Lowe and behold! | Q&A with Alice Lowe

Lowe and behold!

Q&A with Alice Lowe

Alice Lowe – probably best known for Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace – stars in her own BBC Three comedy LifeSpam at 11pm on January 23. And to think she once dressed up as David Bowie and tied a half-dead ocelot to her shoulder…

How did you get started in comedy?

I’ve always loved comedy but I started off thinking I wanted to be in poncey experimental physical theatre. I did a few devised theatre shows with director Paul King [The Mighty Boosh]. Then Richard Ayoade saw me acting in them and asked me if I wanted to be in the Garth Marenghi show that was going to Edinburgh. Then that show got nominated for the Perrier Award. I then got an agent and started doing comedy.

I still feel it’s a bit of an accident. All my friends thought that I’d be living in a theatre commune in Goa by now, with a baby of indeterminate origin strapped to my back. I still like experimental stuff. It’s just that it turns out I look funny doing it.

I think comedy is one of the last mediums on TV where people are able to be truly creative. You can write, act, write the music and make the costumes if you really want to.

What’s the single best experience you’ve had doing it?

I was really excited when I did a gig supporting Reeves and Mortimer. They were the people that got me really interested in comedy. Before that I didn’t know that anyone would let you draw a picture of a stoat on a paper Viking hat and sellotape it to your head and do a jig and that could be called television. It blew my mind.

Me and my friend who were like female comedy geeks used to watch Big Night Out obsessively on sleepovers. It was just so weird to be working with them. They are still my heroes.

Other than that, I’d say, playing David Bowie, playing a camel, wearing a gold lamé cat suit whilst doing a pole dance on a golf course, and performing a new romantic spoof song on the saddle stage at the WOMAD music festival with half a dead ocelot tied to my shoulder and a Cleopatra headdress on. The audience looked really confused. I love my job.

And the worst?

Probably simultaneously all of the above. I reckon good comedy is often excruciatingly embarrassing. I think you have to feel the pain of the stupidity of what you’re doing and revel in it.

I have done a few live gigs that have died on their arse. Usually it’s because they’re under-rehearsed and you just need to do it four times before it even starts to get good laughs. Unfortunately you have to go through it being shite first. It’s horrible but good experience, like a baptism of fire.

A few early Garth Marenghi gigs didn’t go too well because people thought it was serious and not a comedy. That to my mind is the most fun you can have, when people don’t know it’s a joke and are trying to suppress their laughter. It’s a risky hardcore approach though! I’ve just been on tour with Steve Coogan and we did a gig in Liverpool arena that wasn’t much fun. ‘Cold sweat’ I think is the expression.

Is there anything you regret doing – or not doing - in your career?

Some part of me would like to be flinging myself around in a Berlin basement as part of an art collective, possibly screaming and covered in graffiti written in pig’s blood. Possibly attached to a bungee cord. The audience terrified. Spattered with the blood. Me muttering in tongues, all to the sound of a Britney Spears song composed out of the cries of battered women. But then I think I probably would have been intensely annoying as a human being and it’s much better to take the piss out of yourself.

I’d like to have done more artwork, because I used to draw a lot, and I’d like to have done more music. The great thing about my job is that I get to pretend to do all of those things but not be taken that seriously for it. I get to live lots of lives in one life, with the aid of several wigs.

And of what are you most proud?

I think Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was a great show. It was kind of neglected at the time, but I do think it was a well-made show and it makes me proud that people still like it. We were all quite young when we made it, so I think there’s a kind of nice naivety to our performances and to my expectations at that time. I didn’t really know what a TV comic performance was, I just threw myself into it!

I’m proud of my short films too. I collaborate with a young director called Jacqueline Wright. Every now and then we think ‘we should just get off our arses and make something’. So we make a short film with no budget, and it’s usually okay. And then you feel proud of yourself and think ‘I could have sat around watching Loose Women, but instead I have made this short film’. And then you know you have made the world a better place. Because people shouldn’t watch Loose Women.

The great thing about making your own films is that there’s no one telling you what you can or can’t do: producers, financiers, commissioners, etc. Then when it’s successful you feel more confident in your ideas. One film we made, ‘Sticks and Balls’, got about 30,000 hits on YouTube, and we made it in one day for about £20.

Of course I’m proud of LifeSpam too. I’m proud of it because there’s loads of talented performers in it who made my jokes work! And it’s an idea that’s a bit, I don’t know, what commissioners would call, ‘out there’, but I would call interesting and intelligent. I think it takes a few risks with its style, and not many TV shows are doing that at the moment.

Why should we watch Life Spam?

Because it’s funny. I wanted to do something that was a kind of conceptual comedy that wasn’t at all ‘dumbing down’ or patronizing the audience. I wanted it to have really good believable performances in it and to give people a jolt because it is different to other comedies on TV at the moment. It’s essentially a sketch show that spoofs ‘shock docs’.

I love character comedy and I like to play outsiders. I wanted a concept that would bring loads of strange characters together in a format that people recognize. It’s kind of a satirical take on documentaries and our obsessive voyeurism. But it’s also about narratives and stories, like modern day fables or apocryphal tales.

It’s mainly naturalistic performances but with a healthy dose of surrealism. So what I’m saying is you just have to watch it. Because I’m making it sound really boring by seeming like I’m writing a dissertation on it. It’s good. Watch it. Simon Farnaby is in it and Justin Edwards and Sharon Horgan and lots of other very funny people.

What are your plans for the next 12 months?

I’m developing a feature film called The Sightseers, which I’m co-writing with Steve Oram. It’s a comedy horror thriller and Edgar Wright is executive producing it and Paul King is directing it. I’m really excited about it.

I’m sure I’ll be making a couple more short films with Jacqui this year too, doing a few more live gigs in London and hopefully some people will give me a job. I don’t know, I might well be crying in a darkened room eating cardboard.

I want to do more traveling this year because I think it helps with your writing. Having just been on tour, seeing the rest of the country inspired me loads about different characters. Sometimes your job can glue you to London and it’s not always a good thing (although I do like London very much).

And your long-term ambitions?

I would like to make more films, write them, be in them, maybe direct them one day. I’d like to make more TV too. My ideas are usually quite visual so they work well in a film medium. When an idea comes into my head for a sketch it’s usually complete with set and costume design and facial expressions.

I enjoy improvisation as a way of making comedy so I’d love to do an entirely improvised film. People sometimes ask me if I want to be famous. I’m not bothered, I just like being creative and dressing up. Basically, if someone would pay me a little bit of money for the rest of my life to just keep making things, I’d be happy as a pig in shit.

What advice would you give to any comedian starting today?

I would say, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Do as much as you can - short films, festivals, comedy gigs, etc - and you will get better at it. But do it on your own terms – don’t feel you have to say yes to everything if you think it might not be your thing. Try to take risks artistically and listen to your own instincts. Be prepared to be poor. Very poor. And be nice to people!

Who – or  what – makes you laugh?

Animals truly make me laugh more than anything. The thing you will find me pissing myself at is You’ve Been Framed. There’s a sort of purity about animals reacting to things, even though it’s just because we’re imagining that they’re exactly like us.

I saw a monkey documentary with David Attenborough recently that I had to watch twice because it made me so happy. I watch all the old Vic and Bob stuff – Vic being Loyd Grossman, presenter of MasterChef, floating with a giant head while a clock chimes in the background made me howl the other day. And my mum, who is undoubtedly a very funny human being, makes me laugh on a regular basis.

Here's a clip from the new series:

Published: 15 Jan 2009

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