Suzi Ruffell – “I didn’t know I was a writer and now I write sell out shows”

Suzi Ruffell is an award-winning comedian and has performed sell out shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe three years running.

Not only does she write her own stand-up routines but she also writes TV screenplays and articles for the Guardian.

Therefore, it’s surprising to learn that she wasn’t great at school, has dyslexia and was told by a teacher that she wouldn’t make a career out of just chatting.

Being a writer – in an unusual way

Suzi struggled with writing at school. She says, “Because I’m not academic and because I’m dyslexic; writing wasn’t for me.”

Suzi only discovered she was a writer a few years ago when she began writing articles for the Guardian and scripts for TV shows. “It wasn’t until I started doing it and people started saying, 'You're good at this, you just write in an unusual way’, I didn’t realise I could.”

“I wasn’t super popular so being funny was the thing I always fell back on. If you’re the funny person in your friendship group, you always get invited out.”

Beginnings - what I really wanted to do was make people laugh

Suzi started out as an actor. She went to drama school at 18 but spent more time waiting tables than acting. After a while Suzi thought, “What is it that I really want to do?” She realised the only parts she really wanted were in sitcoms or funny characters in plays. She says, “I realised what I really wanted to do was to make people laugh.”

As a child, Suzi found school quite tough and didn’t have many friends. She says, “I wasn’t super popular so being funny was the thing I always fell back on. If you’re the funny person in your friendship group, you always get invited out. As a teenager I would have thought the worst thing was to have someone laughing at me and now it pays my mortgage.”

At around 23, Suzi started looking up comedy clubs and went to a nearby pub that had a monthly comedy night. Suzi realised there were people out there who weren’t household names but made a living out of making people laugh. It was then that she became obsessed with comedy.

Be prepared to fail

Suzi’s style of comedy wasn’t always the same. “To begin with, no one is amazing” Suzi says, “What I was trying to do for a long time was an impression of what a comedian should be. People didn’t care what I had to say. My shows were fine, but not that interesting”.

Whilst touring with Alan Carr she asked for advice and he said, “All you can do is be yourself. Be the best version of yourself as you can on stage.”

That was when Suzi started getting more honest and looking inwards rather than outwards. Her stand-up began to incorporate how she was feeling, her family and things that were really personal to her: things that people really related to.

Suzi admits, “I’ve learnt some of the best things by failing. Doing it wrong and not getting a laugh has taught me way more about being funny.”

Failure is not only part of life but also a major part of being a stand-up comedian. “If you don’t get a laugh it’s sort of fine”, she says, “People imagine it’s much worse than it is. It’s okay to fail. Most of the comedians I love have had terrible gigs. Sometimes you have a great day at work and sometimes you have a rubbish day at work. That’s alright.”

Observational storytelling - there's something funny in that

Suzi does observational storytelling. Everything she talks about on stage comes from real experiences. She may overhear something and think, “There’s something funny in that.”

She always has a book and a phone with her. “I’ll make voice notes about potential stories and then let them ruminate in my mind.” She will then go to a ‘New Material Night’ and try the stories out on an audience.

The audience, she admits, are her sounding board and co-writers: “If an audience are laughing it means ‘tell me more, carry on’. Something that I want to create for my audience is a sense that it’s for everyone.”

Suzi tells stories, not jokes, so it's really difficult when someone says, “Tell us a joke.” She says “I do stories with a funny ending in my mum’s voice, which is not what taxi drivers want to hear.”

“I’ll make voice notes about potential stories and then let them ruminate in my mind.”

Advice for storytellers

The secret to a good story is just being honest. Suzi’s advice for someone thinking of writing is, “I don’t think you need the most incredible thing anyone’s ever seen, or the most dramatic or sad, just something that you want to write about. That can be a brilliant thing.”

For Suzi, comedy is the only way of storytelling. It’s a great thing to be able to laugh even when things are bad. To find humour in difficulty is a really positive thing. “What I’m best at doing is honest storytelling and that’s when I got better as a stand-up. The power of a great story is changing hearts and minds. We need to listen to each other, engage in other people’s stories. That’s the power of storytelling.”

With regards to being a comedian, Suzi says, “I’m really lucky to have a job I really love and I don’t think there’s anything else I’ve been really good at. The thing I’m best at is chatting and making people laugh. A teacher at school told me, ‘Miss Ruffell, you won’t make a career out of just chatting’ … and I have actually.”

Suzi Ruffell is one of four award-winning storytellers offering young writers advice on telling great stories with BBC Young Reporter.

Observational storytelling tips from comic Suzi Ruffell
Online storytelling tips from award-winning YouTuber, Jessica Kellgren-Fozard
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