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Interview: Comedian Kathryn Hanke thinks we can all make jokes about ourselves by tapping into our inner clown

During stressful periods, people need a burst of good laughter to relieve some of their anxiety. But it’s not always easy to find something that will genuinely make you laugh. Being a professional comedian means that laughter is your job. Actress and director Kathryn Hanke spent nine years touring the UK with sketch comedy troupe The Dog-Eared Collective. She later appeared on BBC One prank show Richard Hammond’s Secret Service (2013) and in the cult mockumentary The Art Bastard Show (2015). She also appeared on Reverse Darwinism (2019), Polterheist (2017) and Working Late (2017).

By Nikos Papanikolaou

Why did you choose to become a comedian? What is the thing that attracted you to comedy?

I fell into it by accident, really. There was a group of us at university who loved performing and creating work so when we graduated we decided to shut ourselves in a room one weekend and start creating material to see what would happen. What resulted was funny and absorbing characters and sketch material so we went with that. Since then, I’ve really tried to hone the craft of interacting with a live audience and using freeform unscripted material.

How do you manage to make people laugh when you’re not in the best mood?

The kind of character comedy I perform is a total escapism. By encompassing another character or persona, you leave your own thoughts and feelings behind and begin inhabiting someone else, so your own mood is irrelevant. Plus, any performer will tell you that audience laughter when you’re on stage is intoxicating, so that drives you on.

Is comedy is a coping mechanism to feel better about depressing things we can’t control, such as death, a serious illness, or UK politics?

I once read a book by Jonathan Lynn [creator and writer of Yes Minister] which said that all comedy comes from an inherent anger or frustration that the writer/creator feels about something – and I completely agree. I’m quite a positive and exuberant person, but all the comedy I write and develop myself tends to be a natural way for me to air things that frustrate me. And that is a very effective coping mechanism.

Photo by Direct Personal Management

Why does good comedy need to have a deep relationship with darkness, anxiety and pain?

My own philosophy is that comedy is all about familiarity – we laugh because we recognise something of ourselves in the struggle of others. So I wouldn’t say that it needs to have a relationship with anxiety and pain necessarily, but it needs to tap into the innermost emotions which leave us feeling exposed – so that others can recognise them and share the recognition.

Living in this dystopic present, do you think that people need comedy more than ever at the moment?

Yes, but I personally find that the strongest part of comedy is how people can be unified by laughing at things or appreciating the daftness of them – so in this way, I think what people need right now is that side of it, taking the discomfort and difficulty of our current circumstances and finding ways to share those with others and laugh together at them. Because simply laughing at someone else’s misfortunes for light relief may feel like a kick in the teeth when everyone is coping with so much!

Photo by Direct Personal Management

Why do we find it so hard to make a joke about ourselves?

I think if you tap into the clowning vein, it isn’t! You can be the butt of the joke entirely as that’s what makes people laugh. But stand-up is incredibly hard because there is very little veil between who you are (your sense of self and identity) and who people are laughing at. So that can feel combative. However, in my experience, if it’s a good joke and people laugh then that is it’s own reward. It’s when people don’t laugh and you get silence that it’s harder!

Is there a limit in satire? Do you think that there are things that a comedian should never joke about?

That’s a very difficult question. I think theoretically there shouldn’t be anything which is above any system of critique (which is what satire is essentially) but comedy is very subjective, so that view can subscribe you to opinions that you don’t agree with at all. It can also be a destructive or bigoted force if not aimed correctly, so I would say: ‘No, but handle with caution’.

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Where do you find inspiration for your jokes?

Everywhere. If comedy is familiarity then all you have to do is look around and tune in.

Some people argue that things have been oversensitive nowadays, and “we can’t even make a joke about anything”. What is the fine balance between making a joke about something and not being insulting?

Deciding what it is that you are pointing out within the joke to the audience. What is it that you want them to recognise? Or to find amusing? Is it your reaction to something or is it the thing itself? You have to decide if any of that is reliant on a pre-assumption, prejudice or mistruths, and if it is, you have to question why you want to raise it. You still can, but I think comedy has to be worked through a couple of times, pulled apart, understood – so that it stands up to scrutiny.

What is your favourite work so far, and why?

I love my job because no two days are the same, so it can make your memory bank feel like a church fete – stuffed to the rafters with kitsch and chaotic things you’d never believe existed – but this means it’s impossible to choose a favourite! How do you rate one random experience filled with smiles over another? That said, I couldn’t love the sketch group I worked with for nine years at the start of my career any more than I do. I feel like in those nine years we learned everything the hard way and consequently we built the comedy groundwork on which all my knowledge rests – so technically these days I just live in the house on top of it!