Jo Caulfield is a well-kent face at the Fringe. Even if you don’t know her comedy, you’ll know her from the rogue’s gallery of posters that decorate the city in August. Nowadays, she’s a local too, having moved here a few years back.
Tired comic meets grumpy local, then? Not a bit of it. Though you’d definitely forgive her some cynicism or jadedness toward the city’s annual summer shindig, Caulfield is someone still in love with the game in general, and “Edinburgh”, comedy’s very own World Cup, in particular.
“I do get excited about it, yes.”
That could be PR flannel… but probably isn’t. As we chat in one of Leith’s shoreside bars, Caulfield’s nothing if not candid. She’s generous about others, open about her own comedy craft, and expresses a solidarity for the scene that reveals her DIY roots living in a squat, playing in bands and running her own club. It’s there in the enthusiastic tone with which she describes her pre-Fringe build-up:
“I did one the other night in Ormskirk, a tiny little bar, sells out immediately because it’s only got 40 seats, perfect if I want to try out a longer story…”
“I do a really nice preview at a place that Jason Cook [comedian] runs in North Shields…”
She has it all mapped out. But this schlepping round the country is not idle routine, and it’s certainly not mere bill-paying (mainly because it often doesn’t). It’s part of a well-honed process to get Fringe-ready and to put something back into the circuit. “I need them to be there,” she says of the small promoters and the audiences they bring. And here’s why:
“There’s something about people staring at you that makes your brain edit. The words come out so much better than if I was sitting, trying to write it. I get the idea, and then I have to say it in front of people to write it.”
“It [The Fringe] absolutely forces you to write, because otherwise you’ll be on stage and you’ll go ‘I want to do my favourite material’. Well you can’t. You’ve got a show to write, so I have to do this new stuff and make that my favourite material to improve it.”
These days, Caulfield’s home at the Fringe is Edinburgh’s long-standing comedy HQ, The Stand. This year will mark ten years for her at the club.
“I’m very glad that I’ve found The Stand. I’d done other rooms and I couldn’t believe how little money I’d made. People say that’s not the way to look at it, but it’s my business!
Then I spoke to Tommy [Sheppard, Stand boss and now an MP]. He had this new room – the Police Club [Stand 3 for the Fringe], a perfect square room with a little bar in the corner, and because I’d already built an audience they were able to find me. I’ve been very happy there.”
Onto this year’s show then – Killing Time. Depending where you place the stress, it’s what you do when the wi-fi goes down on the train, or what a murderer says to himself before setting off for work. But for Caulfield, it’s more of a placeholder to cover her for every eventuality:
“I think of a title that sounds like me, like it has a bit of attitude to it, but vague, very vague, so that whatever I want to talk about can be in there. Some people go ‘well, it’s about when I went through my wardrobe and I thought all these clothes tell a story…’ Mine are never like that. Mine are always opinion and stand-up.”
“There’s always something goes through it so I can tie things up at the end. You do it and do it and then go ‘there seems to be a lot about this’ or ‘the attitude is this’ but it’s always just real life stuff. Anything that irritates me or makes me think ‘that’s a bit weird’.”
As is common practice for many performers, she’s pulling a double shift at the Fringe. At lunchtimes, she’s performing in Brexit, a new satire up at the Pleasance, before heading down to The Stand for her evening solo gig. Back in 2012 when a different political hoo-hah was on satirists’ minds, Caulfield starred in Coalition, by the same writing team. In Brexit, she shares the stage with Timothy Bentinck (better known as David Archer), Hal Cruttenden, Pippa Evans and Mike McShane. What made her turn thesp again?
“I’m often asked to do plays, but they go ‘will you do three weeks rehearsal?’ No!”
“I’m doing this one because it’s a funny script, with a character who’s very similar to me. I’m the EU negotiator, saying to Britain ‘you can’t have that’ so I get a lot of sarky lines. I do two days, and then do two run-throughs in front of an audience in London and then come up here. Otherwise, I don’t know what on earth actors do all day!”
No shonky Eurotrash accent though. “There’s a whole backstory whereby I’ve been educated at an international school so it doesn’t matter that I’m not foreign.”
The problem with planning ahead for topical comedy at the Fringe, apart from there being lots of other shows with the same idea, is “events, dear boy!” There’ll be some shifty shenanigans going on in the corridors of Brussels and Westminster as we speak, so are they prepared for an emergency rewrite?
“One of the guys who’s written it was a Labour councillor and has worked in politics all his life. He’s a lawyer as well, so he knows very well what could be the possible outcomes. One of the scenarios of the play is what may happen. And that’s all I can say…”
The Fringe is known for its chaos and its burnouts, its illnesses and its hangovers, and doing two shows obviously multiplies those dangers. Experience can mitigate it, and domestic comfort can help too, so has the Fringe changed for Caulfield now she lives here?
“Well, it doesn’t hurt to be at home. Normally, you’re living in someone else’s flat, not doing the normal things you’d do. Basically you’re living like a pig. But this is where I live, so I still have to do the housework, wash the dishes and look after it. I can’t wreck it and leave in a month.”
“Going across the Royal Mile, that’s when I become a local, complaining about people and annoyed. And then I think, ‘but they’ve come to the festival, Jo, and you’re doing a show!'”
Has years of experience and the domestic routine taken the nervous edge off things? Does she casually rock up to the day job after a spot of housework or is she still operating on adrenaline?
“Oh no, still adrenaline. Every audience is different.”
“Sometimes the audience becomes like an organic matter, they all catch on to each other somehow. Other nights, they just want to have a good time and it’s not that much to do with me. Sometimes I think ‘it’s not that funny!'”
“I don’t do a preview. I used to, but now I feel the preview night feels like a rehearsal and I don’t want to rehearse stand-up, I want to perform. The first night, you’re full of adrenaline and that makes the show good. Even the bits you’re still working out. Rather than going ‘I’ve got this night to work it out,’ it has to work tonight.”
As someone who’s been there, done that, you might expect Caulfield to have some sage words about the state of the scene. You wouldn’t be disappointed. The Free Fringe has been one of the big developments during Caulfield’s Fringe career – “a breath of fresh air”, as she calls it – and her take on it brings out the DIY spirit again. It should be affordable for performers AND audiences.
“I don’t like comedians doing the bucket speech thing. ‘If you go uptown you’ll be paying £15 or £20’… Well, not a lot of shows are £15 or £20. Also, this isn’t uptown. You’re not as good as that person. This environment isn’t as nice. You’ve all suddenly decided that it’s OK for you to demand not just whatever people want to give, but a minimum of £5. £5 is a maximum in that environment! That’s not the spirit of it. Now you’ve made people think they need to give £5 or £10, they might go to less shows. Comics should be careful. They could ruin it for themselves.”
She’s no less forthright about some performers’ motivations for being in Edinburgh.
“You have to come because you want to do a show. There’s a lot of people going, ‘Right, I’m throwing everything at it! This is my year!’ and then they’re the people who have breakdowns.”
“Some people don’t really want to be stand-ups, they want to be something else that you can get from being a stand-up, whereas I really, really like stand-up. I like the autonomy of it, and being self-employed and not reliant on somebody liking me, somebody on TV. I can get on and do my own thing. I don’t want to do just anything on telly, and I think some people would. Maybe I’m too punk rock in my attitude. I thought the deal was – you can do what you want. You don’t have to be somebody’s performing monkey.”
A modern part of that careerist cycle, the scramble to be the performing monkey, are the quick win gags that get column inches, build a bit of profile, and hopefully, lead to a panel show spot. It’s no surprise when she says that Dave’s Joke of the Fringe is “one of the most annoying things”.
“They’re always either nicked jokes or not very good jokes. A lot of them are Gary Delaney jokes that somebody else is doing. It’s agents or PR people sending in a joke. You’re not going round every show to see which is the best. You don’t know enough about comedy to know that’s an old joke, or that’s somebody else’s joke or that’s not even a very good joke. It’s so… reductive.”
“But, it’s a ‘comedians’ thing. I was so annoyed by the Dave list, I had a device where I read out some one-liners in my show. The audience didn’t really understand. They’re going, ‘well, she seems really annoyed by this Dave thing. We don’t know what it is, but she’s a comedian, so surely she’d like a joke competition?’ It was one of those things that was too much a comedians thing.”
Does she see herself beyond these lists and awards and star ratings and the whole malarkey these days? A loyal following and a certain level of profile must inure a comedian to it in some ways?
“Not… beyond. I think it’s not healthy. I don’t think it’s mentally healthy to let that into your head. I know I do good shows and I know that people come and that’s what it’s about. All that stuff… I feel who are you to judge me?”
“When I used to be in a band, the music press – NME and Sounds and Mojo as it was then – really, really knew about music. They were so passionate about it, their knowledge was immense. They might not always be right, but at least I respected their knowledge. Then stand-up came along, and a lot of these reviewers don’t know much about comedy. A lot of them I have absolutely no respect for at all.”
“At the same time, it’s part of the business. People go ‘I never read them, I never look,’ but then you see the stars on their poster, so somebody did! You can’t say you’re completely out of the loop unless you’re Daniel Kitson. ‘There’s my flyer, it’s all black, I’m not telling you where I’m performing.’ But he knows his people will find him so he can do that.”
But lest anyone think Caulfield herself has any envy of others’ fame or profile, she’s remarkably magnanimous towards everyone she mentions. Even some that might raise an eyebrow…
“You get horrible attacks about Michael McIntyre. But you can’t say he’s not brilliant, he is. You watch him on stage. He’s just joy on stage. And he worked really hard.”
“It all became second hand, like hack backlash. ‘I’ve heard what he’s like.’ But you haven’t even seen his act!”
There’s mixed feelings about McIntyre on our team. We’ve just given him five stars for his Big World Tour, though some of us from that part of the world have unrepeatable things to say about his Yorkshire routine. Caulfield makes a good case in his defence:
“Women don’t remember routines. Women don’t sit around and do the words to Withnail & I. It’s very blokey. But I was on a bus in London and I heard these women doing his routine. The jeans one. I thought, wow! Because he’s camp and funny and very observational, he’s totally tapped into that female market. They love it so much, they’re doing it to each other, like I remember doing French & Saunders at school. Those people weren’t being played to and now they are.”
Caulfield’s obviously a lifer, a comic who will be touring clubs as long as she’s got an audience. Hearing her talk about stand-up, you can sense her love for it and the graft that keeps her at the top of her game.
“The thing about stand-up is you have to be doing it to be good. You can’t take your foot off the pedal. It has to keep evolving. Stand up will move away from you. You see that with people who’ve taken long breaks. They went off and did a sitcom and then they come back. They’re rusty and they don’t realise it’s changed.”
“Stand-up now is very in the moment, and the audience expect to believe you. Doesn’t mean it has to be true, but they want to believe it is. You have to be very present. I see some comics of my generation and I think ‘you’re not present’. This sounds like ‘material’. You can’t be like that any more. You can’t just dish it out in your suit.”
“Audiences get an instinct about people that makes them go with them and believe them and feel they know you.”
It’s that instinct that makes audiences go with Jo Caulfield, and why, when The Stand opens its doors again this year, they’ll be back again for more. As one audience member said of last year’s show, “finally, we’ve seen something funny!”