“I FEEL dead inside and when I do comedy I feel less dead inside”, answers Bathgate’s Fern Brady, star of Live From The BBC, when asked what is it about making people laugh that attracts her.
It’s a bleak response that the stand-up soon put into perspective.
A pupil at St Kentigern’s Academy until fifth year when, in her own words, “I went mental and did my Highers in a psychiatric unit called Willow Grove in Livingston,” Fern completed her schooling at Linlithgow Academy.
Her school years were not the happiest, she recalls, “I was pretty quiet, loved studying, got As in my exams but didn’t get on with a lot of the teachers and I liked getting a rise out of them.
“I remember my science teacher saying I should be a comedian a few times, but he was often saying it angrily.
“People used to say ‘Fern Brady’s a pure freak’ and I got bullied for having a moustache and milk bottle glasses, so the headline of this article can be one of those clichéd ‘Bullied for having a moustache but look at me now’.”
The journey to where Fern is now started with what she describes as “one of those hack articles that’s like... A comedy reviewer tries stand up then reflects on how hard it is”.
Studying Arabic, Persian and Islamic History at Edinburgh University, Fern quickly switched to an MA in English Literature when her original choice turned out to be “horrendously difficult”.
“I chose Arabic ‘cause I was good at languages at school and it had a high employment rate after uni - they were recruiting spies for MI5 from our department.
“I secretly wanted to do a creative job but if you’re from my kind of background that just seems so impossible, so I thought it important I get a proper job first.”
The daughter of a mechanic (her dad is now the boss of a truck garage) and a “Tesco checkout lady”, the only history of entertaining in the 30-year-old’s family before she took to the mic was her “musician granda”.
“He ran Fauldhouse Miners Brass Band and we all played a lot of instruments,” she explains.
“Initially, I wanted to be a journalist and I was very close to being one. I got a scholarship after university to train as a news reporter but quickly realised the money was gonna be rubbish and I didn’t want to do death knocks or reports on council meetings.
“Two months before finishing my reporter training I had to choose between the course or stand-up. I chose stand-up, which sounds fine now, but at the time felt insane.”
Keeping her byline alive by reviewing comedy for the Evening News during the Fringe gave Fern her first real experience of the comedy world she now inhabits.
“Reviewing was really my first exposure to stand-up. I didn’t think I could do it until I saw this really shouty alpha male do a solo show at the Fringe.
“I was fuming because I knew that was what I wanted to do but it just seemed impossible that a woman could do that style of comedy.”
A short time later, Fern was doing just that, albeit for the afore-mentioned article.
“That first gig was at the Gilded Balloon. I don’t think it was very good but afterwards I had an insane buzz that I’d never felt off anything else and I knew I was definitely gonna be a stand-up.
“I told my boyfriend at the time and he was like, ‘I don’t think you should do it again, it’s harder than it looks.’ So I waited about a year, secretly booked in a load of gigs, broke up with him and then did a gig in a pub in Tollcross and haven’t stopped since.”
In 2011, Fern reached the finals of the Gilded Balloon’s prestigious So You Think You’re Funny talent search.
“That was huge for me. I suddenly got booked for more gigs, taken more seriously and met my first agent.
“A lot of comics say competitions don’t mean anything but it really helped keep me going through another 10 receptionist jobs; the early years of stand up are so dispiriting you need competitions to give you a boost.”
Along the way, Fern received praise and support from some of the best known names in the business.
“I remember Phil Kay came up excitedly after a gig and said, ‘You’re just YOU!’ I didn’t really understand what he meant until years later, but it was good advice. He meant I was completely myself on stage and to keep doing that.
“And Sara Pascoe has always been kind to me and gave me a lot of advice.”
Despite the stand-up tradition being long dominated by males, Fern believes things are changing, though not as fast in the north as they should.
“It’s not male-dominated in London. There, I don’t even think about it anymore, which is amazing, but there was no way I would have flourished on the Scottish circuit when I started.
“When I was new to the business, I used to think ‘sexism isn’t that bad in comedy, you just have to be funny’.
“I look back now and realise I just had the blinkers on to get through the first few years.
“I’d get wolf-whistled on stage, I’d walk on and people would decide I was rubbish before I even opened my mouth. I’d get introduced as ‘Lovely lady Fern Brady’ or ‘The beautiful Fern Brady’ as if I was a magician’s assistant.
“It was infuriating but I’d just walk on stage silently raging and channel it into my performance.
“When I started I used to despair that the only female stand-ups I saw on TV didn’t remotely reflect me. Now, the impact Sara Pascoe and Katherine Ryan have had on young women starting stand-up is incredible.”
Not that everyone appreciates Fern’s brand of honest ‘tell-it-like-it-is’ humour, she reveals, “The most heartbreaking show for me has to be the one at Bathgate’s Regal Theatre.
“I would like to tell you this was a joyous homecoming gig where the people of Bathgate carried me out on their shoulders and apologised for bullying me at school.
“Instead, it reaffirmed why I left, something I reflected on as I was ushered out the back entrance to avoid being beaten up and past a woman screaming in a strangled voice, ‘She was sh**e. Sh****e!’
“On top of this, I found out later that the one person clapping and cheering for me throughout the gig was my cousin Sophie, who was working behind the bar that night.”
Fern Brady: Live At The BBC
NO stranger to TV and radio, Fern Brady admits that filming her special for the Live From The BBC series was nerve-wracking.
The series has built a reputation for showcasing some of the brightest talents the world of comedy has to offer.
“I don’t think I enjoyed it as I got extremely physically nervous in a way I haven’t been since, maybe, my first TV job,” admits Fern.
“They had to reshoot the opening because I walked on screaming into the microphone.
“It’s very different to doing a show at the Fringe ‘cause when I want to go for a sh** before my Fringe show no one stops me.
“When you’re filming you don’t get a minute alone, you’re surrounded by make-up people, producers, runners, all wanting to see how they can help you.
“It’s really awkward to say to a whole crew of people ‘All I want is to poop from now until we film so can you leave me alone to do that, please’.”
Fern Brady: Live At The BBC will be broadcast on BBC One on 18 July at 11.15pm and is currently available to view on the BBC iPlayer