2022 Edinburgh Fringe

Hannah Fairweather: How Taylor Swift helped me write my Edinburgh Fringe show

Hannah Fairweather. Copyright: Karla Gowlett

Comedians are often asked about their greatest comedic inspiration - and I'm no different from your average comic, in that mine has always been Taylor Swift.

I have such admiration for Swift that I (rather obnoxiously) refer to myself as the "Taylor Swift of comedy". This is because, like Swift, my work is personal, of the narrative storytelling genre, and often about people who have wronged me in the past.

I sincerely believe Swift is the best comedy writer SNL has ever hired and I love almost everything she has done. I must insist my views are not biased and I'm not a crazed fan - despite having admitted to her inspiring my comedy persona (and I'll be honest, real-life personality) - I did have to say "almost everything" because I have never and will never watch Cats.

These are the top 5 things Taylor Swift has taught me about comedy:

1. My work is not about me

Comedy is by nature a narcissistic endeavour and I discuss my experiences but I never want to perform the 'Hannah monologues'. I want my words to resonate with audiences, making them reflect on their own experiences the same way I do when I listen to Taylor Swift.

Swift writes personal and detailed stories about her life, but I rarely think about Swift when I listen to her - I think about people in my life who have made me feel the feelings she is singing about.

The specificity with which she describes emotions and experiences makes me feel she has stolen and ghost-written my diary, which is why I love her music - she articulates feelings in a way that makes me feel seen and understood.

The more honest and open and specific and detailed you are, the more people can relate to the nuances and intricacies - Swift taught me if you make it personal, it becomes universal.

2. Self-awareness is key

In comedy, you need to know, at all times, how you're being perceived and why. At gigs, you need to respond to every possible reaction, and when writing you need to be able to predict what the audience will think about you at any given point, from the moment you walk on stage, in order to build your show with the perfect peaks and troughs.

Earlier, I said I rarely think of Taylor Swift when I listen to her. When I do, it's because she wants me to. She knows when and how best to respond to the countless misrepresentations of her personal life - one that has been unfairly scrutinised and mocked within pop culture.

There exists a symbiotic relationship between her storytelling about her life and the media coverage of it, where she often directly addresses the latter in her writing. She was portrayed as a serial dater who wrote songs in a deliberate effort to achieve a form of emotional revenge on ex boyfriends and responded by writing Blank Space; a satire from the perspective of this absurd character the media had created. She directly addresses rumours and mischaracterisations, taking back control of her own narrative. And unlike a lot of comics, she doesn't use the notes app or podcast appearances to do so.

3. How to write a great call back

Taylor Swift's work is not only self-aware but also self-referential, and if you study her complete discography (which I believe you should!), you will note she has changed her perspective on love and life throughout her career - and she often addresses these developments via a call back.

In an hour show, you want to take people on a similar (albeit condensed) journey, showing what you've learned, and calling-back to earlier parts of the show in a subtle and surprising way.

Not a single comedian does call backs better than Swift and this is a hill I will die on. Just one example from the Taylor Swift call back masterclass (my side hustle and future Mastermind topic of choice) is Coney Island - a song consisting, almost entirely, of call backs to previous lyrics. In this song, each verse is written from the perspective of different people she has previously written about.

Hannah Fairweather

4. Attention to detail, themes, references and clever metaphors can elevate art

This may sound obvious but the most important thing to prioritise when writing comedy is being funny. I'm no musician but I presume creating a song that is an enjoyable listen is paramount too. In both art forms, however, your work can be elevated if you include more clever details, references, themes and metaphors throughout.

Taylor Swift's attention to detail, themes threaded and layering within her work is the stuff of Edinburgh Awards. For example, Marjorie is a beautiful song even without analysing every word - but when you do, it gets even better. Majorie is about her late grandmother and the feeling that a loved one is still around even when they are gone. What elevates it is that her grandmother was a singer whose recordings form the backing vocals - making lyrics like "if I didn't know better, I'd think you were singing to me now" even more poignant.

She also does this sort of layering with nods to world events, politics and literature, and I try to do the same in my comedy - after first ensuring my jokes are funny, I include nods or metaphors to things that are much bigger than my own story.

5. Standing up for yourself is not petty

My debut Edinburgh Fringe show Just A Normal Girl Who Enjoys Revenge is partially inspired by a lyric of Taylor Swift's - "I've got a list of names and yours is in red underlined, I check it once, I check it twice" from Look What You Made Me Do.

Although my show involves me reading though my list of everyone who has wronged me in the past, I am discussing my own feelings about my own experiences in my own life. Like Swift, I have noticed that doing so opens you up to criticism and people don't love it when women stand up for themselves. Just the premise of my show can have people assuming I'm petty, which is something that I don't believe would happen if I were a man - after all, having a list and checking it twice is never considered petty when Santa Claus does it.

Knowing when to stand up for yourself is the most important lesson I have learnt from Swift - after being called a "snake" she pointed out that snakes only tend to bite when stepped on. I think, much like Swift has said, if you don't want to be written about, then maybe you shouldn't do bad things.

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