Chelsea Birkby is a comedian and writer based in Oxford. Her debut show ‘No More Mr Nice Chelsea’ won the Amused Moose Award for best debut at the Fringe in 2022. Her writing has been featured on Mock the Week and she’s been tour support for Helen Bauer and Fern Brady. We spoke to Chelsea about her sophomore show ‘This is Life, Cheeky Cheeky’, her comedy persona, and the joys of the Mosque Kitchen.

Can you tell us about, ‘This is Life, Cheeky Cheeky’?

‘This is Life, Cheeky Cheeky’ is my second show. And it’s about how we relate to our bodies and also about… is this too big a claim..? I think the lust for life basically. Why we carry on doing things when things can be hard, and how joyful it can be. And if that’s made it sound very heavy, it’s still a classic mix of pop culture, philosophy, and some very, very silly jokes.

Has it been a ‘difficult second album’ in any way? 

I found it easy to start writing new things. I kept writing plenty of new jokes. But then every week or so I was like, ‘I know what the show is going to be about’. And I’d say it’s about this, and then two weeks later, I’d be like, ‘No, it’s not about that. It’s about this’. And so it took me a while almost to figure out what what it was I wanted to say. I had no problem coming up with jokes but not what the overall meaning would be. So it felt a bit more like metal detection; how do all these bits link up? What are they trying to… I mean, I’ve never done any metal detecting so I don’t know if that’s how it works! But, scanning the past and being like, ‘Oh, we’ve got something there’. And it all fell into place when I realised it’s sort of around the journey of my year.

So without too many spoilers. I had a message from my therapist this year that said, ‘We need to talk,’ which is surprising because that’s what we do. And I was thinking that I’ve been in therapy for years. In my last show I spoke about my mental health. And I was thinking it was going to be that I’m ready to graduate! But instead, he was like, ‘I think we need to bring in some additional help’. So that made me really confront things and a huge part of that was the body. And so that kind of set the structure: I’ve literally been set a quest by my therapist, and it’s kind of mapped the structure of the show. Which is so different from the first [show] because that was a lot about my adolescence. And it was, as often happens to people, was like an origin story, whereas this one is much more recent and up to date in a way that I found quite liberating, but sometimes surprising; because I’m like, ‘What’s going to happen next in the show? Well, let’s see what happens next in my life’.

For anyone who might be new to you, could you describe your approach to comedy and performance?

My approach to performance is I really like to feel like I’m hanging out with the audience and that we’re all friends. And I’ve noticed this when I’ve been doing work-in-progress shows. If I do a work-in-progress show and then someone else goes before or after me the same audience can respond to us both really differently. So, both getting laughs, but I think in my show I get a lot more people contributing. I wouldn’t call it heckling. I’d say it’s more like chatting. And I think that’s because it’s I kind of have that ‘we’re all hanging out’ vibe, which I enjoy. And my approach is, I love to try and talk about meaningful things. That’s what I set out to write. When I was a kid, I was like, ‘That’s it. I’m gonna be a poet!’ and I was just dreadful at it. So it’s meaningful things, but through the medium of very silly jokes.

Do you think people underestimate you? You’ve got lots of pink on your website, you’ve got some deliberately winsome publicity shots. Do you use that to your advantage?

That’s a great question. And it’s funny because the word winsome I’d never heard before, apart from in three separate reviews of me! So that’s how I learned it. And I think that is an intentional part of my persona on stage because it’s, if that’s not too awful to say, a part of my character in real life. But the publicity photos and the website I didn’t know I was going for that, I was thinking that was like a cool 2000s early internet aesthetic. And then when I had that photo shoot, I was like, ‘The theme of that one is going to be 90s Cover Star!’ And when I showed them to a friend, she was like, ‘Hhm, it looks like the photos I got when I was 12 that my parents had’. It’s a bit of a clash of what I think I’m doing, which is being this cool, rockstar 90s chick, and then it actually comes out as actually like a 13 year old girl!

I can use it to my advantage I think sometimes people underestimating you is a strength but sometimes you be can be overlooked as well with people thinking, ‘Oh, you’re not taking over the stage.’ You know, whereas I think I’m sharing the space, the stage, and the room with everyone else in it.

In the two years since your debut, how do you think you’ve developed as a comedian and do you have any good advice that you could pass on to newer acts?

I have developed by doing a huge variety of gigs. In those two years I’ve been doing tour support for the first time, which is amazing because you get to go and open up for people you really admire. But at the same time, [the audience is] there specifically to see them and not you. So you really have to convince them that you should be there. So I’ve just had to up my game in that respect. And I’ve gotten stronger definitely now coming to write this second show. I had an understanding of what a show is rather than having all these building blocks and trying to work it out.  Before it was ‘Okay, it’s basically like five 10 [minute slots]’. This was one hour.

A piece of advice for people doing their first show… I think I heard Josie Long say once that the best time to try and experiment with a whole bunch of weird things is when you’re brand new. Because she said a lot of people can get caught up thinking. ‘Okay, I’ve got something that works now. We need to just keep doing that and be as professional as possible.’ But when you’re not being paid, that’s the time to mess around and try things. So without just repeating Josie Long’s advice I think that kind of actually stays true. Not forever. If you’re being paid a lot of money you’ve got to do what’s most likely to work, but find the show that you think is funniest and tell the jokes that you think are funniest. And I think that might be a bit of a slower burn, but in the long run, that’s how people will connect to you.

And this will be your second full run at the Fringe. What for you are the best and the worst things about the festival?

[Legendary cafe] Mosque Kitchen! I miss it. I ate so much of that stuff; delicious food. So that is a top thing and it’s needed after all the stomping around Edinburgh seeing shows and doing spots. You need to keep fueled up, that’s my excuse. Another favourite thing is just being the biggest arts festival in the world. You can feel the sense of creativity and play, or at least in week one you can! And I love that you can wander into any venue and you’ll see something that people have poured their heart and soul into. It can be absolutely brilliant and set the room on fire, or it can be a tough one, but that’s how it goes sometimes and I think you can see all sorts of things that you were never expecting or couldn’t have dreamed of. That’s the best bit.

The worst bit is that you can feel, although you’re in the best art festival in the world, it can feel like a sort of fairground of approval. So I really think you have to be on guard to not get caught up in a comparison game with; ‘How many tickets have you sold? How many reviews have you got?’ Stuff like that. Try not to get suckered into that is probably the best advice I can give for people going up to the Fringe. And one thing I think people don’t realise is how close Portobello Beach is. If your show’s in the evening, disappear for the daytime and just sit there and you can only see one comic instead of 400 of them.

Have you had any particular Fringe experiences – good, bad, or bonkers – that spring to mind?

I’m having all sorts of flashbacks. Good. bad. Bonkers. Yeah. The first time I ever experienced like a Fringe hit show – like a cult classic – was when I went to see Legs in 2019 and that was one of those ones where it was late night and we like wanted to go and see something. And it was absolutely ridiculous. We were crying with laughter. It felt so silly and mischievous. And then as the month went on, you know, that show developed such a cult following and everybody was saying like, ‘Have you seen Legs?’ Or you’d just be walking around the fringe and you’d hear people going like, Legs Legs Legs! I felt like, ‘This is the Fringe’. That’s a true Fringe experience.

As for my own shows, I don’t know why my mind always jumps to the bad experiences, but one year, me and Jamie D’Souza did a split bill called ‘Bad Boys’. And it was really fun. We were in one of those small rooms at City Cafe, and they already feel a bit chaotic because you’ve got people rammed in. Most of that month we were having the best time, and then for some reason for one show there were about six people in there. And all of them… we weren’t holding them in but it felt like a hostage situation. Like that was the vibe that was decided immediately. They didn’t want it and it was going so badly. Then the stage fell over and sort of collapsed. Then at one point an audience member just said… I think they were supposed to say it to their friend but because the room was so small it was said in our direction. They were like, ‘What is happening?’ And then Jamie and I are a bit like, ‘Oh, well you know, we came here to make it as comedians, but instead we’re also wondering what is happening!’ But that’s the benefit of doing a split bill as well like that with a friend: it was really funny. If that was a solo show it might be a different story.

Apart from your show, will you be performing elsewhere during August?

Yes, I hope to be picking up a whole bunch of spots. The first one I have booked in is the ‘Alternative Book Club‘. It’s run by Shirley Halse, she runs it in Cheltenham. That’s where it started and it’s a cult hit there; it’s fantastic. She gets comedians to talk about their favourite books or a book they’ve read recently and it’s really satisfies that itch I have, which is for things to be very funny, but also for you to leave thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve I’ve learned something’, or I get to feel a bit smarter. So yeah, I’m doing some of those shows and I can’t wait. I highly recommend that show as well. Different lineups every day.

And are there any other shows you recommend we should go and see?

This year I’m excited to see Alex Kealy‘s show ‘The Fear‘. I just think that’s a very intriguing name. And as someone who gets very anxious, I was like, ‘Oh, good. This is gonna be something for me’. I just think he’s such a talented joke writer. I really, as we’ve been talking about, like gets to the meaning of things talks about like interesting topics. Sometimes I feel like he makes me feel smart just watching him too. And so I think that’s one that I want to watch. And then I have never seen him in real life, but Joe Kent-Walter’s Frankie Monroe. I watched his BBC set about 60 times and just found it mind-bogglingly funny. So I absolutely think that seeing that live for an hour has got to be just essential.

This is Life, Cheeky Cheeky‘ is at Just the Tonic at the Caves – Just Out of the Box from Thu 1 Aug until Sun 25 Aug 2024 (except Mon 12)