Page to Stage: Our interview with Viv Groskop
Viv Groskop: the ups and downs of stand-up. Photos by Pål Hansen (palhansen.com)
Viv Groskop is one of the leading journalists of her generation. Now the Teddington girl is having a laugh. Fiona Adams hears about her latest gig
Researching writer and broadcaster Viv Groskop is enough to give most journalists an inferiority complex. Having studied Russian and French at Oxford (graduating with first-class honours), she landed her first job at Esquire, moved on to the Express and currently writes for The Guardian, Observer and Mail on Sunday.
She has interviewed countless subjects, some in their native language, including the widow of murdered secret service officer Alexander Litvinenko; she is Books Editor for Red Magazine and Contributing Editor to Russian Vogue; she dissects the papers for Sky News; and she is a regular on Radio 4’s Any Questions.
Now the human literary dynamo has turned stand-up comedian too. I am meeting her to find out about this new career strand – painstakingly earned with 100 gigs in 100 days – and the newly published diary of her experiences, I Laughed, I Cried. Given that she was a finalist at the Funny Women Awards, it’s likely that she’s a wow at comedy too.
Viv bustles into Teddington’s Park Hotel in headscarf, curlers (“Sorry about these, I’m having my picture taken later”) and sequin cardie. Within five minutes, she is interviewing me.
We establish a common study of Russian (I won’t reveal my degree), a few shared acquaintances and the fact that we live just streets apart in Teddington. Then I remember that I am supposed to be the one doing the interviewing.
The obvious question, of course, is why a seemingly sane, intelligent woman should choose to put herself on stage, night after night, in front of an unpredictable – and possibly drunk – audience, risking humiliation and shame.
“It’s most people’s worst nightmare,” admits Viv. “A bit like doing a monologue in a play, but where every line has to make people laugh, and you don’t know who’s going to be in the room, or how hostile they’re going to be.”
Er, yes, that’s certainly enough to put me off. But not Viv, apparently.
“For me it started as a midlife crisis, like you might take up pilates. I did a stand-up course and took workshops, and the more I did it, the more I wanted to see if I really could. I woke up one day and thought: ‘Right, I’ll do 100 gigs and decide if it’s what I want to do.’”
A century of gigs, it transpires, is the benchmark for experience in comedy land. Without this baptism of fire, you’re not taken seriously as a stand-up.
Organizing 100 gigs, however, is no easy task – especially if they are to take place on 100 consecutive days. Throw into the mix a day job, three children (one a baby of 12 months) and a husband who’s not wild about stand-up, and you have a career and life catastrophe waiting to erupt.
“I couldn’t have done it all without my husband’s help. He is amazing and I think it’s been very frightening for him, this whole experience,” reflects Viv. “Finding gigs is quite stressful, but as long as you have no standards whatsoever about what you’re prepared to take, you can get lots of stage time!”
In the book, Viv charts her experiences during the early, “pond life” stage of her career, in which Croydon, verily, provided the rock bottom venue. There were the mother and baby gigs, where she struggled to be heard above the din; the “tumbleweed and silence” gigs where no one laughed; the soul-destroying gigs with 10 comics and an audience of one. And then there was the trauma at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern in Kennington, where Viv suddenly “forgot everything, including my own name”.
Incredibly though, it was horrors such as these that convinced Viv that she truly was following her passion.
“Freezing at the Tavern was very sobering, but it made me decide that I was really committed to it. A lot of the comics who’ve read my book said I was mad. But I love being on stage. I would do the 100 nights again, but my husband would probably divorce me!”
The stand-up continues though – often four or five times a week – and Viv also hosts comedy club nights once a month for The Dead Parrot Society, at the Royal Oak in Teddington High Street. This year, she is appearing at the Edinburgh Festival, where her show will include Upstairs Downton: an improvised costume drama in which she and her co-stars take storyline advice from the audience and recreate spoof scenes from Downton Abbey.
But has she, I wonder, ever told a joke in Russian?
“Last year I did a comedy duo with Avril Poole, who acts with me in Upstairs Downton. I was Russian and she was my translator. I would speak in Russian and then she translated it however she wished. It was a bit mad though, so we stopped.”
Viv Groskop, mad? Never. Or nikagda, as they say in Moscow.
Viv hosts The Dead Parrot Society at the Royal Oak on Jul 12.
Tickets £10; thedeadparrotsociety.co.uk
I Laughed, I Cried (£11.99) is published by Orion