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Rachel Fairburn is a stand-up comedian, and, with fellow comic Kiri Pritchard-McLean, presenter of the popular true crime podcast All Killa No Filla — a regular broadcast with each episode centred on a serial killer from history. Her most recent stand-up show The Wolf at the Door(2018) earned plaudits at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and can be caught at Manchester’s Frog & Bucket on Sunday 28 October.
¶ How did you begin your stand-up career?
Probably the uncoolest backstory. It was my Mum who convinced me to do it. When I was a kid, I was writing funny stories, and she said to me when I was really young, that I should do stand-up — I thought it was an awful idea. I saw an advert in my local paper for a stand-up comedy course, funded by a new deal from Labour. Everybody complained about it. They said: ‘is this really an economically viable thing to be funding?’ But I went and did that course in Manchester, and that’s how I started out.
Basically, people always bemoan comedy courses saying: ‘you can’t teach people to be funny’ — which is true — but you can teach people how to start out in comedy, and gradually get better. How would you know what to do when learning unless somebody told you? I think it was twelve weeks every Wednesday, and it built up to performing a five-minute set at a gig at The Comedy Store in Manchester. It was only for friends and family and stuff like that.
¶ Have you attempted the infamous Beat the Frog at the Frog & Bucket?
I’ve only done Beat the Frog twice in my life, and I didn’t succeed both times. Those are dead good for getting people on the stage, but I think gong-shows are horrible. I think it can destroy people’s confidence. I was quite lucky when I started out because I did quite well in a few competitions. From there it grew into ten-minute sets. So I had it quite easy, really.
¶ And would you say you had a natural confidence in any case, and this learning was a way to shape material?
Oh, god, absolutely not. I used to be really shy. I still am to a certain extent. I’m terrible with nerves, but particularly in my very early twenties. Once you’ve done a set it does help, and the course slowly stripped away the initial nerves, but I wasn’t confident at all. Very few comedians are. And if they are, they tend to be quite bad.
¶ That’s something that comes across particularly in comedians’ interviews with other comedians — something the likes of Richard Herring and Adam Buxton have tapped into so successfully on their podcasts. That affected comic stage persona appears and retracts and you sense more of that nervous humanity beneath.
Oh god, we’re all crippled with insecurities and nerves and self-doubt.
¶ How would you characterise your stage persona?
It is definitely a version of me, but not 100%. I’m certainly more myself on stage than I used to be, because when I started out I was really deadpan, doing one-liners and stuff like that. So the approach has changed. My persona is very much a harsh version of me — close but exaggerated.
Rachel Fairburn with an extract from her Edinburgh 2018 show 'The Wolf At The Door', Underbelly Bristo Square. Video published by Chortle UK.
¶ There is something troubling to me about the shorthand “Northern” comic, as if it is a particularly common silhouette. Have you come across this description?
Yes, it is something I get irritated by. Northern — I hate it being used as a characteristic, it just happens to be somewhere you are from. I often get called a ‘Northern club comic’ in reviews. That doesn’t make any sense. To me the stereotype of a Northern club comic is Bernard Manning, and that doesn’t really exist anymore. And the Northern clubs don’t exist anymore — there aren’t working men’s clubs where we all turn up and change between a stripper and a lass with a guitar. I gig all around the country with acts that are from all different places from all different walks of life — I’m not categorically ‘Northern’. It’s just so lazy of them… I think it’s something that needs to stop.
With shaping material, I can only talk about what I know, and that sometimes means I talk about Manchester. Or I talk about things that have happened to me, and they have happened to me in the North — but it doesn’t define my work. In fact, it’s quite hard to get away from sometimes, this snobby attitude that some comics and some reviewers have.
That said, I do think that when people have learnt to do stand-up in the North, you get very good very quickly. There’s a lot more expected of you when you get on-stage because of your accent: some audiences can be reactive and some can be really tough. I think it helps your growth. It might be because the open-mic scene in London is: five minutes and bring-a-friend and all that kind of nonsense.
¶ The divide is a little artificial. Oxford and Cambridge have an aura of Southernness, but so many graduates are Northern. Python were from all over the Isles.
Exactly. Liam Williams, for example, he’s from Leeds isn’t he? There are loads of examples that disrupt the division — which, let’s face it, really is a class-based one. I mean some of the biggest comedians in the country are from the North: Jason Manford, Sarah Millican, John Bishop. Some lazy journalists don’t listen to a word you say and just comment on the fact that your bolshy and from the North. Even though you never mentioned it.
¶ What are your thoughts on reviewers?
I used to get really bothered by what people said about me. And they would play on my mind for days. Now, I really don’t care. I think it’s lovely when you get a nice review, though that will never stop the bad ones. The problem is that everyone’s a reviewer now. They’ll comment on a clip of you on the internet, and they’re very quick to criticise blindly. I have got a problem with The List in Edinburgh — I think all the reviewers in there seem thoroughly depressed and don’t want to enjoy anything. And it’s a contest about who can make the snipiest remarks about somebody. That isn’t particularly helpful. It’s always annoying when somebody doesn’t get what you’re doing, but it is water off a duck’s back now.
I do read everything, as well. A lot of comics don’t read their reviews, but I do. All of them. Good, bad, indifferent.
What annoys me is somebody technically reviewing something that they can’t do. And that they haven’t any experience of — never having performed stand-up or even been on a stage. And you meet them and they are the most nervous people in the world. I can’t cook, but it would be like me doing a restaurant review. I wouldn’t know where to start. I’ve got no deep knowledge of the industry. That’s the basis on which reviews can be unfair, but they’re never going to go away; you might as well invite them in, to pen whatever it is they think about what you do.
¶ I went to some productions at the Manchester Fringe Festival in July, and afterwards there was an interesting blog post by Simon Naylor, the founder of Manchester Actors Platform and the 53two theatre. It’s a public post, and in it he berated the performers and reviewers alike for maintaining a sort of schmaltzy false relationship, with all the 5-star ratings and free tickets that brings with it. I was wondering what the atmosphere would be like behind the curtain at Edinburgh Fringe?
It’s strange, really: the majority of people who come to your show, you don’t know who they are. I don’t think reviewers should be allowed to be friends with the performer they are reviewing. I’ve been friend-requested on Facebook from reviewers. I don’t think so. You’re not pals with me. I don’t want to sit in a pub with you and have a drink. I wouldn’t ever willingly become friends or let a reviewer into my social group. It’s all a case of believing their opinion is more godly than it is and that that gives them a certain access. But generally most comedians don’t even care about them.
¶ A word that often comes up in reviews of you is ‘dark’. Is that a good fit?
Yeah! It’s weird, I don’t think my comedy is particularly dark. People say gallows-humour quite a lot. I’m interested in things that are a bit dark — for instance a good friend and I are writing a story together on WhatsApp: he does part one; I’ll do part two. He contacted me the other day and said ‘Oh my god, sometimes your sense of humour is shocking. Sometimes you can be so brutal’. I genuinely can’t see it. I’ve always been cynical — that’s how I would describe myself: cynical. I wouldn’t say dark. I’m not a shock-comedian, I’m not being distasteful. I’m just making jokes about whatever has happened to me. If that’s dark, then so be it. But to be honest, I don’t mind. I quite like it.
¶ All stand-up at least flirts with gallows-humour anyway, doesn’t it? A dance to escape dying on-stage. Nobody laughs at success.
No! Nobody wants to see anybody having a great time and getting on with their life. I don’t care how happy someone is. Exactly. I think the performer should act as though they feel they are slightly better than the audience, but the audience should look at the performer and think ‘well, at least I’m not them’ — or: ‘that happened to me, and I can laugh at that, as well’.
¶ I’m interested in how you put a show together. Do you consider it a writerly pursuit where you work out common themes, a beginning and an end, structural conceits — or does it come through performance and it evolving over time?
It’s a bit of both. I approached my show differently this year, different to how I usually would. I wrote most of it as I would say something out loud. I would go to the library from 9–5, old-school, no laptop, just all these notebooks. And I would write out my material word-for-word as I would say it, then adjust it to make it funnier and move bits around. What I’m always looking for is just saying something in my own voice, really — I think that’s most important. Sometimes when you’re writing you can put something down and it would not match what my character would say. So: how would I describe this scenario? — but more importantly — how would or should she say it? The month before Edinburgh, I would be thinking about material more than I would be writing it — imagining it, playing out images — and then a little later I will sit alone and write it all out.
¶ When I saw you last at Frog & Bucket, you were compering that night. Of course all compering roles involve those little pockets where you can dip into your material, and those moments where you have to be spontaneous and work the room. That night there were two women in the front row.
¶ You remember them, then?
I do remember them, I don’t think I’ll ever forget them.
¶ And there were moments where — having seen 'The Wolf at the Door' before that night — you could see where you were headed, and then one of them would shout something and you’d be derailed. How do you navigate situations like that?
Usually people are fine once you say, ‘alright you’ve had your moment now, shush away’. I think the problem with that lady that night was she was so drunk — and slightly mad, she had an altercation with the bouncer as it happens — that there’s nothing more you can do, and you need the comedy club to step in. You don’t want them to ruin everyone else’s night. I think the comedy club should be a little bit more on it. Sometimes you can’t really go in too hard, either. I’ve seen some comperes attack really quite relentlessly when this individual has just chipped in a little bit, and tried to get involved in the night and enjoy it. The individual ends up getting chastised and it becomes an unpleasant atmosphere. You can’t go out there thinking, ‘I wish someone would say this so I can say that’. I think sometimes the best thing you can do is not even try to make it funny, just simply state: ‘okay, we’ve had our little interaction now. Moving on’.
¶ What I find interesting about your podcast All Killa No Filla is that throughout these discussions of horror and the demi-monde — you could argue not the funniest of contexts — you still manage these asides allowing yourself and Kiri to deflate the tension. So your relationship is at an angle to those in your stories — often evil men and brutalised women. How do you work that out without it seeming insensitive?
Although I can appreciate the situations are absolutely horrific, and of course I feel compassion for the victims and the families of the victims — I don’t ever feel frightened by it. It doesn’t make me nervous. It’s more of a fascination into why somebody has done what they did. I don’t place myself in the shoes of the victims — though I think Kiri does. Maybe I’m desensitised, I don’t know. It’s just important not to focus on the way someone’s been killed, because you don’t want that person to just be the the girl who was killed this way, the girl who was hacked to death who nobody knows the first thing about. It would just be too gory to describe someone’s death in this way in too much detail — which we never do. You just have to be respectful about it — you need to give a sense of the person who was killed. What was their name? What did they do? What did they like to do? I mean: at least get the name right. That’s something that a lot of True Crime podcasts seem to forget sometimes.
¶ What was it that interested you in the first place? Was it a common interest of both of you?
Me and Kiri didn’t know each other till we started the podcast. We’d never gigged together. She found out she lived across the road from me, which was great, and people were saying to us: ‘you two should meet. You’re both interested in serial killers’. Then Kiri contacted me and said: ‘look, do you fancy doing a podcast? I think we should do one about serial killers’. And I agreed, and it just started from there. I didn’t know her very well, and you can tell from the first two episodes that we definitely don’t. I think in the podcast, as well as it being about True Crime, you do see a friendship grow — and there is nothing now that Kiri and I won’t tell each other. We’ve got absolutely no boundaries — which is both nice and slightly concerning. I think that’s why, partly, it has been so successful, because you’ve got a genuine female friendship, and I think you can hear it evolve through the podcast.
¶ And that provides you those useful moments in which you can bring in your naturally funny personalities, and also some of your material. Do you develop stand-up material from the podcast and its mode: how it forces you to think on your feet?
Yeah, that’s definitely happened. Both of us have said something spontaneously on the podcast and later on had thought that it would be a good bit. That we could take it away and develop it. It’s certainly made my compering a lot stronger as well, because it’s just a mode of talking and talking and talking and being comfortable with it. It’s also good to practice for certain types of live shows where we pick each other up and read each other. If I’m telling the audience about some dreadful part of a story that is depressing, she is great at picking up the atmosphere and changing the pace. In the same way: if the audience isn’t going for something with one of us, the other knows to chip in, to rescue each other.
¶ And you’ve just come back from your tour in the US. How was the podcast received over there?
It was great. It went so fast. The audiences were lovely, and they were so pleased for us to be there. At the end of the show we would say ‘thank you so much for coming’, and we’d hear: ‘No. Thank you’. It was lovely. The venues were top, the people, too. There was just so much travelling in-between that we were both shattered. Small price to pay to tour America with something we record in the spare room.
¶ Practically speaking, how is that financed? You don’t receive ad revenue?
We don’t have adverts. And we never will. It’s just from live shows and LiveNation who produce our shows, so they sorted it all out. But we will never have adverts and we don’t like, you know, begging for money. We are by no means rich from it. Certainly something to bear in mind. People for some reason think we are absolutely loaded from this podcast, and we’re like: ‘you have no idea’.
¶ Podcasts are unrivalled for people with special interests, and particularly allowing access to comics you might like, but it seems the British model just isn’t a monetisable one?
I think as well to make money from something like True Crime it does feel a little bit grubby. We make donations to charities instead. You just can’t profit off of someone’s murder — it’s just not on, is it.
¶ Your stand-up, and to some extent the podcast, is quite iconoclastic in the sense that you pull apart these strangely glorified figures. I know you are a big fan of the band Oasis — have you ever met your heroes and were you disappointed?
I’ve been really lucky. I met both Noel and Liam Gallagher and they were really, really lovely. I’m happy to never have been disappointed. None of my heroes are stand-up comedians.