Sophie Duker on wokeness and her creative babies
Sophie Duker is already making waves in the comedy world with appearances on Mock the Week and Frankie Boyle's New World Order, as well as running an infamous People of Colour comedy night. This August she embarks on her debut hour
London-born Sophie Duker has described herself as a ‘triple-threat’ minority: a Black, queer woman living in post-Brexit Britain. She’s also a triple-threat in terms of comedy chops, coming from an improv background and now making her way in the worlds of both stand-up and behind-the-scenes work on your favourite TV shows. Just now she’s working on previews for her debut Fringe show, Venus.
“It’s a horrible process but necessary,” she explains, “I have to show this weird half-formed monster. I think doing previews is like having an ugly baby – people have generally been very nice, like they would if you had an ugly baby. I think I’m coming across as really anti-baby.”
Like many comics, Duker started out treading the boards at University. “I did improv, which is the whitest, malest version of comedy. I loved it.”
The joy of being on stage drew Duker to performing, but this proved difficult at the end of her degree.
“When I left uni, I realised that it’s really hard to keep the band together, especially if the band is an improv troupe of quite high-achieving white men. I did stand-up kind of on a whim, and then kept doing it. I got into being by myself and being myself on stage – in improv you’re very rarely gonna be yourself, you’re gonna create something you can stand apart from. There’s a reluctance to be your authentic self.”
That authentic self is now the heart and soul of Duker’s stand-up style. Silly, saucy, and deeply personal, her comedy touches on her life and every part of that triple-threat status. Much of the comedy we’ve seen in the last few decades has been skewed towards a certain demographic, so anyone outside the comedians’ norm became that person who talks about gender, or race, or disability.
“I wanted to talk about the absurdity of being a token, and of being an outsider," something which resonates with many comedians. “I wanted to make my experience relatable through comedy, to say ‘this is valid, but it’s also entertaining.’ I wanted to push that forward so it could be accepted.”
“When I was doing improv, I felt like I was the only black girl in the world doing improv. There wasn’t any representation of people who looked like me, doing the sort of stuff that I was into, in my limited sphere. Now, it’s not as good as it could be, but there are so many comedians of colour, there are so many great women of colour doing comedy. I have contemporaries that I can look at and think ‘Oh cool, we’re going through some of the same stuff, but your material is completely different.’”
Despite the widening field of comedians from diverse backgrounds, Duker still feels a weight of expectation on her shoulders to talk about certain topics. Last year’s mini show Diet Woke addressed this head-on.
“I talk about the expectation that some people have for you to be woke, for you to be an ambassador for a community, and stereotypes that are projected onto me, as a black queer woman.”
This isn’t entirely a bad thing, though: “When I think about myself 10 years ago, the main positive difference is that I got hot and woke, and that’s great!” Duker laughs, “I got real fun at parties.”
This year, Duker’s baby Venus will be her first full-length show at the Fringe. She tells me it’s an "unconventional journey of self-discovery," and "gammon-friendly fun."
“It’s talking about race, sex and gender, and all the stuff that you might expect, but it also has stuff about pornography, sexy racists, daddy issues, Pokémon... I think if you’re in a minority group, people will always expect your work to have a political meaning. But it’s a fun, sexy show – I don’t think it’s a show that should alienate anyone.”
Staying behind, however, is Duker’s first-born, the monthly comedy club night named Wacky Racists, which has been delighting London audiences since its birth in January 2018. “I produce it, I host it, it really is my baby. So it would be stressful, since I’ve already got my show [at the Fringe], my ugly baby.
“The original tagline was ‘smash bigotry with funny’ – I think it’s what the alt-right think is the worst thing; it’s a snowglobe. It’s a place where we platform comedians of colour, but it’s also aiming for better representation across the board.
“What I wanted Wacky to be is really silly and care-free, and a place to mess around with that stuff. The dark stuff, the light stuff, just do weird shit. We have stand-up, we play different kinds of games, we have a one-man-white-man-house-band who plays problematic tunes. It’s like a party. There’s no manifesto of saying the unsayable, but because there’s so much love in the room, you get to do really great things.”
Tapping into a rich seam of new comedic voices, Wacky Racists has featured stand-up from the likes of Dane Baptiste, London Hughes and Ahir Shah. Duker maintains that this is a night that is good for the audience, who can see something a bit different, good for comics, who get a space to try new material in a friendly atmosphere, and good for comedy in general.
“There’s so much creativity and so much dark humour. I find that people who are affected by oppression can be a good comedic mind – they’re used to dealing with bullshit on a daily basis.
“We did a show this year and Nish Kumar was there, and he said ‘When I was starting out there wasn’t a place for comics of colour to do alternative stuff like this.’ People think there’s an Asian comedy scene and a Black comedy scene, and they’re not as well-regarded as the mainstream, which is largely white and middle-class. Every comedian of colour shows that you don’t have to be a certain kind of way, just because you’re Black or Asian.”
Though the comedy night that smashed bigotry won’t be at the Fringe itself, other efforts are emerging to try to smash your internal bias. There are about a thousand comedy shows at the Fringe every year, and a tiny minority of them are by people of colour. According to Jessica Brough’s project Fringe of Colour, there are under 100 shows by comedians of colour this year. What are the chances, then, that you’ll stumble across one of these, and not follow the crowd to see some guy from Live at the Apollo?
“Audiences are so thirsty for something different. People seem excited to go to them. I barely tell people who’s going to be on at Wacky, but people want to go because they believe in the night.
“You’re not being targeted by Instagram ads for this show [by a comedian of colour], so you don’t realise your own internal bias. The more that people take risks on the kind of comedy that they see the better.”
Duker sounds excited to bring her show to the Fringe, to support other artists, and to meet her audiences, gammon or not.
“I really want people to see my baby. It’ll be beautiful! Please see my beautiful baby!”
Sophie Duker: Venus, Pleasance Courtyard (Below), until 25 Aug (not 14), 7pm, £6-£9