There are a lot of things currently keeping people up at night. What’s got Josie Long’s goat at the moment, though, are the lyrics to Rupert Holmes’s “Escape,” aka the “Do You Like Pina Coladas?” song. It seems most people are familiar with the chorus, but do not realize the lyrics document a narcissist’s attempt at marital infidelity. (Cool song!) Only after excoriating these lyrics at length does the British comedian properly begin her show at the Barrow Street Theater in New York City, and delve into an issue that is way more pressing.
Josie Long is a cheeky vessel of pure positivity who has been working as a writer, standup, and burgeoning filmmaker in England for years. She has perhaps never found her work to be as epically topical or necessary as she has this moment, performing a transatlantic show about political mourning in the wake of both the Brexit vote and 2016 U.S. election. Did I mention it’s a comedy?
Something Better started out as a show about politics, but with an optimistic bent. Optimism is something of a specialty for Josie. She radiates it. You can’t watch her tell a joke about how much she enjoys swimming without wishing her many future decades of submarinal adventures, and possibly wanting to plan some for yourself. For this show, she wanted to harness that optimism and use it to call attention to some personal heroes as inspiring examples of positive political action. And then the Brexit vote cut across the sky and plunged into her homeland like a giant screaming meteor.
“I found myself completely mired in trying to get to grips with the new political reality around me,” Long says, “and it felt impossible to focus my writing on the positive.”
As a working comedian, she didn’t have much time to wallow in the ominous gloom of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. Instead, she had to perform a show scheduled for the following day, at the Glastonbury Music Festival of all places. She couldn’t quite bring herself to pretend everything was normal and make the usual jokes about her ineptitude at pulling off pranks, though. Gazing at the crowd, who seemed leery of those among them who might be far right voters, she ended up giving a rather earnest, impassioned speech about privilege. Her resiliency was being tested.
“It took a while to feel like I could be a proper comedian again,” Long says. “But people need you to be funny too!”
Rather than toss the show she’d been developing onto the scrapheap, she pivoted its focus to suit the communal mood. The show became about political grief and the grieving process—dealing with impossibly bad news rather than hoping it will never arrive. Injecting this sort of material with actual laugh-out-loud jokes was a challenge, but at least now she had a direction to move in.
“I wanted to be like a reassuring voice from the future saying ‘It gets better, it gets easier,’” Long says. “Although I’m not entirely sure that’s true, I think at the worst the only thing I’m sure of is ‘It is possible and necessary to keep going.’”
Working on a project intended to soothe audiences ended up being therapeutic for the artist herself. It helped Long work out her anger toward some of what she felt were pointless and ridiculous reasons for voting for Brexit and Trump. Writing about the stages of grief helped her work through those stages, and when she started performing Something Better in the UK, crowds reacted positively. They needed the show every bit as much as she did. What Long couldn’t have known at the time, however, was that across the Atlantic Ocean, New Yorkers would soon need the show as well.
Many Americans watched in “there but for the grace of God” shock as the Brexit vote went through last summer. When Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States several months later, those same people could only conclude that God’s grace had abandoned them, either temporarily or forever. And it was into this morass or morale that Josie Long had scheduled a run of New York dates for her show last December.
“I had thought I would be able to bring my quaint British show about quaint British bro fascism as a kind of cautionary tale,” she says. “I didn’t dream it would have the parallels it has had.”
The comedian had been constantly tinkering with her show as she continued processing the mad emotional journey of the past year, but Something Better evolved further when she brought it to New York. While there is always a period of refinement in developing her shows, in this case, Long rewrote it almost entirely to suit American audiences adjusting to their own dark plot twist.
“My main thing was making sure the crowds knew I didn’t expect them to give a damn about British politics,” Long says. “The show is political but it’s about a personal response to losing and powerlessness, not the ins and outs of the house or lords and Brexit. I also had to address the elephant in the room early on–that the crowd was in a very raw state of grief and disbelief and that I was so sorry that it had happened.”
She adds: “An English guy at one of the New York shows proudly proclaimed he voted Brexit during the show, and I was pretty friendly with him. I didn’t even call him a Brexit Wanker, so that to me is progress.”
The run of shows at New York’s Barrow Street Theater went well, and now Josie Long is back in England getting ready to perform Something Better all throughout February. In the meantime. here are a few of Long’s tips for feeling better as a person or as an artist in these unprecedented times.
- Appreciate every ounce of privilege you have, and then see how you can use that to be useful to others. Privilege is a surplus you can get rid of and use to support other people, and any sort of community volunteering or action has positive effects.
- I would also recommend falling in love, if that’s possible. I fell in love with someone this summer and it’s been the most delightful buffer against the apocalypse.
- The more you can feel grounded as a person, the more helpful you can be as an artist. I don’t think that self-destructive nihilists make the best art, super committed cuties do.
- Remember that, as Rebecca Solnit says, ‘Hope is active not passive.’ This summer, [Solnit’s book] Hope In The Dark kept me going. It’s such a wonderful book. So calm, smart, and practically reassuring. In it, she says that hope and action go hand in hand and they enable each other. Hope isn’t like saying, “It’ll all be okay” in a glib way, hope enables you to try and make things happen for the positive, even if the landscape around you seems a bit bleak.