BN1 Chats with Jordan Gray: Comedy star asks Is It A Bird?

“You just get good at stuff you like,” Jordan Gray is talking about how she taught herself piano. “If you enjoy some aspect of Sudoku, you get good at it, because you want to keep doing it. I got really into finding out which chords sound happy and which sound sad.” A bout of sickness during her teenage years meant a lot of time off school at home. So, the comedian and singer got themselves a keyboard in a bid to fill the time. 

Fast forward to 2016, and she was appearing on BBC’s The Voice, getting through to the semi-finals with barnstorming performances of This Woman’s Work, Florence and the Machine’s Shake It Out and Deacon Blue’s Real Gone Kid. “I had a great time on it, but I get bored so fast. If you sing a song really well, you’re obliged to sing that everywhere you go for the rest of your career. I can’t think of anything worse.

The Voice was wonderful, but it was also the reason I quite music for comedy.”

It seems to be her natural resting point. At the end of every cycle, whether that’s TV or film, she’ll always come back to live comedy. She tells me comedians will never be short of a stage and a microphone. “You can think of a joke in the morning and can be doing it onstage that night. That’s how lucky we are.”

After a hugely successful Edinburgh run last year, followed by a season at London’s Soho Theatre, she triumphantly took her sensational new show, Is It A Bird?, to Melbourne Comedy Festival, bypassing the rest of the UK completely. But now, almost a year later, it’s time to take to get out on tour properly. “Always work backwards from a pun if you’re making a comedy show. It’s amazing how many people don’t get the pun, until I bring it up.”

It’s a joyous melding of stand-up and songs, with only a cursory diversion into the conflicted and bizarre world of superheroes to make the title stick. “There’s no agenda. I’m not trying to teach or prove anything. So, stop worrying about saying the wrong words in front of transgender people. It’s a show to make you feel better about stuff like that. We’re not scary. Most of us are just idiots like everyone else…”

After the tour winding its way around the nation, the series of dates culminates at Brighton’s Corn Exchange on Thurs 9 Nov.

“I’ve got a feeling it’ll be a big one. Any stops that haven’t been pulled out yet, we’ll be pulling them out then.” She might have toured as a singer for ten years, but this is the first time she’s taken the first time taking a comedy show out. It’s been fun getting to know the different personalities and how different counties react to material…”

I ponder for a moment that comic books might have more to say about identity politics than first appearances suggest. You have the perpetual outsider trying to prove themselves as some kind of messiah in Superman, or the hyper-aggressive revenge fantasies of Batman. “A big premise of this show is that people don’t want me going into women’s toilets, but they’ve no problem with Bruce Wayne dressing up and self-identifying as a bat.” But, she stresses Is It A Bird? isn’t some niche show, packed with obscure facts from Spider-Man. It’s just a bare-faced attempt to justify the title.

“Batman is an absolutist, for sure. There’s something to be said for Joker doing so well. You notice films about antiheroes tend to take off when the economy is poor.” Gray points to the comfort brought by the Avengers films swatting away alien threats in a post 9-11 world. But once trust in the Government begins to fade it drives audiences to the darker side. “That’s why Disney are releasing their back catalogue of villains, with things like Cruella. They’re doing really well, because people relate to those who want to see the world burn.

“And Batman is a billionaire, so who really cares?” She chuckles and pauses for a moment. “He’s got all the money in the world, and nothing better to do than beat people up. It’s annoying… because he’s really cool.”

She offers that comic books have had a habit of reflecting social anxieties throughout their history, revealing our dark impulses and fascination with anti-heroes.

“It’s really interesting when you graph it; what trends we like to follow… Batman is part of the lineage of Paul Bunyan. He’s an American folk hero more than a superhero.”

Aside from writing comedy shows that are punctuated by silly, but somehow quite powerful, musical interludes, Gray has also been developing her own TV show. It’s an evolution of Transaction, a six-part online series filmed for Comedy Central. “That did really well. It’s their fastest show to hit million views. Obviously, that’s an honour.” Created with comedy legends Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, it continues her adventures of Liv, a selfish and obnoxious supermarket worker. “I’m an affirmative action hire, but I haven’t got the humility to treat that for the honour it is. So, I just make it everyone else’s problem. She’s an egomaniac who is very happy to play to people’s insecurities.”

She says it’s an enormously fun character to play, pointing out trans people generally get portrayed as suffering saint characters who can’t do anything wrong, over-sexualised villains or sex-workers in the media.

“There’s nothing wrong with sex workers, but not all trans people do that. It’s nice to play that idiot in the middle. We had an internal document when we were making the show, which said: ‘Some people are dickheads.’ Transgender people are just people, so some will be idiots…”

In many ways, Transaction challenges that habit of viewing people purely through their sexuality. There’s a preconception in some quarters that simply existing is ‘shoving it in people’s faces. “I always like to point out… although it’s more of a ‘bit’ rather a piece of logic …when you have a baby that’s shoving your heterosexuality in people’s faces. Put a bag on its head! I don’t want to see that! Keep your heterosexuality away!” She bursts out laughing for a moment, but then suggests that if someone has never known any different then they probably will find some things unusual. “It’s like seeing people of different ethnicities popping up on adverts. It’s too reductive to say it’s the older generation, but people do get more ‘small c’ conservative as they get older. They’ll see black people on TV, and they’ll go: ‘Every advert!!’ Every advert? Just because it’s different from when you were young, but it’s just a better representation of reality now. But things are changing, and let’s give them some credit because they’re still figuring the world out.”

Pencilled in for broadcast on a very mainstream domestic TV channel, the show is more about working in a supermarket than being transgender. (Obviously Liv would like it to be all about her.) The reality is that it’s a fun and silly sitcom, with no agenda beyond. Gray does let on they’ve got at least ten pages of vegetables puns in a drawer somewhere waiting to be used…

Gray’s podcast is where she delves into weightier subjects. Like will it one day be possible to live forever? Or whatever happened to Wagon Wheels?

Transplaining sees her inviting along stars from the worlds of comedy, music and film to get to the very essence of the human experience, crowbarring in a pun at every opportunity. “Celebrities come on and ask one big question and one small question, then I attempt to answer them with no context or prior knowledge. The guests have been incredible, we’ve had Jameela Jamil, Richard Herring, Nish Kumar and Russell Kane!”

While Gray had already been doing tidy business, she truly broke through with a divisive appearance on the anniversary reboot of radical 90s TV staple, Friday Night Live. After a series of mostly adequate performances from new stars and comedy greats, she rounded off proceedings with a mesmerising crescendo. Performing a number which explained why she was obviously superior to every member of the audience, she proceeded to strip naked and truly demonstrate her versatility upon the piano. 

“I really wanted to do it, and I’d pitched this with diagrams and everything, to make a cotton magician’s suit which I’d set on fire and it would disappear. Nobody said ‘no’ until a week before. Then they showed me the diagram I’d sent, and it was just a stick-man on fire. Fair play… If I saw that I wouldn’t trust me either!” The performance drew over 1600 complaints to Ofcom, mostly from people who been informed about their personal outrage by Monday morning’s tabloids. Which apparently was some kind of record. “I came on and sang about how much better I am than everybody else, which I’d hope every right-thinking person would realise that was a parody. Then I got nude, which just adds insult to injury if you think someone is laughing at you.”

The controversy inarguably boosted her profile. Soon, she was getting five-star reviews from one side and death threats from the other.

But the attention wasn’t the main motivator. “Wanting to carry on that legacy was one of the reasons to do it. I wanted to contribute to that anarchy and rebellion. Channel 4 have been so good to me. We won a BAFTA for it as well. Which I never thought would happen in a million years!”

Now established as one of Britain’s most complex, hilarious and exhilarating rising stars, Gray is staying true to her mission to combine stand-up with music because you can convey ideas, context and emotions far quicker in song form. Appearing on TV singing about how you’re better than everyone else has a certain power, but she tells me the performance on FNL was abridged. “It usually ends on a more poignant note, with the admission that if I’m going to be a joke, then I might as well be in on that joke. If you take that away, it quite bonkers…. When you drop it into a show where everyone has been enjoying an hour of comedy, it hits people’s brains a bit differently. They’ll leave thinking new ideas. Music and comedy are very powerful together.” 

Jordan Gray’s Is It A Bird? comes to Brighton’s Corn Exchange on Thurs 9 Nov.

Victoria Melody heads to Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts

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