Sarah Donnelly has been in France for four years and has been doing stand-up comedy for twice as long, beginning nine years ago when she lived in Washington, DC. Having taken Yanis Marshall’s dance class with Sarah, I can tell you the native North Carolinian is a natural performer—fearless and extremely agile! She just launched her first one-woman show, Help! I Married A Frenchman, which sold out of its June dates. (Lucky for us, more dates in July have been added.) Sarah chatted with LES LOLOS about the comedy scene in Paris, breaking into the boys’ club and some super-exciting news she’s finally ready to share.
Since our last adventures with you (when you took Yanis’s class and lived to tell the tale), you’ve been busy!
Yes, when I’m not fantasizing about becoming a professional back-up dancer, I’m a stand-up comedian. Much less ass-shaking, sadly.
Can you tell us about your one-woman show? How long have you had the idea and how long did it take to prepare?
Help! I Married a Frenchman follows my journey of moving to Paris, learning to deal with the French, getting married and being a woman at an interesting crossroads in her life. I think every comedian dreams of doing a half-hour special for Comedy Central or headlining a nightclub. The equivalent here is performing an hour of material on your own show! Donc voilà. Though, to clarify, stand-up comedy in the American/British style is a relatively new thing in France (only in the past 20 years). The French one-man/woman show refers to one person on stage performing comedy but it’s usually more theatrical. My show is pure stand-up.
I’ve been playing with the idea for awhile. I started doing stand-up in D.C. nine years ago, but I’ve been really serious about it for the past four years in Paris. Comics are writers, so I’m still writing material and changing things for the show. I like to improvise and write my jokes onstage, meaning I try things out as I go, so my show will evolve over time. That said, it takes a long time—months—to craft a really solid joke so I have many jokes that I’ve been performing for a while.
There are universal challenges to marriage and having a husband, but what do you think are some of the particular challenges of marriage to a Frenchman?
The first problem is we don’t speak the same language and never will! When neither of you share the same maternal tongue, someone always has to compromise with their language. We speak English, so my husband is making that compromise, thank god. Arguing with a French person in French is a losing battle—trust me I’ve tried! I usually get so upset my words come out in a franglish mess. Combine the language issue with cultural differences and sometimes we literally do not get each other. At the same time, it allows for a lot of funny moments and discovery. We usually end up laughing at and with each other. Once my husband kissed me, smiled, and said, “Babe, you taste like anus!” At my WTF?! look, he said “No, I mean anise (licorice)!!” We had a good chuckle about that, though I’m sure in some circles tasting like anus is probably a compliment.
We did a story about how French lovers are the best! Do you believe that to be true?
My husband is definitely the best lover I’ve ever had. He’ll be embarrassed I’m saying that, but it’s true!
You recently posted something on your social media about the sexism inherent in comedy. Can you talk about what it’s like to be a female comic? Is it better or worse here in France? (You’re the only English-speaking woman doing a one-woman show in Paris right now.)
The English-speaking stand-up scene here is obviously smaller than in D.C., so I feel the sexism is on a smaller scale, too. But it exists. In the D.C. stand-up community, it took me some time to realize that male comics weren’t interested in writing jokes with me or being a pal like they were with the other guys. They wanted to sleep with me. When I declined, the “friendship” ended immediately. I didn’t feel like I was taken seriously or treated as a “real” comic. I was just a girl doing comedy, but not a comedian.
Because I’ve been doing comedy for awhile—and I’m funny—I have more street cred here. Still, I sometimes feel like it’s a boys club I’m trying to become a member of. I host my own show every Saturday night (The GBACN) which includes booking comics and making decisions about how everything runs. The side comments I get from some comedians makes me wonder if they would say the same thing to my male counterparts who also run shows. My instinct says no. I don’t think it’s a problem related to just comedy, but it seems more obvious when you’re one of a few women in a field of mostly men. Get more than a few dudes in one room and it always becomes a dick-measuring contest.
I remember watching stand-up on TV as a teenage girl and loving it, but not thinking I could do it. It didn’t even cross my mind that I could try until several years after—because I had no one who looked or sounded like me doing it. It’s so important for girls to have role models in the careers they want, whatever they may be.
The problem is persistent in the industry as a whole. Recently, one of my friends said he was auditioning to host a Paris travel show. When I expressed interest in auditioning, he said they specifically asked for male comics. It’s 2016! They’re saying, “We don’t trust women to be funny doing this.” It’s such an outdated opinion. I hate being considered a “female comic.” I just want to be a comedian, no labels.
Comedy is often about being raunchy and un-PC—and we don’t want to police humor—but does comedy need to go there in terms of racism or sexism? Where are the boundaries for a man who’s calling women bitches and hos onstage… How does that attitude not show up in real life?
I think comedy is the perfect outlet to address racism, sexism, and all those uncomfortable taboos we wouldn’t dare address in casual conversation. Comedy allows for that larger conversation, so in that sense I say no topic is off-limits. The difference is, if you want to go there and touch on a really controversial issue, I think you have to be smart, inventive with the material, and of course, funny. If the punch line of the joke is “donkey balls” or “Then I raped her,” you clearly haven’t done the work. (Though saying donkey balls is kind of funny.)
When comics are new, they tend to “go blue” in their material: bathroom and sex humor. Sometimes people cross the line onstage, then realize they made a mistake. Some people don’t and when I see that happen now, I address it. Consider me a one-woman PSA.
You have some other news to share, too…
Yes, I am 5 months pregnant! As I’ve been saying in my shows, “Surprise, I’m not just fat!”
Congratulations! Are you nervous about performing while pregnant? I actually toured the US for three weeks when I was 7 months pregnant. I’ll admit it got rough toward the end.
Bravo to you! I think it is so great for people seeing pregnant woman doing normal stuff. Like, we’re not lepers, we have lives. We’re okay! I literally had to tell a dude that he could talk to me about normal stuff other than pregnancy. Yes, pregnancy takes up a large part of my thoughts these days, but I’m capable and willing to talk about other topics.
So far, I am LOVING performing while pregnant. It feels like such a gift to have my baby with me while I am doing what I love. It is such a specific and special time right now. It’s a memory I’ll want to share with my child when he/she is older. My dream is to start having contractions during my show and then head offstage directly to the hospital. My theater manager and husband think I’m insane.
What are you most looking forward to—and most afraid of—when it comes to becoming a mother?
I’m still in awe that my husband and I made a baby in the first place. I’m like, we did this? Are we even allowed to do this? I’m entering motherhood with few expectations. I’m also realizing more and more how cool moms are! I always thought being a mom meant you couldn’t be cool. Obviously, I was so wrong. (Sorry, Mom, and all my mom friends!)
On the flip side, I’m nervous about losing myself to that mom identity. I don’t think that women do it to themselves, per se, I think society does. They label you as mom and that’s it—you can’t be anything else. I still want to be and be seen as an individual person, a comedian, etc. Even now, wife is a title I use pretty rarely. I still want to be me and preserve my independence.
Photos courtesy of Christine Coquilleau Nait Signas and Sarah Donnelly
Help! I Married A Frenchman is playing at the SoGymnase Comedy Club every Saturday in July at 8pm. Reserve tickets here: https://www.weezevent.com/sarahdonnelly. For more on Sarah: Facebook.com/sarahdcomedy