Opinion: Sarah Kendall On Switching From Stand-Up To Stories


My name is Sarah, and I tell stories. I used to perform stand-up comedy in stand-up comedy clubs, to audiences who had paid to see stand-up comedy routines. I did this for around 15 years. And after 15 years, I was bored, I was lost, I didn’t care if people laughed or booed me off, my ‘new’ ideas felt like faded photocopies of ideas I’d had ten years ago, and most of my teeth had fallen out. I didn’t want to do stand-up comedy anymore, so I decided to fall back on my training as a consultant radiologist. That last bit is not true, nor is the teeth stuff. I don’t even know if ‘consultant radiologist’ is a job title.  

No. I was tired of stand-up, and I wanted to do something else. Something else that was still related to live performing because I have a massive hole inside me that can only be filled by practically forcing a room full of strangers to listen to me. I was tired of my jokes, and I was never much of a gag writer; my best work was always when I was telling a story. Whenever I told a story in my stand-up set, I felt relaxed. I felt more like me. And I love the effect that telling a story has on people. Something quite lovely happens to an audience when you tell them a story: they lean in. If you say, “Once upon a time there was a woman, and one day this woman found herself in a lot of trouble”, people will instinctively want to know…why? Why is she in trouble? What’s happened to her? Exactly what kind of trouble are we talking about? Like her car broke down kind of trouble? Or she killed a guy to pay for drugs kind of trouble? 

It’s real campfire stuff. And I don’t mean campfire as in sleeping bags and caravans and insect spray. I mean a campfire in a cave, with humans in animal pelts grunting at each other whilst painting pictures on the walls. Telling each other stories to pass the time, to entertain each other, to share a secret, or pass on wisdom, or to simply distract themselves from the fact they were riddled with lice and had no plumbing. Much like growing up in suburban Australia in the 1980s. Hahaha shit maybe I am a gag writer.

So anyway, I decided to write a one-hour show that was a single, big story. I love movies, and seeing as I don’t think I’ll ever get to make movies, I figured I would write live shows that felt and sounded like the sort of movie I’d like to watch. I reimagined my teenage years as though they had been directed by John Hughes. I brought people back to life, I invented people, I blended people. I used details about teachers that had amused me and my friends when we were in school; the office lady with the big boobs who always wore Neil Diamond t-shirts, the drunk librarian. Even my cat got dragged out of the grave and brought back to life. I gave my memories a full filmic make-over. I got to apologise to people I never got to apologise to in real life. I got to tell that guy that I loved him. I got to save a life, and protect a friend. Instead of writing jokes, I had re-invented a whole world. I got the chance to play God. 

I love great stand-up, but I was not a great stand-up. There was always something that I needed from jokes that I couldn’t get. Maybe it’s because pure joke writing was never my natural home. But when I tell these very personal stories, I feel like I’m connecting with a roomful of strangers in a way that is very meaningful for me. There is some kind of magic that happens when we all come together and share a story. Perhaps it’s because we can all recognise elements of ourselves in each other. Or maybe we’re all just living out different versions of the same story - regardless of whether you’re a stand-up comic, a paying audience member, or even a consultant radiologist.   

The first episode of Sarah Kendall: Australian Trilogy airs on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 28th February at 11pm, adapted from her acclaimed Edinburgh Festival shows. 

Sarah Kendall will be performing her latest show Shaken at the Soho Theatre from 10-14th March. Tickets here.



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