Bringing the laughs in lockdown

How alumna and comedian Abi Clarke tookover the internet last summer

The last twelve months have been something of a whirlwind for Exeter alumna and comedian Abi Clarke (Drama, 2017).

What started as a desire to build a stand-up following a little, quickly snowballed into a full-time online comedy gig. At the time of writing, she’s now amassed more than 700,000 followers on TikTok and is closing in on 185,000 Instagram followers thanks to her sketches.

Abi is also about to star in Sky One's Dating: No Filter when the UK version launches. The programme sees comedians (of which Abi will be one) setting up people on dates and then commenting on the results.

Of her comedy career Abi says: “It was only when I did a solo module at university that comedy really came up. Up until that point I guess I didn’t want to admit to anyone that I thought I was funny."

“I’ve always been in to theatre because my whole family are actors (Abi’s father is Paul Clarkson, head of acting courses at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and her mother is actress Julia Hills) so it’s just what I grew up with. I did all the amateur dramatics growing up and I always loved to play the funny character, to make people laugh.

“Initially I graduated and went off to try to be a theatre director, and I did a lot of assistant directing, internships, that kind of thing. Then I saw a friend of mine doing some stand-up course and, like I said, it’s always been a niggle in my head that I wanted to try, but it’s so hard to publicly say ‘yep I’m hilarious’. And obviously you then have to immediately prove it as well.

“So I did this course - six weeks on a Saturday afternoon meeting these random people, most of whom were doing it for public speaking training not really wanting to become comedians. And I remember I was writing for that, and I turned to my mum and said, ‘mum I think I’ve found my thing’. It was the first time ever in my life where something just clicked into place and felt like it was the perfect fit for me."

Initially Abi stuck to live stand-up performances but at the start of 2020 began to upload videos online in search of a wider audience. With lockdown removing opportunities for live shows for some time, the online sketches provided the perfect outlet for creativity and within a few months she was building a sizable following.

Abi says: “I went online mostly because I’m in the south west and found myself doing a lot of gigs in the depths of Devon, in rooms above pubs to men in their 50s or over.

"So I was finding I wasn’t able to always write jokes about what I wanted to write about. I had to write jokes that everyone could find funny.

“Right at the start I was going to these gigs and doing jokes about the Sims and Twilight, and they just didn’t know what I was talking about!

"So I wanted to go online to find an audience of young women that I could build and who would then want to come to my stand up shows.

"I was never expecting to build something quite as big as I have. I remember getting really excited when I hit 4,000 followers.

"And it was the night that my Eurovision dance went viral and I woke up the next day to about 11,000 – it was just crazy.

“Ironically my second ever sketch has a joke about being an Instagram influencer and another character replies, ‘No, no one actually knows how to achieve that’! In my head I thought that was the most ridiculous, most impossible thing to ever do – I just didn’t understand it!”

Right: Abi's influencer sketch

The Eurovision dance that went viral is one of many from the first lockdown to include Abi’s parents. Over the months they have thrown themselves into TikTok dances and comedy sketches to become somewhat legendary on the feed. Was it difficult to convince them to join in?

“They were actually really up for it!” Abi says. “I was seeing on TikTok that a lot of people were getting their parents involved so I suggested we just do the one dance. We got such a good reaction to the first one that we thought we’d try another.

“Then we did a cover of Abba’s Voulez-Vous. Dad was the original Harry in Mamma Mia so we got him to lip sync to himself

and that took off massively - Mamma Mia shared it and Buzzfeed wrote about it. So then we thought we’d better keep doing them, and during the first lockdown it became a weekly thing.

"Obviously my parents are used to performing being actors, but they’re definitely not dancers! People often say ‘oh it must be so easy, as they’re good at performing’, but teaching them to dance has been umm… a journey!

“We do it a bit less now because I want to focus on the page being for my sketches and the comedy, plus also because of people going back to work, but every now and again if I see a good dance on TikTok I’m like ‘guys, come on…!’”

Above: One of Abi's 'Jill and Tracey' sketches

While Abi has loved exploring her new found talent for sketch writing and performing, she still misses the live stage and can’t wait to get back to performing stand-up once rules allow. However the experiences gained over the past year have helped to develop a second career opportunity.

Abi says: “There is nothing like that live immediate reaction you get at a stand-up show. The telling a joke and getting a laugh, being able to improvise and engage with the audience. I managed to do a few shows in the gaps between lockdowns and I’m desperate to get back out there again.

Left: Abi on stage pre-lockdown

“The first sketch I posted online was the first I’d ever written in my life. Writing is pretty new to me and I’ve just taught myself all the technical stuff, so it’s been great to discover that I can do other things, and that I enjoy them. I would love to record some sketches with other actors rather than me playing all the parts, and to write for other people. I’m already writing some longer form sketches and I’d love one day to write a sitcom – I want to do it all really! However I really want to establish myself as a comedian first rather than have people see me as this woman off the internet. And I can’t see myself giving up the stand-up for a long time yet."

Follow Abi on Instagram and TikTok