Heard the one about the grumpy comedian with a big bank account? That's not the set-up for a one-line gag, but the exact wording of a recent newspaper headline concerning Sarah Millican. The report told of the Geordie comic's contretemps with a fan who had filmed part of Millican's gig in Wolverhampton, and then visited Millican's Facebook page to inform her of this fact. Millican apparently accused the fan of theft and "disrespect", whereupon the fan's husband waded in to reprimand the comic for making a big deal out of nothing.
But her comic routine is a very big deal indeed, says the 36-year-old when we meet in a hotel in Manchester. "If I write a joke and it works, and it works consistently, that is gold to me," she says, highlighting the difficulties of maintaining novelty and surprise in the age of YouTube and Facebook. "One hundred thousand people have bought tickets to see me on tour and if any of them see that and go, 'Oh, I've heard this...' it's spoilt a night out. It's not just me saying, 'it's my material, leave it alone'."
A subtext to this media storm in a teacup is, of course, an unspoken envy of Millican's supposed "big bank account". Comedy these days is hugely profitable, with market leader Michael McIntyre expected to earn up to £20m from a 57-date tour this year, and millions more from his Hello Wembley! DVD. Millican herself is halfway through a mostly sold-out national tour, while her first DVD, Chatterbox Live, is the bestselling DVD by a female comic.
"I'm aware that it does reap very good rewards, but I'm not embarrassed by that," she says, before adding reproachfully: "The British newspaper fascination with money is slightly vulgar – that rather than going, 'well done, you picked yourself up from nothing and you've really made something of yourself and you worked really hard almost constantly for four or five years and driven 50,000 miles a year,' which would be the American way – the British way is, 'how the hell have you got that much money?' It's quite jealous and dismissive of the work." And that work is about to get an even wider audience with her own BBC2 series, The Sarah Millican Television Programme, which is a mix of stand-up routines and Mrs Merton-style quizzing of guests.
"It was the interviews that were more surprising to me," she says. "When you've tried the jokes out you know that they work; the interviews can go either way. I really like the excitement of that."
Millican trades on the dichotomy between her harmless appearance and her filthy jokes, wickedly funny patter that can incorporate cunnilingus, sex-toys and blow-jobs. Did she have to tone it down for the BBC? "Not as much as you'd think," she says. "Because I'm always quite positive and smiley and warm we get away with a bit more than somebody's who's cold or harsh."
"It was never intentional, this look," she adds. "I never got up on stage and thought, 'I'll wear a flowery top so I can talk about dark evil things,' but it just so happens that that's the way I dress. One of my early reviews said, 'looks like a primary-school teacher with the mouth of a biker', which I always quite liked. It's better than being the other way round."
Until the age of 29, Millican was a bored, lowly, civil servant at a Job Centre in South Shields. Her father was an electrician down the Tyneside coal mines, and Millican's early memories include hand-outs from supermarkets during the 1984 miners' strike. Even then she was seeing the funny side. "We'd get end-of-day stuff, pies, cream cakes and bashed tins, that sort of thing, and then I remember one of the higher-end supermarkets decided they wanted to help out and gave us 13 trays of avocados, and all of the miners went, 'I don't know what to do with an avocado'. We'd literally never seen them before."
Success came relatively quickly as Millican won the Edinburgh Comedy Best Newcomer Award with her debut show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008. She was crowned Queen of Comedy at this year's British Comedy Awards. "Because I started doing stand-up relatively late – 29 – someone can shout something at me but it's not going to be as bad as some of the things I've experienced. I've lived a bit. When you're 29 it's, 'come on... I've had scarier farts than you'. And when you hear about these scary gigs on the grapevine I'm, 'yeah, yeah, well I want to have a go'... I wanted to see if I could do them because I wanted to see if I was as good as the men."
'The Sarah Millican Television Programme' starts on 8 March at 10pm on BBC2Reuse content