Abigoliah Schamaun is a stand-up comedian who got her start on the New York circuit. Having lived in the UK since 2014, she talks to Joe Molander about her new show, the difference between British and American comedy, and optimism.
Tell us about your latest tour: is it a departure from your earlier work?
I’ve always done autobiographical comedy. This show is a little more outward looking: I comment on words we are and are not allowed to use anymore, I comment on some American politics. As I like to tell people, I explain the American gun epidemic in ten minutes.
Did it take a long time to feel comfortable writing about political stuff?
I mean the whole show isn’t politics: that would be exhausting. This is the most organic show I’ve ever done: whereas for previous shows I’ve gone “I wanna talk about being a yoga instructor” [a reference to her 2017 Edinburgh Fringe show Namaste, Bitches], this show I’ve gone “I wanna talk about everything I’ve thought about this year”, and I haven’t given myself a strong theme, I haven’t given myself a big point at the end, although luckily there is one, but that was by accident. This show wasn’t “I’m gonna sit down and I’m gonna write about politics and I’m gonna write about gender non-conformity”, I’m listening to people talk about it around me, and I have my own feelings and this is how I’m gonna share them.
Was it difficult to approach a show where there wasn’t a single point or theme? Did that deprive it of a selling point?
It was harder in the sense that I didn’t know where it was going. Usually I know how I want a show to end and I work backwards, whereas with this one I didn’t, so I was kind of writing into a void. It was a little nerve-racking not knowing where the big ending was or where I was walking to, but on the whole it was actually quite freeing. This show isn’t hugely thematic, so if this bit’s not working I can cut this bit out, because now I can talk about this thing I’m more passionate about. Honestly, I think it’s the best show I’ve made so far: it’s punchy, it’s funny, it’s thoughtful, it’s not trying to be something. It’s just a piece of comedy.
I think there’s a lot of glamorisation about the tortured artist, the tortured comedian, about how you make everyone laugh but behind all that, you’re so sad. Whenever I’ve been truly depressed, I can’t create anything, I can’t make anything. There’s no sense of joy onstage, it’s just going through the motions. I think that’s something that is generally glamorised. Especially with comedy, that’s like, “oh, something bad has happened to you, that’ll make for a really good joke”. Yeah, but something bad just happened to me, I need to process that. Tragedy plus time equals comedy, a lot of people forget about the time part.
With your show, do you try and be particularly upbeat or do you just let the comedy take whatever form it wants to?
I’m naturally an optimist: the thing I like to tell my boyfriend all the time is “don’t worry, it’ll all work out, because we have no other choice”.
I’m just such a simple, simple person: I just want it to be funny, I don’t care about anything else. I just want it to be funny.
“Comedy in the UK gives you more time to breathe.”
You’re an American-born comic. Do you think your style has changed for being in the UK for five years?
Yes, yes, yes. I’m not as rushed to get to a punchline as I was when I was in the states. Because in the states, you don’t write for an Edinburgh [Fringe] show, your goal is to do five minutes at Just for Laughs comedy festival. It’s not everyone’s big break, but this is what we were all working for when I was the young comic. Do five minutes, that’s it, five minutes. So you’re just trying to take five minutes and you spend years doing five minutes and making it as funny as fucking possible, whereas here, you work towards an hour [the length of an Edinburgh Fringe show], you have more time to breathe, more time to stretch out.
So you prefer this approach, an hour over five minutes?
Yes. I don’t think I could do five minutes, I mean I could talk for five minutes, and I don’t think it’d be good. I could do a great hour. It’s a different beast.
In what sense?
When you’re writing an hour, they have an hour to know you, so you can shred at the forty five minute mark with something that forty five minutes ago they would not have been on-board with, but then they know you and they know what you’re about, and so now they’re into the story you’re telling. In five minutes, you don’t have that. You need to do the “this is who I am, this is why I’m here, this is where I’m going” thing in five minutes: I think it’s harder.
Do you think there’s a difference in audience perceptions or audience attitudes to consuming comedy between the US and the UK?
I don’t know. I know British people have an opinion on American comedy, but I don’t think Americans know that anyone else has done comedy other than them.
Do you feel the American style has stuck with you or continued to give you an edge or a unique selling point in the UK, even as you become more anglicised in your comedy?
Yeah. I’ve definitely kept my American chops, well I am American. I’m never gonna escape that. It’s definitely part of how I do comedy and how I watch it and how I consume it.
Do you think that there’s something that’s to the essence of your comedy that isn’t to do with your nationality?
I don’t think there’s one thing: I think comedy and performance are someone expressing themselves. So I don’t think it’s one thing that makes me unique or makes you unique, it’s all the things about us that make us different from each other.
Abigoliah’s latest show – Do You Know Who I Think I Am?! – tours at The Stand in Newcastle on 13th October 2019. Click here to buy tickets.
Last modified: 11th October 2019