WHEN most stand-up comedians talk about their first gigs, they remember a sense of queasy apprehension and a painfully silent room. Kiri Pritchard-McLean, on the other hand, recalls being so “arrogant” that she was apparently immune to nerves.

“I had the cool, calm confidence of a serial killer,” says the 30-year-old, who cemented her reputation on the comedy circuit through numerous appearances at Edinburgh Festival. “I was arrogant enough to assume I’d do well. It was disgusting. It was just me being awful, basically – I’m a real piece of work.”

It goes without saying that Pritchard-McLean is exaggerating for comic effect. The woman talking down the line before her appearance in Brighton next month is far from the nightmare she portrays herself - or her younger self - as, and she’s certainly won a lot of fans in recent years.

Her brand of candid humour has seen her tackle such complex topics as misogyny and volunteer work with vulnerable children (she has a lot of experience of both) to critical acclaim. And like the best comedians, she isn’t afraid to use herself for material, making heavy self-deprecation seem a liberating trait rather than a damaging one. Just a few months ago, thousands watched her mercilessly send herself up on Russell Howard’s Stand Up Central with a sketch about going to a nightclub.

“I’m a size 14 and I’m 30 years old and those guys don’t even see me,” she said, before launching into a surreal metaphor involving the zombies from The Walking Dead. In a sense it was slightly uncomfortable to watch, but there was no trace of self-pity or sado-masochism from Pritchard-McLean.

Besides, she has much more hard-hitting and autobiographical material in her routine than the nightclub skit, as we will find out in Brighton.

“There are definitely parts of the show when I talk about things that have happened to me, and I relive it,” she says. “It’s quite tough. Sometimes I don’t know if I can put myself through it night after night. Like, can I talk about this in front of six people in Colchester? Can I bare my soul?”

Clearly Pritchard-McLean is far beyond those kind of washout gigs but she still seems unable to come to terms with her own life as a touring comedian. Four years ago she took up a role as a mentor to a vulnerable teenage girl, partly to ease the “guilt” she felt about her profession. Her time in that position informed the bulk of Appropriate Adult, her show that won rave reviews at Edinburgh last summer.

“I feel very guilty about doing comedy,” she says. “It’s narcissistic nonsense, isn’t it? Or it certainly is the way I do it. I wish I was a nurse or something important.” At first, Pritchard-McLean found volunteering “really boring.”. But eventually, she says, she began to look forward to meeting her young companion as well as learning more about herself.

“I became more and more proud of her,” she says. “There was a big moment when I found out something about her life that was a bit scary, and I had to look after her as best as I could. We can’t be ready to hear what some people have to live with in our world. As much as I thought the mentoring would be a coming of age thing for her, it was more one for me I think.”

Although mentoring might have shown Pritchard-McLean a new side of life, and maybe even aided her maturity, it doesn’t sound like the kind of experience that would immediately inspire a comedy show. Did she have second thoughts about mining this chapter of her youth for her routine?

“It wasn’t as mercenary as saying ‘this will make good material’ while it was happening,” she says. “But it was something I struggled with - I thought it was a story that needed telling but I wondered how to make it ethical. It’s not all my story, so I’ve got a responsibility to get it right.”

Pritchard-McLean changed the names of the people she worked with to protect their identities. While she admits that “the show is basically me imploring people to volunteer” she adds that without the humour Appropriate Adult would be nothing. “If there wasn’t funny stuff that happened along the way, it wouldn’t occur to me to talk about it. If you’re trying to have an emotional impact and you’re not charming with what you’re saying, people will just feel like you’re lecturing them.”

A pleasing result of the show is that some of Pritchard-McLean’s audience members have contacted her months later with news that they too have put themselves forward for volunteering. The comedian has also been receiving advice from her audience about adopting – it’s something Pritchard-McLean has her heart set on at some point in the future. She’s certainly spent many an hour mulling the idea over, a lot of the time when she’s on stage.

“I fret about everything, what’s right for the world,” she says. “Having a child is a big responsibility, isn’t it? There are loads of people my age asking themselves the same questions: are there too many in the world already? Is there a level of arrogance to having a child? Am I just having a child because I think I should?

“My view on it fluctuates daily. If I’m having a great day I think I should have a million children. A lot of people who have adopted, and are adopted, have approached me and been nice about it. That kind of galvanised it in my mind.”

As a child herself, Pritchard-McLean was never the class clown – although she did like to talk a lot. A huge fan of The League of Gentleman while growing up in Anglesey, Wales, she excelled in drama class. Her gift for comedy writing was acknowledged when her sketch group Gein’s Family Giftshop were nominated for Best Newcomer in Edinburgh in 2014. Two years later, Pritchard McLean’s solo production Hysterical Woman, based largely around misogyny on the comedy circuit, went from the Scottish festival to a residency at Soho Theatre in London.

The comic eventually realised she was “done fighting that fight every night on stage” but is still passionate about correcting prejudice against female comedians. She says women are treated with more respect in comedy now, but there is still a long way to go. Her reason for tackling sexism in the first place was that she felt it wasn’t being discussed enough by comics across the country.

“The conversation is always had, but it’s hardly ever had with female stand-ups on stage,” she says. “It’s the most vulnerable position you can put yourself in. If you go, ‘I think people have unconscious bias about women on stage’, the first thing people will say if they don’t agree is ‘I don’t think you’re funny’. So you have to write a show that is so funny they can’t say that to you.

“There’s still a lot of entrenched sexism everywhere but it’s getting better and fast, which is really nice. Part of the reason is that I wouldn’t take any **** any more. But when people spoke to me when I was 22 they thought they could humiliate me because of my gender. That wouldn’t happen now.”

To be clear, Pritchard-McLean is talking more about misogyny from older male comedians on the circuit than hostility from her crowd.

“Touch wood, I haven’t had sexist heckles,” she says. “But hecklers I don’t mind - you can give them enough rope to hang themselves or give them a good slam.”

Pritchard-McLean justifiably has a lot of belief in her quick wit and ability to act spontaneously in such situations. She might remember her early days as a comic with a semi-cringe, but that single-mindedness is paying dividends now as her profile grows.

A healthy dose of arrogance can go a long way, it seems.

Kiri Pritchard-McLean
Brighton Dome, February 3, brightondome.org