You’ve got to be cruel to be kind says Quay-bound comic Caulfield
Stand-up Jo Caulfield talks to entertainments writer WAYNE SAVAGE about comedy, life in a rockabilly band and why you should always be nice to your waitress.
IF you ever get Jo as your waitress, run; especially if you’re wearing something expensive.
Who knows, the in-demand comedian - branded one of the finest female comics at work - may have stuck at it if it wasn’t for one little thing; the customers.
“I wasn’t very good. I was a real maverick. I played by my own rules. I took orders from no one,” she jokes.
“Honestly, I enjoyed it in that I made the best friends I’ve had and they are still my best friends. We used to go out every night and we had a good time.
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“But the actual waitressing; it was a really busy restaurant and I would have nightmares about bringing food out and people saying ‘but we didn’t get our food’ and I would bring it over and over again.
“Then it also got to a point where I couldn’t be servile any longer; I was getting so bad tempered, so bitter. The slightest thing any customer did I’d be ‘that’s it, I‘m going to ruin their meal’. I just ended up being the worst waitress.”
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I can never understand people who are rude to waiters and waitresses; don’t they know what can happen to their food?
“A waitress has so much power over what happens in your evening so you’re really an idiot if you do anything to p*** them off. Spilt food, drinks once I even singed a lady’s very lovely cashmere cardigan.”
“We had candles on the tables and she’d asked for her cardigan to be hung up and when I gave it back - I didn’t actually do this on purpose - I sort of set fire to it.
“Then my friend who was also working there threw coffee on it to put out the fire which made it ten times worse and we just gave this woman back this just kind of mangled, sodden rag of a beautiful cashmere cardigan.”
The last time I saw Jo was a few months back at a stand-up gig in Ipswich. Well, I say saw. The wife and I ended up behind concrete pillars. Leaning out to peer round it probably looked like we were playing hide and seek with her.
“Oooh yes, I remember. There was a stag party in because I remember quite a few outfits? [I think it was a maritime themed works do, with sailors, pirates and even a crab], Yeah, weirdly the audience sort of worked even though everything was going against it,” she laughs.
Jo’s just pulled into a lay-by on her way to Chorley after playing Otley in Yorkshire the previous night. She hasn’t been to either places before, but that’s part of the tour.
The subtitle of new show Cruel To Be Kind - at Sudbury’s Quay Theatre on Sunday - is tours of places she’s heard of but hasn’t been to.
“It makes for a more intimate gig because, basically, whatever you’re talking about in that town everybody will know about. I already had it last night.
“There was a guy in the caf� and he was kind of rude... he actually said to me ‘what, are you here visiting’? I said ‘no, I’m doing a show and he went ‘oh, comical are you’ and he said it just so disparagingly. Then he said ‘oh, is there much call for that,’?”
Stuff like that, that the audience know are only happening for them that night, makes it more fun, she says.
The actual show focuses on things Jo finds annoying, frustrating, irritating and gets her angry.
“Towards the end it’s some stories where I’m annoyed at myself. So there’s a couple of true stories of me being an idiot. I get the audience to write down when they come in all the things that annoys them so at the end of the show we go through their’s. The idea is we’re all cleansed and happier. Often I find more things to be angry about,” she laughs.
So comedy as therapy?
“Yeah, I did have one reviewer call it a celebration of anger which I quite liked. It’s that thing of... it’s not moaning, it’s like you’re enjoying having a go at something.”
It was an unusual journey to stand-up; including leaving home at 17 and moving to London to sing and play drums in a rockabilly band. Particularly as she couldn’t sing or play drums.
“This was at a time when Stray Cats were quite big and I got into it and then into all kinds of rockabilly music that way.
“I was in a rockabilly club and this girl came up and said, and I’ll always remember this, ‘oh, I really like your shoes. Do you want to be in a band’?”
I think that’s how U2 started.
“It was meant to be an all-girl rockabilly band. I think the only person who could really play was the saxophone player. Then my friend’s poor boyfriend had to teach her how to play double base and me how to play the drums.
“Luckily drums are quite simple in rockabilly so I did manage to do that. I did that for a couple of years and we did have gigs.
“They would have these weekenders where you would go to a holiday camp off-season and that would just be all rockabilly. There would be bands on and I used sell vintage clothing with another friend and you could get a gig as well. We used to busk on a Tuesday at stations; yeah, it was dreadful.”
Comedy is where everything clicked into place; she was hooked from the first laugh, “I thought this is what I’ve been looking for.”
Jo’s first gig was about 15 years ago, after a friend of a friend told her about an open mic spot they’d done.
“I hadn’t even heard of it, I didn’t know what that was. They explained ‘oh, you just go along to a club or phone them up and ask to go on. They give you about five minutes for free and then if they like it they might let you do another time or eventually they would pay you’.
“Once I realised it was quite simple progress in stand-up - I didn’t have to pass exams - it was just a question of phoning up I did.
“The Comedy Caf� in East London used to have a competition every week and you just had to turn up and put your name on the list. I’d worked out five minutes of what I thought was material and I did it.
“The first one went really well and I’ve had this conversation with a lot of comics; the first time goes great because you’re so full of energy and enthusiasm.
“After that you then die for about three months every time you go on stage; but you’ve had that first boost of laughter so you keep chasing that, its like heroin. So then you’re chasing that feeling again which you don’t get until you really start learning how to do it and what you’re doing.”
Jo did, she confess, rely on some Dutch courage to get her through. She hadn’t thought about whether people would laugh; all she knew was she didn’t want to chicken out.
“I said to my friend ‘I’ve just got to get on stage and do it. I was so sure I would just run out and not do it because I would be so scared. So I had about four beers, I was quite immune by the time I went on stage.”
It worked, she was asked back for a ten-minute booking the next week.
Next up was opening her own comedy club in the basement of The White Horse in Hampstead. Armed with a cheap microphone and small amplifier it allowed her to get on stage every week for five years, where she honed her material and improvisational skills.
“They’ve now turned it into toilets,” she laughs. “You used to go down to the comedy club and it was a great room because it had a low ceiling, was quite dingy and not that big. It held about 80 people and now it’s just these massive toilets.
“It was very good for learning about comedy and I would see lots of comedians. I would also learn about the business of booking comics and how that works, how to deal with promoters and I would have a gig every week if I wanted one.”
The days of looking for gigs are long gone.
Jo’s in demand at all major UK comedy clubs, performed around the world, at corporate events, Edinburgh Festival and is a regular guest on TV shows from Mock The Week and Have I Got News For You to Saturday Night Live and World Stand’s Up.
She wrote and starred in three series of her own critically acclaimed Radio 4 comedy show It’s That Jo Caulfield Again, and is currently writing a new Radio 4 comedy series. She’s a regular guest on loads of other shows too and written for Graham Norton, Ruby Wax, Joan Rivers, Anne Robinson, Denise Van Outen, Marcus Brigstocke and Ant and Dec among others.
She’s even done some acting in sitcoms and the channel five soap Family Affairs.
“I was in a couple of episodes and I’ve no idea who I was meant to be. I’d never seen it before and I’ve never seen it since. But someone did recognise me in the street and asked for an autograph.
“Apparently I was very good in whatever part I did. Imagine how much better I’d have been if I was sober,” she jokes.
It’s an obvious question, but does she find it more difficult being a female stand-up?
“I’ve no idea. I’ve never tried being a male one,” she jokes.
“It sort of is and it isn’t. I think most of the world is still aimed at men. You can walk on stage and not many people will have seen a woman doing stand up before so they’re immediately judging you, whereas a man they kind of presume you’ll be all right until you prove otherwise.
“As a woman they’re going ‘oh, I’m not sure about this’ from the word go and you have to prove them wrong; that it’s nothing to worry about.
“Basically I find as soon as you’re funny they’re absolutely fine. I even often have women, not men, come up and say - because I think they feel embarrassed if you don’t do well - ‘oh, I don’t normally like female comics; I don’t find them funny but I liked you’.
“It’s their way of complimenting you. I was standing next to a male comic and he said ‘oh my god, I can’t believe she said that. You wouldn’t say that about a black comic or a Jewish comic or an Asian...’
“That is quite shocking, that someone goes ‘oh, I don’t like women [comedians]’ but I understood where she was coming from because I thought ‘oh, you’ve probably not seen very many; at least now you’ve seen a good one you appreciate it’.
“I just wish that you didn’t all come up and go well I don’t normally like women,” she laughs.