makes Bethany so likeable: “I come across as quite chatty on stage, so people sort of forget that I’m not just chatting to them. The people who tend to heckle are the kind of people who don’t normally heckle – they just sort of talk to me and then get all embarrassed when they realise there’s hundreds of other people in the room.”
Born at the end of the 1970s, Bethany grew up watching Blackadder, French & Saunders and all the alternative comics of the early 1980s, who inspired her passion for comedy. “I’ve always wanted to be a comedian, ever since I was a child; I was just a comedy geek for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been a storyteller and a gob-shite.”
Despite this enthusiasm, Bethany initially struggled to get started as a comic: “I didn’t really know where comedy took place apart from The Fringe and The Comedy Store in London,” she confesses. Her first break was MCing between bands at a friend’s rock night in Preston: “I thought that’d be a good place to start off doing stand-up. It really isn’t. It’s an entirely different audience, but it does teach you how to get people’s attention quickly, how to deal with rowdy audiences, and how to dodge bottles of piss!”
With these vital piss-dodging skills under her belt, Bethany progressed to getting gigs in real comedy clubs but recalls her early days as a long learning curve. “The most difficult thing about getting started was writing material. It’s an artistic process of learning, so very few people go on stage and are brilliant from the get-go. It took me about six years until I was confident enough in my ability.”
Asked about the highlights of her career, Bethany tells me: “It’s lovely to get to meet and work with people I’ve grown up watching. Loads of my friends in bands never get to meet or work with any of their heroes unless they’re massively successful, but in this industry you do; you work with your heroes really early on.”
Most recently, Bethany worked with Sean Lock at this summer’s V Festival, but one of her more surreal encounters was during a comedy festival in Finland. “For one of my gigs in Helsinki they were trying to find an English-speaking support act, and they couldn’t find anyone for ages. Then the promoter came to me and said there was an act doing a gig in Finland, at a much bigger venue, and he was looking for somewhere to try out what the audience was like. Would I mind if he opened for me? I said, ‘Oh, who is it?’ It was Omid Djalili! I’m just stood there at the side of the stage, about to go on, and I’m watching Omid Djalili doing his set, and I’m thinking ‘This guy was in The Mummy, and he’s on stage opening for me!’”
It’s almost impossible to believe it now but, for the first five years of her comedy career, Bethany suffered badly from stage fright. Her breakthrough came at a gig in Sheffield: “I was on with an MC who wasn’t particularly fond of me, so before they introduced me they went on stage and did a lot of material that they thought crossed over with what I had.
“I’m stood at the side of the stage, absolutely panicking, and they went on for ages and ages, saying all these things that I knew messed up what I was going to do. In the time they were on stage I decided, ‘Well, there’s nothing you can do about this, you can only do the material that you’ve got, and this is entirely out of your hands’, and I just got really calm. Then I went on stage and did the best gig I’ve ever had, and after that I felt like I was in control of what I was doing.”
Although it’s now “very rare” for Bethany to get nerves, she’s conscious that she’s not your typical comedian: “Because of the way I look and what I talk about, I’m not [most audiences’] idea of what a comedian should be. So when I go on stage and I talk about what I talk about, I’m going on stage knowing the audience is predisposed to probably not like me.”
Luckily Bethany’s not too fazed by that: “It can be quite intimidating, but I know how to make people like me when I’m on stage. I’ve done enough gigs now to know that I can pretty much do that in any room, with any sort of crowd.” And with What The Frock! fast approaching, Bethany is sure to win over the audience in Bristol with no trouble at all.
Bethany will be appearing with What The Frock! on Saturday, September 15, at The Winston Theatre, Bristol. Please click here to buy tickets.