Edinburgh Fringe: Performing Comedy with Evelyn Mok
What you need to know about starting out as a stand-up comic
By Christina Care
Evelyn Mok makes her hour debut this year with her show ‘Hymen Manoeuvre’. Spotlight spoke to her about her show, the challenges of comedy at the Fringe, and performing comedy in the UK versus her home country of Sweden.
I’ve been thinking about doing my debut for a few years and a few years ago I wouldn’t have been able to write this show, I think, because it’s been a very personal journey to get to this point… For me I wanted to talk about certain themes because it’s my debut show – you’re telling people who you are. So, I explore my neuroses. The themes that are recurring in my life are about being a woman, being a woman of colour, being plus sized, being Chinese in Sweden, growing up as a minority.
What made you want to pursue comedy?
I’ve always been a comedy fan, I think, since I was little – my parents worked constantly, my grandparents looked after us, so me and my brother would watch TV a lot. I grew up in Sweden, but engrossed myself with American TV. I watched a bunch of Adam Sandler films. That was the first person that helped me understand what comedy was. He’s very childish, so for a kid, he was perfect. From that I watched Saturday Night Live. I wanted to be an actor but I wanted to be a comedy actor – I wanted to do what Saturday Night Live were doing. But I didn’t understand they were improvisers or comedians, I thought they were actors. So, I wanted to be an actor. I missed all of the deadlines for acting school, so I ended up doing a degree in Management. I did not like it, but I finished it! After that I started doing stand-up in Sweden.
Given there’s no real way to “train” for comedy, compared to acting, do you think it’s just about getting up and giving it a go?
Absolutely, if you want to do comedy, there’s no other way than to get up and do it. If it’s stand-up, improv, making videos online – that’s basically how you learn. Nobody is going to give you something in this industry, you have to make your own way. It’s tricky.
How do you compare Sweden to the UK in terms of the comedy scene?
In Sweden, we have a comedy scene but it’s very small. There’s a professional circuit and there’s a corporate circuit. The club circuit is very limited. There’s no direct link between the comedy circuit and TV work. But there is that link here. The UK is very unique in that it’s obsessed with new talent, but also with developing new talent – looking after them, working with the talent to create a career. In America, you have to do all the development yourself and then maybe, if you are good enough, you’ll get an agent.
In Sweden we don’t have agents, everyone handles their own stuff. There weren’t a lot of options – you hit a top very quickly. There’s nowhere to go from there. Now, since I’ve left, the podcasting trend has really taken off. All of my friends now have their own podcast and make a living from and tour from that. It’s a much more grassroots community. They’re making their own content without needing to rely on traditional media.
What attracted you to performing at the Fringe?
I think the Fringe is really exciting – it’s a Mecca for comedy. When you move to London the Fringe is such a focus. It’s what you work towards the whole year. It was just kind of following everyone else, quite a natural thing to do.
I came in 2012 before I moved over, just to look. I did a few spots, then watched shows. I thought it was wonderful. There was just so much comedy, and it’s a melting pot as well. English, Americans, Australians – it was this new perspective of what comedy is.
You performed as part of the Charlie Hartill Reserve a few years ago – how did that help with the development of your career?
The Reserve is brilliant. There are a lot of showcases at the Fringe, but I think the Reserve is the only one that truly has been set up to nurture talent. The Pleasance, being a trust, has a passion that overrides everything else. There are countless people who have been through the Reserve. You’re doing it with three other people, you become this little group. You get to experience the Fringe without any of the stress. They put you up, they take care of all the marketing – you just show up and do the show. That is a brilliant time for a comedian. You get time to just focus on your comedy without needing to worry about financial or other things.
How do you go about writing a joke?
For me it’s always an idea of something that’s funny and I just have to find a way to convey it. Sometimes things just pop up whole and it’s funny immediately. But I’ve got a joke in my show (that’s my favourite joke!) where I say that I don’t take off my bra during sex because I don’t have small, perky middle-class breasts. That’s the beginning of a longer joke about white feminism and how as a woman of colour, that doesn’t apply to me. It goes on to talk about my mum, who when she came to Sweden could only work at a take away. She saved every penny so I could go and do whatever I wanted to do, and all I want to do is improv! I’m really proud of that joke. It’s exploring first generation guilt and intersectionality and class. And all of this boils down to my boobs. That took maybe four months to get where it is now and it’s still not finished, I think I can make it better.
Then I have others – like the fact that my mum keeps feeding me, because that’s what Chinese people do to show love. But then she sat me down and was like, “If you don’t lose weight, men won’t find you attractive.” So that’s like an emotional reveal in my show which I have to undermine with a joke, so it’s like, “She’s asking me to give up cake for d**k?” That joke sort of came quite quickly, within a week. I can also make that joke better. That’s the one that reviewers pick up on and the one that I took months on and I think is clever, nobody’s picked up on!
How do you go about thematically summarising your show for the Fringe?
I’ve been thinking about doing my debut for a few years and a few years ago I wouldn’t have been able to write this show, I think, because it’s been a very personal journey to get to this point. Some people go, “Here are all my jokes, how do they link thematically?” then other people want to talk about something that’s happened maybe and go, “Ok, how do I do that?” Then they write new stuff. For me I wanted to talk about certain themes because it’s my debut show – you’re telling people who you are. So, I explore my neuroses. The themes that are recurring in my life are about being a woman, being a woman of colour, being plus sized, being Chinese in Sweden, growing up as a minority. The narrative in the show [which is called ‘Hymen Manoeuvre’] is that it’s affected my life because I didn’t lose my virginity until I was 25. That’s become the narrative of the show. I feel like I’ve woven all these themes in.
Do you find there are any particular challenges to performing comedy at the Fringe?
Edinburgh is very tough. If I get held back because I’m Chinese or a woman, I think It only happens behind closed doors. I don’t think I ever hear about it. But there is overt sexism as well – just being a woman doing stand-up. People come up to [female comedians] a lot and say, “I usually don’t think female comedians are funny…” I really appreciate having a discussion about it, though the discussions can sometimes distract from your work. So, it’s a tricky subject. The circuit can be a little tough if you’re a younger woman walking into the green room, with a bunch of men who have been going for a while – it’s generational, there’s class involved, it’s really complicated. You try to not let it distract you from the work.
What would you say has been the highlight of your fringe experiences?
Just doing an hour is amazing. Getting the first review I had for this hour is really great too, from The Skinny. I really think the reviewer got it!
What happens after the Fringe is over for you? Are there other projects you want to try next?
I would like to get an earlier start on the next show – this year I was a bit distracted by other projects. A lot of the material for this show is very young, and a few bits I came up with just a week before. I think I would love to start earlier just to get it into the body more and see how it flows better, feels better. It’s probably not gonna happen…!
We’re also developing a sitcom, a pilot. I don’t expect it to get picked up, but if it does it would be very exciting to run a writer’s room. I would love to go to the States and do some stand-up there. That’s somewhere I’d love to be for a while. I just want to work, really! A consistent income so my parents can relax, and so I can give them some money as well.
Tips for Aspiring Edinburgh Fringe Comics
1. Know why you’re doing it!
I would suggest for a person who wants to do Fringe properly to first ask yourself: why do I want to do the fringe? There’s no point going in blind, you need to know why you’re there. You might just want to get better as a comic, or you could be doing it as a career [exposure] thing – it’s like a debutante ball!
2. Come and have a look first - do your research, even if you don’t yet have a show
Go in and research it, look at what others are doing, how the people who are debuting are doing that. Talk to them, ask them how they’re working. As much as the noble idea of doing it just for the comedy, there is the career side of it too. Just come and visit first. Edinburgh is tough even if it’s fun.
3. Give yourself down time and pace yourself
Wake up late! Have as little time between sleep and your show as possible. Try not to read reviews. I’m staying in the New Town which means I get to leave the Fringe every day, which is quite nice. Hang out with your friends, don’t hang out too much at the member’s bars. Go and watch a film, go to the beach on your day off if you have one.
Thank you to Evelyn for talking to us. She's performing daily at Pleasance Courtyard, 6pm! Get tickets online here.