Rachel Parris: ‘Standup would have terrified me – the piano was a good comfort blanket’

Why did you get into musical comedy?
I did musical comedy first because that was all I could do! I’d written and performed songs since I was young, so it was the most obvious way in. Doing standup straight away would have terrified me at that time. The piano was a good comfort blanket.

Can you recall a gig so bad that it’s now funny?
I remember one in the West End. I was wearing a glitzy gold sequin top because I had a joke about it. I walked on stage and opened my set saying, “I know what you’re thinking about my top,” and someone shouted, “It’s shit,” very seriously, before I could do the punchline. I had a bad time.

You perform weekly in the Jane Austen-themed improv show, Austentatious. What’s one of the most outrageous suggestions from the audience you’ve heard?
We’re not as easily shocked as you might think! I mean, we had “Fuck and Fuckability” and “Sex and Shagability” … but the outrageous ones aren’t the most memorable. I’d rather give airtime to ones like “Snakes on a Horse-Drawn Carriage”, “Bath to the Future” and “Breaking Cad: Meth Comes To Pemberley”.

Any preshow rituals?
Yes, but they’re secret and cultish.

Who did you look up to when you first started out?
I didn’t know the live comedy scene at all really, but I always loved sketch and variety on TV. Reeves and Mortimer, French and Saunders, and I grew up watching Victoria Wood and Monty Python.

You’re performing at the final of the Musical Comedy awards at the end of March. In your opinion, what is the current state of the genre?
Musical comedy is alive and well! Flo and Joan, Jazz Emu, Will Hislop, Stiff & Kitsch … people are still finding new ways to make musical comedy. Some of them are old-school instrumentalists like me, others are learning to do music production, and video editing, as well as composing and performing – the bar is threateningly high! And it’s as popular as always, online and at live shows. I think it always will be.

What is your new book, Advice from Strangers, about?
It’s about lots of things: lockdown, politics, gaslighting, macarons, sex, guinea pigs, loss, motherhood, music, misogyny. It’s all held together by bits of life advice I’ve been offered.

Related: The Mash Report’s Rachel Parris: ‘There was a lot of excitement and fury’

You asked members of your live audiences for advice. What’s one of the most thought-provoking pieces of advice that was shared at a show?
“Life is but a piss in the winds of time.”

The book has also been described as an “uplifting feminist manifesto”. Would you agree with that?
I think that describes it pretty well. A fair bit of the book is a feminist take on issues such as internet trolling, Tory policy, childbirth, period products, and Jane Eyre’s “madwoman in the attic”. I look at most of those topics with humour but also with a bit of hope, with an eye on the future.

What words of wisdom would you wish to share?
Never pass up the opportunity for a wee.