Sassy Souls Ep 2: Bethany Burgoyne & Amanda Baker
Comedy Director, Amanda Baker, is writing a new script for the way performers hone their craft. Having spent over 20 years in the industry, Amanda's focus is on dismantling the exclusivity of comedic knowledge. With roughly 90% of comedians being male, Amanda is not only bridging the gap between genders, but she is also actively encouraging more marginalised people to excel in their careers.
Her experience as a performer, alongside producing and editing scripts is what's led to her success as a director today. Having collaborated with Jimmy Carr on his latest book, Amanda is currently building her own set of bibles about what comedians are never told, but need to know.
Known for working closely with comedians to take their careers to the next level, Amanda frequently runs workshops as well as one-to-one classes. It was at London's infamous comedy club 'The Bill Murray' that Sassy Souls host, Bethany Burgoyne, first saw Amanda in action. She has a unique talent for seeing where comedians get stuck and transforming their performance. Tune in to the podcast episode to hear about Amanda's journey from music to directing, and the change she hopes to bring within the world of comedy.
Growing up in a small town within the US, Amanda's introduction to the stage was far from the world of comedy she occupies today. Having been a child prodigy of classical piano, she started learning the instrument at the age of 4. By the 80s, Amanda had won a scholarship to develop her skills at a Jazz music school. She explains how, at the time, she was one of three female instrumentalists on the course. The rest of the women were all singers, studying in a different department. Despite the discrimination she faced during this time, Amanda recognises how it was through failing that she found her own direction in life; using her knowledge of jazz to inform her approach to comedy. "I thought I didn't learn anything from jazz music. But I ended up understanding how you take a folk discipline and make it more formal." Amanda gives the example of Duke Ellington, the great jazz musician who started orchestrating tunes in a way that allowed mainstream audiences to engage with.
It is this concept that has shaped the development of Amanda's career today, working to redesign the accessibility of the craft. She explains how "seeing this transition [in jazz] and, fast forward to comedy, almost everything you hear about comedy is incorrect." Her own introduction to the industry started in the late 90s, but it was a tricky transition. Amanda found how the majority of people weren't willing to share the tricks of the trade. Instead, they would keep what they knew close to their chest. "That protection of information is meant to keep people like me out; and that's Asian, a minority, a person of colour, a female". This exclusivity and clear bias towards white males is something we continually see today in the majority of professional environments.
I recommend everyone to go through an experience where they say to themselves, 'Assume everything I think I know is wrong'. Especially as a creative person, it will help you so much
However, Amanda realised quickly that no one actually knew what made a good comedian."That pissed me off!...[So] ten years ago, I decided to assume everything I heard about comedy was wrong and that changed everything." Amanda started focusing on treating comedy in the same way she would a new language. She began turning the craft into definitions, creating a glossary of methods that work and removing the vagueness of the discipline. It was by shifting her role from being on stage to writing and directing other comedians that helped her harness this insight. "Being a director, rather than being a performer, opened up everything - how I heard, how I saw, how I thought. It was something I didn't expect, but that was really great."
Today, Amanda is using her work as a writer, teacher, and director to share her expertise and revolutionary approach to crafting comedy. However, it took patience and time for her to feel certain in sharing her perspective. She explains how "I knew something was wrong ten years ago but I couldn't rely on myself...I had to wait until I could prove it." This choice was in recognition of the resistance she might have faced from those working in the industry. A reality that she is still at risk of facing today.
Amanda tells us how "The old guard would say you can only do comedy on stage." But her opinion lies in the idea that for anyone to improve in their craft, they must continually practise, and learn from others ."Experts know what's funny, so I say let's make you funnier and get the laughs you want. make them bigger and louder. And that's not a conversation with beginners, it's for people who can say, 'This is what I know for sure' but are clearly stuck and don't know what to do." Amanda sees this as a form of problem-solving, reviewing and analysing elements such as scripts, timing, performance style and etiquette to develop a more successful career.
Experts know what's funny, so I say let's make you funnier and get the laughs you want. Make them bigger and louder.
When discussing what is funny, Amanda explains how "the point of having a wide variety of joke types is because some people only laugh at wordplay, at observation, at emotional character. And you're trying to get a loud laugh. So you invest in all those types of people....and make us see why something is funny in a way that will make us laugh". When working with performers, Amanda embodies an approach that is both nurturing and open-minded."There is no judgement, it's just a judgement of what you can do". She goes on to explain how she assumes "everyone is doing the best they can, no one is trying to make a bad joke... they are just experiencing a blind spot." It is with uplifting certainty that Amanda states her belief that everyone is talented, and that you can work with what you have. Encouraging people to use who they are to the benefit of their comedic development.
On stage, you need to demonstrate your inner self and it's never attractive. It's everything your mum told you not to do
It's interesting to hear how Amanda's experience has taught her the differences that exist between genders when performing. "When I work with groups of women, to get them to say who they are and stand by it in a social form is really hard" Her understanding of this comes from learnt behaviour of our female personas within friendship groups. "On stage you need to demonstrate your inner self and it's never attractive. It's everything your mum told you not to do." Amanda observes how men find it easier to be bigger on stage, to put their shoulders back and express themselves, despite being just as insecure as women. As a solution, Amanda encourages women to start finding ways to step into their true identity amongst friends. "You need to create a social group where you can be yourself, otherwise you don't learn, you just accept other people's opinion. You think you're being yourself but there's no self there".
Being able to healthily play with the humour of ones own identity leads Amanda to discuss the idea of performance shame. She notes how it can be hard to account for the playful side of yourself that you choose to share on stage. This can be due to the history of people shaming you for your past. Such experiences and openness on stage can exacerbate the drinking and drug-taking that comes within the comedy circle. When faced with this challenge, Amanda advises how "There are some things that you do on stage where there are consequences later on in your career. That's why we have to sort through it and [decide] what's important and what isn't".
Everyone is doing the best they can, no one is trying to make a bad joke... they are just experiencing a blind spot
Amanda ends the conversation by describing herself as "a fuck it up person! That's a person you don't want a lot of in the world. But they're utterly necessary". A recent two-year project of coaching female comedians in the first ten years of their career was her method of fucking up the hard-wired structure of exclusion. "If you are a person of colour and female, you don't see many choices. And we're animals so we repeat what we see." With the programme, and throughout her career, Amanda is providing people with skills to change the racial and gender imbalance of the industry. "We only see status because it's what we're given; everyone lives up to that status and invests in it." However, she points out with Sassy articulation how "I was not invited to that status so I don't have a problem with fucking it up. I would say the only reason I could do something original was because I wasn't invited".
You need to create a social group where you can be yourself otherwise, you don't learn, you just accept other people's opinion
It is clear to us how Amanda is shattering the glass ceiling of the comedy industry. From books to workshops, tweets to talks, she is actively aiding others to prosper in their careers. This, combined with her no-bullshit attitude about who she is and her own vision is what truly inspires us. Leaving us with this Sassy piece of advice; "The truth is people will always be excluded. I'm not the kind of person who's easy to fit into a group. The ability to fit in is lovely and not to fit in has real costs; I am bitter, more apt to be unkind, and those are not great traits to have if you want to get along with the world, or have high blood pressure! So you do what you can with what you have and good luck".