Zoe Lyons - comedy, controversy, and Elton John

SHE HAS earned the wrath of Germaine Greer, she is one of the most influential gay people in Britain, she is an award winning comedienne, and she plays Galway next week. She is Zoe Lyons.

Comedienne Zoe Lyons plays The Laughter Lounge in the Róisín Dubh on Wednesday February 3 at 8.30pm. She was born in London in 1971 and as her surname suggests, she has strong Irish connections.

“My dad is from Waterford and I actually grew up in Ireland,” Zoe tells me during our Thursday morning interview. “We always went to the west of Ireland on our holidays.”

From Survivor to laughter

It was during childhood that Zoe discovered her ability to make people laugh, though by her own admission she would never dare be the school joker - at least not in front of her classmates.

“I was far too square and a goodie-two-shoes to be the joker in the class,” she says. “I used to meet the parents of the other kids outside the school gates and entertain them. It would just be me spouting rubbish but I made them laugh more than other kids. From that I knew I could make people laugh but I didn’t really start comedy until I was 30.”

Most comedians usually get involved in comic or acting societies in university and then begin the long hard slog of gigging in pubs and clubs around the country. For Zoe it was a case of a long hard slog in various jobs before an open mic night paved the way for her fast ascent through the comedy ranks.

“I had this harebrained idea of doing stand up for a long time,” she says. “It was a bit daunting, but eventually the thought of not doing it became more frightening. I’m one of life’s plodders. I don’t want to peak too soon and have everything done at 40!”

In 2003 Zoe did a five minute slot at an open mic session and within a mere seven months of that debut went on to win the Nivea Funny Women Award 2004 and reach the finals of Channel 4’s So You Think You’re Funny.

Since then she has gone on to play comedy gigs throughout Britain and Ireland; perform regularly at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival; host Bent Double, the gay friendly night at Brighton’s Komedia club; receive a nomination for the If.comedy Best Newcomer Nominee in 2007, and win the Dave TV Funniest Joke of the Fringe 2008.

“I have been very lucky,” she says. “It took me so long to find something I wanted to do that when I did I threw everything into it. I did every gig under the sun for bugger all money and that helped move things along.”

Prior to Zoe finding her vocation as a comedienne she had appeared on the ITV reality TV show Survivor in 2001 and for her troubles, ended up having to eat rats. Dare we ask what the experience was like?

“It was one of the original reality TV shows and it was a dare to see if I could get on it and I did,” says Zoe. “It took place in Borneo and during the show you’re not given very much with which to survive so you do get hungry and rats were so abundant that it was easy to kill them.

“They’re not good eating! It tastes a bit gamey. When you see rats over here they are scavengers feeding on scraps, but the ones in Borneo are well fed and live on fruit. They’re gourmet junkie rats so you think ‘They’ll at least be nutritious’ but once you strip them of the skin and bone there’s not a lot left to eat!”

Thankfully Zoe has not had to endure such gastronomical indelicacies since then...or has she? “Being a comedian I have got to eat at every petrol station in the UK and consider myself to have an expert knowledge on every kind of sandwich there is!” she declares.

Influential and controversial?

Zoe is thoroughly enjoying her life as a comedienne and is grateful for her success over the past seven years. A further accolade was received late last year when she featured in The Independent’s 10th Annual Pink List of the 101 most influential lesbian and gay people in Britain. How did it feel to make the list?

“I was really surprised!” she says. “That was the most unexpected accolade of last year. I was sitting at the kitchen table, I opened the paper, and there I was. I nearly spat my coffee across the table with pride.”

Zoe was ranked No 81 and she had no complaints about her placing. “Elton John was 76 so I didn’t do bad,” she laughs. “I’m on his coat tales. I’ll have to make it into the 70s next year and knock Elton off his perch!”

Zoe’s comedy is about “everything from camping to cooking turkey” but her sexuality does not feature that much in her shows. However she does take a keen interest in issues of concern to gay people in Britain and is interested to hear about the debate on civil partnerships in Ireland.

“My girlfriend and I have been together for 11 years and we had a civil partnership three years ago,” says Zoe. “I wanted to have something on paper that, God forbid, if anything happened to either of us, the other one would be looked after and that we would have the same rights as heterosexual couples in terms of wills and property.

“I think there is an argument that you can’t call it a marriage and it’s a non-religious ceremony. I’m OK with that, but I want my partner to have the same rights as anyone else would have.”

While Zoe’s comedy has received awards and accolades, it has also proven controversial and was recently the subject of criticism in an article in The Guardian on women and comedy by the author, feminist, and cultural commentator Germaine Greer.

In the article Greer accused female comics of being “too willing to turn themselves into grotesques, and to base their comedy in a disparagement of their physical selves...When they are not running themselves down, women comedians are often astonishingly vicious towards other women”, and noted Joan Rivers routines on Elizabeth Taylor and Zoe Lyons’ on Amy Winehouse.

“I thought that was fantastic,” Zoe says. “When I read that I thought ‘I’ve made it!’ To be described as ‘astonishingly vicious’ and be mentioned in the same sentence as Joan Rivers, I can die happy. I thank Germaine Greer for the best quote I’ve had to put on posters for my shows in all my life!”

However Zoe has little time for Greer’s thesis, which she finds patronising and authoritarian.

“When a guy tells a joke about a guy it’s just a joke. When a woman tells a joke about a woman it’s an attack on a woman. It’s pathetic,” declares Zoe. “It’s offensive to women to say that you can’t say anything just because it might offend another woman. The joke about Amy Winehouse was a room splitting joke so how dare Germaine Greer believe she can speak for all women, and group women together, and that what she thinks is what we all think. That’s very patriarchal for a feminist!”

Support on the night is from Simon O’Keeffe, Steve Cummins, and Johnny Graham. Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and Zhivago.

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