The breakdown of comedian Sarah Millican’s marriage helped fuel her determination to follow her dream making other people laugh. She’s now happy with a partner and talks to Gabrielle Fagan about her ‘funny’ life
Comedian Sarah Millican is speculating on one of the bizarre uses for spare pants which, she’s been told, can be popped on your head to make sure your rollers don’t fall out of your hair.
There are also other uses for spare pants which it wouldn’t be polite to write about but she humorously checks them out in her successful show, as well as alluding to many of the embarrassing, intimate or humdrum details that we all take for granted in daily life but which she turns into comedy gold.
“I love being funny about everyday life and talking about the things people think but don’t like to talk about in public,” she says.
“Asking people all sorts of questions - it might be anything from spare pants to diets or ‘how do you know it’s love?’ - is one of my favourite parts of the show. You never know what you’re going to hear and it’s always unpredictable and funny.”
Her easy audience interaction and quirky perspective on life - liberally sprinkled with expletives and delivered in her sing-song Geordie accent - has seen her profile rocket.
She won the People’s Choice vote for Queen of Comedy at last year’s British Comedy Awards and her series, The Sarah Millican Television Programme, returns to BBC Two at Christmas, while her latest DVD, Thoroughly Modern Millican Live, has just been released.
Performing to thousands and snapping up comedy plaudits certainly didn’t seem a likely outcome for the shy, bespectacled girl who was regularly bullied at school in South Shields.
“I was the timid, mousy one in the corner, who wasn’t popular and was swotty, but I did appear on stage at primary school.
Her father, an electrical engineer for one of the area’s pits, has been her inspiration. He would tackle the bullies who followed his daughter home and constantly encouraged her to work hard.
“I got a lot of my positivity and drive from him. He always used to tell me, ‘There’s no such word as ‘can’t’. The only thing you can’t do is stick your bum out of the window, run downstairs and throw stones at it. Apart from that, you can do anything’,” she says.
“My dad’s a very smart man and he always believes no matter how good you are, you can be better. So if I got 97% in an exam, he’d say, ‘What happened to the other 3%?’.”
But it was the end of her seven-year marriage which ultimately resulted in her reinvention from a conscientious but bored civil service employee into a stand-up comedian.
“I was 29 and I had thought my marriage was fine,” she says.
“So it was an odd time because I’d never been properly broken-hearted before and for a while I didn’t want to do anything except cry my eyes out all day.
“But later I’d get these troughs of feeling terrible and then these incredibly positive peaks where I’d suddenly get this extraordinary feeling that I could do anything.
“During one of those I signed up for this comedy workshop and wrote a monologue about my divorce, which was both sad and funny.
“After I delivered it to the class, I felt amazing, and about six months later I signed up for my first gig.
“I still get that same adrenaline rush before every show - there’s nothing like it, the pleasure of making people laugh.
“It’s a bit ironic but I think my marriage break-up helped give me a boot up the bum, because I suddenly thought, ‘Well, really nothing could be as bad as being rejected by the person you love and having them say they don’t want you any more’.
“After that, it didn’t seem quite so terrible if around 50 people in a room didn’t laugh at a few jokes.”
Fittingly, it was her father who was the subject of the first joke that she delivered on stage which made people laugh.
“It was a tough audience in a pub in Newcastle and I had a five-minute slot,” she says.
“For two-and-a-half minutes, no one laughed - and that feels like a lifetime - then I described how my marriage broke up, how I’d moved back home to live with my parents, and how my dad tried to comfort me as I was sobbing all day, everyday.”
She roars with laughter at the memory of the scene, and says: “Finally, he just sat me down and said, ‘Well, love, you’re bound to be upset... you’ve lost everything... you’ve got nothing left’. It wasn’t exactly encouraging!
“He was coming from a lovely place, he’s the most big-hearted, kindly person you could meet, but sometimes he doesn’t always think through his wording!
“But telling that got a massive laugh because it was obvious that he wasn’t being mean or uncaring. In his own way, he thought he was helping.
“Incidentally, he also went on to suggest that I listen to the song It’s Over by Roy Orbison, which is probably one of the most depressing songs on the planet!”
For the last six years, during which time she’s done successful nationwide tours, appeared on the Royal Variety Show, as well as making appearances on Have I Got News For You and Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow, she’s been dating a fellow comedian on the comedy circuit.
“We get on really well and make each other laugh, which is, I think, essential for a relationship, as it helps you get through things and ride the tough bits.”
She refers to him as ‘the boyfriend’ in her act and anecdotes about him and her family form a large part of her act.
“When I’m with him or my family and friends, if anything funny happens to me, I always write it down,” she says.
“Everyone who knows me knows that it will end up in the show at some point because my act is about normal life. They just accept it now.”
Millican says in between working she lives an ordinary life, battling to diet and never quite succeeding, and coping with the same challenges that her audiences face daily.
“I think that’s why people like me, because they can identify with me. I’m not glamorous, I’ve had ups and downs, been unlucky in love, and I can laugh at myself,” she says.
* The DVD Sarah Millican: Thoroughly Modern Millican Live, £19.99, is available now. The Sarah Millican Television Programme Christmas special screens on BBC2 on Sunday, December 23, and is the first of a six-part series.