Celya AB Brighton Comedy Garden

BN1 Chats with rising comedy star Celya AB

Ahead of her Brighton Comedy Garden and Komedia shows

We were just tired of baguettes,”

Celya AB gently interjects, with a wry smile. I was curious why the comedian had originally abandoned the romance and divine splendour of the French capital for Birmingham’s numerous canals and its Curry Mile. Now, I’m wondering if she’s embraced gentle sarcasm, the bedrock of British culture. “I’m from a small-town outside Paris. And the trajectory for someone from a small town outside Paris is moving to Paris and having a job there.” The attraction of our green and pleasant land was more driven by her obsession with music, TV and films from the UK and America, rather than the promise of rubbish weather and driving on the wrong side of the road. The visit was originally intended to last just a few weeks. “But it was that thing where you suddenly notice you’ve been somewhere for six months. I’ll have been here for ten years in October. That’s a long time.”

Celya is amongst the bill of stars performing at the Brighton Comedy Garden in the city’s Preston Park on Weds 3 – Sun 7 July. She’s clearly excited about returning to this travelling festival for a third time.  “It’s one of my favourite gigs of the year.” It’s a diary highlight for many comedians – bringing together some of the nation’s biggest stars and the freshest upcoming talent. Over five nights and the weekend’s afternoons, a series of meticulously curated mixed-bill shows are being presented in a Big Top, attracting comedy fans from across the region. Highlights include Harry Hill, Josh Widdicombe, Dara O’Brian, the multi award-winning Sara Pascoe, BAFTA nominee Simon Amstell, Fern Brady and Taskmaster’s Sam Cambell, “It’s perfect timing as well. It’s the start of the summer. It’s got that ‘end of a rom-com’ vibe to it. You show up knowing that you’ll have a really great time in the green room. It’s a bit what I imagine doing Glastonbury feels like.” 

Her first brush with comedy was writing jokes, just for herself, as a child. “I think I got into stand-up because someone dared me to do it. I was so nervous and was for the first couple of years of being onstage. But I really loved the feeling when I got a laugh. From the first one I got; I knew it was what I wanted to do. I just had to go through the motions of getting confident on stage.” 

As a live performer, she’s relaxed and intriguing. There’s no hurry to get gags out or tempt cheap laughs. Even the more physical jokes are offered with some restraint, while callbacks aren’t over-egged or signposted. Room is given for the occasional spot of whimsy, but without detouring into a logical cul-de-sac (or whatever the French call those). There’s a confidence and charisma as well; Celya is unafraid to offer vibrant imagery and take the audience on the occasional flight of fancy. 

“That took a lot of learning. I had to de-romanticise performing because it is a craft. You get better as you do it and learn what works and doesn’t. You find what suits you and feels natural. When you first start doing stand-up, you have to figure out how to do it, whilst actually doing it. If bands could only learn the guitar in front of people… I do think having the fight or flight response does make you catch up very quickly on what works or doesn’t.”

As the pandemic landed, Celya had started attracting attention and new talent plaudits, so it probably wasn’t the best time to endure any sudden career obstacles. “I’ve actually been really lucky. In lockdown I took a break, and it was good for me to have that time to miss stand-up and think about the relationship I have with it.” She took it as an opportunity to change her management and moved down to London. This all had the effect of sparking excitement for the live circuit again.

“It was almost a way of introducing myself to the scene, but after having done four years in the shadows. It’s been so valuable to build up who I am and my material, without the pressure.” She tells me there’s a big difference between the live circuit in the capital and out in the provinces. Outside London, there’s more warmth, and few are obsessed with ‘making it big’ – instead just focussing on creating the best work they can. “I feel really lucky that I got to learn there.”

One advantage with doing stand-up in the regions is that you’ll get paid gigs much earlier on. You can also find yourself gigging with established professionals much sooner. “There are ups and downs. You do get rough gigs. I’m learning now to not always be on guard, and relax into being more myself, rather than worrying about someone heckling. You do surround yourself with stand-ups who haven’t done loads of TV. Meeting those touring comics was really inspiring, because you’re finding out how many ways there are of doing this.”

It gets me wondering how established France’s own stand-up scene is. Aside from Eddie Izzard and Mark Steel’s occasional shows, the only other comedy francophone I can think of is the mercurial Pierre Desproges, although he died in the 80s and I’ve only ever read about him. It’s odd knowing so little about somewhere only forty miles away from my house. Do their comedians just take the piss out of the Belgians? “Actually, we do it more with the French Canadians and the Swiss. Stand-up in France is relatively new. Before that, we’d have one-man shows. I used to watch a lot of sketch comedy, like Les Inconnus and Les Nuls on repeat.” From there, she started immersing in American stand-up. Until moving to the UK she didn’t really know much about our own homegrown comedians, beyond Dylan Moran of Black Books fame. “There were lots of sitcoms, I guess… Like Friends, or 30 Rock. Tina Fey is amazing. She’s the best joke-writer. SNL as well, with Kristen Wiig. Really funny, quite expressive comedians with weird characters. I don’t really do that myself, but that’s what makes me laugh the most.”

Later in the summer, Celya makes the all but obligatory visit to Edinburgh Fringe with her new show, Of All People. Those unwilling to leave the south coast needn’t wait until she tours it nationally though. Celya is performing a special preview of the work alongside Rob Auton at Brighton’s Komedia on Mon 22 July. “I did a couple of dates in Brighton this year. It was my favourite place of the run. I love the city, so I’m glad to be back.”

She likes to think of her shows as albums. “I love the Arctic Monkeys, and all of their albums are so different. Alex Turner is a different person on each one. I love that so much, because their sound feels like home – but it also evolves and changes.” As with most conversations with comedians, it’s turned to music. The two practices are not dissimilar, both relying on rhythm and call-backs, captivating by creating conflict and tension. Celya originally thought she’d turn out doing music, like her brother and father. “I used to play. Then I tried to learn the theory, and it felt like figuring out what was magical about music. I didn’t want to know why something made me feel a certain way. With comedy, there’s so many different variables. Like what room you’re playing, what mood you’re in, what the audience is like, so it’s always exciting. There’s always something to figure out, like a problem to be solved.” She’s actually started DJing at an indie night in London. It is interesting that the two things she likes doing most involve her being alone and in control. “That’s something for the therapist,” she offers, with a big laugh.

Her writing process seems to be a mixture of both sitting down to write jokes and having those late-night flashes of comic inspiration. “I’ll have ideas for premises, so I’ll write those down. I also have my ‘YO! Sushi’ jokes, which are imagery or observations which aren’t good enough for a full joke, but good enough for what my friend Alex calls a ‘drive-by’. I’ll pick through those and add to them. There are so many different ways of writing, and I’m still figuring out what’s best for me.”

Numerous comedians have come here and fallen in love with British culture; yet remain bemused by its complexities. Which is obviously fertile ground for comedy. Although, Celya says it’s important to strike a balance between exposing the national eccentricities and finding more universal ground amidst love, life and happiness. She’s certainly toned down the wide-eyed Euro-visitor role in recent works. “I don’t want to be just ‘the French comic’. There’s an element of having to introduce yourself to British crowds. They’re very specific, and like you to acknowledge that you’re not British…I think it’s because the British think about the French more than we think about them. There’s almost a perfect length of talking about it, and then moving on.” 

If there’s one person who can offer the observations about somewhere, it’s an ‘outsider’. Visit anywhere, and the foreign bartenders, seasonal workers and service industry staff have the most objective insight. “I’ll let you into a secret. When you’re not from the UK, there’s a bond you have with the taxi drivers, where conversations generally revolve around the UK and British people. It’s almost like a little podcast studio that we have, where we’re talking about politeness and how bad the British are at dealing with their emotions.” I do start wondering if she’s messing with me again. Lord knows what our society looks like to visitors. The average Brit’s feelings are sandwiched between stoicism and toxic repression, steered by an often pathological need to be polite. We dislike eye contact or invading people’s personal space. There’s also rampant binge drinking, dark humour, complaining and incessant commenting on the weather to avoid any uncomfortable silences.

“There’s nothing wrong with small talk,” says Celya. “But there is a lot of NOT talking about your emotions. What’s that thing? ‘Keep calm and carry on’? Actually… have an emotion and pause for a moment. It’s interesting though, as a foreigner I think people tend to open up to me way more. It’s quite sweet really. They’ll then go back to their British friends, and it’ll be like: ‘I’m fine. Let’s get a pint!’ But…I know your feelings. I know your secrets…”

Celya AB is performing at Brighton Comedy Garden, which comes to Preston Park on Weds 3 – Sun 7 July. She also previews her new show, Of All People, at Brighton’s Komedia on Mon 22 July.


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