Comedy blog

Juliette Burton on finding the comedy in personal struggles

juliette burton look at me

Juliette Burton is carving out a reputation as one of the most honest and upfront comedians around, with Fringe shows detailing unpatronising accounts of her mental health and problems with body image.

She’s taking her acclaimed show Look At Me to Leicester Square Theatre this month where she aims to take an indepth look at the issue of identity.

Hi Juliette. How are you today?

Hey I’m good thank you. How are you doing? (Difficult to answer given an email back-n-forth exchange but we’ll give the banter a go, hey?!)

You had a pretty successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe last year. How did you find the month?

Last August was as every Edinburgh Fringe is; hectic, stressful, a blast! August is always a huge month – my whole year revolves around it. The Fringe is basically the start and end of my year: so much to learn and so much to embrace. ‘Look At Me’ was really born there and moulded into something I’m so achingly proud of – I was exhausted throughout the month but performing a show that means so much to me and get so many awesome, moving reactions to it, whether from reviewers or audience members was a powerful, humbling and brilliant experience!

Your show delves into some pretty personal issues. What made you want to create a comedy show out of your experiences?

Well, what else can we do but laugh?! I’ve been through some pretty personal, dark stuff but I know other people have as well. And if I can be brave enough to talk about it openly then I’ve seen how much of a positive effect this can have on others; it’s so powerful to see people come up to me after the show or other performances I do and start opening up about their own personal battles. We don’t have to be alone with these things any more.

We’re entering into a new phase in society of being more connected, more honest, braver than we’ve ever been before to be ourselves, whatever imperfections that invovles. Imperfection actually connects us! And by being brave enough to be open about dark stuff, like my mental health struggles, I think it not only invites others to not be afraid of their own struggles, maybe be a bit more open about them but also invites increased understanding and starts a dialogue about all the “issues” raised. I hate the word “issues” – it sounds so worthy doesn’t it?! But I mean we all encounter “issues” every day; sexism, ageism, mental health stigma. Why not confront them head on and honestly in a show designed to enlighten and help us all laugh about it!

The show’s themes – mental health and and judgement – are obviously pretty serious. How do you approach turning these themes into comedy material?

Well, comedy helps makes difficult subject accessible. I learned pretty early on that if I wanted to talk about the darker stuff in my life that if I could make people laugh then they’d listen. It’s a scientific fact that conversations with laughter last longer. So if we want to discuss difficult or taboo issues then we need to find a way to laugh our way through it, with an informed, justifiable, accountable perspective.

In ‘Look At Me’, I use personal experience of mental health problems to find the humour in what I, and many others, have been through. I never make the mental illness sufferer the butt of the joke – they are not the victim. Prejudice and assumptions; absolutely fair game! But never the sufferer. We’re worthy of respect for what we’ve been through, what we go through and what we’re striving to combat the stigma of. In Look At Me I used prosthetic make up to change my look in lots of dramatic ways. So I spent a day as a 90 year old lady, a day as a man, a day wearing the hijab (I worked with Muslim Women Association of Edinburgh on this), a day dressing like a Glamour Girl and a day revisiting my obese self as I’ve been a size 4 and size 20 and everything between due to eating disorders.

We explore mental health and whether what we appear to be is who we really are and I use filmed footage of these days from my perspective as well as interviews with people of a range of “looks”; those with hidden illnesses like cancer, or cystic fibrosis, facially disfigured people and physically disabled friends of mine about their relationship with their bodies. Our bodies are absurd, weird and wonderful. They all deserve celebration! Why aren’t we laughing at ourselves more for not realising this?!

A number of comedians have used their platform to discuss mental health problems. What makes stand-up an effective medium for raising awareness of these issues?

All the scary things in our lives can lose their power if we learn to laugh at them. For me, if I learn to laugh at my mental health conditions, laugh at how absurd or dark or depressing they can be, in an informed way that helps other fellow sufferers laugh with me and those who have no experience of mental health conditions become a little more understanding then that’s the most powerful thing comedy can do – move you, with ease, from one position to another.

Comedy unites people; laughing in a room full of strangers at something you’ve experienced or have thought privately to yourself but a comedian has the bravery or wise “foolishness” to say aloud, on stage, that helps me feel less alone in this huge, scary, lonely life.

Having said all that, ‘Look At Me’ isn’t truly a stand up show, though. It’s far more docu-comedy (documentary mixed with comedy) for people who want to laugh and think. Stand up is awesome, but this is comedy with a very many layers. If comedy were bakery, it’s the mille-feuille of laughter.

How are you feeling about taking your show to the Leicester Square Theatre?

I’m so excited. London is a place where huge moments for progress in equality have been staged, a place where the best comedians make their mark. It was also the place where the Beach Body Ready ad campaign was objected to so strongly, by myself included, that the advert in question was banned. I was caught in the middle of that storm that proved how far we have yet to go to break mental health stigma and encourage body confidence and body acceptance. But London took a stand and therefore I know the London audiences are going to LOVE this newly updated version of the show – with those recent events included on stage!

London is always a great place to perform and after the year of 5 star reviews, award nominations and last month an award win, I’m overjoyed to bring it back to London to show the capital, where this whole show was originally researched and filmed, how far the show and we as a society have come and how far we have yet to go.

What’s next for you? Are you heading back up to Edinburgh?

I am indeed heading to Edinburgh – I will be there performing this newly updated version of Look At Me from 16 to 21 August at 4pm at Gilded Balloon (in Pleasance Dome) and will also be performing Happy Hour (my monthly new material night at London’s only Happy Café – The Canvas E1 at 42 Hanbury Street near Brick Lane – in Edinburgh for one week only) 22 to 30 August at 1.45pm at Jekyll and Hyde pub. I will also perform with Abnormally Funny People at The Stand in the Square at 9.40pm on August 6, 7, 8, 23, 24, 25, 29, 30, 31 only.

Before then I’m at various festivals in Leicester, Larmer Tree Festival, North East Scotland and Happy Hour on 7th July at The Canvas too.

But Edinburgh is where my calendar begins and ends. Here’s a brand new year full of new performances, tours and new shows in store!

See Juliette Burton in Look At Me at Leicester Square Theatre on June 17-18 

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