Sara Pascoe: ‘I’ve had to stop joking about my sex life’

Comedian Sara Pascoe has spent years mining the highs and lows of her relationships for material – and it never ended well. Now, with two new loves in her life, it’s the one with four legs that’s getting all the punchlines, she tells Chris Mandle.

If you’ve watched Sara Pascoe holding her own on one of the many panel shows she frequents – Have I Got News For You, The Last Leg, Mock The Week, QI – you might imagine her to be pretty lairy and loud. But she is surprisingly softly spoken in person. In fact the 38-year-old comic, known for her sharp humour and deadpan delivery, insists: ‘I’ve always been quite shy.’

‘Shy’ is not what you expect from the comedian who has built such an impressive career – not just as an award-winning stand-up and panel-show powerhouse. In addition, Sara has appeared in some of the smartest comedies on British TV (The Thick of It, W1A, Twenty Twelve, plus a forthcoming sitcom from comedy gods Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), published two thought-provoking books on modern relationships and gender politics, has her own podcast, and can now add presenting to her long list of talents as the host of Comedians Giving Lectures on comedy TV channel Dave.

Sara Pascoe
Jumper, Prada at Trousers, Les Coyotes de Paris at Selfridges. Earrings, Shoes, Image: Steve Schofield

‘I didn’t go into comedy thinking this was going to be my route to doing everything,’ she says – but her creative output is nothing short of prolific. After years of graft, she’s now part of an impressive cohort of female comedians at the top of their game – think Aisling Bea writing and starring in Channel 4 series This Way Up with Sharon Horgan (creator of Catastrophe), Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who’s just landed a £50 million deal with Amazon, and Katherine Ryan, who is appearing in her own Netflix series.

As for the brazen, assertive, bolshy version of Sara – it is her; stand-up just amplifies certain parts of your personality, she explains. ‘The stage is just a completely different place – you have a microphone and something clicks.’

This really feels like Sara’s year: in April she landed her own hour-long comedy special on the BBC, an honour reserved for comics at the height of their powers. Filmed at the London Palladium and based on her sellout 2017 Edinburgh show LadsLadsLads, it chronicles her life following the demise of her relationship with fellow comedian John Robins (who also made a show about their break-up).

Sara has been adept at mining the highs and lows of her love life as material for her comedy. ‘There’s a burst of creativity – you get this incredible energy when you fall in love, just like you do with heartbreak. It can be such a creative time and was such a funny thing to write about.’

But those who dated Sara might have thought twice before going to one of her shows. ‘I had routines about how my first boyfriend and I didn’t have enough sex,’ she remembers. ‘I look back on them now and think, “He came to watch me perform at Live at the Apollo while I talked about how rubbish my sex life was with him.” He was so accommodating. He never said, “My work colleagues saw that,” or, “My mum watched”.’

Sara was raised with her two sisters in Dagenham and Romford, East London, by her single-parent mum, who had all three girls by age of 25. Sara’s father Derek Pascoe, singer and saxophonist with 70s pop band Flintlock, walked out on them when she was little to, in Sara’s words, ‘live with other ladies’.

She started doing comedy while studying at the University of Sussex after breaking up with a stand-up boyfriend and realising she could probably do a better job. Once she graduated, she carried on gigging, funded by temp work during the day. ‘Everyone is terrible at the beginning. I’ve seen some terrible comedians become the best in this country,’ she says. ‘With anything else, you get to learn it in private. Not stand-up. You learn on the job and you learn from lots of mistakes.

Sara Pascoe
Sara (pictured with her beloved pup Mouse) wears jumper and trousers, Emporio Armani at Fenwick stores. Bow, Earrings, Shoes, Image: Steve Schofield

‘Quite often comics, when they start out, just emulate people they think are amazing. It takes a while to find your voice. But it’s a good process to go through. You keep some parts, you let other parts of yourself drop away.’

Ferociously intelligent and well-read, Sara’s own brand of comedy has room for big ideas and difficult topics. ‘Just because you want to laugh doesn’t mean that you’re stupid or that you don’t want to think. If you can do something that does both, that’s often the most satisfying.’ This is partly why she signed up to helm Comedians Giving Lectures, which tasks various comics with doing a set based around the title of an actual lecture. The result is a bit like a freewheeling TED talk – Russell Kane does a presentation on whether Shakespeare was from Essex, while Tom Allen, best known for appearing on Bake Off: Extra Slice, does one called Why We Make Bad Decisions. It’s funny, but each talk has a kernel of seriousness to it; other episodes tackle women’s sexual autonomy and climate change.

‘The first time I saw the lecture by Tash Demetriou [star of cult TV comedies What We Do in The Shadows and Stath Lets Flats] on the anatomy of the vagina, introduced with the phrase, “I’m horny”, I thought, “This is genuinely inspiring, even though she’s being so silly,”’ says Sara. ‘It’s not light entertainment but it’s not hard going. Hopefully people at home will laugh and learn something, too.’

A similar philosophy – explore the not-so-funny in a funny way – is behind both of Sara’s acclaimed nonfiction books. Her first, Animal: the Autobiography of a Female Body, mixed hilarious and honest autobiographical detail with evolutionary history to unpick everything from menstruation to abortion. Her second book Sex Power Money, published this summer, is equally ambitious in the issues it touches on: objectification, sexual harassment, consent, pornography. (Having never really watched porn before – ‘I’m nearly 40 and incredibly naive’ – she viewed hundreds of hours of it for research.) She’s the first to point out she’s no expert; she wants the book to start conversations about all of the above, not be the end of them.

‘The book came out of conversations I was having with people, things I was trying to understand,’ she says. Sara wanted to try to provide a guidebook for everyone else, who, like her, was feeling out of their depth. Sex Power Money has also spawned a podcast of the same name, where Sara interviews people who have experience around sex work, stripping and porn, giving them the opportunity to speak for themselves.

‘The benefit of comedy is that sometimes the people who wouldn’t want to read a textbook about transactional sex or evolution might read mine, because I’m a comedian,’ she says.

She somehow manages to explore these topics with comic flair and pop-culture references. A chapter on male promiscuity name-checks Beyoncé and there’s an analogy about male and female sex drives being like types of cars that, surprisingly, makes a lot of sense. Reading it feels like putting the world to rights with your best mates.

Frequently during our interview Sara will drift off from whatever’s she saying to dote on her puppy Mouse, a six-month-old springer spaniel-jack russell cross. She adopted him shortly after buying her flat in North London and spotting a notice on a local Facebook group. ‘I just picked him up and carried him home. I had no sofa, no table, nothing. But I did have a dog!

‘Having him has been revolutionary,’ she continues, stroking his paw then tickling his tummy. Mouse has also helped her overcome that shyness: ‘With a dog, you have to make small talk, whether it’s another dog owner or a toddler who wants to say hello. You have to get better at it.’ He’s helped Sara learn how to say no, too. ‘Now when I get asked to do stuff, I say, “Is it worth leaving my puppy for?” A lot of the time, it’s not. I’ve always felt obligated as I didn’t have a reason to say no because I don’t have children. If you have children, people understand.’

Mouse is also proving to be a good source for new material, not least since she’s decided she ‘probably won’t talk about a boyfriend on stage again’ – luckily for her new partner, Australian comic Steen Raskopoulos. ‘I keep going out with comedians. It’s not because I only fancy comedians – it’s just that I only meet comedians,’ she says. ‘With stand-up, the hours that I work, if I went out with someone who did nine to five I wouldn’t see them. I have to have a boyfriend who understands that if I get offered gigs at short notice I have to do them; it doesn’t matter what you’ve got planned. Also, Steen does improvisation, and improv comedians make amazing boyfriends because they’re such good listeners.’

Since the internet has made her material more permanent, she’s more careful regarding what she reveals about the people in her life. For example, when it comes to material about her sisters she avoids naming them, so each can blame the other for their antics. ‘You have to check with people first but I still keep getting it wrong.’ She was on The Jonathan Ross Show and told her fellow guests – including Spice Girl Emma Bunton – that her mum had worn white to her sister’s wedding. Emma Bunton wasn’t impressed. ‘About two weeks later Mum said, “OK, I’m p***** off with you but I’m more p***** off with Baby Spice – she can f*** off.”’

Sara Pascoe boyfriend
Sara with boyfriend and improv comic Steen Raskopolous

For all Sara’s success and experience, she still gets pangs of anxiety before unveiling new work. ‘When you share any kind of creativity, when you’re putting it out there, you have delusions of persecution and delusions of grandeur,’ she says. ‘Before something comes out you think things such as, “This might win the Nobel Peace Prize”, then, “Everyone is going to hate me. Someone is going to find a flaw that just destroys me”. But usually what happens is something between the two.’

What’s next for Sara’s all-conquering comedy juggernaut? ‘I want to write a novel now. I’ve tried to keep work for next year to a minimum because I’ve got this fantasy of going to France with the dog and writing.’

Adding ‘novelist’ to her repertoire feels like the most natural move in the world for someone like Sara, who learned early on how to nip paralysing self-doubt in the bud. She says, ‘When I was starting out in stand-up I used to say to myself: “You’re not trying to be the best at comedy, you’re just trying to do it. Be content with mediocrity. Calm down.” The really important thing is not to let fear stop you from doing things.’

Comedians Giving Lectures is on Dave, Wednesdays at 10pm