'Good performers aren't always good comics'

Rhian Edwards interviews Isy Suttie

Few trained actors have ever made the successful transition into stand-up comedy. Many drama school graduates have forged careers for themselves as comedy actors and writers, such as Simon Pegg, the cast of the League of Gentlemen and Star Stories frontman Kevin Bishop, but stand-up is a different beast altogether. Many actors have tried taking the mic, but have found that the Tomfoolery that amused their fellow students in improvisation classes, often fails to have the same effect on a paying comedy audience.

In contrast, Peep Show star Isy Suttie won her nomination for Best Female Newcomer at last year’s British Comedy Awards, not only on the back of three years drama training at the Guildhall School of Acting, but after five years on the stand-up circuit.

‘You should do stand-up because you love comedy,’ says Suttie. ‘Some actors do it just because it means they’re on a stage in front of an audience. Just because you’re a natural performer, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good comic. Also you can generally spot actors on a stand-up stage a mile off. They’re generally over-confident but not in a genuine way and that comes across to the audience.’

Suttie admits she played down her theatrical training when she first started out on the comedy circuit. ‘There is a stigma attached to being an actor trying out stand-up. It’s ridiculous really, because the same stigma doesn’t apply when a stand-up comic goes into acting – unless they’re a really bad actor, of course.’

This does not mean that all actors make bad comics. Yet many actors give up the comedy circuit for fear of it impinging on their acting career. ‘When I first started getting into stand-up in 2003, I had to put the acting on a backburner,’ says Suttie. ‘I was doing three gigs a week, sometimes outside of London, plus I was working full-time during the day. My agent would phone me with a last-minute audition and I simply wouldn’t be able to do it. One day my agent called me and couldn’t remember my name, at which point I knew I had to leave. ‘

Suttie kept her acting career on ice until the summer of 2006, when she was took part in Danielle Ward’s Edinburgh show Take-a-Break Tales. ‘Once the word was out that I could write comedy, perform it and actually act it, other stuff just started trickling in. I was then able to do less of the day job and focus on both the comedy and the acting.’

It isn’t difficult to spot the theatrical craftsmanship behind Suttie’s stand-up, yet it by no means screams ‘thespian’ at you. On stage, Suttie morphs into a range of invented characters, from the angst-ridden US singer/songwriter Mary Westenberger to Amy Winehouse’s cousin Yvonne to the male chauvinist jazzman Mr Mississippi. Suttie is also an accomplished singer/songwriter and guitarist, which she incorporates into her stand-up.

‘I am the first to admit I have acting to thank for being comedian,’ says Suttie. ‘At drama school, I was constantly being encouraged to explore my comedy side. Then I entered the Julian Slade song-writing competition and decided to write a funny song. It was the weirdest sensation in the world: There was me singing my words and there was everyone else laughing in all the right places.’

Published: 19 Mar 2009

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