When Welsh television came knocking, Gwenno Dafydd was ready. The TV station S4C wanted to greenlight her project. After ten years of hard work, pitches and meetings, her dream was coming true. But now there was a catch and it involved some other good news. Gwenno was pregnant. As timing would have it, the program would launch when her daughter was still a newborn. It would require the new mom to travel thousands of miles away from home, by motorbike no less.
But one of the many things I learned about this comedian and author during a series of Skype conversations is that she is undauntable. Did she find a way to do the show? “It was either then or not at all,” she told me.
Her life has been a model of surviving and thriving by indomitable spirit. There have been downs – frightening health battles, periods where she couldn’t find the creative work she loves – but also plenty of ups, testaments to Gwenno’s talent and commitment to fearless perseverance.
One of her greatest achievements and the reason we were speaking is that she is the author of one of the world’s best and only books about the international sisterhood of women comedians, Stand Up & Sock it to Them, Sister: Funny, Feisty Females (Parthian Press).
She begins the book with the fascinating history of comedy’s early female voices (“suffrajests”) and goes on to interview funny, unstoppable women from all over the globe. Funny and feisty voices weigh in from the U.K. to the U.S. to India to South Africa, Greece and New Zealand. She interviewed the oldest and youngest stand-ups, women of color including Latina and Muslim comedians (Chicago’s Fawzia Mirza is featured!) and comedians with disabilities.
Gwenno inspired comedians like Joan Rivers, Amy Schumer and Jo Brand to answer the questions we all want to know. How did they develop their own brand of funny? Does their offstage life help or hinder their success? Should they be “dainty or dirty”? Topics also include self-deprecation, onstage personas, “harnessing the demons,” physical safety, and dealing with hecklers and other obstacles. Every page is a celebration of wit, persistence and hard-won success.
There is also a brave airing of horror stories and traumas that no man will ever have to face. Some accounts are somber. Others are nightmares transformed into funny stories (Jenny Eclair’s errant tampon is one of many memorable sagas). The book shines with story after story of struggle, success, and blasting through barriers. In each chapter, Gwenno weaves in personal details of her own extraordinary life.
Gwenno kindly spoke with me as she recovered from bilateral pulmonary embolisms (misdiagnosed for weeks as pneumonia) and four broken ribs. If she hadn’t told me, I never would have guessed. Her humor and effervescent spirit rendered the maladies invisible. How did a girl from the desolate, wind-swept coast of Wales grow up to be this funny, feisty comedian, television personality and author? Please read on.
Teme: When did you first know that you’re funny?
Gwenno: My first role was Mary in a Christmas nativity when I was four. I messed up one word and made people laugh. I’ve always loved making people laugh and I had a natural knack for it. I especially loved making my Mum laugh. She had this amazing laugh and still does, but she was a tough audience. You knew you hit gold if you got her to laugh.
Teme: How did you become aware of the myth that women aren’t funny?
Gwenno: I studied Drama in college, had all the funny parts, became a professional performer and had some comic roles and loved them. Then I went to comedy courses at the BBC and it was all men and me. I didn't understand why.
I wasn’t aware until my mid-thirties that women weren't “allowed” to be funny. I realized then as a performer that there is less work for women. It was then I started analyzing and saw that women’s position in comedy is often as the object and not the subject. We were being made fun of, but we weren't making the comedy.
I found it strange that there didn't seem to be any work for me as a woman who wanted to perform and do silly accents and dress up. The timing coincided with the rise of the alternative comedy scene. In America, you had amazing women like Betsy Salkind who was one of the pioneers.
In the U.K., we had role models like Jo Brand, Jenny Eclair and Donna McPhail. In the States you had many Latina pioneers. Earlier, there were people like Joan Rivers and Moms Mabley. There were women throughout comic history, but nobody had collected their stories in one place because history is predominately “his story,” not “her story.”
Teme: When did you first do stand-up?
Gwenno: I was living in Belgium. I'm passionate about languages and decided to learn Flemish. I took part in a talent competition and I introduced all my songs in Flemish. People thought I was the comedy act because my Flemish was so abysmal. I won the competition. It wasn’t stand-up per se, but I sure got them to laugh!
Teme: What was the first joke you ever told?
Gwenno: I was the manager for Opportunity 2000, a campaign to promote equality, and I was organizing a launch for the book Cartooning for Equality. The event was a night of comedy by women. I thought if I'm asking other people to get up there, I better do it myself.
I started off saying, "Hello, my name is Gwenno, which means pure and virtuous, which is what I was when I was given the name as a baby. Things have changed big time since then (cheeky wink)." Then I joked about growing up in West Wales in the middle of nowhere and how the nearest form of life was the local cemetery – but that we never had any problems with the neighbors, loud parties or having our milk bottles nicked!
I much preferred to be a comic character. So I created this comic character called Boadicea, Queen of H.R.T. I dressed up with a Viking helmet, a mask and a trident. The first place I went up as Boadicea was a club in Manchester called the Laughing Cows. I was the first Welsh woman to do stand-up there. I was going through the menopause then and it was all about H.R.T., which I said stood for “horny randy teenager.” I also have this urge to dress up in sequins and sing like Shirley Bassey. I did that on a few occasions. It was definitely a bit wild.
Now I want to be more truthful and do comedy as me instead of hiding behind a character. To be authentic you've got to talk about your own life. Whether that's about inequality between my life and a man's life at my age or health challenges at this stage, I’ll do it in a funny way.
Teme: It all sounds like great material.
Gwenno: We've all got stories, haven't we? The bottom line is what Joan Rivers said to me, "Funny is funny. Do whatever humor you want to do as long as it’s funny.”
HUMOR: THE KEY TO SURVIVAL
Teme: How do you stay creative and funny when you're dealing with chronic health issues?
Gwenno: I don't completely know yet. My sense of humor is the only thing that got me through the last couple of months. When the guy came to pick me up with the ambulance I was cracking jokes. Humor is my first response. Humor makes surviving so much easier. Comedy is also a release. It’s a way of keeping sane.
I had sciatica for nine years. However, I wrote a book in that time and if it weren't for the fact that I'd had sciatica, that book never would have come to fruition. It was the only thing that got me through that entire time of physical awfulness. I thought, “Okay, there are things I can’t do, but I can actually do this."
BECOMING AN AUTHOR
Teme: How did you decide to write Stand Up & Sock It to Them, Sister?
Gwenno: I was writing my Master’s thesis about women in comedy and I couldn’t find any books about it. I realized there was a gap in the market.
I knew I wanted to interview Jo Brand who was probably the most famous British stand-up at that time, but how was I going to wangle that? Then I got very lucky. One day, I was going up to London for an audition. I happened to sit on the train with somebody I knew - the actor Hywel Morgan. He asked me, "What are you doing now?" I said, "I'm writing a thesis about women in comedy." I took a chance and said, "You don't happen to know how to get hold of Jo Brand, do you?" And he said, "Well, as it happens, I'm working with Helen Griffin" (a hugely talented Welsh actor who died of cancer in 2018). Helen was Jo Brand’s best friend. So I said, "Would you ask if she would send a letter on to her?" And he said, "No problem."
Gwenno: This is what Wales is like, you see. Everyone knows everyone. I wrote the letter to Helen and Helen sent it to Jo and I got the interview. The three top women in stand-up at the time were Jo Brand, Jenny Eclair and Donna McPhail. I could now say to them as leverage, “I've interviewed Jo Brand.”
Then I added two more, a young black comedian I wanted to interview, and then somebody from a different social class. So my thesis included race and class issues. Donna is gay, so I covered gay rights with her. When I finished the thesis, people said, "You should make this into a book." So I spent the next God-knows-how-many years trying to get an agent. It was very hard. But I kept building on the interviews.
In 2004, I went to Los Angeles to work on a television program idea. I was interviewing a personal friend of Edith Piaf, the Welsh bard Eluned Phillips on her 90th birthday and singing in her birthday celebration. I stayed on Sunset Boulevard about one hundred meters away from The Comedy Store. I ended up going to The Comedy Store every night. I met Jeff Scott (Comedy Store archivist, resident pianist and M.C.) and Andrew Dice Clay. Jeff introduced me to Tanyalee Davis. Then Tanyalee introduced me to loads of people.
It took me twenty years, but I found Tracy Brennan, an agent not far from you in Mishawaka, Indiana. You hear people say, "Oh, I have the most amazing agent." Then you say, "Oh, I'd love to have somebody like that." Well, I've got somebody like that. She has really believed in me and I am very grateful to her.
Teme: How did you come up with the title Stand Up & Sock It To Them, Sister?
Gwenno: I was pulling my hair out thinking, "Oh, God, what can I call it?" I remembered [British comedian] Judy Carne in Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. She was known for saying “Sock it to me!”
There were so many things about women's position in society that made me angry, so I just said, "Oh, sock it to them, sister" I added “stand up” as in “stand up for your rights and stand up for who you are.” Then the subtitle “Funny, Feisty Females.” You’ve got to be feisty to get anywhere in life.
To be feisty, you've also got to have that Jewish word “chutzpah.” That's my favorite word, really. You've got to say, "I don't give a damn. I'm going to get on with it." Be feisty. Be radically different. Stand your ground. That's what it's all about.
BOOKING AMY SCHUMER
Teme: Speaking of funny and feisty, how did you get your interview with Amy Schumer?
Gwenno: I was singing with the choir Cor Godre’r Garth. In 2012, we went to New York. I asked Tanyalee Davis where I could see some good comedy. She said, "Go to The Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village.” So I was on a mission to get there.
I was on my way to Greenwich Village when I saw three friends from the choir. They said, "Where are you off to?" I said, "I'm going to Greenwich Village to the Comedy Cellar." They said, "Oh, can we come with you?" I thought, "Oh, God, if you have to,” but I said, “Yes, of course you can!" We got to the Comedy Cellar, and the sign says "Amy Schumer." And I thought, "Oh, my God, Amy Schumer is performing!" This was before Trainwreck. She was up and coming at the time.
I said, "I have to go in!" So we went to the door, and asked, "Have you got any tickets for tonight?" And the guy said, "No, I'm sorry." I said, "But I've come all the way from Cardiff! You've got to let me in!" And he said, "Well, we haven't got four tickets, so I'm sorry. You can't come in." So we went off to a Vietnamese restaurant. I sat in the restaurant brooding, really annoyed that I was so close yet so far, "I'm this close! I’m not going to let this go!" So I got up and said "Look, I'm really sorry, but I have to go and see Amy Schumer."
So I went back to the Comedy Cellar and went up to the guy at the door. I said, "Look, can I please come in? I've come all the way from Cardiff. It's in Wales. It's in the U.K. Will you please let me in?" And he said, "No, you can't go in. There's no room." I kept pleading. “Please let me in! I’ll buy you a pint.” Finally, he said, "Oh, go on then!"
Of course, Amy Schumer was very funny. This was before she became really famous, and afterwards, I thought, "Ooh, I'll go say hello to her." So I went back to my nice, friendly doorman and said "Can I go and say hello to her?" He said, "Oh, go on then 'cause I know you'll make a fuss otherwise." So he showed me the back door to the bar. I walked upstairs and there she was and I just introduced myself. She was really not wanting to talk at all. But I managed to get a couple of photographs with her and I said, "Will you do me an interview?" And she said "yeah" just like that. So I basically had to bribe my way in, but I didn't come all the way to New York to be turned away. We did the interview by email later.
I met Joan Rivers when she came to Cardiff to perform in St. David’s Hall. I emailed the house manager Gareth Griffiths back and forth for a week to make it happen. I met her backstage and she was so sweet. She gave me a little pack of Joan Rivers lipsticks and said "Come here, let me give you a big cuddle." We don't call it a cuddle in Wales; we call it a cwtch (“kutch”). So she gave me a big cwtch, and I said, "Would you like to see my proposal for the book?" She said "No, I don't want to see it because I don't want you to say that I've stolen your idea." She was very welcoming and warm. I’ll never forget that. Meeting her was a magical moment.
JO BRAND TAKES THE CAKE (OR DID SHE?)
Gwenno: I have another story about meeting Jo Brand. She would joke onstage about eating cream cakes all the time. So I got a box of cakes for her. But what I did, unfortunately, was I accidently in my excitement dropped them in the gutter. I actually tried to clean them up a bit, the mama's way of cleaning up, with a bit of spit on a handkerchief. I did offer them to her and she said, "No, no thanks." I thought, "Lucky escape there!"
THE BEST ADVICE
Teme: What was the best advice you heard in all your interviews?
Gwenno: The best advice I heard is also my motto: “If you want to do something, just get on with it” and "If it's to be, it's up to me." If you want to be a stand-up comic, just get out there. There's no other way. Get your stage time in.
Joan Rivers also had good advice: record yourself doing your set. It helps you learn your material and to figure out the nuances of how to deliver it.
HOW “SOCK IT TO THEM SISTERS” BOUNCE BACK
Teme: What was most inspiring about writing the book?
Gwenno: I loved finding out about people and what inspires them. How do they keep going despite setbacks? How do these "sock it to them sisters" bounce back from difficult times? I'll give you an example. Lydia Nicole. Her father was a pimp and her mother was a prostitute. How do you get over that? There are several women in my book who have endured rape and physical abuse.
I think we've all got a duty to leave this world a slightly better place than when we came into it. That's why I wanted to write this book and make sure people know these talented comedians and their stories.
Teme: What is your personal philosophy for overcoming difficult things?
Gwenno: I rode horses when I was a kid. My philosophy was if you fall off, get back on the horse before it gallops off into the sunset. I never take no for an answer. If I seriously want to do something, I will do it. There are ways to get over, get around, get under, get through. But do it whichever way!
I don't give up easily. I'm from West Wales. My playground was rocks. In the summer, I would swim with the seals and sing to them. When I was bored, my mother used to say "Just go and find something to do!" So my playground literally was a coastal path, the rocks, the sea, the mountains. It toughens you up. You learn to be resilient.
Perhaps the biggest source of my resiliency is that I’ve been a runner since I was eleven years old. I shared a love of running with my dad who, sadly, died last Christmas. As a runner, you’ve always got goals. You've got to have self-discipline and push yourself through pain both physically and mentally. So that's a big part of who I am.
It was interesting to learn that quite a few of the comics I interviewed were tomboys who loved physical activities in the outdoors. I think learning to function in a tough environment gave them mental resilience.
Comedy is a very male-dominated environment. Comedians are out working late at night and it can be dangerous for women. They've got to be physically confident. Some of the comics were brought up with brothers who were quite tough on them and that helped them, too.
I personally think that it would be a good thing if all children were encouraged, especially girls, to embrace their physicality. Do sports. It gives you that inner confidence. In the book, I write about the biggest barrier female comedians face. The biggest barrier is lack of self-confidence. Self-confidence is the most important thing to have on your side; to believe in yourself. If you grow as much of that as possible in your youth, it's always going to stand you in good stead.
Teme: What if that didn’t happen in childhood?
Gwenno: The only way you're going to grow your confidence is to stretch your comfort zone. My comfort zone is live television. Not knowing when my next job is coming up. Traveling to New York on my own. My panic zone is having a full-time job. That would freak me out.
The first time that you do stand-up comedy, you will be petrified. It may have been shambles, but you've done it. And you've pushed your comfort zone further out.
You can grow your comfort zone with a comedy gratitude diary. "Today I wrote three minutes of material. Today I saw somebody that I could write a sketch about. Today I heard a really good joke." Then you can go back to it and you see how your comfort zone has grown.
‘CRWYDRO’R CYFANDIR’ – ROAMING THE CONTINENT
Teme: I’d love to hear about your television show when you motorbiked around Europe!
Gwenno: In 1928, my grandfather William Ambrose Bebb was a young man. He traveled from Wales to France to study at the Sorbonne. He could speak Welsh. He could speak English, but he couldn't speak French. He learned to speak French with a Welsh bible in one hand and a French bible in the other. That summer, he and two friends decided to embark on a 3,000 mile motorbike ride starting from his mother’s farm in Tregaron, Wales. But he didn't know how to ride a motorbike. So he did the entire trip sitting on a sack of hay.
Gwenno: They were three guys with two motorbikes. He sat on the back of one of the bikes on a sack of hay. It must have been immensely uncomfortable.
He became one of the first people to write a travel log in Welsh. He was a very politically active person and was one of the people who started Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Nationalist party. We are historically quite a political family. One of my great, great, great uncles, William Bebb, was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln as examiner in the pension office in Washington, D.C. and was the governor of Ohio.
I had the idea of doing the same journey as my grandfather, but with three women. I wanted it to be with women because 1928 was when women got the vote. I wanted to show how women's lives have changed in a positive way since then. For ten years, I went to television companies in Wales trying to get the program commissioned.
It was a bit unfortunate that it was commissioned a little bit after I found out I was pregnant. The first time I had to start working on the program to pass my motorbike test, my daughter was six weeks old and when I had leave to do the program, my daughter was less than six months old. She went to stay with my mother for six weeks and it nearly broke my heart.
Filming the program was wonderful but also difficult because I was missing her terribly. But I'd been waiting ten years to do the project. In broadcasting, if you get a program commissioned and then say “I can't do it,” you won't get a chance again.
For six weeks, we roamed 3,000 miles of the [European] continent and retraced my grandfather’s steps. We stayed in a hotel in Brittany where my grandfather had stayed. I met the grandson of the man who was hotel patron in 1928 and he presented me with a symbolic key to a room.
BECOMING A WORLD AMBASSADOR
Gwenno: The other creative endeavor I'm most proud about is that I instigated and co-wrote an anthem for Wales’ patron saint’s day, “Cenwch y Clychau i Dewi” ("Ring out the bells for Saint David"). I wrote the lyrics and Heulwen Thomas wrote the music.
Teme: How did you think of it?
Gwenno: Like a proud Welsh woman, I was taking part in the second National Saint David's Day Parade in our capital city Cardiff in 2004 by banging the type of metal bell with a wooden clapper that monks used in St. David’s time.
All of a sudden I felt as if I had been hit by a bolt of lightning. I had this thought – I have to write an anthem in both Welsh and English, one that choirs, individuals, brass bands, children and adults can perform all over Wales and the world. Fifteen years on, this dream has come to fruition. It has been performed all over Wales, in Canada, Los Angeles, Patagonia (Argentina where there is a Welsh speaking colony), Disneyland Paris and the Houses of Parliament. I grew up in West Wales about fifteen miles away from where Saint David was born. He was always an important influence on me. His motto is “do the small things.” The small things are the big things, ultimately. I'm very proud that I've been made a world ambassador for Saint David's Day.
Teme: What is your advice for sustaining a creative career?
Gwenno: You've got to look at the big picture. Creativity is a marathon not a sprint. Realize there will be times when you're not having anything to do with creativity. You may have to transfer creativity to your hobby. If you're a creative person, you never stop being creative or wanting to create. You can still create when you're 80 or 90. There's no “sell-by” date.
Make sure that you have a fallback career. I trained as a drama and Welsh teacher and taught English in Belgium and Holland and was a supply teacher in Wales for fifteen years. I also did research for television programs. When I did my Master’s degree, there was very little performing work for my age. I was also in a different phase in my life. I had my daughter and I didn't want to leave her for long periods of time for work. The motorbike program had been too much for me. So I changed direction, did my Masters and did equal opportunities work for ten years. Now I work as a freelance Leadership and Public Speaking Coach mostly by Skype and work with people all over the world perfecting their public speaking experiences and enabling them to become the best possible version of themselves.
But I also didn't turn down any work. I wrote a Christmas musical for the BBC called Santa’s on Strike? which is still being performed in many schools at Christmas. I wrote lyrics as a freelancer and a play about the Falklands war and PTSD called Paying the Full Wack which could become a screenplay with the right treatment. I also have my one woman show about Edith Piaf Passionate about Piaf which I will be bringing to London over the next year. I always made time in the week to be creative. My creative work is central to my life and happiness.
Find people who believe in you and support you. My husband Pol van Steelant has been my greatest support and I have always been very grateful to him for this. He was there in the talent competition all those years ago in Belgium. My agent Tracy Brennan is another one whose support I really appreciate. Jeff Scott from the Comedy Store is ace as is Lue Deck, my comedy guru.
Another thing about creativity is you have to be patient. The book took me twenty years from when I started writing to finding a publisher. It wasn't because I'm a slow writer! It was because you encounter lots of people who turn you down. Sometimes you have to shelve things for a while, but if you believe in what you've written, you've got to go back to it. Finally - never give up!
More about Gwenno and her work as a Leadership and Public Speaking Coach here.
More about Ring Out the Bells for St. David:
Gwenno's 2019 Saint David's Day Message is here.
Purchase the St. David's Day anthem by Gwenno Dafydd and Heulwen Thomas here.
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