Roisin Conaty still remembers her first night of standup. It was 2003 and she was at the King’s Head pub in London’s Crouch End, tipsy and being egged on by a friend. Conaty put her name down for the try-out comedy show, then forgot all about it. When they called to tell her it was her turn, she showed up with nothing prepared. “I thought you made it up on the night,” she says, eyes widening. “I now look back and think, ‘What’s wrong with you?’” She wasn’t even an avid comedy fan. “I’d seen Richard Pryor and Joan Rivers, the stuff off the telly. I don’t think I’d seen anything live before I did a gig, which is weird.” The way Conaty tells it, she seems to be marvelling at the antics of someone else, not looking back at her own history.
But the bug bit that night. “It was like love at first sight,” she says. “It felt frightening and it mattered immediately.”
Conaty still often feels out of place in the entertainment world. When we meet she is drinking a “fat coke” on a sunny roof terrace in Soho and telling me about the time she went to a media party in LA. Someone introduced her to a really important talent rep “and they did a very effusive introduction which felt like it went on for five sentences.” She told the rep to ignore this overblown intro because she was “middling at best – and the guy said, ‘Oh, how painfully British of you.’”
Conaty’s sitcom, GameFace, is moving to Channel 4 after a barnstorming first series on E4. It’s the offbeat story of out-of-work actor Marcella (played by Conaty), her flatmates, an ex she can’t shake, a driving instructor she fancies, an unethical life coach, a drug-addicted brother, an unhinged dad, and a mum who feeds the family cat spaghetti bolognese. You might have had hints of Conaty’s brilliance in Ricky Gervais’ After Life or alongside Greg Davies in Man Down, but this show is all hers.
It’s not her own life on screen, but she does harvest bits when it suits. “It’s not autobiographical because I felt too guarded. I tried at first, and I was like, I can’t do this. I kept just not writing truthfully.” But her real flatmate, Caroline Ginty, plays her flatmate in the show. And the cat? Also based on real life. “I once came in and he and my mum were sharing a kebab.” RIP, Orlando.
So the truth is in there – and she does drill down into her own anxieties. In the first series, the life coach asks Marcella what she’s afraid of. Cut to her, 70-plus, cowering in a wheelie bin, screaming as the apocalypse explodes around her and it’s announced the world has run out of cheese. Then King Trump turns up in a drive-by. God, I hope she’s wrong about cheese.
Conaty is confident, but wary of coming across as a bighead. She talks fast and rarely ends a sentence she starts. Her cogs are in constant motion. I am meeting her on a break from the edit downstairs, where she is very much staying on top of things. “You’re not locking that without me, are you?” she shouts in mock horror to the producer she spots heading back inside. “The truth is it’s my creation,” she says, “and I’m in from the beginning, every day and all day.”
I fell in love with GameFace’s disarmingly exposed comedy after a scene in which Marcella goes on a date with Jon the driving instructor. Leaning on a fence at a city farm, she points out a pale-furred alpaca – same bouffy hair as her – and says: “That’s me. She shares my essence. Look at her swag.” There’s so much going on in that line, and this ability to pack a sentence comes from Conaty’s time as a standup. But even her entry into that career sounds like a Marcella anecdote: her friend urged her to try it even though she’d always been allergic to performing.
Her one memory of acting was in Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs and Sucking Dublin when she was at college. She played a pram-pushing teenager with a “terrible Dublin accent”. When the character had to cry, Conaty smuggled an onion in her pocket, thinking it would impress everyone. Instead, she temporarily blinded herself. “I was like, ‘Where’s the fucking pram?’”
After becoming a standup, it took a seven-year slog on the circuit and a post-Vegas epiphany to create her first solo show. She’d spent her 30th birthday in Las Vegas with better-off friends, hating every second and feeling like a failure among the “massive shopping centres” and temples to material success.
When she got home, her mum gave her some real talk. “She’s very good at speeches and was like, ‘If you want to take the island, you’ve got to burn the ships’”. Conaty talks often about their “ridiculously close” relationship. “And so I left my job – I was earning like £150 a month – and I did move home at this point.” Within months, she was at the Edinburgh fringe, selling out every night and winning the Fosters best newcomer award. The panel shows and TV success soon followed.
“Even though I won newcomer, I was still seven grand in debt,” she says. “I grew up on a council estate in Camden and my mum and dad split up when I was about seven.” The lack of money and instability of a childhood spent between parents who kept splitting and reuniting doesn’t make her the obvious candidate for this kind of artistic experimentation. That’s usually the preserve of someone with a bit of privilege and cash behind them.
At last night’s screening of the new series, Conaty sat low in her seat on the front row. “It feels like a wrong thing to get used to,” she says, frowning. “To be in a room with your face on a big screen.” Her friend, the comic Brett Goldstein, conducted the Q&A afterwards and began by describing her as “Larry David if he was romantic”. “You know I don’t do compliments,” she grimaced back at him. But today, she tells me, compliments are grand, just not in front of a crowd. She says that knee-jerk humility comes from her Irish mum, who is “very proud” of her daughter, but is more interested in whether she is eating vegetables than how many people watch her on TV.
“One of the phrases I grew up with was ‘Self-praise is no praise’. And I’ve always had that in my mind,” she says. Humility was drummed into her and her sister, but she found herself relishing flights of fancy. “I was a very imaginative child and I told a lot of lies. My sister used to call it my Exaggerator Calculator. I liked telling a story and I knew how to polish it up.” She paints a picture of a chatty child, swinging on lampposts and mingling with the rich mix of people on her estate, trying all their foreign food. She used to make up country songs which her mum would indulge: a tiny north London Dolly Parton. I want to meet that kid.
Drifting through her mid-30s with food stuck to her face and no idea of where she’s going, Marcella shares similarities with her creator, but has none of Conaty’s drive and focus. The character also favours a smokier eye, which usually ends up smudged down her cheek because she never removes her makeup before bed. “I like a lot of makeup and I like big blonde hair,” says Conaty. “Life’s too short for the natural look. Bang it on.”
But she still insists she isn’t just making confessional comedy. “I do feel she’s a completely separate person. I just feel really connected and protective of her. It’s so strange. I worry that it’s dissociative disorder or something.”
Conaty isn’t the new Larry David (she’s nowhere near as self-absorbed). But the emotional candour of her writing and the stretchy-faced likability of her performance make GameFace essential viewing for those of us staring at the Fleabag-shaped hole in our lives. She may actually be the one to fill it.