Josie Long possesses the kind of playful energy that could make even the most hardboiled curmudgeon mellow, so it takes a few moments to realise that the young comedian, known more for her whimsical musings on the minutiae of life than her political opinions, has a serious message to get across.
For someone who is worried she is “going to say things that make me sound stupid,” Long displays a natural flair for articulating why, after more than a decade spent honing her comedy credentials, she is suddenly getting all political.
In 2009, Long, who has accumulated a string of awards since entering the comedy world at just 17, embarked on a typically whimsical project: “a hundred days to make me a better person” (her comedy shows have upbeat titles such as Be Honourable! and Trying is Good). She set herself small arbitrary tasks such as writing a joke every day and speaking to strangers.
One of the aims of the project was to become more politically aware because she felt a bit “woolly” on the subject. It was an experiment that sparked an unlikely journey and, later this month, she will launch an educational charity to help young people from underprivileged backgrounds get to university and tackle their debt. Underpinning the project is her desire to raise the profile of the liberal arts, which she believes have been sidelined by government ministers keen to push the idea of higher education as a route to employability rather than an end in itself.
Long, who is now 29, says she has always been annoyed that she left university in debt, when her rich friends didn’t. “I’ve always believed that higher education shouldn’t make you have a massive debt at the end. It should be state–funded.”
But the thing about being more politically active is that it has been a “world of hurt” every day, she says earnestly. “I began to feel like I couldn’t possibly be leading a good life unless I was doing more things. It came from feeling like I wasn’t doing anything to help society be more like how I wanted it to be. I guess it was just getting a bit older and feeling a bit disillusioned with being a comedian because it felt a bit too easy and good for me.”
It was the prospect of a Tory government that made her think hard about education (she is proud of having studied English at Oxford despite coming from a modest background with “no connections” or family financial assistance). “I was thinking about how much my degree enriched my life, and how much it gave me for the future, in terms of learning how to study and read and research and think critically”.
Rather than stay mired in vague exasperation or using comedy to vent (although she confesses to having enjoyed doing just that as part of her political awakening), Long decided to act on her impulses.
First of all she took part in the student protests last year, ending up on the late-night political programme The Week at one point and giving Michael Portillo a run for his money debating tuition fee increases. She also became involved with UK Uncut, the disparate anti-tax avoidance network, taking part in some of the group’s occupations of high-street banks.
But it still wasn’t enough, according to Long, so – despite having no voluntary or education sector experience whatsoever – she decided to set up her own charity. She is starting small with the mentoring where she lives in Hackney, east London, with “perhaps only a handful of pupils”, but the long-term aim is to help students all over the UK.
Her new charity, Arts Emergency Service, is a collaboration with her friend Neil Griffiths, an experienced fundraiser. As well as running a small monthly lottery for graduates where winners get some and possibly all of their debts paid off, the pair also want to raise money for a long-term mentoring scheme and to convince their friends and others that “it’s not enough to have the ‘correct’ opinions and anxieties”, but that they should play an active part in effecting change.
It’s not surprising, perhaps, that for all her earnestness Long seems unable to veer too far away from her comedy roots when talking about her plans. She beams mischievously while outlining one of her more quixotic ideas for Arts Emergency Service, which involves renting a van with a few friends and “going round for 10 days doing ad hoc [comedy] shows in the middle of nowhere – like in cul-de-sacs” to promote it. Another idea scheduled for later this month will entail using Twitter [@artsemergency] and the charity’s website [arts-emergency.org] to have a playful poke at Prince William. “We’ve got an idea to coincide with the royal wedding because prince thingy studied history of art – and he probably left debt-free.” Pausing for comic effect, Long adds: “I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t have a student loan.”
She says the “ultimate aim” of Arts Emergency Service is “to reinstate free education for all at a tertiary level,” and, she says, giggling, trying to be as unrealistic as possible. “I’m almost perversely pro-stupid degrees now. I don’t care if you are studying beer management. Good for you – you enjoy yourself. Have three years of absolute flowering.”
Long recalls the one-woman standup show she did at the Edinburgh festival in 2010, Be Honourable! It was her first foray into political comedy and was written as the concept of Arts Emergency Service was gestating. The critics loved it, with some saying she was unexpectedly filling a gap where political comedy should have been.
“I’m just [trying] really hard not to be shit,” Long says half-seriously. “I didn’t intentionally start doing shows [that were political]. I just always believed that if I said what I really cared about I would build the right audience. That’s why this last show felt totally a part of all the other ones.”
Whatever Long may have felt she was doing, there is a sense of someone who has put herself in the firing line – right in the middle of one of the most contentious issues of the day. When she first began mooting her views on the cuts and on education policy on Twitter, she was slightly thrown by the “massive resentment” of many of those who responded.
“What’s been really upsetting has been getting loads of people saying things like ‘Why should I pay for other people to flit around?’ The idea is that you would want to [pay tax to fund education] because you feel responsible for everyone else in a society. I feel old-fashioned because that’s what I care about and believe in.”
As she toured the country after the Edinburgh festival, Long, whose comedy is not the sort that tends to attract hecklers, found herself on the receiving end of some aggressive challenges. She recounts how one punter shouted that she shouldn’t be able to rant about government policy without any balance. “I was like, ‘yes I fucking can, it’s my gig you prick’.
“There are people who don’t like me because of a [comedy] aesthetic,” Long adds, shrugging her shoulders. “But what I’ve encountered recently – which I’ve not really encountered before – is that I’ve made people angry and upset. That’s been really hard to deal with and quite sad.”
But if it has been tough, it also seems to have reinforced her view that, with a few notable exceptions such as Mark Thomas, the contemporary scene is failing to embrace political satire.
“I feel like there’s been a real aggressive attempt to make comedy apolitical and to send it back to pre-alternative comedy. A lot of the mainstream shows are just men coming on and going ‘Oh this is crap isn’t it I hate my wife’ and that’s been quite tedious.”
Does she worry that by venturing beyond comedy and setting up a grassroots project – and one that could ironically be heralded by the Tories as a prime example of the “big society” in operation – potentially opens her up to accusations of naivety? “I would rather do something now than look back in 10 years and [realise] that I hadn’t done anything. I feel like I won’t be able to sleep at night unless I’m articulating these things at every opportunity and doing everything that I can.”
Then does she at least acknowledge that she’s taken on a very ambitious task? Yes, she says, but that is beside the point. “We’ve got a lot of righteous indignation. It’s fuel. And I think the government is going to keep giving us fuel for at least the next four and a half years. If in five years’ time we have paid for even one person to go through university to study an arts degree, that would be wonderful.”