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The second time's the charm for comedian Sarah Millican

Today, she's one of the biggest names in comedy. But it wasn't always so. Maxim Boon learns why the Geordie comic is a firm believer in second chances.

A little over a decade ago, life was very different for British comedian Sarah Millican. Not only was she yet to set foot on a stand-up stage, she was also stuck in a job she hated, her marriage had irreconcilably failed, and at the age of 29, she’d been forced to move back in with her parents. However, Millican refused to accept the bleak hand life had dealt her. “I decided that I was going to give everything a go and I happened to see this ad in the paper for a comedy workshop,” she says. “So who knows, if I’d seen an ad for rock climbing, I might be halfway up Everest by now.”

This can-do attitude would lead Millican to the biggest make or break moment of her life, choosing to turn her back on the stability of a regular job to pursue comedy as a profession. While this may have seemed a rash gambit to some, for Millican, it was a risk worth taking. “When you don’t have anything, when your marriage breaks down and you think ‘Oh well, I have nothing now,’ nothing is really a gamble. I’d sunk so low, but I realised I needed to hit the bottom so I could bounce back up,” she explains. “I knew I just needed to something new in my life. Some people might deal with a breakup by drinking heavily or sleeping around, but I’ve never been particularly good at either of those. So, I ended up talking about it on stage. Not that it was really, you know, planned or anything. I didn’t think, ‘Ah yes, comedy will put me back on top!’ I just saw this comedy workshop ad, I thought it might be a bit of a challenge and, at that point in time, and I was up for anything.”

The gamble has certainly paid off. Millican’s career has sky-rocketed from stand-up rookie to international headliner at an all but unheard of speed. Since taking out the Best Newcomer Award at the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, she has become a juggernaut presence on the international touring circuit, as well as a familiar face on British TV, even earning her own comedy show, The Sarah Millican Television Programme, in 2012.

Millican’s unpretentious, salt-of-the-earth personality – perfectly distilled in the cosy charisma of her Geordie brogue – has earned her fans the world over. But despite this global profile, she’s been careful not to let her celebrity eclipse her grounded charm. “You have to retain your sense of self – that sounds really wanky, I know,” Millican shares. “Your friends don’t change and your family don’t change, and they’re not going to go, ‘Oh look at you, you’re on a big stage.’ They don’t care! They’re just your friends and your family, they’ll treat you exactly the same. But that’s what keeps you grounded: having people who will treat you no differently just because you’ve been on telly a bit.

“I’ve also made a conscious choice not to do arenas. I do theatres, and there’s a massive difference I think. Because I’ve seen comics perform in arenas, and some of them, if they’re a very physical comic, that kind of venue can work. But I still find myself drawn to watching them on the screens that they put up for big stadium gigs like that. You know, you might have an amazing seat, and you’re still watching on a big screen. For fuck's sake, you might as well be watching them on a DVD at home. So that’s why I’ve always wanted to stick to theatres, because the audience are still right in front of you, it’s still intimate. So that’s something I feel quite protective of in the way that I perform because I want my gigs to feel like you’re just chatting amongst friends, you know. And I think you can do that, oddly, with a 1000 people, but I’m not sure you can do it with 10,000.”

Glittering as her career in comedy has become, her earliest forays into stand-up were more about exorcising demons than collecting accolades. Her first award-winning show, Sarah Millican’s Not Nice, explored the emotional rollercoaster of her divorce. In the year’s since that debut, sharing her personal calamities on stage has become Millican’s signature shtick.

“It’s a mutually beneficial thing,” Millican says of her comic candidness. “If I share something that’s hurt me or that’s happened to me and I try to make light out of, when the audience laughs, sometimes it’s just because they found it funny, but often it’s because they’ve been in a similar boat. And through that laughter and that kind of recognition, it sort of makes me feel normal. When they laugh I can feel like, ‘Oh, I’m not on my own.’ I think that’s really key to my comedy: I just talk about what I know. I literally don’t know anything else! I don’t have any other useful skills or anything. All I know is the life that I’m living. 

"But I’ve realised that if anything’s hard, if you have any family problems, health issues, anything like that, it’s always made better if you can have a bloody good laugh, because it releases that pressure. And if I can do that for my audience, if they can come to my show even if they’re dealing with a lot of stuff at home or whatever, if they can have a bloody good laugh for an hour, well, those problems are still going to be as hard as when they walked into the theatre. But if they get a little release it can make everything just a bit better. I know that’s what comedy did for me.”

Stand-up may have initially been Millican’s chosen form of therapy, but these days, it’s not just her professional prospects that are looking up. In 2013, she married her second husband, fellow stand-up Gary Delaney. “I’ve never been in the same job with a partner before. There are some massive pluses – like, when I get in after a gig he’s also usually just getting in himself. If I went out with someone who just worked a kind of 9-5 type job, I’d never see them. So that’s a major advantage, being with someone who has the same messed up body clock as I do,” she smiles. 

“But I think in relationships, you need to be with someone you find funny and who finds you funny, cos I don’t know how you get through the shitier bits of a relationship and the hardness of life otherwise, I don’t know how you do that without having a laugh. It’s just we’ve taken that to the extreme because we decided being funny was going to be our careers! And you know, we’re both professional comics, so we really should be able to make each other laugh. If we couldn’t, well that’s not good. Not only would that mean the relationship’s doomed, our careers would probably be in trouble too!”

First published 25 Jan 2019, for The Music.