First Gig Worst Gig

Chelsea Birkby

Chelsea Birkby

The modern British summertime: more fringes than an early-80s edition of Smash Hits. Before Edinburgh's intriguing comeback in August there are lots of much smaller fringes, often featuring Edinburgh shows, in earlier incarnations. Chelsea Birkby, for example, is revving up at the Ludlow Fringe on 24th June, and Bedfringe in Bedford on 22nd July. But what is that show?

"No More Mr Nice Chelsea is my first stand-up hour and it's about what it is to be 'nice' and lovely," the Oxfordshire comic explains, "and if that's what we really want anyway. Like innocence vs guilt and how to embrace the things you were told were bad!

"Remember when Christina Aguilera went from Genie In A Bottle-sweet to 'too dirty to clean her act up' in the Dirrty video? It's like that but if Xtina was from Milton Keynes and asked people in the video if they still liked her."

This show has been "brewing a little while", says Birkby, a regular Mock The Week writer who's garnered much acclaim for her own dark material, notably about mental health. "I had a different debut planned - Sexistentialism, about shame and philosophy - but after the lockdowns I felt like doing something really fun and fresh and thoughtful and here it is!"

And how finished is it, heading into these dates?

"It's in good shape now, I'm scared this is a trap! I just want an ending that's a clear big finish but not too neat, like in a good film except the camera can't really pan out - the best I can do is just slowly back away? And I don't know if that's the done thing."

Anything goes at the Fringes. Now, back to the walls of Jericho.

First gig?

My first gig fell on April Fools' Day and I was worried it was all a big prank, especially after I was told it was a double spot. It was for Oxford's finest, Jericho Comedy, still the place I feel most comfortable on stage. I was given ten minutes but when I was cycling to the second of the gigs, I looked at my watch and six minutes had passed. I must have just raced through it.

The second show right after, I must have taken time to breathe and let people laugh, which they did. I remember them really going for the punchline "award-winning shrubbery" - I wasn't afraid to tackle the big topics early days. There were maybe 50 people in each room, and six acts on the bill, but it's mostly a blur. I just remember cycling home thinking 'this is it, this is what I want'.

Chelsea Birkby

Favourite show, ever?

Okay, shoot me for self-promoting but me and Eva Bindeman run a female-led night in Bristol with a hunk of the month. The first one especially was an absolute dream.

I was MCing and I have this new thing where I've rebranded as really nasty and I try to be hostile to the audience. It becomes extra playful as MC, making the audience feel welcome and also calling them horrible things with a big smile. Eva said "we just didn't know what you were gonna do next" which maybe isn't typically the compliment for an MC.

Working with Eva is a highlight of my career, and also she's one of the best-dressed comics out there. Burt Williamson was our hunk and a dear friend and I said "I don't wanna throw him under the bus, but..." and he came on to joyful boos, him with his middle finger in the air, Jenny Hart opened and smashed it and Amy Gledhill closed and was just a ray of sunshine.

They've all been a delight, but that one for me was that kinda night where everyone's a gem and everything feels fun and easy and light and the audience were so up for it.

Worst gig?

Me and Jamie D'Souza were doing our split-bill Bad Boys at the Fringe. One night, it just wasn't going great. I'd MC at the beginning and they didn't like me, so I was like 'okay let's just bring Jamie on, he's non-stop gags, this will get them on board'. But they weren't feeling him either, which makes no sense.

Then, uh oh, me again - the one they didn't like before is back for more! At some point the stage fell over and an audience member audibly said "what is happening", I think they meant it for their friend but we could see and hear it all. We also had a disco light for no reason and that would rhythmically illuminate their sombre, confused faces.

I don't think we did a bucket speech that night, we just said "sorry". I wouldn't change a thing. Jamie is a big Morrissey fan (music not politics) and, well Jamie, to die by your side is a heavenly way to die.

The other worst gig isn't funny to me yet. Suffice to say, it was a misbooking. Before I drove home, I went to check in my front cam if my contact lenses were in after all the crying. My phone at the time auto-captured when it detected a smile, and I guess it hadn't picked up the subtlety between a grin and a sob. Now I have that forever I guess?

Chelsea Birkby

Which one person influenced your comedy life most significantly?

Alex Farrow. No one has better comedy analysis, a sharper mind or a more considerate approach to the audience. I love that the topics are unexpected, but always accessible, and meaning and jokes are never sacrificed for the other. He also has this habit of being able to completely fix a joke, which is as helpful as it is devastating. So him. Also Mr Blobby, Simon Amstell, and the book Angus, Thongs And Full-Frontal Snogging.

And who's the most disagreeable person you've come across in the business?

You guys like to start shit, hey! I mean, I've had people be inappropriately sexual and that's a shame isn't it.

I'm really resisting the urge to make a joke here to lighten the mood (just wrote one about the Cheeky Girls) or talk about all the good people in the business (many).

Is there one routine/gag you loved, that audiences inexplicably didn't?

I have this bit about how when I'm really depressed all I want is Bernard's watch, from that 90s show with the kid who can stop time. And it had an act-out of him as he was: a hipper young kid with a supportive nuclear family, stopping time to help his Grandad find his specs before snooker.

Then I'd show how it'd be if he used it like how I wanted, after a colleague is like "Bernard, can you get back to me on this before close of play?" and Bernard just clicks it and sobs for a solid minute, before composing himself, pressing the timer again and said "sure, no probs".

I think something about the way I did it was maybe too real for an audience? I might donate it to an act people are less pained by. Or change it to Bernard like wanking or something. But we'll all know the true meaning of the bit (despair xoxo).

Was there a particular moment, when you started discussing more serious stuff on stage?

Literally my second gig. I was like great, I've tackled award-winning shrubbery, next let's do the concept of shame and going to day hospital. Is this too sincere? Shall we go back to industry gossip? Once, a promoter messaged me "saw this and thought of you" and it was a casting call for "unusual looking models". It wasn't a joke (but I'm @chelseabirkby on Insta if you wanna see for yourself).

Any reviews, heckles or post-gig reactions stick in the mind?

My Mum heckles. She came to a triple-hander I did early on. She ordered a bottle of wine for one (icon), encouraged about six people from the pub to come in (legendary) and then 10 minutes in shouted "bipolar!" mid-set.

Chelsea Birkby

I had to say that classic heckle put-down "thanks, Mum", then "No really, that's my Mum". When I asked why she did it she said "I think that material is better". Fair play. I love her very much. I'm also careful what I invite her to.

How do you feel about where your career is at, right now?

I can't believe I get to do this! I am overwhelmed that across the country, people find the same things funny as I do, and will listen to me joke about like, Nickelback or GBH or Camus. It makes me next-level happy that people I admire and respect work with me, like what I do and come and see me.

When I think what I would have thought about that in my early/mid 20s, when I was a little lost, I feel stunned. And, and this is honest, some days I want it all: more, more, more. But then when I think about the parts of comedy I love the most, it's rooms made with care and of, like 50 people, and acts doing completely what they want to do, playing for the room. And if I could keep doing that forever, I think I'd have nailed it.

But, yeah, I'm also getting my teeth done and am on acne medication again, so if TV does come knocking, or if anyone wants an unusual looking model...!

Chelsea Birkby: No More Mr Nice Chelsea is at the Edinburgh Fringe from 4th - 28th August.

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