Rachel Parris: “I perform with a smile. Some like it, it drives others mad”

She’s a political comedy sensation, but Rachel Parris’s skits on The Mash Report have divided opinion in the same way Brexit has. She tells Steven MacKenzie how she’s coping with the attention

Success brings fame, fortune and nowadays, people publicly wishing you cancer. Rachel Parris found herself going viral after her skits from BBC political comedy The Mash Report like ‘How NOT to sexually harass someone’ and ‘Why does Meghan Markle get so much hate?’ were shared tens of millions of times at the start of 2018. But today, fame and shame go hand-in-hand.

“I do get a lot of people calling me a cunt on Twitter and on Facebook. I got messages wishing me cancer.” Not dwelling on being a victim, she talks instead about her eyes being opened to the new people she’s crossed paths with. “The rich tapestry,” she laughs, dryly.

Parris’ journey to comic presenter-come-pariah was unexpected. She studied Music at Oxford where she fell into a comedy group. For the last decade she has performed stand-up, largely focusing on musical comedy, which remains her true love. She has also been an integral member of Jane Austen-inspired improv show Austentatious, which became a staple at the Edinburgh Fringe and will begin a residency in London next month. Her next solo tour, All Change Please, starts in March and gives Parris the opportunity to reflect on the “big flip” her life has taken recently.

“Exactly within the same two weeks of suddenly going viral, I got together with someone [comedian Marcus Brigstocke], it got very serious, we very quickly got married and I’ve now got two stepkids,” she says. “My career was simple before – keep writing shows about depression. I had no one to worry about except myself, now suddenly I’m thinking about a husband and two teenagers. In most ways, they were all very good changes, and I’m very lucky, but it did cause me to go a bit mad and get very anxious.

The Mash Report being what it is, no matter what you say there is always going to be a lot of people who disagree with you. But there are also a lot of trolls just because you’re someone who’s got opinions. And a woman as well – it doesn’t help.”

The Mash Report has run for three series so far. Presented by Nish Kumar (recent victim of a politically-fuelled bread roll attack), it’s as close a programme to The Daily Show as we have in Britain. It can be a bit hit-and-miss, but many of the knockout blows are delivered by Parris as she dissects big issues of the day by emphasising the ludicrousness of the subject in a butter-wouldn’t-melt, relentlessly cheerful manner.

“It’s an exaggeration of the way I’ve always performed,” she says. “I always perform with a smile and in a polite way. Some people really like it, I think it drives other people mad.”

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There are currently around 2,000 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

So it’s a win-win?

“Exactly. I’ve been called patronising. It can be tricky. The Mash Report is a comedy show and we’ve covered child poverty, war, sex abuse. There’s always something to mock and ridicule – the government’s attitude to child poverty, the ridiculousness of institutional prejudice against rape victims – and I think that is our job. But if you tune in for five seconds, what you see is me smiling while I talk about child poverty. If you don’t enjoy the humour then it looks like you’re being frivolous about incredibly serious issues.”

The serious issues have included “serious journalism”, a segment that featured a once-seen, never-forgotten illustration of Piers Morgan interviewing Donald Trump – with his tongue stuck firmly up the president’s covfefe.

It divided opinion. What doesn’t these days? But Parris is at the front line when it comes to people wanting to demonstrate their wrath.

“There’s a real immediate fury on social media,” Parris says. “There are so many opinions around now that you’re surrounded by so many different thoughts every day. People feel safe entrenching themselves in their tribes – people, websites and newspapers who agree with them. I’m exactly the same. I think we all do this so that you know where you stand amongst all of this chatter. When you see something that threatens your way of thinking it can be very scary.

“People call it the echo chamber – or for me the liberal metropolitan bubble.

“If you have an opinion on, for example, which of the Labour leaders you support, instead of being, ‘Oh, well, I can see the pros of them but I think this guy is more appropriate’, the response is, ‘I’m SO gutted, you’re not the person I thought you were. I’ve been let down.’

“Nobody has to be let down, we just think different things! There’s such binary online that if someone doesn’t think exactly the same thing as you, they’re the enemy. I really hope that changes.”