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Jess Fostekew: I knew I wanted to be a funny loud angry bitch screaming in favour of clean air

The comedian, actor and writer on ULEZ, the future of comedy and not giving a sh*t about what critics write.

I've just had five nights in a row of my tour and a few have been in places that are not "safe seats" for me -- posh places with old white men who've got lots of money. I've been screaming abuse about Rishi Sunak and, to be honest, it's gone down pretty well. I genuinely think there's hope in this next election for the change that we've all been waiting for.

This is the most structurally complicated show I've ever written and I'm so proud of it because I was desperate to start talking about the climate in my comedy, but I didn't want to write a show all about that. It's a hard sell and I didn't know if, for me, comedy was the right way. But I realised, as someone who cares deeply about the most urgent issue of our time, that I had to. 

The show starts with my own accelerated ageing, and being really vain about it, but then morphs into a show that's actually about the fact that with ageing comes an amount of fear; a drive to do something meaningful, especially as a clown. The older I get, the more activism I want to do. It's not my ageing that matters, it's the climate. I've got a kid so it's a selfish reason to give a shit. But it's a reason nonetheless. I wanted the show to feel empowering, positive, hopeful and meaningful. 

I've had some fascinating conversations with incredible charities and campaign groups over the course of the last year about how to use my platform if I'm going to talk about climate and about how unhelpful it is when, with the best of intentions, comedians make flippant jokes about how inevitable climate change is – that it's too late to act, and that we're all gonna burn or drown. But it's not something we can afford to be hopeless about.

With ageing comes an amount of fear; a drive to do something meaningful, especially as a clown.

These conversations sowed a seed but the fuel to my fire were the responses I got from my comments on the ULEZ expansion in Greater London. On the day it was extended, I put out a reel of me doing a silly impression of what the protesters could have been chanting. The trolling I got was next level; the first time I've ever had trolling like it and I've talked about trans stuff, religious stuff, all sorts of things. I received every swear word under the sun. I received death threats. I mostly got called mad. 

The longer the trolling went on, the more it became less about ULEZ and more just general raging from a particular group of people – you know, the sort that follow Russell Brand and the like. I can sort of understand people's reasons for being suspicious of many things. I can understand the urge not to trust authority. But when people are trying to take on stuff that's trying to save the planet – in other words help us and our health – well, you've lost me now. 

And that's the thing that tipped me over the edge. That, and the fact that I couldn't find anyone passionately shouting, other than Sadiq Khan and the people who have had to enforce these clean air zones. And even they're doing it quietly and in a temperate way. All the noise and all the emotion is coming from people using their time, money and energy to protest against clean air. I knew I wanted to be a funny loud angry bitch screaming in favour of clean air and screaming that it is mad that in my 16-year career, that is the most "controversial" opinion I've ever had. 

Making climate change funny is an incredibly tough task. Audiences often come to comedy shows for a break from the world, even if they're open to more political or thought-provoking content. Saying that, I believe there's a growing space for this kind of material, especially in formats like Carbon Lifeforms on Radio 4, which tend to blend humour with more serious discussions. While these shows offer a platform for comedy that's "comedy-ish," tackling climate change in stand-up or high-paced panel shows, where the demand for quickfire jokes is relentless, remains a challenge.

It is mad that in my 16-year career, that is the most "controversial" opinion I've ever had. 

I'm hopeful, though, because the urgency and relevance of climate change are more on people's minds than ever before. Sara Pascoe told me she can't stop thinking about it either. But whether this topic will break into the mainstream comedy scene, appearing in the sets of arena-filling comedians like Michael McIntyre or Rob Beckett, remains to be seen. The comedy landscape is evolving, and as it does, perhaps we'll see more comedians finding ways to weave these conversations into their acts.

The good thing is, I'm no longer just preaching to the converted. Before the tour kicked off, I did a 40-minute preview in Surbtion, where ULEZ had only just arrived – where people had been smashing down the cameras. It was a Friday night and the audience was male-heavy and pretty hammered. And even then, no one walked out; it went down well. 

It's going to be the hardest show I've done so far in terms of computing what success means. And, no offence to journalists, but in terms of comedy criticism, I couldn't give a fuck if I impress them. That's not who I'm writing for. I'm writing for the people in the room or those who will hopefully stream it later.

When you come to see stand-up these days, you're generally going to hear one person's thoughts and feelings and opinions for an hour. Who knows what people are taking away from that. I can just hope that it's the first time they've ever heard someone make an argument for ULEZ. I don't think that was ever done to me. I live in Lewisham, where a nine-year-old girl died from air pollution. She went to the school that my son's at now. So that was a pretty strong argument in favour of ULEZ for me. But I had to go looking for the reasons why ULEZ was important, I had to search out the statistics.

Before my tour a friend asked, "Why are you nervous?" And I said, "I'm talking about something I think is gonna piss some people off," and it made me realise how much research I've done. ULEZ is shit in many ways. But we need it. I wish they'd given exemptions, or way better financial support, to people who needed it like carers. Not to fucking classic car owners just to keep Tory votes. 

The fact is, ever since ULEZ has come in, we've gone from 37% to 95% clean vehicles in the Greater London area. Just in Lewisham alone, in the last five years, we’ve reduced air pollution by 40%. We’ve gone from having children dying…to this. And that’s amazing, isn’t it.

As told to Charlotte Owen-Burge on 26 February 2024. This conversation was edited & condensed for clarity.

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