Sarah is an American stand-up comedian who lives and works in Paris. I fell for her sassy, sharp, Southern-influenced brand of comedy the first time I saw her perform a set, and came to appreciate her consummate professionalism watching her act as a host for other shows. As the girlfriend of a stand-up comedian, I get dragged to, I mean go to, a lot of stand-up comedy gigs, and the quality and crowd energy can vary enormously, but Sarah has the ability to commandeer a room during her set, and deliver a lot of laughs. If Sarah is performing or hosting, you know it’s gonna be a great night.
She has already sold out her first one-woman show Help! I Married a Frenchman! so I thought it would be the perfect time to quiz her about the Paris comedy world, and her place in it.
How did you get into stand-up comedy?
All stand up comedians just love comedy. I remember being in high school in North Carolina watching Comedy Central, and they used to play this show on Friday nights called Premium Blend, different sets of comedians working at the time. I’d go over to my best friend's house, because we were really cool and didn't have boyfriends or anything happening on a Friday night and we’d watch this show together. I was totally mesmerized by the whole thing, loving it but not really knowing why. I never thought that stand-up was something I could do.
I was just like ”I wanna write jokes!” not even knowing that there were things like open mic nights where people could go try it out. It wasn’t part of my world. And then I moved to Washington DC and wanted to try something different. So I did my first open mic. I invited 3 girlfriends. I wrote 5 minutes of jokes, one of which was about me being an alcoholic (which I’m not) and my parents sending me to rehab. Very classic newbie open miker, like just making shit up and talking about crazy stuff. I didn’t totally bomb, I think I got one laugh and I was like “Ok! I think I can do this!... Maybe.”
What’s the scene like here compared to the US?
I was recently in LA and I ran into two comics that I used to know from DC. They said “Wait, wait, so you live in Paris, and you get to do comedy in a full room of people? Who like… care? That’s great! Don't come here! Don’t come and do comedy here!”
Because it's hard to find an attentive audience for comedy in the US, paying or not, especially in NYC or LA. Yes that audience exists at a certain level but here in Paris we have this for all of our shows - professional, amateur, even some of the open mic nights! Sure the audience might not understand English fully but they wouldn't dare be drunk enough to ruin your show. I've never been in a show here where I had to compete with sports even being played on a television in the same room.
I’ve seen some comics here, and I think their jokes work in their own environment, but they totally bomb when they're in Paris.
Totally. It’s definitely a different style. Sometimes when I’m hosting I ask “Who’s first time is it seeing stand-up comedy?” Sometimes I do a little speech “This is what you’re going to see. It’s not a theatre piece. You don’t have to be polite!” and I think it helps. In Paris [the audience is] watching, and they’re like “What iz this zat I’m watching?”. They’ve never seen anything like it and maybe their English isn’t that great so they’re just trying to take it in.
And if you think of the times you’ve come to the show, there are very few true anglophones in the audience.
Do you think that’s affected the way that you do your comedy?
Definitely. I improvised a joke onstage on Saturday, I made a joke about Family Feud which is a show in the US. No-one knew what I was talking about. But sometimes I just do that…. I’ll say it once, just for me. (laughs) But it doesn’t work so I gotta cut it.
Do you think that pushes you to get more to universally interesting ideas? Rather than what are kind of, knee-jerk laughs?
In some ways, yeah. It can go two ways. I think a lot of us talk about Paris and French culture because we can all get that. But this doesn’t translate outside of France… so I’ve been trying to move away from that, to talk more about my life, being in a relationship, ageing as a woman, my relationship with my parents… stuff that I think people can get all over. I don’t travel with my comedy too much, but when I do I wanna have jokes that work outside of Paris.
There does seem to be a high proportion of jokes about Paris on the scene… do you think that’s in some way a bit lazy? Do you think that can be a crutch for comedians?
Comics should always go with what they know. If you go to New York, people are going to talk about the subway, the city, Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan… that’s just normal and fine to do, and that’s fun. We know our region, right?
My style is that I always need to come from a place of truth, so I like to talk about my life.
When I started going to open mics with my boyfriend one of the really fascinating things was watching him do the same joke over and over and have wildly different results. Initially I was offering advice, saying “Oh you need to do this and this and this” and what I kinda learned, was that at the end of the day the audience is so unreliable you just have to trust your gut, trust what you think is funny.
I totally agree. But comics here are so spoiled! I would do stand-up comedy on a Monday night in Washington DC in a nightclub that smelled like crap because it hadn’t been cleaned all weekend, at 7 o’clock for 20 comedians and no audience. And you would still do that fucking show. Because you just wanted to get on that mic. So at some point you do just have to trust yourself and say “OK, I know this is funny, and I’m just going to do it” and when you have that confidence, that works.
It seems almost like an act of faith. At first I say “That’s not funny” and my boyfriend says “No, I believe in it” basically. And he’ll keep hammering away at it, often to no success, and then eventually I’m like “Oh it’s working! I see what you were getting at!” It seems to be like carving. Getting at the idea.
You have to work on it, little by little. I don’t write my jokes word for word, I really like to improvise. I always like to change and be free about how I’m saying stuff. But there’s some things that you know “Oh this is gonna be funny”. Boom. But some stuff you think “I have this premise, I know that’s funny… I don’t really know how to say it so I’m just gonna work it out on stage... I’m just gonna start talking and see how it all flows”.
It’s such an interesting thing. I was just talking to a friend about writing sketches. Screenwriters and people who write comedy sketches usually have a partner because you need someone to bounce ideas and jokes off of. I mostly write my jokes alone, but you do them on stage and you’re writing with the audience. You’re telling your joke, and they're giving you the feedback. So there's this two way relationship. You have all these variations on how a joke goes. It can be timing, phrasing, tone. It’s easy for us to blame the audience, especially here, like “They don’t understand English” but I try to avoid that.
What do you think are some of the challenges that specifically women face as comics?
I think when you are a young single female comedian, it’s harder in some ways because there are a lot of guys around, and you think they are interested in your comedy, but actually they just want to fuck you. They don’t actually want to help you, or be your friend. You’re like “I’m here for the comedy!” and they’re like “I’m here because you’re a girl! And we don’t get to talk to them very often!”
I was brought up on stage once with “And our next comic… is a whore! Sarah Donnelly!” Like... what? That would never happen to a guy.
I think that just being seen as an equal comedian is a challenge. When I bring up a comedian, if they happen to be a woman, I don’t say “We got a female comedian! Ooooh, so special!”
All female comics just want to be seen as funny, and to be taken seriously. It goes deeper than comedy. Women are in this delicate position, whether at work or whatever, where if you stand up for yourself you're “too aggressive”, and if you don’t say anything “Oh she can be walked all over”. And there’s always that anxiety “Oh! I don’t want to be seen like a bitch!”, that internal anguish that men just don’t fucking have.
I’m a feminist. I try to tell my story as authentically as possible without degrading my gender. Women who are starting in comedy sometimes feel that they need to make jokes about women… you don’t need to do that. Just talk about you. That's fine.
You heard the lady: you do you, because the role of Sarah Donnelly is already taken.
GREAT NEWS! Her one woman show Help! I Married a Frenchman! is back in Paris for four more shows only!
Reserve tickets here: https://www.weezevent.com/sarahdonnelly
In the meantime you can keep up with this very funny lady at facebook.com/sarahdcomedy
PS if you liked this, check out the other Hey You! Yes You interviews here.