‘Becoming a comedian felt like a pipe dream’: Rachel Parris On Her Book, Advice From Strangers
Advice From Strangers is out now in paperback
By | 2 months ago
You’ve likely seen Rachel Parris on a range of comedy panel shows – from Richard Osman’s House of Games to QI to Would I Lie To You? – if you haven’t seen her presenting Late Night Mash or performing stand up on tour. And now she has a book: Advice From Strangers, a collection of tidbits of wisdom from, well, strangers. Rachel spent a year on tour collecting the tidbits before presenting them in this book – though that wasn’t the original intention. ‘I’ve got loads of shoe boxes in my house full of things that have sentimental value,’ she tells C&TH. We sat down with Rachel to chat all things Advice From Strangers, goals for the future, and home life when you’re married to a fellow comedian.
Advice From Strangers is out now in paperback. Coronet, £10.99, waterstones.com
Interview With Rachel Parris on Advice From Strangers
Hey, how’s life going at the moment?
It is going well, thank you. There’s lots happening. Me and my husband are both busy with family and comedy projects, and I’m excited to be talking about my book again!
Yes – Advice From Strangers just came out in paperback – what has the experience been like publishing your first book?
It’s been very unlike anything I’ve done before. I write a lot in all the other bits of my life – lyrics, stand up, satire – but doing it in this way felt a bit like school again. You know, having to do it in a very disciplined way and get so many words done per week, and hand in chapters to the person in charge. I really enjoyed it. It was a challenge, but a challenge that I really liked.
How are you celebrating the paperback release?
I’m actually having a little book launch, which I never did before! When the hardback came out, it was still those times when gatherings were a little bit frowned upon, so I missed celebrating it the first time around. I’m gathering some friends and family in my local bookshop – which is called Backstory in Balham, an absolutely amazing independent bookshop that launched last year – and having a little party.
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Advice From Strangers is, funnily enough, about advice from strangers. Can you give us a short summary of the book in your own words?
It’s inspired by a year where I was doing a comedy show all over the country. I would ask the audiences as part of the show to write down a piece of life advice for me on a little slip of paper, and I would weave all the bits of advice into the show. When it came to writing a book, I had kept all of my favourite little bits of advice all that time, so I thought, ‘there’s definitely something special here’. So each chapter title is a real piece of advice that I received from a stranger, and then the actual chapters themselves are my responses. Some of it is personal and autobiographical, some of it is political, some of it is just really silly – jokes, lists, lyrics sometimes. Each chapter is really different from another, but it’s all drawn together by this idea of advice from strangers.
How did it morph from that box of paper to a book specifically?
I’m not a hoarder of everything, but I am a hoarder of things like cards, tickets, letters and things like that. I’ve got loads of shoe boxes in my house full of those things that have sentimental value. So I just kept it for that – just for myself, to remind myself of the show. Then someone approached me to write a book, and we were coming up with ideas together – we had loads of ideas floating around actually. Then I remembered this box in my wardrobe, and everything slotted into place. I knew there were certain subjects I wanted to write about, but I couldn’t find a way of making them relevant and linking them, so it was a happy coincidence to remember that I had this opportunity.
Did you ever see yourself writing a book before you were approached?
Yeah, I did, because I’ve always loved writing – since school. Writing a book is something I’d always hoped to do, although I didn’t know what kind. I think I probably would have expected to write a novel. I hope maybe in the future I get to write another one – maybe this time it would be a novel instead, because that’s what I like to read. Actually, I’m not a big fan of factual books.
What did you want to be when you were growing up? Did you always see yourself going into comedy?
I wanted to be all sorts of things, but all of them felt very unrealistic, to be honest. I would never have thought comedy as a career option was a thing when I was growing up. I didn’t know anyone who was in that world, and I didn’t know it was a job. I knew I wanted to be creative somehow. I was a teacher for a while – I taught music and piano. And I did love performing. But that felt like a bit of a pipe dream.
When did it start seeming more realistic?
I think in my late 20s. I’d done lots of ‘proper jobs’ by then, in administration, education, and in shops and stuff like that. I’d been performing on the side all that time. Then in my late 20s, things started taking off with musical comedy and then stand up. It was a fairly slow burn for me – the idea of making a full time career off it.
What was your goal with the book? What kind of book did you want to produce?
I think the most important thing was for it to be varied in tone. I know there’s a lot of books by comedians out there, but some are just 100 percent jokes, and others are very emotional, sometimes a bit dry, or sometimes just purely sad. For me, even when I write comedy shows, I want them to be funny, of course, but I also want them to have some emotion and have a bit of a journey. So that’s what I wanted for the book: for it to have to provoke a mixture of feelings. And I think it does that, you know! It’s got such different tones in there from surreal to very sad.
How did you find writing a book?
The first 20,000 words felt very easy, in a way, because I think most people probably have that much stored up in them that they have thought about over the years, you know? At a certain age, you’ve got this bulk of prose you want to get out of your system that you’ve been waiting to say – to share your ideas with the world. But that was less than a third of the book. I reached a really obvious point when I’d written all those chapters when I was like, ‘Okay, so now I do actually have to think up something new…’ So it was a book of two parts in that way – of stuff I’ve thought about for years, and then really stretching my brain to come up with new new ideas.
How did it differ process-wise from writing you’ve done in the past?
One thing I would say I’ve learned from writing the book is that some of the chapters have approached too much of a standard comedy routine. I read it through now and there are little bits of it where I’m like, ‘that reference now feels old, I should have put something on neutral in,’ or ‘that joke doesn’t really work there’.
How did you find the feedback process?
I sent a few chapters each month, and mostly I was grateful for the feedback. Even if I didn’t understand it at the time, I just assumed she knew more about it than I did. There was the odd bit of it that I was a bit defensive about, though, when it was about not getting my way of saying something or a certain phrase that she didn’t think made sense. I think, like any writer, it was quite new, being challenged in that way. But also quite nice – refreshing.
What was your writing process like? Any quirks or rituals?
I think I was fairly random. It was a strange time to write it: through pregnancy, through a loss in family, through part of lockdown, and then after lockdown. It was a very weird time to write. There was a lot going on. So I wrote it in all different frames of mind.
What time of the day did you find you were most productive?
Often the least convenient times. Things like in the shower or the bath, or when you’re walking, or on the tube or sitting on the bus – that’s when I have the best ideas. Very rarely did I feel productive when I was sitting down with a laptop in front of me; it was usually snippets of ideas at the least convenient time to write it down.
You’ve appeared on lots of British panel shows – what has been your favourite project so far?
I would say The Mash Report on BBC, because I was committed to it for six years. And it gave me the platform to do something I’d never actually done before, which was this quite hard hitting social satire, but done in a funny way. That will always be very close to my heart, because it was such a long term project. Then it is very rare, actually, that they have improv on TV these days, so shows like that are the most fun to do. There’s a show called Hypotheticals on Dave, where it’s basically improv. They give you certain scenarios and get you to act them out; that is really fun. I do loads of improv as part of my career with the Comedy Store Players and Austentatious.
What is your favourite show to watch?
Whose Line is it Anyway? It’s not on anymore, but that was just proper good improv. But today, probably Hypotheticals, and Taskmaster.
What about something you’d love to do in the future?
There’s two things that I really haven’t done that I’d love to do. One is to write a musical. I’ve spent my career writing different genres of comedy songs, and I’m a huge musical theatre nerd, so that would be a huge life goal to be able to write songs for a musical. And then I’d love to write a sitcom as well. I’m quietly working on both in the background.
If you could give advice to your 15-year-old self, what would it be?
I went quite a roundabout path to get to what I’m doing now. I went very academic, and then through the music industry, and I did lots of different jobs and lived in different places. I don’t regret any of that, because I think that all shapes your comedy. Then you have things to talk about; if you go straight into comedy without any life experience, you actually have nothing to talk to people about. If you do standup, you’ve got to talk about different jobs, different cities, different living situations. So I don’t regret any of that. All I would say to my 15 year old self is don’t worry too much. And as I say, actually, in the book, you’ll be fine, one way or another. Not that everything’s gonna work out exactly as you envisage it, but just to say you will be fine. I’ve got a song about it in the book actually.
Amongst work, do you get to spend much time at home?
At the moment, I do, yeah. There are periods of the year, like when I was filming Late Night Mash, that are very intense. Or if you’re on tour, and sometimes away from home for a little bit. But mostly I get to be at home, especially in the day, quite a lot. It’s really nice. I get to spend a lot of time with my little boy who’s one and a half. I feel very lucky that my work allows me to do that.
What is your home interior style?
It is quite eclectic. The downstairs is one big room, and on a bit of a whim, me and my husband decided to paint half of it bright red. He’s a big jazz nut, so we’ve got jazz album covers framed on the wall, and then we’ve got some old sheet music that I’ve collected over the years on the other one. We’ve got loads of plants, so the place looks a bit like a jungle.
Your partner, Marcus, is also a comedian. What is home life like as two comedians?
It is probably what you’d expect. There’s the normality of being a married couple and having to sort out child care and groceries and getting the plumbing fixed. But in between all that, there’s a lot of laughter. We do make eachother laugh a lot. We have a lot of private jokes and we end up doing voices and dances a lot in the house. Our toddler gets danced to a lot.
Do you drive each other’s comedy and inspire each other?
I think so. We’re both quite driven in our own right. We were both very much doing our own thing by the time we met, but we certainly like to share what we’re doing with each other, and try out material on each other. What’s really nice is when we get to work together, which we do sometimes. There are shows that we do together, and we’ve done live shows and online shows together. When we get the opportunity to do that, that’s really nice.
How do you help ground each other and get that work-life balance?
It can be difficult, because our jobs are so up and down. You can feel like you’ve lost your entire career one week, and you’ll never get a job again. And then the next month, you’ll have three tours on top of each other, and you can hardly find the time to think. It’s like that for both of us and, psychologically, that’s actually quite strange. When one of you is being the performer, the other one is like the comforter, if you like – the grounded one trying to say ‘Okay, well, don’t worry about that’, you know. ‘We’ll get through it. Let’s have dinner, let’s calm down, let’s try and unwind. Let’s watch a TV show’. And then you absolutely have to swap over, and that swap over can happen in a matter of half a day. You just have to keep swapping that role. And the same is true of parenting as well. So it’s a constant struggle, but it’s one that works for us.
What do you do to wind down?
We’re big TV and film watchers. We love long-running TV shows like Marvellous Mrs Maisel, for example – which is coming back! We’re so excited. It’s about comedians in the ‘60s.
Are you a social media person? What’s your relationship with social media like?
Yeah, I sort of have to be. I feel a bit of a pressure to be on social media. I’m not as into it as I used to be, but I still enjoy Instagram. I think I enjoy Instagram the way it used to be when it first was out; my favourite thing is to post pictures of a beautiful sunset, or a leaf that I’ve found. But I can scroll and scroll. I wish I could say I had a ‘good relationship’.
How can we all live a little bit better?
One small thing would be to just use your phone less. But I’m not saying that because I’ve mastered it – I’m saying it as a reminder to myself.
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Anything fun in the pipeline – professionally or personally?
Yes! I have a show called Austentatious in the West End every Monday until June. We’ve been doing it for years, but this is a new run in the Arts Theatre. It’s really good fun, all in Jane Austen costumes. It’s an improvised Jane Austen novel.
I’m currently watching… Daisy Jones & The Six
I’m reading… The Silent Wife by Karen Slaughter, and a book by Leah Hazzard called Womb
What I’m most looking forward to seeing… I’ve got tickets to see Guys & Dolls at The Bridge Theatre, and I’m incredibly excited
Favourite film of all time… Forest Gump
Band/singer I always have on repeat… Tori Amos, Regina Spektor
My ultimate cultural recommendation… To go and see live improv! Or watch Middleditch on Netflix
Cultural guilty pleasure… Made in Chelsea
What’s next for me is… Trying to write a musical. I’m working on it!
Advice From Strangers by Rachel Parris is out now in paperback. Coronet, £10.99, waterstones.com
Featured image © Karla Gowlett/Hachette.