‘A joke that makes you wet yourself is a joke you’ll never tire of’ Athena Kugblenu on laughter without limits | The last taboo

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Illustration: Xaviera Altena/Guardian

Athena Kugblenu

As a comedian, it would be an absolute honour for someone to walk up to me after a gig and tell me they’d wet themselves thanks to one of my jokes. If you can make someone laugh to the point where they lose control of their bodily functions then you’ve done the job you’ve been paid to do – they can’t ask for their money back.

I’ve never wet myself laughing, but that’s not to say it’ll never happen … it just means we haven’t reached peak comedy yet. When I wet myself laughing, all of us comedians can happily retire.

The closest I’ve come was probably watching Peter Kay talk about how his family would put a cushion over the VCR when they went on holiday so nobody could think they were rich and try to rob them. It brought back a long-forgotten memory of my family doing exactly the same, and being generally obsessed with our old video recorder and its big rubbery buttons. Trying to set the timer was like being at the controls of Apollo 13.

There are three main reasons why people laugh: embarrassment, resonance and surprise, and that joke is the perfect example of resonance for me. It takes me straight back to being a kid; a joke that makes you almost wet yourself is a joke you’ll never tire of.

When I was pregnant with my daughter, who’s now almost two, I got first-hand experience of what it’s like to properly lose control. It was a really hot summer’s day in 2018 and I’d driven from London to Reading for a job interview – back then, I worked as a project manager by day and a comedian by night. After the interview, I downed a bottle of water, only to get stuck in traffic for two hours on the way home. You should have seen the way I parked my car outside my house … but the moment I put my key in the door, I felt it starting to come out. I’d say I lost 70% down my leg and 30% in the toilet. For a pregnant woman, a traffic jam and a hot day, I call that a win.

While I was pregnant, I used an app to remind me to do my pelvic floor exercises, but I preferred doing them out of sight, where nobody could see my facial expressions. Maybe I’m being paranoid but I’m sure every clench made me wink or do something weird with my eyebrows.

I’m glad I kept it up though. My daughter was delivered by caesarean and once that had healed, it was important to me to start walking and taking exercise – I wanted everything, including my pelvic floor, to feel like it was working well.

As a mum, I want to demonstrate to my daughter a love of movement, health and wellbeing – I want her to like herself and look after herself. I remember putting her in her bouncy chair so that she could watch me skip in the garden – I say watch, she was probably just wondering what her milk supply was up to.

These days I’m a full-time writer and comedian, and I think it’s great that women are so much less apologetic when it comes to talking about so-called women’s issues. I do jokes about accidental leaks, periods, tampons (I mean, really, would a woman have designed something discreet to have bright yellow wrapping?).

I love that it’s fine to go on stage and make these jokes. I’m looking forward to talking to my daughter about periods and the patriarchy – I feel lucky that feminism isn’t just an academic theory now, it’s a way for us to examine the world and speak up for ourselves.

There’s no way women should feel embarrassed about wetting themselves in public. Men get caught short all the time and when they do, they find the nearest upright structure, and shamelessly relieve themselves.

Sadly we don’t have that luxury, but if it happens – because of bladder weakness, pregnancy or comedy – just accept your fate and remember that if you were a man, you’d have had a wall. Laugh it off and remember that in a few weeks, it’ll be a distant memory, and maybe it’ll make for a really great joke.

As incontinence affects one in three women over 35, we should all be having more open conversations about this everyday condition that impacts women of all ages. Find out more at tena.co.uk/ageless

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