Lou Sanders: Sweet Mystery

A nonconformist in everything she does, Lou Sanders gives Jay Richardson the tiniest of clues as to how she got that way

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Kat Gollock
Published 11 August 2016

“If I was a boy, a male comedian, people would want to cook a nice dinner for me and look after me,” Lou Sanders blurts. “No, wait, I don't think that's true actually.”

Intermittently forthright, then guarded, the quirky standup hates telephone interviews because she tends to overshare, adding that she's usually telling the truth. “Nobody wants to read that though...” she tails off momentarily, a little enigmatic, a little coy.

Sniffing a potential whiff of scandal after hearing allusions to heartbreak, criminality and even teetotality in her Fringe show, I nevertheless come to realise that the only dirty laundry being aired today is currently getting dragged, wretchedly, from Sanders' washing machine as she speaks to me. “More stained than when it went in!” she laments. The lottery of Edinburgh accommodation, now that's a scandal, we agree.

“I like to retain a sweet bit of mystery,” she continues in the sing-song style of her naif-like, only occasionally jaded stage persona – a self-indulged princess who's perhaps kissed one too many frogs. “The comedy I do is very silly, so I think it's enough to just hint at the stuff that makes you who you are, that has contributed to your personality now or when you were younger.”

She isn't overt in expressing her “passionate” political views. “I'm not going to bang on about that kind of thing, even though I love and respect the comics that can do it because it's a great skill,” she says.

“When I sing a song with a vagina on a stick, and I'm saying 'I'm from Africa', it sounds stupid. But there is a message there if you know where to look.” She cracks up. “I think I say quite a lot by saying a little.”

This mock arrogance, a mix of superiority and vulnerability that defines just about all of her utterances on stage is “always funny”, she maintains. “To be like, 'Yeah, I know I'm a big deal', especially in a small room. It would maybe be less funny if you were doing Live at the Apollo.”

While she doesn't think the past is especially formative in shaping personality, Sanders is offering a glimpse into her childhood with her show this year and, perhaps, the triumphant roots of her nonconformity as a performer. She concedes that even in those days, “I kind of liked attention”, but that her ballet classes and insensitive brother were simultaneously undermining her confidence. “He said I'd got a massive arse,” she gently discloses. “And it does stick out! Certainly, it wasn't the fashion at the time.

“I've always wanted to tell that leotard story because I think it's funny. But it wasn't a conscious decision to say something about myself. I wouldn't say anything I do is a conscious decision.”

She backtracks. “Actually, that's not true. You say something in a conversation and suddenly it's in print, confronting you. Still, I don't think that was a conscious decision. Oh dear!”

Called What's That Lady Doing? after an audience member's bewildered response to one of her previous hours—“fair point” she acknowledges—the night I saw it featured her being flirtatious, nay, sexually aggressive in directing her youthful technician, an enjoyably one-sided exchange that didn't feel like pre-prepared material.

“No, it's not,” she confirms. “I like to keep about eight to ten per cent improvised. But I'll do it again if a similar situation arises. Sometimes you introduce stuff and it stays in. I've got quite a few lines that were improvised one night and then kept in.”

She enthuses about Liars' Club, the improv show that she's simultaneously running with Vanessa Hammick, “The way it uses a different part of your brain.” Still, she doesn't like the idea of introducing anything from these improvisations into her solo shows. I'm a bit of a purist like that,” she explains. “I like to keep my two babies at arms length.”

When an ad-libbed episode like the tech intimidation occurs, people invariably tell her, “Oh, you should do that every night,” she reflects. “But if you try to recreate that wonderful magic, you'll lose something. If you're still chasing last night, you're not in the moment of tonight. And Colin's not my tech every night.”

As the festival progresses and she beds the show in properly, Sanders anticipates growing more confident in taking risks with it. And she's already looking forward to her next ventures: gigs in Los Angeles with Aisling Bea; a short film with Tom Rosenthal, Nick Helm and Sheila Reid in which she plays an annoying, Amélie-type florist that's shooting in October; and a feature film for next year that she's working on with comedy writer Hannah George about female travellers, which she describes as a “backpacking Bridesmaids”.

With all this in development, she finds herself “at the most exciting phase” of making comedy. “When I think of something and wonder if I can convey it properly to an audience, will they find it as funny?”

Before it's compromised by others? I ask. “The room in my head is such a safe space,” she concludes.