To be Franken

Being yourself isn't as simple as it sounds. Sarah Franken tells Lewis Porteous about the highs and lows of coming out as transgender on the comedy circuit

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Published 08 Aug 2015

The cliché surrounding character comedians is that they lack self-identity, suppressing their own personalities beneath layers of studied mannerisms, attitudes and behaviours. Not so Sarah Franken, whose one-person sketch shows have long enthralled audiences with their intense stream-of-consciousness fervour. Her public appearances are often closer to exorcisms than anything approaching conventional standup, the performer spewing forth her innermost rage, prejudice and nihilistic whimsy in the face of what she terms "a narcissistic society". Franken's work may lack explicit biographical detail, but spectators are left in no doubt as to her temperament and world view. “My mind's a horror show,” she tells me over the phone, as though I couldn't have guessed that for myself.

Last year's hugely acclaimed Edinburgh offering The Stuff They Put in Sleep was bookended by blasts of The Beatles' 'I Am the Walrus', and notable for its appropriately psychedelic flow and pacing. This year however, Franken has her sights on a more punk aesthetic. When declaring, “I want to be the Johnny Rotten of transgender standup,” her tongue is only partially in cheek. After years spent building a reputation under her birth name Will, this is the first show in which Franken will appear as Sarah. It represents a new start for her, just as punk did for beat music in the late '70s, with her performances fuelled by an even greater sense of fearlessness and aggression than before.

“Being out as a transgender, it feels like you're on stage the whole time,” she explains. “So I'm actually in a constant state of nervousness because people say shit and people stare. The only time I feel I can happily relax is on stage, and so the frenetic nerves that have happened as a result of this have helped in some way. The stage almost seems secondary, so I come on thinking 'fuck it, at least no-one's going to hurt me'.”

When Franken came out, she issued a statement explaining that performing as Sarah made her happier in ways that she couldn't comprehend. Several months later, she reflects on this feeling. “It's made me more authentic. Not necessarily happy, because I do stick out like a sore thumb. It's not an easy life. I've actually taken on more fear and resentment than ever just by coming out. I'm looking forward to the festival because after four months of being out as a woman, it's going to be nice being in a place where all the weirdos are around.”

Of course, it's cruelly ironic that as Franken finds herself relying on the stage as a safe space on which to present herself, narrow-minded industry players are striving to place obstacles between the two. “There was one promoter who told me to change. That was the stupidest thing in the world. Then apparently he refunded money to people based on the fact that Will Franken technically wasn't there. That's what I heard, the theatre gave money back to people. I'm the same person!

“One other guy, after I had to follow a magician and had a bad night, said 'I think it was too much Sarah too soon.' So what does he say when someone isn't transgender and they have a bad night, what do they blame it on then? My transgenderism is completely incidental. It's not what I'm about, it's just who I am. I'm a tall transgender American who lives in Britain.”

Franken is understandably keen to refute the idea that her transition has had any direct influence on her material or approach to performance, yet it does provoke some interesting issues relating to power dynamics within comedy. No longer perceived as a white male, she has lowered her status within a patriarchal social order. Whether her material will sit differently coming from a visibly marginalised member of society remains to be seen.

“Some of my bits about the state of feminism in the West, I don't know if they'll have greater or lesser impact and it'll be interesting to see. I'm taking on ISIS in this show and if you come at it from one perspective people say, 'oh, that's a white, male, privileged perspective' – which I always thought was rubbish because I come from a trailer park in Missouri. But now..." She pauses. "My friend from the States says, 'you're almost black now'. I say, 'yeah, well I'm not intending to be'.”

I think of the point in last year's show when Franken portrayed Sigmund Freud as a jive-talking black man, obsessed with "pussy". It was a brilliantly profane flight of fancy, but the racial caricature at its heart left Franken open to criticism. What ultimately absolved her from charges of poor taste was that she made no effort to justify the monologue, or to couch it in irony. It was perhaps the boldness of Franken's approach that struck a chord with the audience. The material would have been more defensible in the hands of an oppressed racial minority, but less funny for it.

“I think political correctness has screwed up our minds so much that we inadvertently make excuses for totalitarian fascists," she says. "When the Charlie Hebdo thing happened, I was just irate. When I talk to people now who say, 'I believe in freedom of speech, but...' that terrifies me. To live in a world where because of an atrocity they're going to start putting parameters on freedom of speech, that to me is just ridiculous.”

Elaborating on our collective need for satire, the comedian reflects on her formative years. “When I was a kid, I was terrified of God. My mother was one of these neurotic Christians who was into end of days and Jesus coming back. By the time I was five-years-old, I was scared shitless. So some of my earliest characters were preachers and they gave me a sense of power over the people that terrorised me. Once I got into the habit of mocking them, it changed my perception and took away my fear.”

The libertarian concept of equal-opportunities offence is hardly exclusive to Franken, but few practise it on such a deranged, all-encompassing scale. She's that rare thing, a Chris Morris fan who can just about match the man's talent and conviction.

“I believe the best comedians were slightly insane. Richard Pryor was a complete loose cannon and was funny as hell. In those days you could be insane and funny on stage. No one expected you to be sane and know how to start a website or make your own flyers. Now you've got to be half business person and half artist. We have to normalise ourselves.”

It's lucky for us that, in an industry characterised by spineless careerism, Sarah Franken seems too far gone to normalise herself. “I'd sell out in a heartbeat,” she sighs dreamily. “I don't know how to do that show where you're just talking about your life for an hour. I have to accept that I just do what I do.”