“Comedian or actress?” I asked Jo Burke in the Soho Theatre Bar.
“Actress, really,” she replied. “My heart lies there. I got into the comedy thing completely by accident.”
“A hyphenate,” I suggested. “Actress-comedian-performer-writer-producer-whatever.”
Jo filmed a sketch video called Virus in 2001, which she did not bother to upload onto YouTube until 2009.
She also wrote a book about internet dating in 2006 and can currently be heard as co-host every fortnight on Justin Lee Collins’ Fubar radio show (the next one is this Thursday). And, on Saturday, she is previewing her first Edinburgh Fringe solo show Burke Shire at the Leicester Square Theatre in London.
“I left school at 16,” she told me. “No-one told us university was an option. I got a job in Barclays in Regent Street. My dad was over the moon because I’d got a bank job – a job for life. It was everything I’m not. I was quite naive at 16 and everyone was having affairs. I come from a very stable family.”
“Not showbiz?” I asked.
“No,” said Jo. “None of my family really get it. If I invite them to any of my shows, they have a look of horror on their faces: I might as well have invited them to Auschwitz for the day. I never went to theatre as a kid. We didn’t go to shows, except pantomime every year.”
“Oh no you didn’t,” I said.
Jo ignored me. “My dad was a plumber,” she said.
“So loads of money?” I asked.
“No. He was a plumber for Greenwich Council and he wasn’t the type of person to ever leap into self-employment and…”
At this point, a large number of noisy people came into the bar.
“Oh God, no” I said. “Young people are hugging and kissing each other. They have to be actors!”
“I always find it quite strange when people talk about actors as luvvies,” said Jo, “because I think the whole point about acting is you shouldn’t really be sussed as an actor because you shouldn’t be playing at being an actor, you should be playing at being someone else. It’s about being true. I could wander round now saying Luvvie! and making a scenario about myself, but I think actors should be a bit under the radar.”
“These people aren’t under the radar,” I said. “This is like a thousand plane raid of Luvvies. Is there a difference between comedians and actors?”
“Probably,” said Jo, “only in the way they go about it. If you’re a trained actor doing a show, you’ll probably rehearse it in a slightly more structured way. When I first started doing comedy, I was doing solo stuff but, very quickly, I set up FunBags, which is a sketch group.” (They are in the finals of the Gilded Balloon’s Best New Sketch Act Competition 2014 at the Edinburgh Fringe.)
“Comedy is very solitary and I really felt it at first. When you’re in a theatrical show, you have the camaraderie, you play around with the script together in rehearsal, there’s director, a whole feeling of togetherness. In comedy, you’re chucking yourself on stage completely on your own, completely bare. If you’re a female performer and not a massive drinker and not a massive late-nighter, you feel quite solitary.”
“It’s difficult being yourself on stage,” I said.
“It is when that’s not ever what you wanted to be,” agreed Jo. “The nature of wanting to be an actor is you’re interested in other people and you like being other people and, really, you don’t find yourself very interesting. When I was young I either wanted to be Princess Leia in Star Wars – she was beautiful and feisty and gun-toting and shockingly honest – or Kate Bush.”
“Why Kate Bush?”
“She produced everything herself and controlled it… I’m not sure where I fit in.”
“Logically,” I said, “If you don’t fit in, you must be original.”
“But people prefer something that’s familiar,” shrugged Jo. “There’s loads of people out there doing Vicky Pollard (Matt Lucas’ Little Britain TV character). I’m just me, doing what I enjoy doing. If you’d asked me five years ago what would I be doing I’d have said I’d rather chew my own arms off than be a comedian.”
“Because it’s harsh, it’s hard, if it goes wrong, it’s your fault. There’s nowhere to hide if you’re writing your own stuff and, in effect, producing and directing it. It’s horrendous. It’s complete and utter personal annihilation if it goes wrong.”
“So,” I said, “you’ve got to get it right every night for a month in Edinburgh.”
“But I will love that,” said Jo, “because that’s more actory. If you’re in a play, you’re in a run so it gets better and better and better and you feel more and more relaxed. But, in comedy, when you’re at my level, you’re doing a couple of gigs a week. It’s stop-start so almost every time you do it it’s like a first night and, as any actor will tell you, First Nights are a nightmare: full of nerves. In comedy, the venue is different every night. In Edinburgh, it is one venue daily for a full month. You get the chance to ‘bed-in’ a show.”
“You don’t give the impression of being easily intimidated,” I said.
“I’m scared of buttons,” Jo replied.
“Buttons?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Jo. “It’s a real thing. You can look it up. It’s got a name.”
(It is Koumpounophobia.)
“You have zips?” I asked.
“Zips on everything,” said Jo. “Metal buttons on jeans are fine, but shirt buttons… I couldn’t go near that; I couldn’t touch them. If you told me there was a jar of buttons, the hairs on the back of my head would stand up. It would make me feel ill just looking at it. Buttons are… err… yeah… not good.”
“Do you know where the fear stems from?” I asked.
“When I was really young,” explained Jo, “I had really long hair. I had two older brothers – 8 and 10 years older than me – and, when I came along, my dad had not a clue what to do with a girl so he used to throw me about a bit like I was a boy and my hair used to get caught on his shirt and that’s where it stems from.”
“Earlier on,” I said, “you made your father sound very conventional.”
“My dad had a furry Russian hat,” Jo told me, “and a leather jacket he had hand-painted an eagle onto. He also had an eagle painted onto the bonnet of our car.”
“He was big on eagles, then?” I asked.
“Big on eagles,” said Jo. “Big on Egypt. Big on dinosaurs and war weapons – swords and guns. He used to make them. Guns. Replicas. From wood and metal. Properly talented.”
“There’s a demand for guns in South East London,” I said.
“Not ones that don’t work,” said Jo. “His shed had about three different vices in.”
“So I can say in print that your dad had three different vices?”
“Yes you can,” Jo laughed. “He did. And he used to make his own jewellery and belts. Chunks of metal.”
“He was a Goth?” I suggested.
“It wasn’t even Goth,” said Jo. “It was just bizarre. In the 1980s, he used to wear lavender and pink rufflled shirts. As a girl I was thinking: Oh my God! My dad’s in a ruffled lilac shirt with a Russian hat and an eagle leather jacket. Why can’t I just have a normal family? And we don’t even drive in a hand-painted car, we just have hand-painted cars sitting in our driveway that don’t go anywhere.”
“Do you see bits of him in you?” I asked.
“I see the quirkiness,” said Jo. “What I love about him now that I hated then is that he didn’t give a shit. He was who he was. The reason Barbie-like plastic surgery is coming in nowadays is that everyone is frightened to be individual and everyone wants to be the same.”
“’Twas ever thus,” I said.
“People,” continued Jo, “are having individual things wiped off their faces to look the same as someone else. A perfect person is the most uninteresting person in the world. I’ve never been attracted to perfection in voices – I can’t stand Céline Dion or Mariah Carey. I’d much rather listen to Amy Winehouse or Paloma Faith who are good singers but are not these perfect warblers. Imperfection is interesting and perfection is really dull, yet we’re breeding a society of people that are supposed to look like someone’s image of perfect.
“I must have missed the meeting where it was decided that Spacehopper boobs and long blonde wavy hair and extended everything was the way to go. People are pressurised to glue on duck lips and, if someone’s nose is characterful, they have to make it look like everyone else’s. It’s bonkers. Barbra Streisand is incredibly beautiful… Buck teeth, big nose and quirkiness? Freddie Mercury.”
“You have a professor character in your show,” I said, “who encourages people to have their thumbs removed because they will look better.”
“It sounds ridiculous,” said Jo, “but is it really? The same as you can’t have small boobs and you can’t be bald – you have to have a hair transplant. The next step is paralysing facial expressions so you can’t show you are happy, upset or sad and that will be ‘better’ because there will be no wrinkles and it’s ‘better’ than looking old.”
“It sounds like you have a 2015 Edinburgh show here,” I said.
“I don’t think anyone else would be interested,” said Jo.
“The best Edinburgh comedy shows,” I said, “are rants with laughs.”
Jo rants well. And in character.