A Long evolution

Josie Long has been ghosted by the biggest comedy panel show, alienated because of her politics and regularly has threats made against her life online

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Josie Long’s daughter has been sent home early from nursery. “She’s not been expelled!” laughs the 37-year-old comedian, activist and film-maker, settling her down with her father. “She’s just not very well. I’ve bought her a new toy and hopefully that will pacify her a little bit.”

Long is so enthusiastic she makes Finding Nemo’s Dory resemble a Harry Potter Dementor

As opening exchanges go, it’s fitting because her new stand-up tour, Tender, is a paean to the joys of new parenthood, which also asks: “How do you bring someone into the world when everyone around you is telling you it’s the end of the world?” She pauses, before laughing. “Which I think sounds bit more full on that it is actually is!”

Long is so infectiously enthusiastic, she makes Finding Nemo’s Dory resemble a Harry Potter Dementor and at the centre of Tender is the big-hearted positivity she brings to everything – whether it’s performing comedy routines about the challenges of being left wing in a world which is increasingly lurching to the right, or having her overly doughy pizza judged by Gregg Wallace on Celebrity MasterChef.

Eighteen months ago, Long gave birth to her first child. She’d always wanted kids – although this one arrived sooner than anticipated. In August 2017, Long and her partner – fellow comedian Jonny Donahoe – moved in together, thinking they’d try for a baby “after a lovely year” together. “Then literally the next week, I got pregnant by accident,” she remembers. “I joke about how I only really accepted I was pregnant when the baby was 13 months old.”

Long is not alone in mining her pregnancy, birth and new motherhood for material. There’s an emerging trend of female comedians openly talking about these experiences and being visibly pregnant onstage. After years of comedians resisting talking about it because they did not want to fall into the reductive, false stereotype that was created for them – which Sofi Hagen once summed up as “unfunny, period-babbling, ovary-owning, kitchen abandoning” – comics like Amy Schumer and Ali Wong are staring it down and, as an untapped comedy resource, it feels incredibly fresh.

Long has lived in Hackney for years but now sees the London borough anew through the prism of where the playgrounds, children’s centres and places that accommodate prams are.

“It would be lovely if when you have a baby, somebody could come with a map that says: ‘Don’t go in that café – they’ll be rude and make you move your pram. Go in that café – they’re nice and will hold the baby,’” she laughs. Similarly, she wishes there was a badge she could wear that reads: “Please be accommodating of me – I have not slept longer than 45 minutes in three months. This is not the real me – this is an unhinged version of me.”

Having a child made her want to share a real and authentic story of childbirth onstage through the female gaze – as a counter-narrative to male comedians who recount their spouses’ maternity ward experiences in visceral detail.

“I’ve heard lot of men do routines about their wives in childbirth that seemed either derogatory, shocking or grotesque, but I realised I’d never heard anyone talking onstage in a positive way about their own experience”.

When she first started stand-up over 20 years ago, people would dismiss childbirth as “just women’s issues – as if that meant they were insignificant or not worth talking about”, she recalls. “But what I found was that pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding” – she says each word with an excited verbal punch in the air – “are genuinely the biggest things that have ever happened to my body and my brain, and I was desperate to talk about it. They’re much more epic to me than climbing a mountain.”

People were keen to tell her beforehand how “nightmarish” giving birth would be, emphasising how harrowing the agony would be. She went through a 50-hour hypnobirth. “People act as if it’s terrible and bad. It’s not that it isn’t painful – it is – but it’s just this massive thing that’s loving, and an incredible proving of strength and like a feat of endurance. It’s more like running an ultramarathon!

“People act like you should be frightened of it, but what they should say is: ‘You’re about to do something big and you’re going to feel tested but you’re perfectly chosen to given birth to your own baby. And afterwards, you’ll feel like a warrior.’”

Tender partly questions how to remain sanguine while “trying to process the sheer terror and scale of the climate crisis” and, like many, Long finds a beacon in 17-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. “You get the superheroes you deserve because she is not someone willing or able to temper her language, to schmooze, to sugar-coat things for people.”

Sometimes she wishes Thunberg would hug her, reassuring her with a soothing ‘Don’t worry it’ll be all right.’ “But we don’t need that,” she adds. “We need what Greta is doing, which is saying: ‘Hope is bourgeois – just do the work.’” Thunberg is also a good yardstick, she feels, to judge people by. “If someone dislikes her, they’re obviously the worst people alive. Piers Morgan doesn’t like her? Quelle surprise!”

Long was once dubbed the David Bowie of comedy for her ability to reinvent herself with each tour, switching from the personal to the political. As a powerful socialist voice, she admits it was “gutting” when Labour suffered its worst defeat since 1935 at last year’s general election.

“It’s harder to be a socialist now,” she says. “We almost came out of nowhere, were flying high and now the system has pushed back and put us in our place. I feel we’re like nu-metal – for five years, everywhere was nu-metal, everyone had a DJ onstage, and now who wants to book Limp Bizkit? Nobody! But at the same time, I think that truth and reality in human nature have a left-wing bias, so it’s not an option for me to give up.”

Although viewed as the Jeremy Corbyn continuity candidate, she’s backing Rebecca Long-Bailey in the Labour leadership race, as she worries about the party throwing the (no pun intended) baby out with the bathwater.

“As soon as Corbyn was elected, everyone was keen to tell everyone who’s a socialist that they were a cultist. But focus groups suggest our policies in the last election, like nationalising the railways, are popular and necessary – it would be a mistake for Labour to abandon them.”

A passionate advocate of grassroots activism, she’s co-founder of Arts Emergency, a charity that provides mentorship and opportunities to help marginalised young people into higher education and creative careers. “That’s why I feel heartened – because I see the effects. We have young people who came through our pilot scheme who’ve been to university and are now helping people five years younger than them.”

Long started performing comedy at the age of 14, and was nominated for best show at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards three years in a row. As someone who’s appeared on panel shows, does she ever feel complicit in the rise of Boris Johnson – who finessed his “character” through appearances on Have I Got News For You?

“That’s harsh on guests,” she fairly disclaims. “But if I were a team captain on HIGNFY? then yes, I think I would feel complicity. Things like Boris Johnson going on the show have been dangerous and helped enable him to create a friendly persona which is completely at odds with the reality of his politics and behaviour.”

Shuddering, she remembers appearing on the show with Jacob Rees-Mogg in 2013, where she couldn’t play along with his cartoonish Big Dickensian Energy persona that she says smokescreens his pro-austerity, anti-equality voting record. When they first met backstage, he was polite, and she batted his conversation away like a wasp.

“I was rude to him but I thought: I don’t want to be your friend. You have blood on your hands. The coalition government is responsible for 140,000 unnecessary deaths. The shtick was the posh comedian guest host – who’s friends with David Cameron – and Jacob Rees-Mogg were funny toffs. I couldn’t go along with it – it wasn’t funny to me. I kept thinking: how can I be a comedian when this clownish buffoon is so sinister?”

She hasn’t been booked for the programme since. “I found the experience alienating, upsetting and difficult. There are political comedians who can interview Nigel Farage and laugh with him like he’s a mate down the pub, but I care about the political stuff I talk about and can’t just brush it aside.”

When Long came to prominence, there was a cliché that comedy belonged to the left wing; however, recent times have witnessed the rise of “anti-woke” stand-ups, seeking to portray that they’re transgressively storming the portcullis of political correctness.

“It just see it as a bunch of grifters,” says Long. “When I look at people who are supposedly ‘anti-woke’, I see people who five years ago would have tried to be clean-eating gurus. Now what they’re doing is pretending they can’t say anything while saying exactly what it is they want to say – and pretending they don’t have a platform in an article in the Spectator. Some of them are bitter people who’ve failed in other ways and now they’ve found an audience of impressionable, disillusioned people.” She laughs. “Stick the fucking boot in, eh?”

She insists her daughter won’t grow up having both parents make comedic hay out of the minutiae of her life. “Neither of us share photos of her; we’re anxious to protect her. Also, it would be my living nightmare if she became a stand-up comedian because I feel like I don’t want her to be traumatised enough to want to go into show business,” she laughs. “All we’re talking about at the moment is her lovely presence in her lives – we won’t be doing routines when she’s older saying: ‘Oh, my teenager’s such a dick!’”

Like many potent political voices, Long is deluged with abuse on social media – although becoming a parent has helped her form an emotional bulwark against it. “I got backlash for just existing as a woman comedian 10 years ago,” she shrugs. “I just know that every couple of years, there’ll be a new way that I will get death and rape threats online. When I first started getting misogynist abuse, it really hurt me and put a dent in my confidence. Then about three years ago, I got abuse from a YouTube conspiracy theorist and his friends, and that was really frightening and I had to regroup confidence wise.

“But the good thing about becoming a parent is I truly could not give a fuck now. I feel absolutely bulletproof. I feel like it was a Pokémon evolution and now I’m in my final form.”

Josie Long is currently on tour with Tender and in the north visits Leeds City Varieties, 1 March; Liverpool Epstein Theare, 5 March; Brewery Arts, Kendal, 6 March; and Lancaster’s Dukes on 13 June

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Interact: Responses to A Long evolution

  • Robert
    11 Feb 2020 17:34
    The correct term for what you describe as Boris Johnson's 'character' is a 'mask.' A wide range of psychological deviants, including psychopaths, narcissists, Machiavellians and the brain-tissue damaged wear false personas or 'masks' in order to conceal their true nature. We need to wake up to the pathologies of many of our so-called 'leaders'. We also need to wake up to the reality that they wear 'ideological masks' i.e. belief systems that they claim to believe in, in order to get into positions of power. * [Studies suggest] that Machs are especially inclined to use thought manipulation, deceit, and ingratiation. Machs are also more likely to use friendliness and emotional tactics, possibly because of their ability to stay emotionally detached from a situation (Grams 8:; Rogers, 1990). In M.R. Leary & R.H. Hoyle (Eds.), Individual differences in social behavior (pp.93-108). New York: Guilford. C H A P T E R 7, Machiavellianism, DANIEL N. JONES, DELROY L. PAULHUS (2009) * While narcissists are often perceived as being above average, witty, captivating, skillfully deceptive and convincing, intelligent, and extremely capable of finding the weaknesses in people, getting their way is often accomplished with disarming glib and flippant responses or explanations, lies, fabrications, or bluffs and even abrupt and direct threats when questioned about their facts. 'Narcissism and ASPD in leaders in the 21st century', Dr. Fred Burkle * Many people with various hereditary deviations and acquired defects develop pathological egotism….. Such egotism is always linked to a dissimulative attitude, with a Cleckley mask over some pathological quality being hidden from consciousness, both one's own and that of other people. 'Political Ponerology', A. Lobaczewski

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