Sara Pascoe: ‘Quizzes are best when you assume you know the answer but you’re wrong’

For someone who professes to be “not a very Christmassy person”, comedian Sara Pascoe managed to enjoy our festive photoshoot. “It was fun,” she insists. “I smashed a bauble and everything.”

Why isn’t she very Christmassy? “My parents are atheists and thought it was silly to lie to children, so we never thought Santa was real,” she laughs. “And my dad’s anti-Jesus. We never went for it as a family, so I don’t have that nostalgic relationship with this time of year. But I’m definitely a wintry person. Cold weather, cosy jumpers, walking the dog on a misty morning. And as a vegan, I’m a massive fan of roast potatoes and sprouts. Christmas is worth it just for the sprouts. They’re the main reason it’s not cancelled.”

She might have been missing live standup but it’s still been a busy year for the 39-year-old Londoner. Pascoe’s second book, Sex Power Money, came out in paperback. Her sitcom, Out of Her Mind, debuted on BBC Two. Now comes a travel series, The Last Woman on Earth.

As a keen pub quizzer and panel game regular, who better to present our puzzles special and to compose some fiendish questions about the year’s TV for our Quiz Of the Year? Let the games begin.

Why do you love a quiz so much?
Even if I get all the answers wrong, it’s a fun way of learning. My husband [Australian comedian Steen Raskopoulos, who she married last year] and I went to the local pub and it was hosting an upside-down quiz. If you come second to last, you win all the money. Because we were the only ones there as a pair, we thought we were in with a chance. Then we came absolute last, which was humiliating. The quizmaster felt so sorry for us, he found a book of limericks as a consolation prize.

Do you get overcompetitive?
I do but it’s enthusiasm for joining in, rather than desperation to be the victor. I did Richard Osman’s House of Games a couple of years ago and was on against Rick Edwards, who’s also very competitive. They repeated that episode recently and I got a message saying: “I got my daughter to watch it because it’s so rare to see such a competitive, bossy woman in the public eye.” [Laughs]. I think it was a compliment.

You wrote the foreword for The Feminist Quiz Book
Yes, I did that during lockdown. The book celebrates all these pioneering women forgotten by history. I interviewed Sandi Toksvig at the British Library recently and she’s so passionate about this stuff. Her 2021 Almanac is full of these incredible stories. She was telling me about Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, illegally, in the 60s. She registered under a gender-neutral name, wore a baggy tracksuit so everyone assumed she was a man and ran it. An official realised two miles into the race and tried to grab her but she finished. Five years later, they finally opened it to women.

Do feminism and quizzes go together?
Very much. Quizzes are best when you assume you know the answer but you’re wrong. Like on QI, when the buzzer goes off. That’s why podcasts No Such Thing As a Fish and You’re Wrong About are so great. Feminism and quizzes are a nice fit because sometimes we’ve learned stories the wrong way or overlooked a woman’s work. For example, Francis Crick and two male colleagues were awarded the Nobel prize for discovering DNA but Rosalind Franklin wasn’t. It’s important for these women to be recognised.

How about board games?
Trivial Pursuit is my absolute favourite. Word games, too: Scrabble, Boggle, Bananagrams. I love Settlers of Catan if you’ve got enough people. When I was a child, my sister Christina was in hospital a lot, so we’d play Guess Who? on her bed because it had the least amount of components to fly around and get lost. You can’t play Hungry Hungry Hippos in a hospital ward. Loads of Connect Four, too. Christina’s still unbeatable at it. She’s now a mum of two in her 30s but she can hustle you. It doesn’t matter who starts first, she’ll win.

Have you watched The Queen’s Gambit and been inspired to play chess?
Yep, within about 10 minutes of the first episode, I was like: “Right, I’m going to get really good at chess.” So many people are going to get chess sets for Christmas.

What’s the premise of your new BBC travel series, The Last Woman on Earth?
It’s me learning how to do the world’s most endangered jobs. Some professions are going to stop existing soon – whether it’s down to technology, climate change or other factors. I go to Cuba, which is opening up to the global market; Georgia, where traditions are being lost due to modernisation; and Finland, where so many industries are dependent on ice and snow.

Are you a fan of celebrity travelogues?
I like Anthony Bourdain’s because he’s so passionate about food. I don’t tend to watch other comedians’ ones. One of our directors had worked with Romesh Ranganathan and there was one time in Georgia when I didn’t want to do this traditional dance because it would be disrespectful. He said: “Romesh had to clean a horse’s penis, surely you can do one little dance?” I was like: “OK, I’ll do the little dance.” God bless Romesh for doing whatever he gets told but he’s set a dangerous precedent for the rest of us. “Look, Romesh won a Bafta, so just do it, OK?”

Some of the jobs you try are quite dangerous. What was the most hair-raising experience?
So many things sound fun during a production meeting in London but turn out to be horrific. I had to climb a giant tree in Cuba to collect coconuts. They told me it was all about core strength and I was like: “Cool, I do yoga, I can plank for 46 seconds, I’ll be straight up that tree.” But I couldn’t believe how hard it was. Meanwhile, this little old man who’d had two brandies with his lunch was whizzing up. It was scary in Georgia when there were armed Russian soldiers around. But the only time I feared I might die was when I fell off a horse and thought it might trample me. It didn’t. I was just covered in mud and a bit embarrassed for the rest of the day.

Your sitcom Out of Her Mind aired in October. How do you feel it went down?
Because it’s a bit boundary-pushing and non-traditional, we knew it might be divisive but I’ve had lovely responses.

What was it like having Juliet Stevenson and Ade Edmondson play your parents?
I always had Juliet in mind but people kept telling me I wouldn’t get her. It’s fine to have her on your moodboard but don’t be disappointed. But I hand-wrote her a letter saying “Will you be my mummy?” and she said yes! I met Adrian on [BBC show] I’ll Get This. We played this game where we had five clear shots in front of us. You had to down them, then your opponent guessed if it was vodka or water from your facial expressions. He drank all five like water and beat me, then he admitted he’d been filming War & Peace and had got really good at downing vodka. Anyway, I ended up adapting the father character for him and luckily he said yes as well. They were both brilliant. Amazing at their jobs but great fun to be around too.

Jack Gleeson (AKA Joffrey from Game Of Thrones) appears as the ghost of your abortion. How did that come about?
He’s friends with my husband from the comedy scene. We begged him and he did it as a favour. He was so perfect. His babyface was heartbreaking. I’ve never seen Game of Thrones but I hear he’s a villain, which I can’t imagine. I don’t see him that way at all.

Is it annoying that female-led sitcoms tend to get seen as autobiographical?
I understand why. We want to know if we’re being lied to. It happens to me with standup too – people really want to know which bits are true and which are fictional. But it’s not just women who get asked. Male novelists get it when it seems like they’re drawing from their own experience. Dolly Alderton sent me this quote the other day: “All of it’s true, none of it happened”, which sums it up perfectly. I was trying to deal with true emotional responses while not being entirely autobiographical.

Do you ever get in trouble with friends, family or exes for telling their stories?
I always check first. Because I’m a confessional comic, I’ve learned the hard way from upsetting people in the past. Nowadays there’s a lot of: “Hey, you haven’t heard from me in five years but I’ve got a book deal and…”

How has your lockdown been?
We got Covid in March, so we got it out of the way early. Since then we’ve been pretty much housebound, just pottering around. We’ve been growing herbs and cooking more meals. I’ve read piles of books and been learning to knit. The poor dog has never been so walked. I get his lead and he looks at me like: “Please, I’m tired, Let me sleep.” It’s what I imagine retirement feels like, apart from the queueing outside Sainsbury’s. My friend was telling me yesterday that everyone’s menstrual cycles have gone crazy. Apparently we’ve all got pandemic womb on top of everything else. Great!

You turn 40 next May. Will you throw a party?
I’m not really a party person but I’m looking forward to doing live standup again. That’s my proper job, my happy place and a gig will be my party. When we can all be in a room together again, that will be the sign that everyone’s OK and everything’s back to normal.

The Last Woman on Earth With Sara Pascoe airs on BBC Two, Sunday 27 December at 9pm. All episodes of Out of Her Mind are on BBC iPlayer