Of course, right now, there’s one subject every conversation returns to. Without fail. “I’m kind of hoping that we’ll be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Tiff Stevenson tells me. “And that, in the autumn, people will be desperate to go out, see shows and do social things.” She’s pragmatic about this weird endless weekend we’ve all found ourselves in, but she is eager to get out again and share her ideas and observations.
This September she’ll be bringing her critically acclaimed solo show, Mother, to Brighton’s Komedia. It’s been updated since it’s debut last year. But much has happened since then. Abortion became legal in Ireland. Arlene Foster offered some robust opinions on equal marriage and reproductive rights. If you deal in topical material, you need to stay on top of everything. A huge thread of the show remains focussed on motherhood and her life as a stepmother. “It seems to be something which people connect with in a big way. It’s not an experience which is talked about positively. We’re sort of the Evil Queen in Snow White, or Lady Tremaine. It’s trying to shine a positive light on the role.”
As society does, it’s come up with a handy label for her situation, but Stevenson isn’t a huge fan of the term ‘blended family’. “We’re a big unit. You wouldn’t want to fight outside a pub,” she chortles. “I don’t know that I feel the need to differentiate. Family is family.” She stresses there’s probably too much weight placed on biological and non-biological parents. She doesn’t want to sound like a washing powder.
What is a normal family anyway? It’s 2020. Regardless of the reasons, the idea of 2.4 children with parents who are married is no longer realistic. “There are so many families like ours now. So, I feel a bit more talking and a bit more acceptance around it is good.” There’s also a lot of focus on attitudes in Mother. She points out we don’t know how many children the UK’s Prime Minister has, yet there’s still a judgement on ‘feckless’ single mothers. She is also happy to pick apart the idea a woman is only complete when she’s had children. “It’s quite a personal show in a lot of ways, but I feel it’s timely.” She could be right. The list of different family dynamics is almost endless. Adopted kids, gay couple with one biological parent, stepfamilies, fathers who mother – across society, home life is more varied than ever.
Stevenson talks quickly. It’s not excited chatter, she’s just full of observations. She has a lot to offer, not that some people are so willing to listen. A few months ago, she incurred the wrath of a pro-life group. Incited by an opinion piece she’d written, they threatened to boycott her shows. In typical fashion, rather than capitulate, she made merchandise from the protestations which read ‘Boycott Comedian ‘Tiff Stevenson’.’ “You know if you want to insult me, you need to put ‘comedian’ in quotes, not my name!” With her growing popularity across the pond, there’s every chance her stances are going to encounter some more dissent. So far, she’s mainly performed in the more liberal coastal areas. But she fully believes the type of people who attend are those who would be politically on board with what she’s saying. “I’ve not had any problems yet. I did post a photo of a pro-choice t-shirt on my Twitter, and got some of the MAGA alt-right people come down on me for that. So, they’re out there, but tend to be hiding behind their keyboards instead of coming out to comedy shows. Because a lot of them don’t have a great sense of humour.”
She does enjoy the novelty of being a Brit in America, as it gives a sense of presenting a different voice for them. It seems US audiences, on the whole, are quite giving and enthusiastic. “They do go into watch shows with the attitude: ‘This is going to be awesome.’ And we go in, going: ‘Well, this is going to be shit.’ And then anything that’s not shit, we view as some kind of victory! It’s a different level of expectation.”
Almost without exception, discourse is currently confined to the internet. Hiding behind an IP address can facilitate toxic attitudes for some. In Mother, she talks about how women can share experiences on an online platform, only to be met by men contending their authenticity. “You know, it’s: ‘This has never happened to me, so it’s never happened to anyone ever.’ Because the male experience is so much seen as default in the world… There’s quite a lot of topical stuff about the online world, which will still resonate when this is all over.” She says a big problem with communicating on the web is its adherence to black and white attitudes. There’s often little room for nuance. Not the kind of nuance which drives Stevenson’s work.
“It should tackle the grey areas. That’s where all the interesting stuff lives. Podcasts are also a good form. I did three on consent, with my friend Alice Frasier, where we were able to pick apart the issues in a way that couldn’t with a couple of gags on Twitter.” Not that she afraid of deploying her craft on social media. Recently she drew attention for her comment on Louis CK’s lockdown comedy special – pointing out the irony of his audience not being able to leave the room. “It was interesting to see the responses that I got to it from people who claim to love comedy. They love comedy, until you make a joke about a person they don’t want the joke to be about. They claim to love free speech… unless it’s something they disagree with.” But on platforms like Twitter, it’s polarising opinions which attract the most impressions.
“That’s why you have Piers Morgan and Lord Sugar going at each other. Because it increases their profile,” she says – referring to a lengthy and ridiculous online spat between the pair over the legalities of sunbathing (something the reality star later took down). “You’re like: ‘We want people to stay in their homes. Sunbathing isn’t an hour of exercise a day. You know this, but your need for attention on Twitter is higher than an interest in wellbeing!’” Her response was to ask if the nation needed to be like America and have: “a dude from The Apprentice drive us all over a cliff before we take it seriously.”
While the contrarians on Twitter are the ones seizing the biggest platform, anyone hoping to cause real change are debating the middle ground to reach people. Just like real life. Or comedy. “It’s not about telling them there’s a ‘group-think’ or an ideology, or a line that everyone has to follow. It’s about questioning your own viewpoints and your own morality.” Stevenson has a section in Mother, where she explores people’s attitudes and ideas around homelessness. “On the surface, that’s not a funny topic. But I do like to pull apart logic and make jokes about those viewpoints and ideas. That’s where the funny is. If they walk away, having had fun, laughed and thinking about things, that’s my job done.”
She equates good comedy to good music. As a cultural form, they’re intended to be ahead of the curve. Ahead of the zeitgeist and picking apart ideals and moral standpoints, questioning and challenging – entertaining people and making them briefly think. “I always wanted to do comedy about stuff that matters. That doesn’t mean things can’t be light or silly.”
Tiff Stevenson brings Mother to Brighton’s Komedia on Thurs 17 Sept 2020
All images by Steve Ullathorne