Speaking with a Mad Woman:
Diane Spencer in All Pervading Madness

Posted on 14 March 2011

I seem to have a penchant to write about fiery red-heads. Diane Spencer has even gone so far as to get sponsorship from a ginger beer company in New Zealand. She’s quite the rising star, having been nominated Best Female Comedian NZ Comedy Guild 2009, then shortly thereafter winning the 2011 Chortle Awards for Best Newcomer. After developing and cementing her career in New Zealand and Australia, she returned to the UK where she is becoming a fixture of the London comedy scene. Currently, she’s touring Australia and will be performing at the Melbourne Comedy Festival.

Let’s pretend we are at a café on the moon. The only problem with the place is that it has no atmosphere…but the lattés are divine!

What were you reading to pass the time before I came in through the airlock and what colour is your space suit?

Diane: I was looking at The Guide to the Cosmos, and trying to work out which bright objects were the planets in our solar system, and then fishing around in my spacesuit pocket for twenty cents so I could operate the telescope and look at Mars. My space suit right now—shimmering gold foil would be the best!

You have a new show for the Melbourne Comedy Festival: All Pervading Madness. Woohoo! Could you tell us a little about what sort of madness you’ll be exploring?

Diane: Some of it is a middle class “madness” which is more of a harmless, “oh don’t mind my mother, she’s mad” kind of craziness. The show then centres around a story of how I tried to get home. I make some decisions which could be intrepreted as insane by other people, and other people act towards me in an unbalanced way—notably people on the night train. So hence the “all-pervading” in the title.

You certainly aren’t above the odd (very odd) poo joke and yet there’s a lightheartedness and thoughtfulness that keeps the show buoyant. How do you keep wit and filth so well balanced that the result is simply fun?

Diane: That’s very kind of you to say so! I just want people to have a good time and enjoy themselves, and I personally find rude/taboo things funny, but still at the “light” end of the taboo spectrum. Everyone poos, it’s not like it’s something that we can escape, so laughing at it isn’t a problem for me. But yes, my main aim to for people to be happy and enjoy themselves. So even though I might occasionally mention something dark, I don’t want to drag anyone down with it.

One of your great strengths is the rapport you build with your audience. That takes confidence, superb social skills, and a particular attitude. What did you do to develop your ability to achieve rapport? What would you suggest other comedians try to improve their rapport?

Diane: I think a genuine interest in other people, what they have to say, what their body language suggests and whether the two are in conflict! Being in the moment really helps. I did an acting class called “The Meisner Technique”. Sadly, I had to leave the country before I completed it. The technique focuses on keeping you in the moment and learning to react to what is being said to you, rather than keeping your monologue in your head all the time. Also, just having that feeling that everyone is welcome: “We’re all friends here” and “We’re all safe and we’re having a good time”.

What fascinates me about your work is all the touring you do. You travel each year around the UK, then around Australia and New Zealand. How do you manage to develop new material when you are on the road so much?

Diane: I write during the day, and I ask my agent to keep nights free for me, so I can sometimes just relax. Many things happen to me whilst on tour so the material naturally generates itself. Just by living, getting older, shaping my opinion and interacting with people, material starts creeping in. My style of writing has changed—I’ve only been doing this 4 and a half years. The first show I wrote was a culmination of 3 years of stand up. The second show, Lost in the Mouth Specific was specifically written from Sept 2009 to Feb 2010 and then continuously shaped whilst being toured. The very first show in Adelaide and the very last in Edinburgh were WILDLY different. Lost in… was written as a result of me having very few gigs, and I just sat down and wrote and re-wrote every day. This new show is not only different in terms of style, but I wrote it in bursts! I had a lot more gigs and writer’s block, which was terrifying. Then I just relaxed and one day it came out—pretty much twenty minutes at a time, in three bursts of writing. Since then I’ve been shaping and re-writing and it’ll change as I tour, as the last one did and you work out what works, what doesn’t. etc. So, having time off enables that idea to begin, and then touring enables me to shape it.

How do you set up each of your gigs? Do you have a manager or agent, or do you do it yourself?

Diane: I now have an agent in the UK, which I didn’t have this time last year! Jon Briley of Best Medicine. However, he does not represent me in Australia and New Zealand—I am self-produced and self-represented out here. The festival scene is brilliant down under, but the actual day to day gigging is not as vibrant as the UK. Jon does a great job of getting me well-paid gigs in good clubs back home, and I look after my Australian/NZ tour.

With that sort of mobility you must have to budget for marketing, travel, food, accomodation, etc. How much bookkeeping and accounting skills does a comedian have to possess?

Diane: It depends on the comedian! I personally keep a lot of spreadsheets! But I know some people who write it on a scrap of paper. I was prepared to lose money in 2010 and 2011 because these are the first two years of me being a professional comedian with no other job. So, I have savings I’m willing to sacrifice. In 2012 I hope to earn minimum wage in the UK.

I know that travel can sometimes do your head in with weirdness. What do you do to keep yourself grounded?

Diane: People are wonderful at keeping me grounded. Also if a joke doesn’t quite work, that lovely clunking silence. I like to read books, I’m reading The Tell-Tale Brain by V.S Ramachandran. I like books on brains and how we think. I also love looking at the sea. The sea is very calming for me, and I recently discovered a long lost hobby of mine! When I did art in college, I chose the theme “Traffic at Night” for my final piece. I’ve always loved the scenes that nighttime lighting creates. And being a comedian, that’s all you see. But last night, my show had been slightly mis-interpreted by some, I felt a bit low, and took out my camera and started photographing the road outside. It felt great! Mine is the world where empty carparks are the norm.

How do you manage to keep your energy up and your jokes fresh?

Diane: I love what I do, and when you love something your energy is limitless.

I know you like reading books that stretch your thinking. My experience is that comedians are unconventionally intelligent. They may or may not have done well in school, but they still have an inquisitiveness about life. Do you have any great thinkers that inspire your comedy (eg Nelson Mandela, Jane Goodall, Brian Cox…)?

Diane: You’re right on the books! There are no great thinkers as such–anyone who writes a popular science book is inspirational, but not in a “writing jokes” way, but in a “wow, life is fascinating” kind of way, which means that then I can return to joke writing, because my brain has had “time off” so to speak!

Okay, how about other comedians?

Diane: I think the rhetoric of people like Doug Stanhope is impressive, and I love watching YouTube interviews with Phyllis Diller, where she talks about being a comedian. For the sheer self-promotion aspect of this job, I love watching Kathy Griffin “My life on the D-list”. I watched a clip a day all through Edinburgh and she kept me fired up and onto it.

When, where, and how can we see All Pervading Madness at the Melbourne Comedy Festival?

Diane: 8pm, 31 Mar – 10 Apr (not 4) at The Cinema, Hotel Discovery, 167 Franklin St.

I like ending with a non sequitur question. If you had to choose between being a Kakapo or a piece of cake, which would you be and why?

Diane: Easy!! A Kakapo—a talking, soaring bird in beautiful green feathers, who wouldn’t!

Kakapo…a soaring bird…hmmm. Perhaps you should watch a little Stephen Fry.

BBC Last Chance to See: The Kakapo

Thank you for your time. I know your show is going to be awesome.

Diane: Thank you for your support and friendship 🙂 xx

Peace and kindness,


For even more about Diane you can check out her Web site http://www.difunny.com/ or buy tickets to her show at the Melbourne Comedy Festival Web site.

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