Interview with Desiree Burch

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Image © Desiree Burch Fan Page via Facebook

London Calling chats to Desiree about her show Tar Baby, her audio work, and her penchant for good erotica.

Comedian Desiree Burch is known for her hilarious and provocative comedy style, which tackles racism and sexism. When we talk, she immediately apologises for her hoarseness - ‘I went out last night to celebrate my birthday, so sorry about the I-just-woke-up voice’ - and begins to enthusiastically describe her show Tar Baby, her audio work, and her penchant for good erotica.

London Calling: Your show Tar Baby is coming to London in February. You originally premiered it in New York in 2013, and it’s since toured universities and gone to the Fringe. Has the show evolved a lot over the years?

Desiree Burch: Yeah, it definitely has. The show is always changing - initially it was about folk tales in general, Tar Baby being a well-known one, but then it began to involve my own life and role as a storyteller. The original show was a bit more unwieldy. The work’s presentational aspect means it has to be current; even since Edinburgh it’s become more focused.

LC: It definitely has a lot more resonance when it’s current, too. How are you feeling ahead of the new show?

DB: Excited but nervous! It was nerve-wracking bringing it to the UK for the first time at the Fringe, because I wanted to be sure that the audiences here felt connected to it in a real way, rather than a distantly interested one. But actually, the issues with race in America are not that dissimilar from here. Racism is still an underlying issue. The main analogy is ‘this is what happens inside a person of colour when they’re constantly being scrutinised under a certain gaze, trying to prove and protect themselves’. What that does to a human being’s sense of self is totally corrosive. People shouldn’t distance themselves from this, they should engage with it.

LC: On that note, do you think there are any taboos when it comes to comedy? Anywhere you shouldn’t go?

DB: General rule: if it’s funny and you can go there, then do. You need to communicate it in a way that’s funny for other people too, don’t do it to be ‘out there’ and cool. Humour is often a good way to approach taboo subjects though. However, a white person couldn’t do my show!

LC: You play Pamela Winchell on the massively popular Welcome to Night Vale. What was the recording process like, and how did you get involved with it?

DB: It stemmed out of working for a theatre company called the Neo-Futurists in New York. I would say 90% of the people involved with Night Vale are Neo-Futurists or know them - in some ways it’s a very similar style. I was a little late to the party, actually, but I landed Pamela who’s such a fantastic character. The recording is often just from a microphone into a computer, but you’re given the chance to make the character your own.

LC: You recently recommended taking an erotica class to your Twitter followers. Have you ever written any and would you? Like a Fifty Shades parody?

DB: It would be serious - I read a lot of erotic fiction. One of my earlier shows [52 Man Pickup] talked about my entire sex life by going through a deck of cards, each of which represented a man or experience. It uses card games as a trope for learning about sexuality. I’ll hopefully work that idea into a book one day, but it won’t be erotica. If you want to write erotica though, Rachel Kramer Bussel is a fantastic teacher. A lot of it is fantasy, you know, just moving your body and it’s all electric and you’re completely exposed and vulnerable... Language can be a great medium to express sex. That’s what interests me about erotica - some of it gets people there, but sometimes it can be so unsexy. It’s hard being known for comedy as well, because if anyone read my work they’d expect it to be funny.

LC: What writers do you recommend? Erotic or non-erotic answers please.

DB: Rachel Kramer Bussel, of course, and Cecilia Tan is really good. In general, I actually read a lot of self-help books - does that count? Fiction-wise, the Welcome to Night Vale book is great; I’m not just promoting it. And I love Ann Patchett: Bel Canto is incredible. You cry because it’s so beautiful. I would also recommend Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Plan B.

LC: What do you miss about New York?

DB: I was just there a week and a half ago. Definitely not the winter over there, I’m glad I narrowly avoided all those blizzards! People there are always on the move and motivated, there’s a certain kinetic energy to the city, bodies brushing up against one another... Your mood in New York is transferable too - either it’s sunny and everyone’s happy and having a lovely day, or the collective people are in a terrible mood. The drive and ambition can make you feel like shit too. I do miss that energy though, and going over the bridges at night, and feeling like the city belongs to you: Queens was mine, my baby. In New York, there are lots of tiny random places you can walk past and discover, but I guess that’s true of London too. Oh, and I miss my friends! That sounded like an afterthought.

LC: What are the best things you’ve discovered in London?

DB: I haven’t seen anything current at the theatre since I’ve been away, but the Vault Festival looks like it will be good. Lucie Pohl’s show Cry Me a Liver will be great - she is hilarious. I like to watch shows at the Vauxhall Tavern, they have a lot of mixed-genre performances. In terms of food, The Anchor and Hope near Waterloo is delicious. I love all the huge green spaces too and how they’re incorporated into the city - I don’t know if Londoners take that for granted a bit.

LC: Are you headed to the Fringe again this year after your run of Tar Baby?

DB: Yes, I’m planning on going to the Fringe. In March I’m taking Tar Baby to the Auckland Arts Festival, and I’m working on other various touring projects - I can’t really reveal any more about them without getting into trouble though!

Tar Baby will be at the Vault Festival from 10 - 14 February 2016. To find out more about the show and get tickets, please go here.