Aisling Bea interview: The prize-winning comedian with the CV of a veteran on bringing her second stand-up show to the Fringe

Bea's lust for getting a laugh has served her quite well so far
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The Independent Culture

"Some people get into comedy because they love comedy," announces Aisling Bea. "Then there are people who have a message and have realised that if they can be funny, maybe people will listen to it. And then there are people like me, who are just addicted to making people laugh. My friend calls it a 'tart for a laugh'. You'll do anything – you'd jump off a bridge if you thought you'd get a laugh."

Bea's lust for getting a laugh has served her quite well so far. At 31 and barely three years into a stand-up career, she already has the CV of a veteran. She won the So You Think You're Funny? competition in 2012 (previous winners include Peter Kay and Dylan Moran), only the second female to win in its 25-year history. Then, in 2013, she took her debut show to the Fringe and was nominated as Best Newcomer in the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Awards. A year later she won the British Comedy Award for Best Female TV comedian, and earlier this year she presented Channel 4's alternative election coverage alongside David Mitchell and Jeremy Paxman. "He's non-stop," she says of the broadcaster, adopting a posh Englishman's voice. "'Hello. How are you? What are you doing? Are you going to have a cup of tea? Well? Are you? Are you?'"

One imagines they got on quite well. Bea is pretty non-stop, too – an Irish motormouth in a neon hoodie with cat-like eyes and an alarming range of rubbery facial expressions. "Right now I've got a cold," she says sipping on a glass of green mulch. "But if I didn't, you might not be able to get a word in edgeways." Still, it takes a concerted effort for her to stop talking long enough to have her photograph taken. "Can I have that duck in the picture?" she asks, pointing at an ornament in the Brown Bear café in Islington where we meet. "Oh please can I? Pleeease?"

 

She is back at the Edinburgh Fringe this month with her second stand-up show, Plan Bea. The two-year gap isn't down to difficult second album syndrome: "It can't go better than it did," she says referring to her debut. "The only way is down. I've completely taken the pressure off myself". Rather, it's because she's been too busy with her "two other careers". Bea is also an actress. She put this show together in her evenings off from filming the new series of Trollied and, earlier this year, ITV's The Delivery Man. After Edinburgh she will start on Graham Linehan's futuristic new sitcom, The Cloud. She is also a writer and has just had a script commissioned by Channel 4 with Sharon Horgan.

Like her debut, Plan Bea is a high-energy, approachable hour of storytelling and jokes, still heavily coloured by her Irish upbringing but also inspired by her recent experiences of Los Angeles. She was there for pilot season, and will probably return this autumn. "I didn't mind it but I can imagine it being a very lonely thing," she says.

It wasn't lonely for her, as – typically – she threw herself into the local comedy scene. It was quite the learning experience. "Everyone gets five minutes, and because I talk so much, I panic at that. An hour show panics me a lot less than five minutes at the O2. How do you put yourself across and make sure people have a good time in five minutes?" American stand-up is also, she says, much less spontaneous. "In the UK and Ireland, crowd-work is a big thing. It shows you how funny someone would be if you met them off-stage. Americans don't care if you're funny off-stage. They want to see the writing; they want to see the work you did."

Bea is that old-fashioned showbiz thing – a triple threat, who acts, writes and jokes. "In America they call it the 'multi-hyphenates,'" she says, in an LA drawl. "If you're going to do this for a living you have to be able to tap-dance and sing, too. The more you can do, the better. Americans like workers, people who slog. I love working. It combines my two favourite things: loving working and loving complaining about working."

She was born Aisling O'Sullivan in Kildare, "a really horsey part of Ireland". Her mother, Helen, was a Flat-race jockey and later ran a jockey school. Her father, Brian, died when she was very young. She chose the name Aisling Bea (B for Brian) at drama school as there was already an actress called Aisling O'Sullivan. "My mother brought us up. I might do a show about that. Everyone has to do a 'Dead Dad Show' at some point. I was going to do it this year but I wasn't too bothered," she says. Her family was very "woman-heavy" – seven aunts on her mother's side, two on her father's. "I was raised by women. Almost like a test-tube-baby scenario – what would happen if you didn't introduce any males into a child's life until years later?"

She attended a convent school in Kildare, until she was 18. "I don't think we realised how much religion was beaten into us," she says. She is not religious now. "In fact I've quite turned against it in the last couple of years." The turning point was the Church's negative reaction to the Yes vote on same-sex marriage. "Just no. My aunt is a nun and she's one of the most amazing women I know. They're a brilliant group of women who go and do the dogsbody work that nobody else does, for free. The people who go and talk to refugees, who look after them, who give them soup. They're the women I feel sorry for – all the scandal taints the work that they do." Do they like her comedy? "Yeah. They're just happy when I remember all the words."

Although she worked as a tour guide on a stud farm as a teenager, Bea showed no signs of following her mother into horse racing. She and her younger sister, Sinead, were only interested in America, TV, and American TV as teenagers, and both bleached their hair blonde to match their idols. They live together now in Islington. Sinead is a Hollywood costume designer, currently working on the new Beauty and the Beast film with Emma Watson. "I come home and think I'll just give her a little light bullying and then send her to bed. And then she tells me what she's been doing and I think, 'Ah. You're a real adult with a professional job,'" says Bea.

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The other career: Aisling Bea in the Sky 1 sitcom 'Trollied' (Sky)

The creative genes come from their grandfather, Michael O'Suilleabhain, who was a Gaelic poet, and her great-aunt, Siobhan Ni Shuilleabhain, who was a Gaelic dramatist. Bea wrote "all the plays" at school then went to study French and philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, where she threw herself into the drama society. After university she went to Lamda, which she didn't really enjoy. "We learnt flamenco for two years – was that necessary, I wonder? I found the teachers told you a lot of things about your personality... and they're not psychologists. I don't think that's a totally fair thing to do to young people. You need to be careful. If you're getting into acting, you're kind of a sensitive, insecure weirdo. A lot of this job is 'like me!' and if it's not 'like me!' it's 'respect me!'"

She was soon pegged as a comic talent, though she knew nothing about comedy. "I knew Tommy Tiernan, Deirdre O'Kane and Father Ted and that's it," she recalls. "You don't get to exactly choose your career path: it's kind of chosen for you. When I came into drama school, I assumed it would be straight away into the National: show me the dead baby monologues, show me Medea. I had bleached blonde hair and an Irish accent – I soon realised I wasn't going to get the lead English roles."

Her break was Horgan's sitcom Dead Boss. It was while she was filming it that she decided to give stand-up a go. She went home one night and booked 20 gigs in one go. "To get over being scared... The only way to get better is to gig. All of a sudden I was winning a stand-up competition and people were saying, 'Oh, would you consider acting?' I'd been doing it for six years!"

Her acting training has helped her with comedy – particularly on television. "Knowing where to look and stuff, that's never thrown me. Being on stage is not something I need to learn. [But] to learn the craft of stand-up is still a process. The Edinburgh show will only be level two. You can get lots of success, but there's success in financial terms and people knowing your name, and then there's success in really knowing your job. With stand-up, if a gig doesn't go well, I don't have the 15 years behind me yet to know why."

Is her stand-up personality – irrepressible, friendly, puppishly excitable – an act? "It definitely helps to have done acting, as if the gig doesn't go well you have to pretend that it did. You have to look like you're having a good time. You may have had an awful day, you may have just had the worst news but you have to just go on stage and act like you haven't. Or you have to act like you don't have a cold or period pains," she says. "It's not a character, it's close to me… Which means when it doesn't work, it feels very sad. And when it does work you feel very alive. And that is why you keep doing it."

Aisling Bea: Plan Bea, Gilded Balloon, Edinburgh, to 30 August (www.edfringe.com)

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