‘Everything ends up about death and shagging’: Fern Brady on comedy, autism and intrusive thoughts

In 2018, Fern Brady’s comedy career was taking off. Fresh from supporting Frankie Boyle on tour, she filmed Live at the Apollo in London, then took a last-minute gig in Manchester the following day. On the way back to the capital, she was offered a last-minute audition for Have I Got News for You. Her brain screamed no, but she said yes. When she got to the audition, she couldn’t function, freezing into silence.

Now, she knows this was an autistic shutdown. Brady was diagnosed early last year. When lockdown brought live comedy to a crashing halt, disrupting her routine, she’d been plunged into frequent “crippling” crises. These can manifest as destructive outbursts (meltdowns) or silent withdrawal (shutdowns) and she discovered they can be exacerbated by “masking” – changing your instinctive behaviours to appear “normal”. It’s taken her all year to “start to unlearn these bad habits”, she says as we sit at either end of a velvet sofa in a cafe in Catford, London.

On stage, Brady is cool, cutting and delightfully deadpan, delivering scathing critiques of social norms. Her performances often escalate from classic standup into surreal finales – at the 2019 Edinburgh fringe she lost her voice after daily shows ended in her screaming about existential dread while a video of a hamster played behind her. It earned her four-star reviews and a BBC standup special.

While she’s now a regular on panel shows and podcasts, she says: “I’ll always feel most relaxed doing standup. When I’m doing standup, I’m being the most myself.”

Brady’s been in comedy for 11 years now, after first trying standup for a reportage piece as a student journalist. She attended university in Edinburgh – not far from her home town Bathgate, where she grew up in a working-class, Catholic household. “There’s still hardly any working-class women doing standup, there’s still massive gender disparity,” she says. “Being autistic helped me go against the fairly overwhelming message that you shouldn’t speak up if you’re a working-class woman.”

Her diagnosis came nearly 20 years after she’d first read a description of autism and felt a jolt of recognition. A year on, it’s helped make sense of a lot: her bafflement with social etiquette and exhaustion with socialising, sensory overload in noisy and bright spaces, difficulty identifying her own emotions, and a need for routine. She’s now working on her first book, Strong Female Character, a memoir and in-depth exploration of what it means to be an autistic woman.

But if you’re anticipating jokes about neurodivergence in her new show, think again. Yes, it is called Autistic Bikini Queen, but that’s only because Brady, who loves weightlifting, was doing bodybuilding at the time she named it.

While she did write some autism jokes, she’s wary of stripping the topic of nuance. “But I am autistic, so the whole show’s from that perspective,” she says. “I realised every standup show I had done beforehand might as well have been called, ‘Hey Fern, do you know you’re autistic?’” Her 2016 show Male Comedienne centred on being excluded from a female comedians’ brunch and her difficulty communicating with other women, while 2019’s Power and Chaos examined how women are socialised to be polite.

She’s mocked earnest, emotional standup in the past; one show climaxed with her cutting onions to make herself cry. “I’m never going to do an Edinburgh show that has a poignant ending,” she says. “I couldn’t live with myself.”

Her favourite routines are “when you’re observing how stupid your own thought processes are”. She worries some of her jokes aren’t relatable, but went viral with a segment on intrusive thoughts (“I love my boyfriend, but some nights I’ll be stroking his sleeping face and think ‘What if your thumbs just slipped into his eyeballs now?’”).

In Autistic Bikini Queen, Brady will explore “my fear of being attacked when I leave the house. It’s the closest I’ve felt to being able to do relatable stuff, weirdly.” She develops topics from previous shows – such as monogamy and marriage – observing how traditions like wedding vows and stag dos dissolve into farce when examined too closely. There’s material on the royals and kink-shaming too, with characteristic sprinklings of class, Catholicism and death.

“No matter how hard I try to be mainstream, it always comes back to this really goth sensibility,” Brady says. “Inevitably, everything ends up being about death and shagging.”

During the pandemic, she began BBC podcast Wheel of Misfortune, where listeners send in embarrassing stories. She co-hosted with friend and fellow comedian Alison Spittle. Turns out, people love talking about shame (and bowel movements) – superfans have accosted the pair for selfies and fuelled demand for three series.

This, plus fronting TV travelogue British as Folk with Darren Harriott and Ivo Graham, showed Brady there are areas of mainstream comedy where you can be yourself. On panel shows, in contrast, she has felt pressure to look and act hyper-feminine. “It’s nice dressing up for telly, but sometimes you’re like, ‘God, this is so overwhelmingly shallow,’” she says. “That’s also why I’m writing the book – I want to have some value beyond what I look like.”

As she continues writing Strong Female Character, she’s finding the positives of autism. “It’s what helped me go into comedy,” she says. “Autistics tend to thrive when they can make a career out of their special interests. You just have to hope that they overlap.”

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