Interview: Jo Caulfield, comedian

Comedian Jo Caulfield. Picture: contributed
Comedian Jo Caulfield. Picture: contributed
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Comedy’s golden girl Jo Caulfield has taken a year off from the Festival to perform a fact-finding mission in the audience

THERE is a golden hue about Jo Caulfield. Her hair is touched with blonde, her skin bears a gentle tan. She does not have the pallid pallor of a comedian who has spent the four long weeks of Edinburgh’s summer in a dark, dingy club attempting to make cynical Fringe audiences laugh, sleeping through the daytime and only ever seeing the sun’s rays in the long evenings before her gig begins.

But then this year Caulfield didn’t “do” the Fringe. At least not as a stand-up. She was more a voyeur, ­experiencing it from the other side.

Which not only meant she got to soak up the surprisingly hot weather as well as getting an insight into how audiences choose which comics they go to see from the plethora of possibilities in the brochure, but when she went on holiday to the US earlier this month she didn’t feel as if she was in rehab for a fortnight.

“Doing Edinburgh is completely consuming,” she says. “You finish and are exhausted and need a holiday, then after a month or so you’re thinking about the next year, what venue you will have, writing a whole new show because it needs to be new material. You can’t just pass off some old stuff.

“It’s a major thing for a comedian [the Fringe]. I’ve done it every year for years but I think now I’m going to do it every two years. It’s relentless. It’s always there in the back of your mind. Not having that pressure has been refreshing.”

This Fringe, while she did the odd charity event, mostly saw her take a seat in the audience. “I went to see a lot of shows,” she says. “When I was in the queues I started asking people how they picked what they would see. It seems to me most shows have brilliant reviews and loads of stars and are written by reviewers who know nothing about the history of comedy and wouldn’t know if a routine was stolen.

“So how do people choose – ­especially when tickets are expensive? It was a lot more down to word of mouth than reviews. I also discovered that people were so organised with complete schedules about where and what they were going to see. It was quite scary.”

She adds: “The other things that I really noticed was just how much expansion of comedy there has been in the last few years and the amount of money being spent on advertising. That’s worrying as there will be comedians going away thousands of pounds in debt, but doing it all hoping they might get that TV show and you can’t run your career like that.

“But I really enjoyed it and the Free Fringe in particular was great.”

Caulfield, of course, is no longer just an Edinburgh Fringe regular. She’s been resident in the city for the last three years, calling time on London and a career in writing material for others, such as Graham Norton’s television show. Instead she’s now focused solely on her own stand-up career, branched out into radio, and has become a welcome regular to The Stand year round – as well as launching a Speakeasy night at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in the High Street.

So while the comedy world might be London-centric, moving 400 miles north with her Aberdonian husband Kevin Anderson, hasn’t put a dent in her career.

“I still do everything I did when I was in London I just have to travel more. When I was touring and living in London I could get home most nights from most places. But now I’m away all the time when I’m on tour. I do spend a lot of time on my own and I don’t know if that’s normal,” she laughs.

“I go out with the audience a lot afterwards. Most of them follow me on Twitter and seem like-minded people and I like to have glass of wine with someone. And they don’t tend to critique the show which is great.”

Her Twitter followers in Basingstoke tonight will be delighted to hear she’s up for a drink. She’s just starting out on a new tour, Better The Devil You Know, which will take her all over England and parts of Ireland and Wales, in some small, very out-of-the-way places. “I love looking for new places to perform. I always put that out on Twitter.

“I’ve never yet been up to the north west of Scotland. The furthest I’ve been is Inverness, so if anyone knows a venue. . . I think if you do shows in places that are hard to reach, the audience knows what it’s taken to get there so are very welcoming.”

Edinburgh, she says, has been the same. For a woman who has moved around most of her life, thanks to her father’s occupation (he was a teacher in the services), she feels at home here, and in particular in Marchmont.

Perhaps, she says, it’s because ­although she sounds very English, she spent a lot of her childhood in Northern Ireland where her parents originated. There’s definitely a Celtic connection. And certainly her idea of starting a storytelling evening is rooted in Scottish and Irish culture – even if the Speakeasy has a more modern twist.

“In my Edinburgh shows I had started doing more long, funny stories, and realised that I could take the audience with me. I lost the panic that there had to be a punchline every minute or that people might not listen, and might not laugh.

“In fact I found that people were more invested in what you were saying, so the laugh at the end was more worthwhile. I wanted to do more – and I wanted to hear others doing similar things – and the Scottish Storytelling Centre was very open to do something new.”

So the Speakeasy was born and all sorts of people have since told their tales – Forth One DJ Grant Stott, Ian Rankin, performance artists, and magicians, such as Professor Richard Wiseman, have woven a story for a small audience.

“I was worried people wouldn’t come, but it was if they had been looking for something like it,” says Jo. “It’s really been claimed as their own by the audience which is great. It wasn’t on during the Fringe, though we had done some for radio and they were broadcast on Radio Four. But the whole thing starts up again next month which, is very ­exciting.”

It’s a world away from the kind of cut-throat comedy which powers television shows like Mock the Week or Have I Got News For You. She’s done her share of guesting on these but doesn’t miss them.

“Mock the Week is like a room full of toddlers. It’s very competitive, and as it’s got regulars and a host who also wants to get involved, when it’s edited there’s very little time left for guests to get a word in. It’s just the way it is. Have I Got News For You is better. Sometimes you can be the only comedian apart from Paul ­Merton.”

There have been accusations made against such shows that they’re inherently sexist. She doesn’t think so. Nor does she think it should still be regarded as odd that women can be successful stand-ups – or that they can win the Fosters’ Edinburgh Comedy award as Bridget Christie did this year.

“Reviews can be a bit sexist though,” she says. “If you’re a man you’re described as acerbic and insightful, as a woman you’re described as bitchy. I find that pretty lazy to be honest.”

So apart from touring the country, running and presenting the Speakeasy and working on the Radio Scotland show The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, what does a ­comedian do in between Fringe festivals?

Well there’s money to be made hosting corporate events, and there are other pleasant ­interludes such as Burns’ Suppers.

“I did my first Lassie’s Reply five years ago at Prestonfield House and I loved it. I’m doing if for them again this year but also one for the Royal Blind at the Balmoral Hotel which is an all female event so that’ll be ­interesting.

“Burns’ suppers would be really stuffy affairs in England, but they’re not at all.”

Caulfield is now in her 50th year, so you might imagine she’d want to sit down more than do stand up, but the opposite is true. “I just love it,” she says.

“There’s always new stuff to talk about. I’ll stop when nothing funny occurs to me. To do a job where people laugh and you finish work on a real high – it’s amazing. And there’s always Edinburgh next year to prepare.”

Jo’s top ten one-liners

“Don’t you love it when an old Phil Collins song comes on the radio – and you manage to switch it off just before he starts singing?

“I think the recession’s going to split up a lot of couples. Look at the house prices – If your partner’s parents’ house is only worth half as much as a year ago is it still really worth hanging around?”

“I seem to spend my whole life plugging things in and charging them up – Toothbrush, mobile phone, shaver, ipod, hairdryer. By the time I turn off the light, my bedroom looks like the main runway at Edinburgh airport.”

“You know that tattoo David Beckham has on the back of his neck? I want my husband to get one. I don’t think it looks good – but I do think it looks painful.”

“Why doesn’t someone invent a scented candle that smells like a good present?”

“It’s dreadful but most mothers in the Third World lose a baby before they’re two years old – either to famine, disease, or Angelina Jolie.”

“My parents actually met when they were at school. Which sounds really romantic until I tell you my mother was six and my Dad was the caretaker”.

“I got my Granny Ian Rankin’s new book for her birthday. I said I got it from Amazon. She said ... “Oh that’s an awful long way to go for a book.”

“I spoke to my mother today. Because I don’t have Caller ID.”

“I envy Bald Men. They just get up in the morning, wash their face, spend half an hour crying and they’re good to go.”

For details on the Better the Devil You Know tour visit www.jocaulfield.com. The Speakeasy is on October 8 at 8pm at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, call 0131-556 9579. Tickets for the Royal Blind Burns Supper on January 31 at the Balmoral are available at www.royalblind.org/shop/Rabbies-Girls.html or on 0131-229 1456