Helen Lederer on envy, rejection, fun and fame: ‘I wanted it so badly – maybe that’s not normal’

<span>Helen Lederer: ‘There’s nothing worse than being try-hard, that doesn’t get laughs.’</span><span>Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian</span>
Helen Lederer: ‘There’s nothing worse than being try-hard, that doesn’t get laughs.’Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Being able to see the funny side of almost everything makes for quite a jolly life, and I think the comedian Helen Lederer has had that. In her new memoir, humour is applied to just about anything, from single motherhood to a failed gastric band to sex work (as a naive 19-year-old, Lederer worked in a massage parlour and worried about whether talc or oil should go on first, and whether using too much of each might create “some kind of clay vase”). Pain and laughter are never far from each other. A recent example: at an event with other famous guests, Lederer counted three or four people moving away from her in search of – what? – someone more important, perhaps. She finds it, she says, “quite hurtful, but also funny. What is it about me? Is it because they feel sorry for me because my status isn’t as high as theirs?” She thinks about status a lot. “I want to make that OK, an awareness of status without letting it defeat us, I suppose, without being cross.” She doesn’t want to be the needy person who accosts TV executives at parties and says: “Please tell me I’m better. Please give me a job.” She smiles. “Which I also did.”

I meet Lederer at her home in south London. She is gregarious and keen to be liked, generous with overblown and hilarious compliments: she is sure, she tells me, that one day I will win a Nobel prize or the Booker. She fizzes with energy, which she puts down partly to the testosterone she has started taking as part of hormone replacement therapy – “I’m not quite sure if it’s making me a bit louder. Am I shouting?” – and partly to nerves about her book. Lederer knows she can exasperate some people – I’m thinking of all the agents she talks about alienating in the book – but not others. “It seems that I can divide people. I can be annoying, but I don’t mean to be.” I don’t find her annoying, I find her a hoot, and her book proves Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that autobiographies written by people on lower rungs on the ladder are more interesting and entertaining than those by the people at the top.

Lederer is not at the top, and I can’t work out if, at the age of 69, it still bothers her (her book’s title is Not That I’m Bitter). She was there in the 80s comedy boom, and in influential and successful 90s sitcoms such as Bottom and Absolutely Fabulous, if on the periphery. “Does that make one’s existence less valid? Well, obviously, mostly, yes it does,” she says with a laugh. But she is funny about her various embarrassments and perceived failures, and the ugly but human stuff such as envy and resentment.

As a child, Lederer was sometimes aware she was considered too much. “It was quite a lot of mixed messages. On the one hand, I could fill the silences, I could entertain, which [my parents] found, when it went well, agreeable. But if I got it wrong, it was really bad, so I was always trying to read the room.” Lederer had severe asthma and the steroid injections she was given for it “made me go from plump to very fat”. It was the start of lifelong anxieties about her weight, low self-esteem, numerous diet pills and that failed gastric band. She remembers being anxious and wanting to please at school, “but having the joy of being able to make people laugh”.

As a child, before the second world war, Lederer’s Jewish father was sent to England from what was then Czechoslovakia; a year later, his parents and sister followed, just in time. Other friends and relatives were sent to concentration camps. This history wasn’t something Lederer was really aware of. “There was no sentiment, it wasn’t dwelt on, but you would just pick up a vibe. We didn’t talk about that past, particularly with my grandmother.”

She loved watching comedy on TV, and although drama wasn’t available at school, Lederer knew she wanted to perform. But she couldn’t see the path, so she went into social work, then did a master’s and joined a community theatre – the highlight of which was performing Doctor Faustus in leotards, with people laughing inappropriately at the serious bits. Using money from an inheritance, Lederer gave up social work and went to drama school, a place where, she writes, sexual harassment was “accepted as bohemian and almost characterful”. Once, a teacher visited her flat and did something horrible to her with a saucepan handle. She is typically funny about it: she wondered afterwards if it had, as promised, made her more talented, and it was some time, she writes, before she could look at a Le Creuset in the same way. In 2024, it sounds a horrific abuse of power.

“I think that would be an example of somebody who’s in a position of power,” she agrees. “Who got to that position, through talent, skill, charismatic leadership, and was intrigued by certain younger individuals. I think he was genuinely attracted by me and many others, to impart his liberal, out-there, psychodrama stuff because he believed in the art. Wanky as that sounds, there was enough of that going down. If it was somebody in a completely different job, like an accountant, then you might go: ‘Actually, no.’ But because it was me being an apprentice and wanting to be better, there was enough magic there to go along with it – kind of: ‘Oh God, do we have to do that?’”

A couple of years later, once Lederer had become a standup comedian, she was at the Edinburgh festival and, on a night out, a BBC producer expected her to go up to his hotel room with him. She did, partly because she didn’t really know how to say no, but then she managed to get out. “It was a situation I hadn’t foreseen, that I had to react to, but it wasn’t a situation that was full of alarm, or violence,” she says. She wasn’t a victim, she says, just annoyed that she was “being put in a management situation”.

She seems to partly blame herself. “Because of my ambition and my bad management and low self-esteem. So all those ingredients together probably explained it. It would have been nice not to have been put in that situation where I had to manage it, but another person, not me, would have probably been able to say ‘fuck off’. I just wasn’t very good. I was taken aback, brought up to be polite.” I don’t understand, I say, why she doesn’t seem angrier with these men. “Well, maybe I am deep down,” she says. For most of her life, she has told these kinds of stories with humour. “It’s just another way of storytelling and making people like you and making people laugh. But then the more distance and time goes by you go: ‘Oh, actually, maybe it’s not so funny.’” She worries, she says, that she is not “providing a current-thinking correct analysis” of these experiences.

It is not particularly deep to wonder how much she uses humour as a coping mechanism. “It’s a way of making the world safe,” she says at one point. This applies just as much to her experience with the comedy establishment. “Maybe the best way is just to own who I am, and not everyone is the same, and if my humour is that way, that’s how it is. Maybe it’s trying to understand why I’m not on panel games or running the country, or whatever.” She laughs at herself.

Now, on panel games, the world just isn’t the same place, but it was a duplication if you had more than one woman

Did it feel as if she was part of something big and changing in comedy in the 80s? “I mean, obviously, it wasn’t Jimmy Tarbuck. I think it was exciting and vibrant at the time.” But she was too preoccupied with getting gigs to take much notice, she says. “Just obsessive. I look back and can’t believe I was that person, I just wanted it so much.” There weren’t many women on the circuit, and Lederer had to cope with hostile and sexist audiences. One man shouted “Let’s see your clit” at a gig at London’s Comedy Store, and Lederer didn’t hear properly and politely asked him to repeat it. “Which was not ideal.” How much did it bother her? “I do remember eating chocolate in a garage on the way home, because it affected me.” At another gig, being filmed, one man in the audience was shown staring at Lederer’s crotch, in bewildered fascination. “The way to deal with this,” writes Lederer, “is loose trousers and therapy.” To win over audiences, says Lederer now: “You’d have to prove your worth within seconds, before the complete disinterest and disappointment set in. And I know there’s nothing worse than being try-hard; that doesn’t get laughs.”

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders were a few years ahead of Lederer, “so their path of queens was set”. She, and other female comics, tried to get the few remaining jobs. “We were forced to be competitive,” she says. “Now, on panel games, the world just isn’t the same place, but it was a duplication if you had more than one woman, whereas more than one man was normal.”

Lederer did standup for about five years, then went into radio comedy, which she loved, but found: “You get into a whole other landscape of being competitive with other people.” She had a small part in The Young Ones, then in Ben Elton’s comedy Happy Families, and the sketch show Naked Video. She was a contemporary of the Comic Strip comedians, including French, Saunders, Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson. “They were in their set. Like badgers,” she quips.

But she worked with them regularly. In the early 90s, she was cast in Bottom, Mayall and Edmondson’s anarchic show (Mayall had been a brief boyfriend, as had Harry Enfield). Then as Catriona, a dimwitted magazine colleague of Patsy, in Saunders’ Absolutely Fabulous. She was thrilled, even if she also had ambitions to get her own show. “Which I never did. I had my own hankerings – delusions as they turned out to be.”

Between Ab Fab series, Lederer wrote Saunders a letter, saying she hoped she would get a role in the next one. Is that how it works in showbiz? “That was a letter of admiration, because I absolutely admire her. But it’s just that thing about going: ‘Look, I may not be in the group, and if I’m not, that’s fine. But I’d like to be in the group.’” But, she admits: “Maybe a lot of people wouldn’t do that.” She remembers that one BBC producer told her she was “high maintenance”, because she would constantly send in ideas, or ask for jobs. “Because I wanted it so badly, and I think that is maybe not normal, is it? Is it a bit pushy?” This is certainly how ambitious women were, and probably still are, unfairly seen, but Lederer seemed to take it to a thick-skinned, self-sabotaging level. She laughs and adds: “Maybe that’s why people try to avoid me at book launches.”

She thinks it is about risk-taking. “That’s what I understood – that if you want something really badly, in that moment, you can either ignore it or go for it.” It is risky because you get rejected, but that, in Lederer’s hands, can be turned into another funny story. “I have a huge amount of rejection letters and squeamish emails. It’s very similar to stepping on stage and thinking, chances are quite a lot of people will be quite cross I’m on the stage, but I’m going to crack on.” She smiles. “I do spend quite a lot of time being mortified.”

Lederer struggled the most in her 40s, she thinks. “I just wanted a sitcom. I tried.” It was rare, then, for a woman to have “been able to be at the centre of her story, and drive it and produce it, so it’s a helpful perspective to go: ‘You had a crack at it, that’s something.’” She had ambitions, but wonders “how realistic were they, and how plausible is it in a system where very good people are at the top, and sometimes not very good people are at the top”. She was a bit “grumpy and sulky”, she says. “Then I got over myself, because that’s really not a useful way to live your life.” Not many people are so honest about jealousy and competitiveness, I say. “Yeah, and that is rife in our business.”

Lederer worries this is going to be “a misery article” – my fault for focusing so much on the cringe-making stuff and the failures, instead of the anarchic hilarity of her life and triumphs, but who wants to read about someone’s endless success? “No! I don’t think success is a theme in the book at all. Promise me you did laugh a bit.” She is in, she says, “the autumn of my years, so maybe that’s another reason why you just want it to count for something. If I’ve made some people laugh, that does cheer me up hugely.”

• Not That I’m Bitter by Helen Lederer, published by Mirror Books, is out on 11 April