Jo Caulfield is having a bit of a domestic crisis, and is pleased to be distracted by her gentleman caller.
Let’s not panic though. These are First World problems. They involve the comedian and panel show regular’s cooker and its timer function, which she feels is completely beyond her.
“I tried it for ages, then thought, ’Why don’t I just look at the instructions?’ But that didn’t help me either.”
We go through the etiquette in such situations, deciding it’s accepted practise for a woman to check the instructions, but clearly a no-no for fellas.
“Either way, I’m just an idiot. It’s not as if I make anything which is reliant on time anyway. It’s just a clock. And if the alarm goes off, someone’s either breaking in … or baking.”
Jo’s just back from a welcome winter break in the warm climes of Florida after a busy 2014, a year we saw a fair bit of this panel show regular and esteemed stand-up comic on our TV screens.
Home these days is Edinburgh, as Jo starts to explain before – with comic timing, so to speak – her cooker starts beeping.
We soon suss it’s neither someone breaking in or baking though, so carry on.
Jo moved up from London around four years ago, contemplating Brighton and Bristol before deciding on heading north of the border.
She’s definitely got that Romany spirit too, having moved a fair bit over the years.
Jo was born in Wales to Irish parents, brought up in the east Midlands, went to high school in Matlock, and while living in London made frequent trips to Edinburgh before her big move.
“I lived in London a long time and really liked it, but then just thought, ‘Do you know what – it’s too big and full’. I guess it’s just getting older, thinking about quality of life.
“Edinburgh offers a kind of perfect city living. We’re 10 minutes from the centre of town and I can come out of my house and see the castle, yet have a feeling of space.”
And is your adopted city over-run with comics?
“During the Festival it is, which is great, but then everyone’s leaving – just when I’ve got used to them all living here. It’s like a big holiday camp of comedians.
“But I always moved around as a kid, with my Dad being in the Forces, so I can settle anywhere. And there’s a lot of travelling as a comedian.”
When Jo was squatting around Kilburn Park in London in the mid-‘80s – while playing drums in an all-girl rockabilly band – did she know she wanted to be a comedian?
“I had no idea! People are very organised with their lives these days, but I wasn’t at all. By complete chance, I fell into comedy.
“I liked being funny, as a waitress or behind a bar. I realised that was quite good currency and got a thrill out of making mates laugh. But it wasn’t until a friend did an open mic. comedy spot that I went along.
“I watched a bit on the TV, and remember seeing a video of Steve Martin. Before then, apart from Dave Allen, it was men in shirts telling jokes. None of it rang true.
“But when I saw Steve Martin I thought, ‘He’s just an idiot – anyone can do this!’ not realising he was very skilful, but made it look that way.”
There was an independent ethic to Jo though – maybe fitting in with the music scene she was into and her love of bands like The Cramps – and she was soon organising her own comedy nights.
“My sister’s a writer and involved in fringe theatre, while I’d been in a band and had a market stall, so knew I didn’t really want a job as such, although I was always working.
“With stand-up, it seemed like you didn’t have to pass exams and all looked very simple. You could just phone up for a spot, and they’d say, ‘Come back in a month’. Then, if you were any good, they’d re-book you.”
You mention waitressing – waiting on tables seems to have been a sure-fire way into comedy, judging by my recent interviewee Katherine Ryan, Jack Dee and yourself.
“It’s really good if you have nothing else to fall back on. With waitressing and bar work I can always earn money, and I continued to do so until I got to the stage where I was being asked which nights I could work, and I’d say ‘None’ – realising I was now earning a living as a comedian instead.”
And did she keep the drumming up, for something to fall back on?
“No. I was never really any good. I’ve got very bad hand and eye coordination. But it was fun and we did a few gigs. Some of them could play – but I couldn’t! For me it was just very basic time-keeping.”
That mention of Katherine Ryan reminded me to tell Jo she’d let me down on BBC cult teatime quiz show Pointless that previous night, during a question in the show’s grand final involving people who had appeared on a choice of three panel shows in 2013.
It worked out that Canadian comic Katherine was pointless in the Never Mind The Buzzcocks and Mock The Week categories, but Jo’s name didn’t come up for some reason.
But I put it to her on consolation that surely that meant at least one person among the 100 polled must have known her name.
“I suppose so. But it shows that you can go on a lot of panel shows and people still won’t know who you are too.”
Moving on, that was quite an entrepreneurial move, starting her own club night, wasn’t it?
“I don’t know why, but I’ve always had that business ethic, since I was little. I remember bothering neighbours by trying to sell them perfume I’d made.
“I’d already had the market stall, and when I saw how comedy worked, I realised if I wanted to be booked I should just run a night then book myself.
“It only costs you if you don’t make any money on the door. Then you have to put your hand in your own pocket to pay acts.
“The pubs didn’t charge me, because they were selling beer, and I already had an amp from being in the band.
“It was also a great way to watch comedy, get to know comics and learn how to approach promoters successfully.
“You wouldn’t believe it. People would phone me at eight on a Sunday morning. I was never going to book them! And it was the same if they were rude to me.”
Does she remember much about her first gig?
“Yes, it was at the Comedy Cafe in London, which is still running. The current owner, Noel Faulkner, was the bar manager then, and was encouraging. Other comics on the bill that night were too.
“It was a competition and we did 10 minutes each. I scribbled down conversational material, things I’d said or stories I’d told friends, and won.
“That happens a lot for first-timers. At that stage, you don’t know enough to be terrified!
“I’d had several drinks too, which his something I’d never do now, because it doesn’t help. But that night it did help.
“I was just determined not to run out of the building. I wanted to get on stage, do this, see what happened.
“And to make people laugh? Well, I was so high – I was hooked immediately!
“I came back the next week and did a completely different 10 minutes. I thought that’s how it worked. But when that didn’t go so well, I was advised to work on that first 10 minutes until it was really good – then add another five, then another.
“It took me a couple of weeks to realise I had to learn how to do this. I also started taping my act, working out just when people are laughing.
“But when it goes well, you’re hooked on that feeling, and it can get you through the more awful moments.”
Her first real media break came while writing for Graham Norton. How did she get to know the stand-up comic turned chat show host?
“We did a gig in Peterborough, then I drove us to another in Chester. I’m a very slow driver – I’ve never been in the fast lane. So it was a long journey, yet we just got on really well.
“He then got the pilot for a show, and the only warm-ups he knew were men. He didn’t want that vibe, and as I’d done warm-ups for Morwenna Banks’ sketch show, a producer suggested me, and Graham realised he already knew me.
“I was his warm-up, and then he was having trouble finding writers. In a weird way, they were writing ‘too gay’ for him. It was a bit more John Inman and less showbiz and gossip, as he wanted.
“So I had a trial then stayed on for the next seven years, including three months in New York, and LA too.
“It really helped me work out how to write jokes, and was a regular wage, so I could pick and choose gigs and develop my own material.”
Jo soon got radio work too, with Radio 4 commissioning the very entertaining It’s That Jo Caulfield Again then Jo Caulfield Won’t Shut Up. Any further series planned?
“Not at the moment. There are just so few slots in radio, and pretty much every comic I know now has had a series of Radio 4!”
There have been lots of awards and nominations since, and TV work. What’s the best experience for Jo – panel shows, radio, stand-up, or writing?
“It’s all good, but the ultimate is being on stage in front of people who want to see you, and sometimes in front of people who don’t want to see you!
“When they don’t know who you are, yet can see by the end these people have really enjoyed it, it’s a great feeling.
“But panel shows can be very exciting, especially Have I Got News For You because I really admire Ian Hislop for all he’s done with Private Eye, and then there’s a comedy hero in Paul Merton.
“It’s times like that when I think of my time as a waitress, and it still seems ludicrous.
“I’m also lucky that people speak English all around the world, so I travel all over doing comedy.
“I was on a bill in Stockholm where all the acts were Swedish apart from me, all performing in Swedish, but then I performed in English and everyone was fine with it.
“I didn’t even try a ‘hello’ – they were just kind of like, ‘Oh, don’t bother! We’ll understand you’.
“And when I look back, I’m amazed I didn’t get heckled more when I was starting out – because you’re terrible then, and you have to learn your craft in public.
“It’s not like learning the drums in your own room, listening to a record. The only way you’ll learn is by doing it in front of people.
“Basically, you’re just ruining their night for 10 minutes. And I’m just so amazed that audiences tolerate that.”
Does it ever worry you giving an opinion or observation on something that perhaps no one will share, and you might die on your posterior?
“Sometimes you realise it‘s just you that feels a certain way, but maybe that’s a good thing, and that’s why it makes it funny – that you’re so annoyed at something and nobody can understand why.
“Alternatively, you might see everyone bristle and realise everyone is annoyed by this specific thing.”
Which takes us nicely on to Jo’s current show, Uninformed Opinions. Can she explain the concept in a nutshell?
“I think it’s about being under the illusion I’m quite intelligent but then realising I retain no information.
“I’ll be watching a quiz and arrogantly think I know all about something but then end up shouting at the television, as the questions suggest they’ve deliberately chosen subjects that will make me feel stupid.
“There’s also pride before a fall, being very quick to think I’m right about something only to realise I might not be.
“Then there’s the realisation that this is how I am, and I’m not going to become more intelligent. I read a lot, but clearly it doesn’t help.
“I also have theories, but then throw it away by admitting I’ve not researched any of it.”
So I’m guessing most of this is unscripted then.
“Not really. And I also like to ask my audience to put down on paper things that really annoy them, then go through them. That’s fantastic, and makes it live.
“It also allows me to inform my opinion there on the spot. Some will disagree, so we get into a discussion and decide what we think about this person’s opinion.
“Sometimes it’s almost a parish meeting, very local, and something I’ve no idea about, like some new roundabout everyone will get very annoyed about.”
That brings me on to her forthcoming date at Chorley Little Theatre on February 14 – my excuse for talking to Jo, playing in a location that’s been previously dubbed a town full of roundabouts.
“Well, that’s when it works, when something comes up that can only work on that night. Because nobody else cares except for the people in that specific town.
“I also like to analyse people’s relationships, and as I’m doing the Chorley show on Valentine’s night, I will definitely do that.
“I love coming to conclusions about people, giving my judgement then seeing what others think, then putting it to the actual couple. And nearly always, the women will agree with me.”
So is Jo a big one for Valentine’s Day, seeing as that’s the day she heads to Chorley. Or does she pretend it’s just an overblown business venture?
“I think for most couples, to go out for dinner on Valentine’s night is usually pretty awful. You sit there wondering if you look as happy as that other couple over there.
“And I’m always mistrustful of the couple where he’s done too much, so must be a bastard for the rest of the year.
“I’ll still always get my husband a card, then he won’t and will say, ‘But you said …’ to which I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I say that every year, but I do want an actual card!’
“You’ve sort of got to do that. Yet I would be mistrustful if he was to do anything – that would seem a bit creepy somehow, to do it only on a special day.
“I think you have to come to a loose agreement if one of you likes Valentine’s. In my case, neither of us really care, and the worst thing would be to be in a restaurant surrounded by other couples. It would look like we don’t really get on.
“But I would say that going to a comedy show is a very good idea for something to do on Valentine’s Day!”
So how many gigs is Jo averaging a year at the moment?
“I genuinely don’t know, but looking at my board now … erm … four, five, six … yeah, well … plenty, shall we say.”
Well, that cleared that up then. And has Jo made some good friends on the comedy circuit down the years?
“Definitely. I was thinking about this recently. A friend of mine, Mike Gunn, was supporting Lee Mack on his tour, and when he came to Edinburgh we got tickets.
“It was so nice as Mike and I started the same time, have known each other 20 years, and we both knew Lee, who said ‘I’ve missed this, sitting around with other comics in a dressing room.’ It’s such a laugh.”
So is she looking forward to her return to Chorley Little Theatre?
“Yes, and a good friend of mine from school is coming up from Wigan that night.
“In fact, I asked her for some insight about Chorley and she said, ‘Yeah, they use a knife and fork to eat a pie’. So I reckon that’s all I really need to know about Chorley.’
For Jo’s forthcoming tour dates and more information about her, head to her official website here.
This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post, published on Thursday, January 29th, 2014. For the online version of the original, try here.
Jo’s just the latest in a long line of comedy stars to feature on writewyattuk.wordpress.com. Try our Comedy & Theatre section to see who’s also put in an appearance of late.
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