Review: Tessa Coates, Primates
by Rose Collard
Soho Theatre, Thursday 26th April 2018
As a huge fan of Tessa’s (I was an avid listener of 'The Debrief Podcast', which Tessa hosted weekly with fellow comedian Stevie Martin), seeing Primates at the Soho Theatre has been something of a personal ambition. Tessa’s debut solo show, Primates is part-autobiography, part-anthropology lecture – and a whole lot hilarious. Harpy was lucky enough to snatch half an hour with Tessa to talk about her experience creating the show.
Her first foray into the world of solo stand up, Tessa explains how in Primates she ‘basically made the show [she] would like to see’; that is, a show free from the sort of testosterone-fueled aggression popularized by male stand ups. Having spent a vast amount of time crammed into the back of pubs at new material nights (before going solo, Tessa spent three years as part of sketch group, Massive Dad) Tessa never found the barrage of angry, mean jokes typically seen here either funny or honest. She explains, with a steady self-assurance, how bizarre it was to watch these standups bullying their audience into laughter when they just ‘weren’t funny’. Laughter, she felt, was a reward they did not deserve. Out of this came the hypothesis that perhaps it was possible to ‘just be nice’ in comedy. Thus, Primates was born.
Tessa is wonderfully modest about how easy it was to put her show together. She claims it happened, in part, organically: the show’s autobiographical nature meant ‘the idea has always been sort of sat inside [her]’. I find it hard to believe that such a well-crafted show was so easy to procure, but this effortless attitude is certainly part of the reason Primates packs a punch. As a stand up, Tessa is charismatic and self-effacing; she is instantly likeable, never lacking and always, always funny. Her easy-going presence invites laughter, rather than demanding it, and it feels like listening to a friend down the pub as she weaves personal anecdotes with anthropological facts to lace the show together. Unlike the bullying male comics she strives to oppose, Tessa is nice – and fully deserving of her audience’s laughter.
Tessa’s journey into comedy began at Durham University where she was part of the prestigious Durham Revue. After graduating, assuming her comedy days were behind her, she went off and was, in her own words, ‘extremely bad at several different jobs’, before returning to the stage as part of the aforementioned Massive Dad. Truly believing that anyone could stand up on stage and talk about their life, Tessa’s modesty is as palpable as her genuine interest in people. Spurred on by her degree in anthropology, Primates not only documents the good, the bad and the ugly moments of Tessa’s own years on the planet but offers biological interpretations for humankind’s years too. In Tessa’s view, uncovering anthropological facts as an antidote to many of our contemporary anxieties means ‘we would all just calm down so much’. This kind of astute emotional intelligence, overseeing her razor-sharp wit, is what sets Primates in a league above the rest.
Reluctant as I was to ask what felt like the elephant question in the room (I don’t feel women ought to be asked to comment on their status as women, just because they are succeeding in a space they have traditionally been estranged from), Tessa put me at ease by joking that the worst part of being a woman in comedy is being asked about it! Truthfully though, she says it would be much harder were she on the club circuit or doing panel shows. For a woman, these are the real lions’ dens of the industry: ‘testosterone-filled lad-y environments’. Having been dominated by men from the get go, they have unfortunately set the standards and you become, whether you like it or not, a woman playing a man’s game. The (actual) worst part about being a woman in comedy though, she laments, is hearing ‘young, woke, ‘on it’ girls’ (you know the sort – they read Babe and think it’s progressive*) saying things like ‘I just don’t find women funny’ – when that happens, ‘[Tessa] just want[s] to shake them and be like: ‘it is SO damaging every time you say that!’. Having been in the industry for four years, Tessa has suffered her fair share of pigeon-holing. As a sketch troupe of three women, comparisons between Massive Dad and shows such as Smack the Pony were rife. Tessa explains how many assumed they would follow in those (often uncomfortably heeled) footsteps and be on TV within the year. But, bizarrely, it appears not all trios of funny women are made equal. Brutally honest about how comedy is ‘a nightmare’ to crack, Tessa cites the demise of Friday night TV as a reason for this. As comedy now exists in an entirely different way to how it did when Tessa was young (when shows like Smack the Pony, Dead Ringers and The Fast Show dominated ratings), we are in ‘a totally new Wild West of what comedy is’. If this is the case, and contemporary comedy has become a new Wild West, then Primates will be well-equipped to navigate this difficult landscape.
Tessa will be returning to the Soho Theatre with Primates on 28th, 29th and 30th June. Her second solo show will debut in Edinburgh in August 2018. You can follow her on Twitter @TessaCoates and visit her website, http://www.tessacoates.com/.
*NB - this is not a view endorsed by Tessa or Harpy, but is the author’s own