CRUEL. Acerbic. Bitchy. Caustic. Or so say her reviews. Can you blame me for worrying when I found out Jo Caulfield was my neighbour?
Would she mock me on the Meadows? Pillory me in the post office? Diss me at the dry cleaner’s? None of the above, as it happens, because she’s blooming lovely, and a great adornment to Edinburgh’s South Side. When she’s actually there, that is. Trying to organise our drinking schedule is an ongoing dilemma: Caulfield mostly lives on the road, playing venues large and small across Britain and further afield.
She turns up for our chat with a full-page list of projects ranging from her upcoming Fringe show, Thinking Bad Thoughts, to a six-part BBC Radio Scotland show called Laughing In All The Right Places, in which she talks about how comedy travels with her fellow practitioners, and the play Coalition, which is also part of this August’s Fringe.
Naturally, I dive into all the nosy personal questions first. She tells me she’s the youngest of three. “My sister is the oldest – although that is changing with age. My brother was in the middle, but we’re happy that now he’s the eldest. He’s a priest so he’s not going to argue with us: he’s got eternity, we don’t.”
Her parents are from Northern Ireland, but she was born in Wales, where her dad was stationed while in the “non-glamorous” side of the RAF. “He was an English teacher and didn’t fly planes. We never went anywhere abroad, but moved every two years, mostly up and down the east coast of England.”
As is normal in military families, the kids went to boarding school – in Caulfield’s case, between the ages of eight and 14. It was single-sex, but every so often, she says, “they’d have these hideous things called socials, where the boys would come over. I don’t know what was meant to happen because the nuns didn’t want you to go near them. I thought it was a rather dull evening where you had to talk and be nice to boys. It was also when you saw which girls they were interested in. I’d think, ‘But she’s really dumb. At least I’ll be funny.’ I thought that was generally what made people like you and what was a nice thing to do.”
It didn’t occur to her that being funny could equal a career. “I didn’t know that you were meant to have any sort of plan for life. At the convent [school] I got so angry at authority that it stuck with me. I thought of everything as being told what to do. So, I became a waitress in a hotel, where I was shouted at all day long.”
Caulfield moved to London aged 17, and wound up living in a squat. “They gave me this box room at the top of the house. It was Dickensian. It was a really cold winter, and there was ice and a hole in my window – but you’re young and you don’t really care.”
Before long the Rockabilly scene beckoned and, despite her admitted shortage of musical talent, she became the drummer in a band. She and a friend also sold vintage clothes. “We had a market stall in Kensington Market then Portobello. Then we went mad and thought, ‘We’ll grow up and have a shop.’ and opened in Camberwell. That’s when I suddenly thought – about five years into being on the rockabilly scene – ‘Oh, I’m working in a shop. That’s a bit boring.’ I returned to waitressing. Yes, that was my next career move.”
There was also a year of drama school at East 15, where one of the class assignments was to perform a five-minute set at an open mic night at the Comedy Cafe. “I kept putting it off because I was really working on writing it. Other people were going and dying on their ass. I went and it was really good. That is, I wasn’t shit, because I’d worked on it.
“I won that night, and thought, ‘This is the thing I’ve been looking for!’ Acting still felt like you were doing what people were telling you to do, and waiting for someone to give you a job. I also liked the fact that comedy was open to you, not like theatre where you had to know people and audition and be grown up.”
She heard that driving other comics to gigs was a great way to ensure you also worked, so she got a licence. It was the early 90s, and one of her passengers was Graham Norton. “He’d only just started. We drove all the way to Chester and people there had never seen anything like him. I remember he did a huge routine about topiary, which was hilarious, but nobody understood. But when he talked to the audience it was fantastic. He was very good at that.
“I was living in Hammersmith, but drove him all the way over to Hackney, because I thought, ‘I can’t just leave this drunk poof in the middle of nowhere’. We became friends. When he got his show on Channel 4 I did the warm-up then started writing for him. I remember someone saying, ‘You can’t make a living just being a fag hag.’ You know what? You can! I worked for Graham for seven years.”
It was a great education as well. “I learned a lot about joke writing. I was working with two other really good writers, Rob Colley and Dan Gaster. You’d arrive in the morning, and the producers would have typed out what was in the newspapers. Graham would go through it and riff about anything he was interested in and we’d scribble it down: ‘Oh, that’s very funny Mr Norton, that you said that.’ We’d know what he liked, and what he was going to be funny in, and would add more jokes. Later we’d have a read through where the producer would read it as Graham to Graham, putting on his voice.”
At one point – for no reason except that it was a lark – Norton and company decamped to do the show from New York. Pressed, Caulfield mulls it over, but doesn’t think this was the trip when she married her long-time partner. Then again, they may not be married, and that confusion is one of the subjects on the menu for her Fringe show.
“Someone else who got married in New York said, ‘It’s really simple, but oh, doesn’t it take hours afterwards, filling in all the forms you have to take back?’ I never filled in any forms. I’ve got a certificate saying we were married in City Hall, but it’s never been registered. It’s something to contemplate. I’m not really married; I could go. Would I do it again? I might be single and so might my husband.”
Having decided not to become an actress, what made her decide to do a play this summer? Well, for one thing, there’s only a week’s worth of rehearsals. “I couldn’t imagine the hell of sitting around talking. It annoys me. I’m like, ‘Can we get on with it so I can f*** off?’
“Coalition is about the Liberals falling apart. One of the authors was a researcher for an MP, and the humour reminds me of Yes Minister, which I loved. My character is the Liberal chief whip so I get to come in and be really cynical and sarky about politics. She’s completely without humour, which I also like, and completely amoral. I thought, as I live here, and am going home every night, I could do something during the day. A play is nowhere near as stressful as stand-up. No matter how long you’ve been doing stand-up, that audience is different.”
She reckons she’s been doing comedy long enough to be allowed a play. “What I resent is that some people think stand-up is transitory. I love it. If you’ve learned how to do it, why would you stop? It’s better than anything in terms of satisfaction. I started touring and thought, as long as people will come, I can be 70 and doing this. When I was getting a mortgage they asked, ‘When are you going to retire?’ I said, ‘Well, never.’ ”
Thinking Bad Thoughts, Stand Comedy Club; Coalition, The Pleasance Dome, both from Wednesday until 26 August. Caulfield’s 40-date Better The Devil You Know tour begins this autumn. www.jocaulfield.com