Is It A Bird? Is It A Superhero? It's Jordan Gray
There's an adage: Most rock stars want to be comedians, and most comedians want to be rock stars. It's certainly a feeling that stand-up comedian Jordan Gray felt when she was performing as a musician, acknowledging that without an instrument, a musician can't do anything else, whereas comedians can just step up on stage with a microphone and command a crowd, and that’s why she swapped careers, as she tells Group Editor Andrew Palmer.
The last year has been mad for stand-up comedian Jordan Gray as it has seen her career take off in true superhero style.
She has hurtled into the stratosphere, with a lot of people recognising her work, hair, and voice. So much so that the day after our interview, I was chatting about Jordan with friends, and everyone knew her, which is good news for her northern tour.
Jordan is hurling into Leeds, Liverpool, and Salford soon with her new show, Is It a Bird?, which is receiving 5-star reviews and brings together her love of superheroes, her strong Essex roots, and her life as a transgender woman in an hour of raucous comedy. It’s all run-of-the-mill stuff, which she loves.
"I enjoy standing with a microphone and commanding a crowd. I have always wanted to be able to do that, which is why I am where I am today."
Having watched her videos and seen her acts, one can’t help but be mesmerised by her style of comedy. She commands the stage with her Essex accent, hair, and everything else, and there are a plethora of adjectives to describe her: energetic, effervescent, and animated spring immediately to mind.
But, as I start to interview Jordan, I am slightly discombobulated because the Essex twang is not so prominent—none of that rising at the end of a sentence. In fact, she doesn’t fit the TOWIE mould, but neither do I. Well, I hope not, as I let Jordan know I am from the county.
She is immediately interested and engaged, asking me what part: Brentwood, Shenfield, Billericay, and Chelmsford.
cq[... but I am transgender and from Essex, so it's like, Is it a bird, but let's figure it out together?]
Her response is to tell me, "All of those places have proper music and comedy scenes, and Billericay was the first place I ever did a battle of the bands. I was in a heavy metal band when I was 14 years old, and it is a core memory."
There’s a lot of ground to cover in this interview, and I start by asking about where she got the inspiration for Is It a Bird?
"Always work backwards from a pun. That is a good start. That’s something I learned from Karl Pilkington, who used to do a radio show with Ricky Gervais and Steve Merchant. He produced these features, which were always just puns. He had no idea what the conclusion was going to be; he just started.
"Obviously, Is it a bird, or is it a plane? has superhero connotations, but I am transgender and from Essex, so it's like, Is it a bird, but let's figure it out together?"
Jordan says it speaks to how the show doesn't take itself too seriously; it's very silly and incredibly fun, and no one is going to be made to feel out of the loop for a second, she assures me.
"There's nothing in it that people don't already know; there are no unfamiliar terms they won't understand. I talk about Batman and about being transgender, but you don't need to know anything about any of those things going in; it's not like suddenly referencing issue 329 of the Batman comic franchise. I could, but I don't; that's not what it's about."
Once again, she just mentions that it is silly and punctuated with musical comedy, reinforcing the point about coming from Essex, where she lives with her wife Heidi in Southend.
"I've never been able to escape Essex, and I have always been compared to Russell Brand. When I started, we were basically from the same town, and we've got the same haircut, so being an Essex bird is a big part of my life."
There is a lot of jumping around and energy to her shows, which she tells me comes from being in that death metal band when she was a kid. "That's kind of par for the course where you need to bring a lot of energy and get people's attention.
"I like being a bit of a goof. I’m a big fan of Stewart Lee's stuff. Stewart will take the mickey out of comedians whose opening gambit is just to run around, and as I mentioned earlier, I’m a big fan of Russell Brand, who comes onto stage at a million miles an hour."
She also loves Canadian comic Maria Bamford, whom she believes is very underrated. "Maria Bamford is one of the best comics; she's very surreal and strange.
"Maybe it’s a sign of my enthusiasm. I like filling as much of a stage as possible. I was a singer for 10 years, and I learned that I needed to take up space on bigger stages as a solo artist."
Jordan also does a lot of amateur on-stage yoga, as it is often described, but she is keen to point out that she is not a yoga person, preferring to tell me she pulls a lot of silly shapes on stage.
"It's me trying to keep myself in the moment; otherwise, I go on autopilot, something you can't do if you're balancing on one foot."
There is also a lot of music performance, and I ask why she introduced it and how it’s different from, say, the musical comedy of Victoria Wood.
"I think that's a great comparison to make," she replies. There are two kinds, and Victoria Wood is a wonderful example of musical comedy that's very knowing of itself. It’s this is funny, I'm going to sing it funny, and we're going to laugh because it's funny.
"Then there are people like Tim Michin or Bo Burnham, even Ricky Gervais as David Brent in the office with his guitar, where the protagonist doesn't know how absurd their relationship with the character who's performing them is, but the song is ridiculous. That's what I'm doing. I perform the songs as if I am at Wembley Stadium and it’s the most important moment of my life, but it could be a song about bread or potatoes."
"I know there's something really special about that, plus it’s really liberating and fun."
I am beginning to understand the kind of comedy that makes her laugh, and I feel she has always had a desire to be entertaining on stage.
She started singing straight out of school before she started transitioning at the age of 23 or 24, just before she appeared on The Voice, although, as she points out, "there's never really an end point to transitioning."
As a successful singer for 10 years, recording seven albums and travelling around Europe, she felt she never really got a proper footing in a particular genre. "I did very well, but it's very difficult to build up a following if every song on your album sounds completely different."
"Moving into comedy was a very natural thing, 'cause as a comedian, I'm obligated to write things in different genres; that's the fun of pastiching different styles of music."
Hopefully, that dispels any myth that I'm both devious and actually the Hulk in real life!
Another transition was "knocking music on the head" and moving head-on into stand-up.
To start with, music did not appear in her act, but over time, as she built up confidence, comedy songs came into the mix, and she is delighted to be thought of in the same vein as people like Bo Burnham.
"You only probably get a couple of comedians that stand out doing music once in a generation; fingers crossed, I'm trying to make my mark."
Making her mark is certainly not alien to Jordan Gray; this time last year she appeared at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which she describes as a "wonderfully overwhelming slog, but very humbling to be surrounded by these amazing comedians."
In fact, her life changed 100-fold, and she is back from the 2023 Fringe after two nights and hosting the annual TV Festival Awards, held in the last week of August.
A Tory politician called for her arrest, thinking she just wandered on stage and stripped off
"I could not have imagined doing that a year ago, and that's because my show took off in 2022. I'm very lucky to be rubbing elbows with the British TV industry, which is absolutely mad."
Edinburgh can be quite tough, and so can performing in the north, but Jordan is quick to point out that, from personal experience, things get friendlier the further north you get.
"I'm not speaking ill of anyone anywhere. London and Essex are great, but it's a bit of a bear pit and can be a good baptism of fire. I find people up north very friendly, combined with the fact that the show is for absolutely everyone—well, adults.
"It's not filled with very high-concept ideas; it really is being silly, and I think it's just trying to bridge the gap between people that are in the know and people that aren't. There is no agenda."
The Leeds date will mean a lot to Jordan, as she tells me.
"My dad performed on the same stage. He used to be an Elvis impersonator just for the dancing, and he was on a televised talent show in his teens, performing at the City Varieties Music Hall!
"He was wearing a bright pink suit, and I had one made for Channel 4’s Friday Night Live, so I might just wear it at Leeds."
It would be remiss of me after Jordan mentioned Friday Night Live not to talk about the famous incident where she stripped completely naked mid-song on live television.
"I love talking about it because it was overwhelmingly positive. I've got no ill will towards anyone who didn't get it. I dare say some people didn't understand it, which is a very arrogant thing to hear from somebody.
"It was misunderstood by a very small vocal minority of people, but you know, perhaps it's my job to be a little bit clearer in my nuance—or maybe nuance has just gone out the window nowadays."
A Tory politician called for her arrest, thinking she just wandered on stage and stripped off, but as Jordan tells me, there was a man named John with 10 yards of fishing wire attached to the back of her suit, and the pair of them practiced it about 200 times.
"It was choreographed with the blessing of Channel 4. You can’t just walk on and do that. Neither do I have the strength to rip a tailored suit from my body at a moment’s notice. Hopefully, that dispels any myth that I'm both devious and actually the Hulk in real life!"
She now has a home at Channel 4 and is working on lots of "wonderful things". She is on tour until November and is in between filming for various projects. We can expect to see her pop up on BBC 2’s QI
. There is the show she created for Comedy Central that has been acquired by Nick Frost and Simon Pegg's company and is being made for television called Transaction
, the short form of which can be viewed online, which features her in a supermarket with a different haircut and a slightly different name.
There’s a lot of scripted and unscripted radio work, as well as her podcast, Transplaning
, where a celebrity guest comes on and asks one big and one small question. "I answer the questions with no prior knowledge, and we usually have a giggle and don't usually come to that much of a resolution.
"You can see how we keep crowbarring trans into everything," she says. For now, though, I ask how she is feeling about her tour.
I've got a feeling it's going to be great and a giggle," she proudly tells me.
If this interview is anything to go by, I have no qualms about the giggling; the lovely Jordan Gray knows how to entertain.