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Jo Caulfield’s comedy journey

Ahead of this year’s NorSCA Dinner, Jane Walker chats to guest speaker, Jo Caulfield, about her northern comedy connections and writing for a comedy icon.

A familiar face across the UK thanks to numerous appearances on TV shows such as “Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow”, award-winning comedian, Jo Caulfield ’s been described as “one of the finest female comics at work” by The Observer. Her Edinburgh Fringe shows regularly receive rave reviews, and she’s in demand with leading comedy clubs and festivals across the country, but, like every comedian, she started out playing smaller gigs around the UK.

“I always like playing in Newcastle because I’ve been gigging here for a long time. When you first start out in comedy you play wherever anyone asks you to. Many years ago there was a guy running gigs in the foyer of the Tyne Theatre, and he was one of the first people to book – and pay – me to do a twenty-minute set, so I drove all the way from London to Newcastle to do his gig. That man is now a movie star; Davey Johns, who played the lead in Ken Loach’s ‘I, Daniel Blake’.”

On the road

Playing wherever you’re asked to is something of a rite of passage in a comedian’s early career. New performers who are working hard to break through to paid gigs – a huge milestone in an act’s comedy journey – will typically spend many hours travelling from one end of the country to another just for a few minutes on stage. There are many hours of driving involved, often in the company of other acts hoping for a similar big break. It can be tough and tiring, and many aspiring comedians will never progress to the next level. But, as Jo explains, lasting friendships and unexpected opportunities can arise from those late night motorway journeys.

“I spent many years a lead writer on Graham Norton’s show, which pretty much came about by accident. We’d met before he was famous, as we gigged together and we drove from London to Chester to do a show – it’s a long journey and it was made extra long by the fact that I’m a very slow driver – and we were doing the round a round trip, so there and back in one night, and we kind of bonded on that journey. So, when he got his big break on television and was looking for someone to do the warm-up, and the producer mentioned me, Graham was like ‘oh I know Jo’.

“Later they were having trouble finding writers who could capture Graham’s voice. A lot of the male comedy writers at the time tended to try to write rather old fashioned, camp stuff for him, which he really wasn’t comfortable with, so, as I already knew the show, they gave me a trial writing gig. To me his voice is so strong and I knew what his opinion would be on certain things, as we’re interested in a lot of the same things – boys, celebrities, drinking – it was easy to capture his style.”

Working with a legend

It was thanks to this job, that Jo was able to work with one of her idols, comedy legend, Joan Rivers.

“Joan was – and is – a huge influence on me. I think she was the first person who really inspired me to consider comedy. I’d seen her on telly and then I heard her on a record – which tells you just how long ago this was – and she was doing a bit where she asks people in the audience if they’re married and if she can see their wedding rings, and then slags off their wedding rings. I just remember thinking ‘she’s just being rude to people, and it’s funny… oh, that’s amazing, you can get paid to be bitchy and mean to people!’ I think that’s when I realised that comedy wasn’t just what I’d seen before – which was lots of blokes in frilly shirts telling ‘my wife’ jokes. What Joan was doing seemed more the sort of comedy that I might be able to do and I’ve admired her hugely ever since.”

So, when Graham’s production company booked Joan to appear in a pilot of a UK version of Celebrity Squares and needed writers to work with her on jokes about British celebrities, Jo was delighted to get involved.

“It was just me and another writer and we wrote a couple of pages of jokes for her and she was very complementary and used several of my jokes. I was thrilled to have the chance to not only meet but also actually write for someone who’d been such a huge influence and inspiration for me. It was amazing!”

Stepping into the spotlight

Jo wrote for Graham for over seven years, including a three-month stint in New York, working on his American TV show. “It was a good job, amazing in fact, but I kept asking myself if I just wanted to be a comedy writer, and I realised deep down I wanted to work on my own performance as well. I was still gigging while I worked with Graham, but I began to realise that I was only giving my own stuff half of my energy, but that performing was what I really enjoyed. It as a tough decision, because I was walking away from really good money as a writer, so initially my income dropped. Luckily, it soon came back up, because I was able to focus on my own stuff and as a result, more things happened for me as a performer, so it was a good thing to have done.”

Suffice to say, with numerous, radio and TV appearances under her belt, and a diary packed with gigs and corporate bookings, Jo’s never had cause to regret making the move.