Interview: Jo Caulfield

As she launches a new stand-up tour, Jo Caulfield chats to us about comedy, radio, and making six grumpy men laugh...

Stand-up comedienne Jo Caulfield is heading back on tour in early 2010, with a new show entitled Jo Caulfield Won’t Shut Up. With extensive credits in both television and radio, she spared us some time to chat about what she’s been up to…

You’ve been a regular at Edinburgh for the past eight years. 

Yes, I’ve actually done eight solo shows. I had one year off, maybe three or four years ago. You kind of spend your time avoiding finding out about Edinburgh then go “might as well go to Edinburgh”. 

What was the thinking behind the year off? 

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I think it was thinking “oh, it’s just hard to come up with an hour,” but now I’ve got into a pattern of being faster at getting material together. I don’t do a lot of new material nights. I don’t find them very helpful because you’ve said to the audience it’s material, so I tend to do smaller gigs where I can go in and do 10 minutes. I think it’s less of a comic’s audience as well; it’s like real people. And I’ll even go in with a clipboard and pads and paper and say “it’s just some thoughts.” It’s quite fun and even if I can go “oh, that material didn’t work” then you still sort of have fun with it. 

Do you record your new material nights? 

I do, which is both horrible and really useful. I’m the only person who thought that minidiscs would take off. I use a minidisc and people go “good lord, what is that?”  The other night I didn’t have it with me and I found out you can use a mobile phone as well but it’s not as good. But minidisc is great. I can put it in my pocket and forget about it. 

I did some new material last night at Comedy Camp and then I did a gig afterwards where I did some of that and it does develop. I said one bit and thought “oh, that’s not as funny as I thought it would be. I need to say something else”.  

You don’t know which bit is going to grab people; it surprises you. And then off the top of your head without sitting down at a computer and editing you can just say the things and that’s often what actually you end up using. 

How did you find this year’s Edinburgh? 

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I loved it because last year was the first year that I did The Stand. There’s the function room of the police club opposite to The Stand and it’s just a great room because it’s a proper square function room so you can get about 180 in there and they’re just right in front of you so there’s no “oh, it’s a nice room”. It’s a really good temperature, which is also very important in Edinburgh, and I feel very relaxed there. The audience are already on your side because they’ve bothered to find out where you are and to go to The Stand rather than just go “oh, here’s some shows that are nearby, let’s just go to these people”. In a club it’s different; people have to come on side, but when you’re doing an hour you want them to already be on side with you. 

Do you also find it’s different what time you play a show as well?

Yea, I tend to go early because I kinda feel the later you are, either the more sleepy, more drunk, so I like to be alert with one drink so I always tend to be half-seven, eight eight-thirty. 

How tightly written was the show before you went up? Does it evolve during the course of the month? 

It always does because nowhere is like Edinburgh except Edinburgh. I always have chunks. So I’ll have everything often in ten minute chunks or five minute chunks so I’ll have done the bits either in clubs or in longer shows. So I’ll know that the bits work and then when it’s Edinburgh I’ll put all the bits together and go “ooh, that 10 minute bit either works better later or earlier”, so it’s more a question of moving bits around then and then some bits are dropped.

I did the first preview at an hour and a half, but I don’t know which parts I’m going to keep in. Sometimes something’s good but you don’t think it quite fits so you’ll save it for another time. And then the next night I’ll do the hour. 

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You always have a climax to the show in your mind, which is usually a personal story that becomes the end chunk. The other year it was the story of how I bought my own autograph on eBay. It was because I got very carried away with the bidding and I only meant to do it so that other people would bid, but other people didn’t bid so I kept bidding to get other people interested. So I kept bidding and paid £17.50 for it. So that became quite a good story then to have an audience element of what autographs they have.

So, I’d ask them about it first and you’d get some good stories that I would collect in my head and I’d tell them those and kind of develop what you think are the best audience ones. The more you do it, the more good stories you have. 

Do you tend to theme your shows? 

I tend to do a very broad theme. Like this year with the show called Jo Caulfield Won’t Shut Up. It’s me talking; it’s my opinions about something, it’s never kind of an A-Z. It’s never kind of “this year in my childhood” or “when I got married”. It’s just me talking and this has what has interested me this year. 

So this year there was obviously quite a lot to do with the financial crisis heading to talking generally about jobs that I’ve had, so it was much more topical than I often am, just because it was the nature of the subject. It affected everybody. I thought about it and I haven’t been on any sort of march since I was 17, but when it came to the banking I thought I’ll march. 

I’ve read a couple of times that you think your best comedy comes out of things that frustrate or anger you. 

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Yes, definitely. And also that thing where if something has irritated you, it’s irritated other people as well and that can be very exciting when you mention a topic and you can see an audience reaction. You know you’re onto something good. 

Do you have a preference for either doing stand-up or radio?  

Well, the radio is a constant battle and the series that’s going out now is kind of as close as we’ve got yet to what I want it to be, but it’s still not there ‘cos I always feel it’s me performing within the constraints of radio. You very rarely do comedy at half past six in front of people’s children. 

It’s sanitised and it’s not always just with the language. Sometimes it’s to do with the amount of venom the darkness of a subject that will just be inappropriate at half past six. A lot of it is not just words you say, but images you’ll put in people’s heads. And so you have to censor yourself for that. It’s a very interesting exercise to try and get as close as you can to who you are when you do stand-up but I always think people who’ve heard me on Radio 4, I’m different when I do stand-up. 

I try to develop as much stuff that is tried and tested and I just ‘know’. I don’t like to read off a script unless I’m doing a sketch. So we did that a lot more this time – loads of stand-up and then just edit in the sketches. It’s funnier for the audience and they get to know you better and more quickly. 

You work with a number of other writers for the radio show. How does the collaboration process for that work? 

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I always wonder how other people do it because what I do is “I want jokes about this” and I’m very specific about what ‘this’ is because it’s more like I’ve got a template and then I’ll need the jokes filled in. So I tend to do it that way and then put it all together. 

It seems a lot of sketch writers are ‘University Boys’ and they don’t speak with the same voice as me so it’s quite difficult at first. There’s only a couple of sketches in each show anyway, and if can get it to none, I’d be delighted! 

The sketches that we do now I do really, really like rather than it just be for the listener needing something else. We have to put in a sketch even though we’re not that crazy about it. It can’t be a boring listen; you have to think about how it sounds to someone in their car, or in their kitchen. We do lots of things where you’ve got a single setup and then just a list of punchlines that you can divide within the cast, which is why I often use standups rather than actors because they know how to deliver a punchline. 

You mention Dave Allen as making a big impression on you as a child. Who do you find that you admire on the circuit these days? 

It’s difficult, I’ve always liked Jack Dee because I like where his comedy comes from. His comedy comes from frustration and anger so I like that, but I haven’t seen him for a while doing standup. Ed Byrne is fantastic. Why he’s not the biggest star in Britain, I don’t know. He has huge charm and his stuff comes from frustration and anger as well – it’s not an anger that pushes you away – it’s like a beautiful celebration of being angry and I think that’s a lovely thing to create in standup.

I tend to like people like Jimmy Carr, who are very good at jokes, but I love people who, by the end of the hour you feel you know them better than you did at the beginning. That you feel it’s coming from somewhere. 

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Do you get annoyed with people surprised to discover that you can be both a female and a comedian? 

I used to, now I find it kind of fun. I did an arts club recently and there was a group of six guys aged 45-50. The compere warned me that they’d been miserable all night, they don’t like anything. And they did look miserable! In a way I felt a bit sorry for them.

One of them’s had the idea to come to comedy, and they’re not enjoying it, so when I walked up I could see the look of “Oh, no” on their faces “Now a woman! Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse…” But at the same time I though, “I know I can get you, and this is my challenge.” And I did. And by the end of it, they’re laughing away with a look of surprise and nudging each other. And at that moment I feel quite cocky.

But, generally, it’s more a positive now. Women go up to you and say, “I don’t like female comics, but I liked you,” and then I have to go, “Well, thank you for that barbed compliment.”

I don’t mind it so much because it doesn’t go away. No matter where you go you’ll meet people who will think that women can’t be funny and then you know that you’ll change their mind. 

Thank you very much, Jo!

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Find dates for Jo’s tour here.

Interviews at Den Of Geek