Interview: Gemma Leader on Developing Your Comedy Craft with Above Your Nerve
We caught up with comedienne and teacher Gemma Leader to talk about her London haunts, comedy insights and how she came to help emerging stand ups.
Tell us about Above Your Nerve. How did it come about?
Well, I’ve been teaching comedy at Soho Theatre since 2012 and I’ve always really loved working with new and emerging stand ups. Each group of participants shows me something different about what it means to perform comedy and how important it is that early career artists see themselves represented and reflected in the industry. I often end up working with comedians after the course finishes and as they take the first steps in their career.
So that’s how Above Your Nerve came about . . . I wanted to create a company that provides a safe and supportive space for new artists to develop their voice as comedians. I’m offering courses and workshops, as well as one-to-one sessions and coaching. I’m also directing shows, like Charlotte Fox’s Mercury Retrograde, which is touring soon and will be in London, at The Museum of Comedy on 21 October.
Tell us about your favourite comedy talent? Who makes you laugh?
This list is looooong and really depends on my mood and what I need from the comedy, you know? I love live comedy. There is nothing better than being in an audience, watching something that you know only you lot will get to see! But it’s been difficult to go to gigs recently, I don’t know if you’ve noticed? Can’t think why.
So I’ve been watching online creators which frankly is new for me, because I’m a nana when it comes to the internet and social media!
I love Munya Chawawa. His wit and reaction time to stuff that goes on almost makes the news more bearable! I also saw a clip of Finnish comedian, Ismo Leikola, talking about the use of the word “shit” in the English language, which made me laugh for days. It’s so well written but it’s a few years old now, so sorry Ismo, for sleeping on your work!
I watched ‘Close Enough’ over one of the endless lockdowns, which is a brilliant animated sitcom, created by J. G. Quintel. I love Sophie Duker, Katherine Ryan, Daniel Kitson, Stewart Lee, Victoria Wood, Jamali Maddix, Mae Martin, W. Kamau Bell, Mitch Hedberg, Jen Brister, Aisling Bea (honestly, this list really goes on).
I always tell new comedians to watch Chic Murray, a Scottish stand up from 60s/70s, because he is so thorough with his approach. There is a pay off for every new thought he introduces. He mines every bit of a situation for jokes, which is a really good habit to have. He would get three punchlines into a sentence about opening a door!
What advice would you give to aspiring comedy talent?
Take up your space. There is room for everyone in the industry. What an audience really wants to hear is a new and unique take on a subject. Almost everything you can think of has already been talked about by a stand up, from feminism to condiments, but we haven’t heard your thoughts on mayonnaise yet and maybe we need to.
Be unapologetically you, but don’t worry if it takes a while to work out what that looks like. Keep writing and writing and then do some more writing. And gig as much as humanly possible. The more stage time and writing experience you have, the easier it is to work out who you are as a comedian.
Also, follow me on instagram @ayntheatre for more tips. And be generous, kind and stay hydrated.
Those last three are tips for life, not just comedy. Carry a notebook and pen or your phone, or whatever you like to write with, wherever you go. You never know when inspiration will hit, but it won’t always be when you’re sat down, ready to write! If you’re anything like me, you’ll forget a joke if you don’t write it down.
What are your favourite London haunts? (To watch shows, to eat, to get comedy inspiration)
To watch comedy? The Hen & Chickens in Islington, The Museum of Comedy, Leicester Square Theatre and Soho Theatre. But also, there are brilliant open mic nights in pretty much every pub in London, where you will be guaranteed to see the next biggest comedian – like Comedy Virgins, at The Cavendish Arms, in Stockwell.
Outside of comedy, I love sitting in the National Theatre, or having a drink at the Young Vic, even if I’m not seeing a show! I also love watching fringe shows at The Etcetera Theatre in Camden and The Cockpit Theatre in Marylbone.
For food, there is relatively new Chinese restaurant on Upper Street, in Islington, called Tofu Vegan, which I am loathed to mention, because it’s already hard to get a table, but their wontons are everything.
And for a drink, I love the Arts Theatre Club, on Frith Street, or my two favourite locals, the Alpaca or Homeboy, which are both on the Essex Road, Islington. If you’re going to Homeboy, try the Taoiseach!