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June 1, 2011 / thatsarahdean

Crafting comedy

First published in CraftSanity magazine, Issue 3 Summer 2011

It is 5.00am on August 3rd 2007. I am in Edinburgh, Scotland and I’m knitting. I’m knitting a telephone. A telephone that has to be used on stage in a comedy show this afternoon. As I knit I am thinking, “Why did we think this was a good idea?”

My comedy partner Jess and I – both keen crafters – had decided that we would knit all of the props for our sketch show. There are over 2000 shows competing for an audience each August at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival so you need to do whatever you can to get noticed. We knitted everything from office equipment to beards to nunchucks for ninjas. Billed as “Girl and Dean: purveyors of handcrafted sketch comedy” this scheme not only got us great audiences full of crafters, but also loads of press coverage (including The Times & Vogue Knitting no less). It also got us knitting-related RSI, but nothing two years of physio couldn’t fix.

As a crafter and a comedy writer, I have noticed that a lot of funny people are making stuff. From Demetri Martin sewing his own jeans to wear on stage, to Amy Sedaris creating perfect satires of craft tutorials, to UK comedian and ceramicist Johnny Vegas who throws a pot live on stage. But what are the motivations of crafters in comedy? Are they doing it purely for laughs? Just to save money? Or would they craft even if no-one was watching? I spoke to a couple of crafty comedians here in the UK to see what they thought.

Stand up comedian Sarah Campbell is a prolific crafter off stage, but her skills really came into their own when she and fellow comedian Grainne Maguire came up with an idea to launch their London comedy night, The Cheese and Pineapple Club (The club is named after the popular canapé British people serve at parties.) She told me: “I thought, ‘I know! We’ll dress Grainne up as a Hula girl and I’ll be a block of Emmenthal. It’s a really holey cheese, so my face and arms can be sticking out of the holes!”  But Sarah soon realised that her vision was far from affordable: “There was a wedge of cheese costume online, but it was in Ohio, so with shipping costs we were looking at a couple of hundred pounds for a flimsy Halloween costume. I thought ‘It’s just going to be much easier and cheaper to make my own’. So three rolls of craft foam, nine hours and two massive rows with my girlfriend later, I looked like a piece of cheese.” She adds, “Well, a piece of cheese who was crying and frustrated.” Sarah’s craft skills not only saved her money, but meant that she could have exactly what she wanted. Four years on Cheese and Pineapple has a cult following and hosts all the big names in comedy, although it is worth popping down just to see the compere in her beautiful made-to-measure cheese outfit.

Award winning comedian Josie Long is the unofficial queen of DIY culture and lo-fi stand-up comedy in the UK.  When I asked Josie to describe her comedy style, she replied “ramshackle and friendly.”

Josie has used crafting in her work in all kinds of ways. In her first show – entitled “Kindness and Exuberance” – she gave every member of the audience a hand crafted badge that she had made herself. “Badges are a thing that I love to make. So simple. You can write anything you want on there. You can decorate it any way you want. Stick a safety pin on the back and it’s an instant, lovely, entirely-tailored possession.” Impressively Josie toured the show to nearly 200 venues worldwide, meaning she made “thousands and thousands of badges. My hands were all blistered. I really tested the patience of all of my friends by getting them to help.”  This dedication should be enough to silence anyone who suggests that Josie’s quirky handmade aesthetic is just part of her act.

Josie has included ‘live on-stage crafting’ in her performances. “It’s a fun thing just to see the craft unfolding as the stand up happens,” she says. Her recent show “Be Honorable”, was her most political to date, and so Josie decided to have a group of ‘craftivists’ on stage sewing mini-protest banners against government cuts. “Embroidery and protest is such a clever synthesis. It’s perfect.”

For every show she creates, Josie likes to give the audience a special ‘zine she has drawn. “I like anything interactive really. For one show I got people to send me postcards with a drawing of the most eccentric person that they knew on it.” In another she invited people to send in items for her on-stage museum, which she called “The Josie Long Collection of Everyday Ephemera”.

Josie has become famous for wearing homemade slogan tshirts. “Sewing slogans onto clothes, that makes me really happy. I like wearing homemade clothes other people can’t necessarily have” Recent shirts she has made to wear on TV have expressed her love of the author Kurt Vonnegut and for Nye Bevan the politician who started the National Health Service, who – as Josie points out – is therefore pretty swoonsome. “I find with political things that it’s quite nice having something you’ve made that says ‘This is what I think. Deal with it.’” Josie has been sewing her own slogan t-shirts since she was a teenager: “What I like about craft is you can make yourself possessions that you would really, really like, at minimal expense and it’s sort of… I don’t know… empowering.”

What does Josie Long hope that comedy will do for craft? “My shows have all been vaguely about trying to encourage other people to make more things, to make themselves happy.  They’ve been about life-long learning and things like that, I suppose. That sounds really sanctimonious, but they’re also just trying to be a bit of fun.”

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