The Joke travels with Tanyalee Davis
I meet Tanyalee Davis at St Pancras. She's on route to Nottingham where she has a gig. We choose our drinks and go to find a quiet bench, where she kindly puts up with audio-recording mistakes and hot chocolate spillages. Trying to stick to my scripted questions I started by asking Tanyalee where inspirations for a joke came from:
“Some jokes just pop into my head. Sometimes they are the best ones... I don’t know where they come from. I can’t tell you which ones they are. A majority of them come from life experiences and the situations I get into. There are the ones that I have to make eligible for everybody to grasp hold of when I’m telling them on stage. But there are moments of inspiration which come from wherever”.
I ask about the jokes that she has to work on.
“I’m not very disciplined. I don’t just sit around and write. What I love is going out and having experiences. That leads me into situations that become new material. I love travelling and meeting people. I’ve never been scholastically inclined. At school I wasn’t good at studying. I was good at doing. If courses were interactive, I was much more successful. But if I had to sit and read a book and write, I wasn’t good at it - and it’s the same with my comedy.”
So the idea of observational comedy is more important to you?
“Definitely. From my perspective. At the Soho show there were four new jokes which were observational from the experience of being in the UK. For instance I had never heard of a zimmer frame and thought it might be a distant cousin to the xylophone. People in Scotland talk about jobbies and I go 'Okay. Can I use that'."
We talk about a joke that came from a situation in Liverpool where a group of young girls laughed at Tanyalee. She reposted; "they were orange and they thought I was weird". You can trust Tanyalee for a response.
“That’s a new gag, but I could have said they were from Newcastle or wherever. There are a lot of orange girls in this country.”
We talked about what makes a joke worthwhile. What the currency is?
“As a comedian you want a pay off. You want a laugh. That’s the idea. But as long as you are getting some kind of emotion - a boo or a groan, you come to the end of it and you're like 'Ta Da'. If there’s nothing, you start to sweat. That’s how we judge what we are doing whether it’s good or ugly”.
I tell Tanyalee when I saw her at the Soho Theatre Downstairs that I was not feeling good. I felt uneasy to be in the audience and about laughing. But by the end of her piece I was hysterical with what she was saying.
“That’s good. It really touches me. That's why I do this job. I have a very positive response from people and I’ve had some great experiences with people coming up to me. There was a guy in Scotland who had just come back from Iraq, on his first night out. He was wary about things; shell shocked. He told me I had brightened his day.
I also have a need to be on stage. If I haven’t been on stage in a month I’m an absolute bitch. It affects me physically and emotionally, because I need that endorphin release; that adrenaline. It’s like a drug. If I haven’t had it, I sink into a depression and I’m hard to live with. My husband used to say you need to get on stage because you’re being a bitch. So I would. The clouds would part, the blue sky comes out, so I know this too. There is a performance aspect of me. I just need to get up and do it”.
I had seen Tanyalee’s website. I had the impression she was always working.
“I got divorced last summer. The year has been tough. It was my choice. A lot of people would have stayed in the situation. I was treated like a queen. I just feel that I’m in a new chapter in my life. I’m in my 40’s. I know what I want. I love what I do. I’m in a homeless situation. I’m a girl with three postal addresses in three countries. I’ve booked things so I’m going from gig to gig. If I have a week or two off, I go hang with my family or my best friend in Las Vegas. I need to keep busy. That’s how I maintain my sanity or lack of it."
This must effect the comedy
“I had such great marriage material. My ex-husband was a great source of material. I get my 20 minutes and I often don’t mention that I was married for 13 years. Now I’m on the dating scene and I’ve got to think up jokes for that.
The way I feel about things is; I’m just throwing things out to the universe, asking where do you want me, what is my course in life? I’m trying to explore new avenues. I will never stop doing stand up, but acting is something I want to get back to. I’m thinking about a play for Edinburgh. It looks like I’m going to be in a Channel 4 TV show. I figure, if I throw enough of myself out there, the work will come to me. It’s exciting times. I’m doing the right thing”.
So it means a lot of travel?
"I’ve just come back from a fabulous holiday in Malta with a friend. I don’t feel guilty about it any more. With my ex-husband I would be doing so many trips. When I was in my 20’s I needed someone a little older. More mature. Now I’m in my 40’s. He’s touching 60. He’s a little set in his ways and doesn’t want to do anything, but I want to get up there. I’m in the prime of my life. I need somebody to keep up with me. I’m going to find a toy boy and have fun."
I’m interested in when jokes go wrong. I talk about Ricky Gervais, Frankie Boyle....
“When I get a certain amount of celebrity I’m going to piss people off. My mouth operates faster than my brain. I have said some really inappropriate things, not meaning to; just shooting off. We Canadians fly off the cusp sometimes and say stupid shit. But those guys I think they just love controversy. They’ll say things to piss people off. Why not!? It keeps them in the news. Keeps their names out there. It's want they want.
I don’t necessarily want to piss people off. I’m more like; 'please like me'. But, I know I’m still going to piss people off. Doing what I do. I’ll get, Aye! You silly bitch, you’re not representing us very well. Who said I was? I’m just saying what I do."
I raise the issue of language. Appropriate and inappropriate. I comment on when she comes on stage and describes herself as a little person which feels warm, lovely, inclusive, and within a while she is talking about herself as a dwarf or midget. Is it here in breaking rules that comedy goes wrong?
“When I’m performing to a mainstream audience at the regular comedy clubs I say they are going to notice I’m a midget and that is not appropriate, but I don’t give a shit. Midget is a better comedy word. I use it in my act. It annoys a lot of little people. Midget rolls off the tongue better. Its got more of a punch. Its’ like saying 'fuck'. You don’t say it all the time, but sometimes it adds to a joke.
Words give power to jokes. And it’s a word I use in my life. I’ll say I’m going to midget-ise my apartment. Make everything smaller. I’ve taken on that word, embraced it. A lot of little people know people point them out and say 'look... a midget'. That’s where the hurt comes from. You’re known as nothing but a midget. The angst derives from growing up. Look it’s a midget, there’s a midget coming, midget, midget, midget. It’s all you fucking hear. That’s where the anxiety comes from. It’s taken on a negative connotation.
For the most part people don’t know what’s it's like, so you let them know. Typically they’ll support you, apologise to you, and say they didn’t know. They thought dwarf was more patronising than little person. Others will say they don’t like the word midget so therefore...”
So, its partly about what works in the joke and reclaiming language. Aren't there greater issues than that. About disabled people recognising what life is about? Or is it about rules and what is acceptable and unacceptable?
“Comedy has no rules. Comedians depend on freedom of speech. Some of us live on controversy. I like to be liked. In my community, little people, say, 'we’re not represented very well on TV, we’re not on TV enough, we’re not doing this, we’re not doing that'. Then as soon as someone gets on it's 'you’re not doing it right'. For heaven’s sake. You can’t win. Someone is always going to bitch, so if I’m happy with what I’m doing and in the most part I’m having a positive effect on the non-disabled community, then screw those people. Get off your ass, stop sitting behind your computer blogging about the shit I’m doing. Be productive!"
We talk about insider humour; what is and isn’t safe to say in public. Do we we say funnier, more outrageous things about ourselves that is never for public consumption?
“We live in a hyper-sensitive society. You either give a shit or you don’t. I try to edit myself a little bit but my mouth shoots off a lot faster than the rest of me. I have to go with the flow. Its an internal struggle. You have to find what works best for you.”
Liz Carr had talked about working with Tanyalee and how they bounce off each other. Do they find safety with each other?
“That’s the great thing about working in a comedy troupe like Abnormally Funny People. Steve Day, Liz Carr and I have great rapport between us. We lived together for a month in Edinburgh. There's a spark between us when we work together. There is a creative chemistry. We feed off each other well.
We're comfortable and honest with each other. When Liz says something about me I slam back. If she wants to throw down. Yeah baby, throw now. The audience can tell we like each other, that there is a love and mutual respect, and that’s the great thing about an ensemble."
What makes humour discriminatory. You seem to find it hard to draw a line and not go over it?
“I try to be aware what I say can roll down, but the internal struggle goes on. How far can I go? If I believe something, it’s my right to say it. If it’s my experience why can’t I say it. It may piss people off but it’s just my perception of what happened in a situation I got into. In some ways I play it safe on stage by talking so much about me and what happens to me. I don’t want to offend. But it’s inevitable that I will. And my rebuttal is; this is about me, it is my situation. Just chill out. It’s not your problem.”
Can I say something if it is not about me? What about stereotyping?
“Stereotypes are stereotypes. There’s stereotypes about everything and they exist because shit happens. It’s about whether you perpetuate it. It’s hard to say something original. Can you have an original stereotype? You have to be funny, not derogatory. I have worked with majority black audiences and they love that shit because they know they get it in their lives, so they can laugh at themselves."
I ask about a part of the act where Tanyalee says she is half white, turns around to show her big arse, and says half black. I admit to feeling shocked.
“Its one of my best jokes. They love it. They kill themselves at that. Yeah. It’s a stereotype, black women have big asses. I feel privileged to have a voluptuous booty.”
I ask about her physical stage presence:
"The thing at Soho, first time I played that stage, it was a decent height, but typically I like to be higher. I’ll have a box and a step stool to sit on. I felt this hindered me at the Soho. Simon Minty (producer) was at the back and he missed a lot of the physical stuff I was doing. I’m really animated on stage. People like to see me move.
When Liz and I started working together, she just sat in her chair and was so stoic. She's doing these jokes and grimacing, so I let her know she needed to let the audience know she was not taking this stuff seriously. She needed to move around because she’s freaky and people are intrigued. She needs to get out of her chair a bit. It’s the same with me. They love the physicality. When I started adding physicality to my jokes they went to another level. The reaction I got was over the moon.”
I thanked Tanyalee for her work. What I had seen as a tall person was an understanding and appreciation of a world that I would not have known.
"I think we would have a lot of similarities with the height difference where we could relate to each other. I did a Cirque de Soleil audition with Peter Mayhew, Chewbacca. He’s 7’4”. We had a slow dance as our audition. I had to stand on top of a table, on top of a chair, hold on to him and dance. The problems we had were very similar even though the height difference was so extreme. I’m so used to looking up. People crouch down. They are careful about doing the right thing. I never worry about that. It’s about making something work."
Is comedy a way to cope with life?
"Not being on stage effects me emotionally. It's like therapy without paying for a therapist. I’m giving people an insight into my life which is why I was put on earth, to make people happy by giving them my experience.
People can’t imagine being in my shoes so when I tell them I just got back from Malta and was scuba diving in the Cayman Islands they’re like 'really, we never got out of our city or village' and I’m like 'Jesus there’s a big world out there'. Then they go 'but you’re disabled' and I say 'no I’m not, not in that regard. I can go anywhere'. I like this about the show. I say don’t think this is a bad situation. I’m capitalising on this to the fullest."
So it’s not about coping with life, its reporting on life.
“That’s it. I have an interesting life, I love adventure. That’s where my material comes from. I want to experience everything. I ask audiences to see life through my eyes. See it’s not a bad thing. Why would I want to be average? I’ve got a unique perspective on life. As long as the audience can get past this whole physical thing, I can take them on a journey. Some people refuse to travel. They say I shouldn’t talk about my condition and I’m like, the fact I’m really comfortable with who I am makes you uncomfortable. That’s not my problem. It’s yours."
Tanyalee has a train to catch. A film crew watch her get on the train. As we say goodbye, I am left hoping the journey will give her more material. It seems life is a circle. Tanyalee is clear about how and where she will travel around it. She will report back the way she sees it, hoping that you love it and her.