Joker behind Edinburgh’s latest comedy venture says female stand-ups thrive on pressure in war of the sexes

Jo Jo Sutherland
Jo Jo Sutherland
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JO Jo Sutherland doesn’t want to smile, which you might think is a bit of a drawback for a comedian.

Apparently she hates her teeth. But the pearly whites soon flash as she laughs at the chaos surrounding her.

She’s ensconced amid upturned wooden chairs and for some reason there’s a large wooden wagon wheel propped up against a nearby wall, which looks for all the world like it’s just come from the set of a Hollywood Western. There’s a hard hat with her name on it somewhere and the smell of paint pervades the air.

It’s late Tuesday afternoon yet the stalwart of the Scottish comedy circuit is confident that, come tonight, The Shack, her new club and Edinburgh’s third official all-year laughter venue – disclaimer: there are other comedy nights held at many of the city’s pubs – will open its doors to its preview audience.

“It’ll all be all right on the night, I’ve no worries about that,” she smiles again.

We’re in the former Rose Street premises of El Barrio, a Latin club that used to rock to the sounds of salsa music and which Jojo is hoping will soon be rocking with laughter.

But it all seems rather a risk. Money is tight, people are cutting back on their leisure spending. Comedy in Edinburgh is already well served. And then there’s the W word. She’s a woman, and everyone knows when it comes to being funny, women just don’t have the right bones . . .

“Do you know I am so fed up hearing that old chestnut,” sighs the 45-year-old from South Queensferry in exasperation. “If I had a pound for every time some bloke said to me ‘I don’t normally like female comics, but you were really good’, then I could probably retire.

“Admittedly there are fewer female stand-up comedians, which does make it seem like a boys’ world, but then it could be because women are just less needy,” she laughs. “But what that does mean is fewer female comics making it on to television and so the profile is low – and then when you do get a breakthrough, everyone asks ‘where are all the other women?’ Well, we’re here.

“However it is mostly women who are behind comedy ventures throughout the UK. Maria Kempinska started Jongleurs and Donna Burns runs it. Julia Chamberlain is the booker for Highlight and then there’s Jane Mackay, who ran and compered at The Stand for years, and, of course, Karen Koren of the Gilded Balloon.”

Certainly Edinburgh is proving itself a draw for female comedic talent in recent years. Indeed, at last year’s Fringe a third of the performers at The Stand were female – a record for the venue. And with the aforementioned Mackay, whose acidic touch keeps audiences firmly in check, to Evening News’ columnist Susan Morrison, and more recently the newly moved to Edinburgh Jo Caulfield, as well as Jojo herself, it seems there’s a funny girl round every corner.

“There is a tradition of male domination in comedy that dates back to the old days of working men’s clubs and it has taken a long time to throw that off,” says Jojo. “There are some seriously funny women out there who can really hold their own. In fact, women have proved time and again that they are funny – funnier than men because there’s a prejudice.

“Recently I was at a gig waiting to come on, and two blokes in the audience saw me and I could hear them say ‘oh f*** it’s a woman’, and that was before I was even announced. That’s the pressure female comedians face, but I think they thrive on it.”

But while stepping out on stage always risks silence rather than raucous laughter, surely real pressure must be launching a new business at a time when forking out to see comedians, some of whom will probably be making their first attempt at stand-up, is not the first thing on people’s list of best ways to spend a night out.

“Actually, comedy is really holding up,” she says. “I think when everything’s a bit miserable people want to have a laugh. Humour always helps to lift the spirits.”

The owner of The Shack, Hector Lazcano, certainly hopes so. “People may be cutting back on holidays or cars and so on, but they are still going out. We have not seen any drop off in numbers coming to El Barrio, and comedy is always popular and Rose Street is the perfect venue, so I really don’t have any doubts it will work.”

No doubt charging £9 will help, as on a Saturday night at least The Shack will undercut the competition by £6, £4 on a Friday. So how has this gone down in the notoriously competitive comedy world?

“I’m not going into this to p*** people off,” says Jojo. “I genuinely see a gap in the market. We’re an addition, not an alternative. And I think those in the business think that if there is a new club opening, they’d rather it was being run by someone who knows what they’re doing. I contacted all the clubs to let them know and they’ve been helpful.

“There’s a bottleneck in the system as acts can’t get the stage time they need because there are not enough clubs so it will be exciting to bring new people through.

“Comedy is a small world so people do like to support each other and you have to keep the talent pool growing. There’s a degree of stagnation because established places use acts on the circuit so there’s always a lot of the same faces. Even I get fed up looking at the listings and saying ‘not them again!’ People will look at our bill and think ‘I’ve not heard of them’, which will be good.”

Admittedly, the idea of launching a new comedy venture was that of owner Hector, who will continue to operate the El Barrio brand at its Hanover Street premises. He posted his idea on the Scottish Comedy Forum website and when Jojo got in touch, it was, she says, a match made in comedy heaven.

“Hector had the idea of turning the place into a comedy club – and also having some dancing after the acts, kind of taking the best of The Stand and Jongleurs and putting them together. It really interested me. And the impending AIM float by Jongleurs inspired us to offer a club night after the comedians have done their sets. We’ve gone for a 70s and 80s theme club, there will be light boxes on the walls, mirror balls – the works. It will be fantastic, and I know some purists think comedy clubs should be just about that, but what’s wrong with having a dance after you’ve had a laugh?”

But if it doesn’t work, then it will be her neck on the line.

“My reputation is absolutely on the line,” she admits. “It’s not the first time I’ve put on a gig, or compered a gig, but it is on a much bigger scale and more often. It’s exciting, though, and I’m really looking forward to giving funny people their chance to perform their material.”

And will that mean giving more time to female comics? “I’m not going to do the ticking boxes thing when it comes to having a woman on every bill, but neither will I pass out if there happen to be two women on in one night – something which a lot of clubs just don’t allow to happen,” she says.

“The main thing is that the five people who will be on stage have to be funny. And, remember, every famous comedian was an unknown once, even Billy Connolly.”

* The Shack, 119 Rose Street, will open to the public on Friday. Call 0131 226 4311 or visit {http:// www.TheshackEdinburgh.co.uk|www.TheshackEdinburgh.co.uk}