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Circuit Training 143: Maisie Adam is Making the Most of It

Maisie Adam

It's been quite a half-decade for Harrogate and District's finest, Maisie Adam. From an hour-long first-ever-stab-at-stand-up at the 2016 Ilkley Fringe to every TV show under the sun, she's basically packed a 15-year career into less than five. And live stages were closed for a bunch of them.

Which does raise the question: have the lockdowns halted Maisie's marvellous momentum? Or were they a useful breather on that rapid ascent?

Adam is appearing at the Chester Comedy Festival on Monday night, which is well-timed (as a big football fan she'll be well aware that a good communal laugh will be welcome, what with everything). That festival runs until 22nd July and also features Jason Manford, Reginald D Hunter, Ed Byrne, Rachel Fairburn, and lots of other talented folk.

So how did the now Brighton-based comic make such a splash? Well, some of that why-the-hell-not spirit probably comes from her mum, who your correspondent also once interviewed, oddly enough. We'll get to that, plus Zoom weirdness, Maisie's pre-fame debacle on The Chase, workplace envy issues, and how comedians can be curiously covid-like.

Let's head down to the coast, via Zoom.

How did you end up in Brighton then, Maisie?

When I first started in comedy I was living in rural Yorkshire, tiny village, and as gigs started to pick up everyone's going 'you've got to be in London'. But I don't know, I love London as a place to go for the day; I don't think I could live there. My brother was at uni in Brighton, and the Brighton Fringe was on. And I was just like, 'Oh, yeah, this is the place'.

Speaking of family, I've interviewed your mum, when she launched this very cool music-themed literary festival...

Louder than Words, yeah! When my mum started that festival, it was her and [mohicanned music journalist and musician] John Robb, and me and my dad would help out a bit. Not to sound all melty, but I'm so proud of her, I think she's in the fifth year or sixth year now, and it's grown hugely, the names she's managed to have on.

So you weren't in comedy back then?

Probably not. I didn't do my first gig until October 2016. I'd have just been the daughter who's moved back in after university and is trying to figure out what to do with her life.

Maisie Adam. Copyright: Andy Hollingworth

So growing up, did you have people like John Robb turning up at your house?

No, my mum worked at Leeds Met University before the festival, she'd work in schools that were in special measures and advise how best to get out of that. And so growing up, we were just always hanging around mum's office. When she left the uni, I used to say that she was like the Supernanny of education, she'd advise these schools in Leeds. And then she was like, 'I want to do this festival.'

Watching her do that - from something as strict and streamlined as the education sector to 'this is my passion, so I'm going to put on my own thing about it' - I'd say I've learned a lot going into comedy from that. I wasn't ever concerned or daunted by the sort of DIY-ness of stand-up comedy, because I'd watched my mum do it. I think if you've got enough passion for something, it becomes apparent.

I think there's something quite punk about both of them, stand-up and doing what my mum did. You put on your own event. You market it, you sell it, you advertise it. And you learn as you go.

The education side too, some parents are probably worried for their children getting on stage, but it's less scary than facing a classroom of kids.

That's way more daunting. My brother is a geography teacher now, I played football with him last night, and I'm like, oh my god, your job is so much harder - I do 20 minutes of jokes.

As a teacher you can't do 10 minutes, decide it's not going well and come off.

Exactly! 'Yeah, they weren't really my sort of class.' 100%, I would be that person. I'd be the worst teacher.

How did you find lockdown? You'd built up so much momentum beforehand...

I did. I was aware that stuff was going really, really, good... and then this pandemic hit. There's an element of, 'Oh God, was this my one shot, and I've just been unlucky, the timing?' But then you have to reset and go, 'well, it's not like you're on hold and everybody else is able to crack on'. Literally, everything stopped for everyone.

And then I started to look at the flip side, I'm still relatively new; I think a lot of comedians who've been going longer really struggled to adapt, and to adjust to this mad new world, this new online format of stand-up. Comedians are a certain type of person; when your job relies on being the centre of attention to a roomful of people, a pandemic is a really alien time.

But in those last five years I've gone from doing those starting gigs, to paid 10s, paid 20s, maybe some TV stuff, festivals, I'd really started to be like, 'oh, stand-up can be all these different things'. So actually when this came along, it's just another new thing to get used to.

The Ranganation. Image shows from L to R: Richard Madeley, Maisie Adam, Romesh Ranganathan. Copyright: Zeppotron

How did you find gigging again; did you do them between lockdowns too?

Yeah, that was mad as well, you were suddenly allowed back, but people had to be having a meal whilst you're on, and had to be done by 10. Then it was back into lockdown, then it was okay to gig but it has to be in the beer garden under a gazebo.

I don't want to say a blessing in disguise. But it's been a real challenge. And one that you've just had to rise to, and I think that can only make you a better comic.

I don't think I'll ever be as nervous about Edinburgh again - 'Oh God, I've got to do all these gigs every day' - that's amazing to have a gig every day. And I won't ever turn up for a five-spot and go 'god, is this the venue?' At least there is a venue. At least you're not having to do it in a beer garden to three people sat in the rain.

I wonder if this is how it felt when comedy started, in the 80s, the punky alternative days.

That's the thing, especially as a newer act, you're always hearing what it was like in the old days. Especially in Edinburgh, where people quite rightly have their gripes about it being very expensive now; the Edinburgh machine. And there's an element of you that's like, 'alright, but this is all I've ever known, can we just enjoy this please.'

But a lot of comics will tell you, when it was first the Fringe, and it was that real grassroots, punk thing, just rock up and do it wherever; I do think that that happened again this year. And it may even act as a bit of a check-yourself moment for the industry: remember that you need the industry rather than the comedians need you. Because we've seen it, comedians will find a way to get out there.

So you're saying comedians are like a virus.

Yeah, basically. Oh god...

Talking about nerves in Edinburgh, how were those first gigs, after that long break?

After the most recent lockdown I booked myself in for a gig at [London club] Top Secret, which I just love, and it's sort of notoriously nice; it sounds sort of cheating, but I just needed a nice one to get the confidence back. I don't think I've had nerves like that - literally my hands were shaking backstage, and I was only doing 10 minutes.

So You Think You're Funny?. Image shows from L to R: Aisling Bea, Morgan Rees, Maisie Adam, Sarah Mann, David O'Doherty

I don't think I've had nerves like that since perhaps the So You Think You're Funny? final. I literally thought 'I might be sick here,' - then I just I did it and it was great. But I remember coming offstage from that 10 minutes at Top Secret and being like, 'how the hell did I used to do twice that long, every night, and not even think about it?'

I would just turn up to the venue, wouldn't have to go over my set, chatting to all the other comics and then just walk on and away we go. And with this, I was going over me set, over me set, trying to remember.

You'd have to build it up again I suppose? Not many people were doing long shows on Zoom.

No, although NextUp did a thing last year where it was all long shows. I'd booked it in like February, March when we all thought 'well, it'll only be a couple of months.' At that point, Edinburgh was still on, so just think of it as a work in progress. And then Edinburgh was cancelled.

Did you do it from home, where you are now?

Yeah, I was pretty terrified, to the point where I bought tickets to Sarah Keyworth's show, she was the night before me, because I just wanted to see what kind of vibe it is, what kind of challenges it might present, if there were any tech issues to look out for. It was genuinely sort of 'no, you go first, I'll watch you and then I'll go.'

I suppose it's like a regular gig, seeing how the previous acts get on with the crowd?

Yeah, and with the good Zoom shows, you can see the audience. At first, it felt very exposing to be on your camera, just speaking from your living room. But then you realise that all of these other people are visible from theirs, and that sort of levels the playing field. At a comedy club you can't tell what their house looks like, what they're having for dinner. Whereas suddenly you can see all of this on Zoom and 'god, they're doing all right for themselves, patio doors.' Or they've got a Banksy.

It gives you stuff to riff on...

That's definitely been helpful. It's like being given a whole briefing sheet on each person, you suddenly know what their wallpaper's like, if they're having chippy tea, one person would be sat on the sofa, got a wine, they've dressed up for it. And then the person next to them on the screen could be just filling out their tax return and you're on in the background. Other people were literally in bed in a different timezone, it was mad, and you're trying to do a set that caters to everyone.

That's A First. Image shows from L to R: Maisie Adam, Tom Lucy

Your podcast with Tom Lucy, That's a First!, is often done via Zoom - what's the most interesting thing you've seen behind the celeb?

The one with Joel [Dommett], he was having work done on his house. And we were going 'that's some big money work that's going on there; big money.' I think he's had to put electric gates in because the kids where he lived worked out that the bloke from The Masked Singer lived there and were shouting through his letterbox.

Electric gates. Me and Tom just found that hilarious as the most expensive solution to what is essentially just some kids taking the mick out of you.

But he's a perfect example: he's absolutely smashing his career, but he can completely laugh at himself. He's incredibly self-aware, which I imagine is quite difficult to cling on to when you've had the astronomical rise that he's had in the last couple of years. And he was great on the podcast.

You turned up in our British Comedy Quiz the other week - your first TV was appearing on The Chase as a student?

I basically just wanted a day off to have a go at winning some money. In our little flat we'd watch it every evening. And then we all applied, and I got on. And weirdly enough, out of all the Chasers, I was against Paul [Sinha]. I did really, really terribly, didn't win a penny and was the only one not to make it home.

Is he intimidating on there?

Terrifying, terrifying. He's quite intimidating anyway in that setup, with all the lights and everything. But when you really start to clock just how intelligent they are, how their brains work as professional quizzers, you're just in awe of them.

A couple of years later we were both performing at the same gig. I was like, 'do I mention it? They do like three recordings a day, he won't remember.' And he came up and said, 'did we work together?' I'm like, 'no'. 'Were you on The Chase? I know - you took the lower offer and still didn't make it.' And I was like, 'yeah, that was me, how do you remember?' And he said 'not that not many people do that badly.'

You weren't just desperately trying to get on telly then?

No, we were so bored in our third year of uni, we'd watch The Chase, and Catchphrase; we were also fuming about the fact that we'd paid, like, nine grand a year. 'Imagine if we won this, we could just pay off our student debt.' A few of them applied for Catchphrase, we applied for The Chase. We said let's not go for Pointless because you win like £1,500, that won't touch the sides of our debt. We were even meticulous about which prize money to go for.

And then I got the email, 'we'd like to have you on The Chase.' And literally all my flatmates were like, 'you've got to win, then we can not have this debt looming over us'. I remember coming home that night, and they were like, how was it? 'Sorry, guys, we're still in debt.'

I'm not going to ask how the student debt is looking now...

Still there, still there.

Did that help when you did your first telly as a comic, having been in that environment before?

I hadn't thought about that, but I guess so. It was at Elstree, and then my first TV show was at Elstree as well, 8 Out Of 10 Cats. I do remember when I did The Chase, being blown away how big those studios are. So that probably was helpful, I'd at least seen a setting with all the big cameras, the way they swoop in before an ad break and all of that.

Although there was no audience for The Chase. So turning up to 8 Out Of 10 Cats, 400 people, and now you're expected to be funny, sit down and come in with jokes. I think I was on with Rob Beckett and Russell Kane, who are great comedians, and they're like 100 miles an hour.

So it got to a point where you're like, 'I'm gonna have to barge in' - I'm still a little bit starstruck that I'm gigging with them, I'm now having to make that mental adjustment: 'you need to interrupt that person you went to see live when you were 12.'

8 Out Of 10 Cats. Image shows from L to R: Russell Kane, Oti Mabuse, Rob Beckett, Jimmy Carr, Sara Pascoe, Maisie Adam, Rylan Clark-Neal. Copyright: Zeppotron

Comedians aren't always gracious about people doing better than them - have you had much blatant envy about the TV work?

No, not openly to my face. Before, I could tell that I was getting a bit of excitement whipped up around me - 'This is great, this is my go!' And I thought that would stop with the pandemic. But actually I've been very lucky, I've managed to get quite a few exciting opportunities and sort of a rising profile throughout, which I'm super appreciative of.

But yeah, I've noticed since we're coming back to gigging, there's a fair bit of greenroom chat, and people will go, 'oh Maisie, you're on everything at the moment.' And you can't go 'Thank you!' Because it's not a compliment. And you can't go 'Yeah, I am.' Because then you sound like a dick.

You need a nice gag to come back at them with?

That's the thing, I'm really struggling to find what the right thing to say is; it's easier if they went 'you're getting loads of TV, and I don't understand why', at least then I'd know how to answer. So I guess that's something I'm still grappling with.

It is noticeable that the comics who become mega successful get slagged off a lot. It's just punching up I suppose.

That's the thing, I've loved coming up through comedy so far. But I've also been very aware that the biggest names, the biggest idols, you mention those names in a green room sometimes and it's just a lot of negative stuff that's said about them.

So I don't know, because I've often not met or worked with them yet; I don't know if it's bitterness at the fact that they maybe came up at the same time, but they went onto stratospheric success and that they didn't. Or if all the people at the very top tier of success are horrible people.

But I don't imagine that's the case. Most people who are successful, by and large, are successful because they're talented, but also because they're nice people. I've met way more nice people than not-nice people, on this journey so far.

Published: Monday 12th July 2021

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