Comedian Josie Long: 'Is being nice really so bad?'

Josie Long doesn't do jokes. Instead, the young stand-up paints on her tummy and hands out fruit to her fans. But, she admits, it takes a tough cookie to be this cuddly
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The Independent Online

about 15 minutes into Josie Long's latest stand-up show, Trying is Good, a pair of latecomers arrive at the Soho Theatre's small room and try quietly to find their seats. Careless timekeepers are often prime targets for your average comic, an opportunity to vent a little faux fury at the temerity of those who were still at the bar when the curtain rose. But Josie Long is anything but your average comic; instead of giving them a hard time, she drops the T-shirt that she had been holding up by her bra to show the rest of us her stomach – upon which she has painted an image of the ocean's floor, for reasons we will come to later – and scuttles over to give a concise précis of what they've missed. Later, because they laugh loudly at one of her rambling tales, she presents them with a couple of tangerines by way of thank you.

"I like to give out fruit to the enthusiastic," she explains an hour before the show in a bustling Vietnamese restaurant, where she orders salmon rolls and an iced coffee. "I gave some to a couple of blokes at one of my last shows, but they threw them back and stormed out. I don't think they thought I was very funny. A shame, really, because I was doing my best."

Trying is Good centres on one woman's unfashionably optimistic view of the world, with Long revelling in the minutiae of all around her: the stranger smiling to himself in the street; the old woman on the Tube with Miss Havisham's mad hair; the hirsute fellow in her local gym who wraps bandages around his head for no discernible reason.

"I can't help it," she shrugs, "I'm prone to liking people. There is often so much to like." She says that strangers are her very favourite people, and on average, she hates no more than one person a year. "That's not a rule, incidentally, just the way it turns out. Someone once said I set out to make comedy that is totally nice because I don't insult anything [a previous show was called Kindness and Exuberance]. I think it was meant as a criticism but I decided not to take it that way. Is being nice really so bad?"

Over the course of the next hour in this chaotically busy eatery, our waitress will scowl at everything Long does. She takes umbrage at the amount of time the comedian takes to choose her food, then tries to whisk away the rolls before she has finished eating. As we leave, Long places a £2.70 tip on the table, which prompts the waitress's scowl to turn into a sneer.

Out in the street, Long laughs. "I come here all the time, though you wouldn't know it. I'm determined to make that woman like me. You wait, by the time I've finished with her, we'll be best friends."

Despite the pageboy haircut and childlike grin that makes her resemble a gawky teenager, Josie Long is 25 years old. At 17, she won the BBC Best New Stand-Up Award; in 2006, she was named Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Festival. In the intervening eight years she has performed all over the country.

"It's only recently I've begun to realise that I've been so single-minded in my pursuit of comedy that I've forgotten to do anything else. That's sad, isn't it? I'm in my mid-twenties now, and 'funny' is all I have. I feel I need to get out more, travel more, meet new people, but I just don't have the time. If I'm not writing comedy, I'm at home playing [word game] Boggle. I'm pretty good at it." Her eyes light up. "I'll challenge you to a game, if you like."

She was born and brought up in Orpington, Kent, an overweight ("verging on the obese") young girl who became known for her clumsiness and promptly decided this was something she could use to amuse people. She loved TV comedy – Vic and Bob, Monty Python, The Mary Whitehouse Experience – and at 14, encouraged by her parents, attended a stand-up workshop course, where she thrived. Initially, she had thought of becoming an actress, "but then I realised that actors don't even write their own stuff which, let's face it, is rubbish, isn't it? I wanted to write my own words, and with comedy it felt as if I had found something I could do my whole life."

Despite suffering what she refers to as a mild attention-deficit disorder, she did well enough at her lowly comprehensive to have the board at Oxford University take her application seriously, "which is quite a big thing for someone from Kent". Oxford, she recalls, offered her a whole new world. "It felt like such a privilege to be surrounded by fantastic libraries, amazing books and all the other students – life's natural achievers."

She left with a degree in English, but while all those natural achievers went on to find gainful employment in government, the City and law, Long spent her newly adult days going to galleries and museums, laundrettes and cafés in search of comedic inspiration.

"I needed to come up with as much source material as possible," she explains. "I also started going to the gym, but that was mostly for selfish reasons, if only to try and get rid of all this." She clutches her stomach, which is not, shall we say, as taut as Kate Moss's. Indeed, it's a part of her body she became so infuriated with, and so convinced she could do nothing about, that she began to draw pictures on it in the hope that she would come to view it through more appreciative eyes.

"You know what?" she says, "I can't wait until I get to the age of 70, 75. I'll be allowed to be beyond caring by then. I don't want to be like Joan Rivers, all sharp and sculpted and desperate to return to my youth. I want to sit at home eating pies, fat as a house, my large reading glasses resting on my enormous breasts..."

Ninety minutes later, Long is speeding her way through tonight's set, fuelled by a suppertime injection of sugar and caffeine. The show is beguilingly wayward, with neither a tangible beginning nor cohesive end, but an awful lot of muddle in the middle. She talks of melancholy snails, of the 17th-century Quaker artist Edward Hicks; she shows us her painted tummy and, apropos of absolutely nothing at all, encourages everyone to read Richard Yates's 1961 novel Revolutionary Road. She is rarely laugh-out-loud funny but consistently endearing in a manner so very few other of today's comedians are. She hasn't done much TV yet, and at times during her show, you do wonder whether it would be her ideal medium, given her evident inability to coin anything resembling a soundbite, much less a snappy gag to repeat to friends the following day. But then, frankly, she doesn't need it.

"Stand-up is the only thing I really love," she'd told me earlier. "That can be difficult when you are trying to conduct a relationship [she is currently dating a composer], but somehow I love the romance of having to say, 'Sorry, I can't see you next Saturday, I've got a gig in Harrogate."

Josie Long is on tour from 25 January. For information go to www.ilovejosielong.co.uk

Josie Long's favourite female stand-ups

Maria Bamford

Maria's American, and very funny. I saw her in Edinburgh a couple of years ago and she was brilliant. Her show was a theatrical piece in which she played all the characters

Kristen Schaal

There are few stand-ups around today, male or female, who I think are this offbeat, clever, inventive, brilliant and funny

Isy Suttie

Not only one of my favourite comedians, but one of my favourite people. Isy is one of the few comics who can write funny songs that stand up in their own right

Sarah Kendall

An archetype for how female comedians will be viewed in the future: not merely in a sidebar for funny women, not judged by her sex, but simply because she is so very talented

Natalie haynes

Natalie does her own thing. She's very well-read but she never shows off about it. I like that in a person, don't you?

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