Ellen recently spent some time traveling and teaching in Thailand (as well as a lot of other places) and she’s using many of her experiences to launch a stand-up comedy career back in England. The Thailand material is going down well with comedy club audiences and it’s getting big laughs. I have been a huge stand-up comedy fan for many years. I’m looking forward to this one!
Before we have a chat with Ellen, I implore readers to firstly do a search for ‘Ellen Tomlinson comedy’ on YouTube and watch Ellen’s full 18-minute stand-up routine or at the very least, the three minutes on teaching English in Thailand.
Ellen, welcome to the ajarn hot seat. I put the link to your teaching in Thailand video on our Facebook fan page and it got a lot of interest. I’m sure this interview will create even more.
With that in mind, if a couple of years down the road, you’re headlining ‘Live at The Apollo’ and your books and Christmas DVDs are vying for shelf space in WH Smith with Michael McIntyre’s, can I cop for 10% of the royalties?
I know, thank you for that! hahaha, I’ll make sure I have my future assistant sort that out, should that day come.
I would look for another opportunity or investment in the meantime though.
You often hear teachers in Thailand say “you couldn’t make this shit up”. I guess you quickly realized that teaching in Thailand was going to provide you with a wealth of comedy material?
I did come prepared with a notebook when I left for Thailand, anticipating a few funny tales. I think I had only been there for a day when I bought a few more, knowing even that could potentially not be enough. I wrote a full show based on my ‘travels’ when I came back and I think 98.7% of it was based in Thailand.
I even messaged a few friends who do stand up back home and told them all they needed was a flight to Thailand should they ever be struggling for material!
I watched your three-minute ‘teaching English’ comedy video first and those were BIG laughs coming from the audience.
When you originally sat down and planned the material for your act, did you worry that the topic might be too ‘niche’ and not enough people would relate to it?
I did worry about that a little bit but I tried to give a bit of a back story and details of the ‘Thai way’ before I delved into anything very niche. I did have a lot of other jokes written originally that I tested on a friend and she said it was a little bit too much and I could potentially alienate the audience. But in the end, everything I kept,
I felt I was quite open to people who hadn’t ‘travelled’ before. I called the show ‘Sawadee-NAH’ and a lot of family were like ‘What the f***’ does that mean?! (NAH is a Manchester expression for strongly disagreeing and hey, it rhymes with kah!) But equally, a lot of tickets sold to people who instantly got what the show was going to be about, just by that name.
I’m guessing that the part where you and your partner Michelle went head to head for a teaching job at a school and the winner would be the one the class voted the most beautiful, actually happened?
What other aspects of teaching in Thailand left you utterly gobsmacked?
That did happen. A lot of comedians start jokes with ‘this actually happened, this is true’. I felt like most of my Thailand stuff needed that disclaimer.
Where to begin? Michelle was sick one day so I covered her class and the head mistress sat in on the lesson and decided she didn’t want Michelle, she wanted me. Two days later she wanted Michelle back and I think the role changed ownership between us both around 16 times.
The same headmistress would also consistently interrupt the class to ask the class to tell her she was beautiful and had no issues with telling me I should stop being fat.
But I think nothing could really surpass the time she paraded her two new prize white teachers in front of 500 rich Thai parents, making us stop in the middle to perform an improvised traditional Thai dance.
What’s the idea behind draping the Thai flag as a backdrop to your stage act and where did you get it from? (that is a big flag)
Ha! I got it from Ebay for about £3, bargain!
Well, I felt like alongside a kind of negative name (Sawadee-NAH) a lot of my jokes poked fun at Thailand but I wanted people to know it was affectionate.
Despite all the mimicking, Thailand is my favourite place in the whole entire world and the flag was a representation of my heart - in polyester form.
When I first watched you on stage, I thought it was some kid returning from a gap year but actually you’ve been around considerably longer than that (you’re aging well, Chuck)
You did the nine-to-five stuff as an I.T teacher back in Manchester for some time. Did you just get bored of the rat race and decide Thailand here we come!?
Was that when I changed into my gap year uniform of the Chang vest and the harem pants?
I am indeed just over a year away from thirty. I have always wanted to travel, it was ALWAYS something I wanted to do but I am a very hopeless, erratic and very unstable person so could never have gone alone. It would never be an experience I’d like to do with a friend as I’m quite fond of the ones I have so wouldn’t want to murder them.
When Michelle and I got together, luckily it was an ambition we both shared and worked towards together. Difference with going with a partner over a friend is it’s a lot easier to tell them to f*** off and die - and then get forgiven an hour later.
You traveled around Thailand for a bit before applying for teaching jobs and during that time you did a helpex in Koh Phangnan. What the f*** is a helpex in Koh Phangnan?
It is something you should never, ever, ever do. Ever. Never. Ever.
Helpex is where you live and eat somewhere in return for four hours work a day. It’s actually a really good thing - just not where we did it. We were running out of money in the South so found one at a meditation resort in Koh Phangan. We got there and I think they were trying to recreate ‘The Beach’ in a wooden hut full of yoga mats.
Despite the assumptions that all lesbians in Thailand are vegan yogis that want to hug each other's dreadlocks, it couldn’t have been further away from Michelle and I if it tried. They did all these mad workshops like tantric liberation, hugging to happiness; all in hope of ‘purifying the soul’ and ‘reaching Nirvana’, but I’m pretty certain it was all just foreplay before some massive hippy orgy.
The second day they made me stand in to make up for odd numbers in the ‘Tantric Liberation’ workshop and I left seething with anger at what they put me through. They made me dance. They made me massage a stranger's body. They made me lie with her, on a yoga mat and hold her heart.
If I wasn’t broken enough, that night, as our job was as cooks, they asked us to make chilli, which forgive me for being naïve, I thought contained chilli powder. They said spice interfered with their auras and meditation and nobody ate it. They piped on about caring and sharing and loving and hugging but had no problems with being rude and wasting food.
I thought that was an instant violation of hippy code. Anyway, we lasted 36 hours.
I'm going to give that one a seriously wide berth. You and Michelle eventually got jobs in Thung Song in Nakhon Sri Thammarat. I thought you would have chosen Bangkok, being a big city girl and all that?
Ahhhh Thung Song!
This actually wasn’t a conscious decision. It was actually the day after we left the hippy hole that somebody from the Ajarn job board contacted us and luckily, Thung Song wasn’t far from where we were, so it worked out great.
Although I’m not actually a huge fan of cities as I have spent my life in one, Bangkok is my favourite place in the WORLD - so if my plans take off to go back there and teach, Bangkok indeed would be the destination.
Thung Song however, was wonderful. I feel incredibly lucky that we had that experience as we never would have visited it off our own backs. It’s within a lovely province with about five white people in the whole place. The food, people and scenery were amazing and I will definitely be going back for a visit when I holiday in Thailand in April.
This was a dodgy teaching agency job right? Go on, what went wrong?
Ha! Well the initial promise was two jobs at a great school and our own wonderful house with our own pool and a motorbike. We got there and they had one job for Michelle and a spare room in a family home with a mattress on the floor for her to stay in, not to mention a rusty bicycle complete with a puncture. (The swimming pool was in fact a public pool two miles away that would set the farang back 300 baht a swim).
My job was 30 miles away and I would be living in another house with the agency boss, sleeping on another pissy mattress.
We told them we weren’t prepared to separate and declined their offer but with blue eyes, blonde hair and freckles, they wouldn’t let Michelle go. So, this is where the miraculous other job turned up for me at the same school. As you may have seen in the video, this also wasn’t true. I was too ugly.
The agent was also fixated on taking us out the night we arrived for a steak dinner. Every hour the steak dinner was mentioned.
"All will be okay as we are having a steak dinner" "Don’t worry, we are having steak dinner together" "We are friends, that later share steak dinner" "Steak dinner soon"
I don’t know where he found this translation for fish soup from.
After Thailand, you travelled in New Zealand for five months. I’ve been to New Zealand twice and absolutely love the place but can’t imagine it as a country to work in.
How did you support yourself?
I think my mistake with New Zealand was going there after Thailand. Thailand was the country I fell in love with - every sight, every sound, every face and every taste. Despite the incredible scenery, blue seas and gorgeous landscapes, New Zealand felt too much like home. The Queen was on my money for Christ’s sake!
New Zealand do a great working holiday scheme and I had a friend living there so we went there to work and save to travel again. Aside from living and working in Auckland City, which felt just like Manchester but just not as good and without my family, we just didn’t have the money to enjoy New Zealand as we were saving up.
I felt like New Zealand is for the ‘premium’ traveler. So even though we travelled for a bit, it was always on a budget - and there’s only so many $5 McDonalds meal deals I could endure. Imagine the food I could get in Thailand for that!
Quite simply, I just didn’t have the money or patience to enjoy the country the way I should have. I have some friends living over there who are making a real go of it though. They went at the same time as us and are working and just living and enjoying life without budgets or saving.
I might have enjoyed it more if we did that but I was just itching to save and get back to Asia.
You said that after New Zealand, you were ‘homesick’ for Asia and did a stint in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. After doing those three countries, does Thailand still come out on top for you?
100%. Not just those countries, THE WORLD!
I think my love affair with Thailand came from the shock. I was expecting to hate Thailand, I truly was. I watched a documentary about the full moon party etc and I cannot stress to you how much of my idea of Hell that is. Each to their own, but I have never been and never will.
I thought Thailand in places was going to be sleazy, dirty and cheap and I can hear a thousand people say it is. But it’s where you decide to go, Bangkok just isn’t Khao San Road and the South isn’t just for the full/half/gone/white/yellow/quarter moon parties. Go to a province, go to a small town, Jesus, Kanchanaburi blew my mind.
Also, the food. I expected thai green curry and thai fish cakes, I didn’t see either of those things anywhere outside of Khao San Road. I love chilli so having a wonderland of spice that I could spoon on myself was heaven every day.
The weather, the people, sharing a bottle of Sangsom with three Thai men who don’t speak English, all sitting on a porch at two in the morning, roasted pork noodle soup, getting 10,000 straws and bags every time you buy a bottle of water from 7/11, the live music (I saw some of the best live music in my LIFE there) how liberal everybody is, the way they drink booze and share everything…
I’ll have to stop or I will take up your whole website.
I want to go back to the stand-up comedy for the last few questions Ellen. When did you actually get into it and how?
I have been doing stand up comedy since 2013. I had entered a writing competition the BBC hosted in 2012 with a script I wrote about my 10 year stint in retail. They really liked it and I worked with them to develop the script, working towards a pilot.
I absolutely messed it up, missed deadlines and basically bottled it, thinking I was blagging the whole thing and I was going to disappoint them. We mutually agreed it wasn’t the right time for me and they asked me to contact them if I did anything else. I was 24 then but I was petrified and resented script-writing because of the big f*** up that I just made.
I decided I could transfer the ideas I had to a stand-up routine as it was always something I wanted to do but never had the confidence. I went to a 'beginners course' which was pretty much a room of like-minded people in a room, testing out their ideas and learning how to hold a microphone. We then had a final showcase in a pub in Manchester. It all went down really well so I carried it on.
OK, I’m going to give you your own stand-up comedy night. You’re the compere and you’ve got to choose four female stand-ups to bring the roof off. Who’s on the bill?
First is Fern Brady. She is a Scottish comedian who is doing really well in England at the moment and I think she is one of, if not the best female stand ups I have ever seen. I cannot even stress to you.
Secondly, Leslie Mann. Now, I know she is a comedy actress and not a stand-up but she is THAT funny that I think she could literally just stand there and manage to make everybody laugh.
Potentially stereotypical, but I have been an Ellen Degeneres fan since I was under ten years old, I used to watch her sitcom on Paramount Comedy and I genuinely believe it was where I learnt the whole idea behind comic timing and she really needs to take time away from that talk show to do stand up again.
Lastly it would be Jennifer Saunders or Michelle would murder me.
We also watched Ruby Wax last week and she is also fantastic. And the Manchester-based girls such as Amy Vreeke, Kerry Leigh and Penella Mellor!
I don’t know. I can’t pick. It’s too hard!
I read an interview with Frank Skinner some years ago and Frank said “It always helps a stand-up comic if they look a bit bruised and battered rather than some poncey southerner who’s had a privileged upbringing”
I suppose that ‘working-class Manchester’ persona that you adopt on stage does help win the audiences over right?
I think in Manchester I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. I don’t exaggerate quite as much when I’m in Liverpool!
I guess I go back a bit further than you and I got into stand-up comedy during the 80’s ‘alternative comedy era’ (Alexei Sayle, Rik Mayall, Ben Elton, etc)
In those days you generally paid to see acts at large city theatres but now of course, there are comedy clubs in every city and town the length and breadth of Britain.
But is it actually easy for a young up and coming stand-up like yourself to get gigs? Do you need an agent? How does the system work?
I can only speak from my own experience and I am an extremely lazy comedian so barely leave Manchester.
I did actually do a gig whilst in New Zealand. I went to the gig the week before my booking to see what the audience could take and what they laughed at, only because mine can be a bit forward, direct and rude. They were all howling at paedophile and wife-beating jokes so I thought it’ll be fine. I cracked one joke about touching a certain part of my ex-boyfriends body before he came and the whole room died.
Anyway, Manchester I personally believe is the most wonderful platform for a comedian, especially a female one. It is home to famous clubs like Frog & Bucket, The Comedy Store and all make sure they have nights for new comedians, gong shows and they are all filled with northern charm.
Manchester is also host to Europe’s only comedy festival celebrating women (The Women In Comedy Festival) thanks to the festival director Hazel O’Keefe. Along with a monthly comedy night, I get to do a lot. Hazel does so much for Manchester comedy and helped me out with so many gigs when I first started out.
There would be no point me having an agent yet, but in the meantime, there are so many pubs and clubs locally that provide an ideal setting for a growing comedian, so, I suppose it’ll do before I can go back home. (Bangkok)
Thanks so much for the chat Ellen. I think we all wish you the very best with your stand-up career. You're certainly making this Bangkok expat laugh.