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Comedian Matt Price is having weekly Conversations with Criminals

In 2013, I posted a blog in which comedian Matt Price talked about the violent physical attack in 2007 on his partner, comedian Martha McBrier, by four or five men in Glasgow. The attack permanently damaged her hearing. 

He told me: “about a year later, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour and, between those times, a member of her family went to buy a gun to shoot the man who attacked her.”

Matt also looked into the possibility of taking violent revenge, but a career criminal persuaded him not to.

Last week, Matt told me: “If I’d have taken revenge, I wouldn’t be here eating a muffin with you; I’d have been in jail.”

He is still together with Martha and, now based in London, he has started a weekly podcast – released every Sunday – called Conversations with Criminals.

The fourth episode of the podcast was posted online yesterday.

Matt’s Edinburgh Fringe comedy show in August will be titled: Broken Hooters and Geezers with Shooters.


JOHN: Conversations with Criminals… Why?

MATT: Because I knew nothing about crime until I was on the receiving end of one, when Martha got attacked all those years ago. Had I taken revenge, my life would have been very different.

I would much rather hear about what it’s like to be in prison and how hard it is to hustle while I am here eating a muffin, drinking a coffee with you and not in prison.

JOHN: …and…?

MATT: Because I’ve spent about ten years in the company of various dodgy people.

I like podcasting as a medium and also I like the fact that people who are on the wrong side of the law have great stories to tell and a very bleak sense of humour. They have to in order to cope with what they do and what they’ve done.

I am casting my net wide. I’m going to Nottingham to speak to a guy who will talk me through what it was like to be an addict going in and out of jail. I’ve talked to a guy whose parents were heroin dealers and, in the 1980s, he moved down to London and started robbing banks. All interesting stuff.

JOHN: Why will they talk to you? You’re not paying them.

MATT: People like to talk about themselves. Or maybe I’ve just fallen in with the right crowd.

JOHN: The first podcast was with Dave Courtney who, let’s be honest, will talk to anyone. The second one was with…

MATT: Brendan, Dave Courtney’s best mate and he’s a very funny guy. Just a funny man. What makes him so interesting to me is that he is a self-confessed coward. He made it very clear when he met Dave all those years ago: “Look, you’re great company, but I’m a coward. I don’t want to get involved in any violence. So I will run away.”

JOHN: So he’s not really a ‘hard man’.

MATT: Not at all.

JOHN: Or a criminal?

MATT: I think it’s well-documented he did go to jail. But I know he doesn’t want to be known as a ‘hard man’ in any capacity and that’s very important to him. Because if you make it clear, in that world, that you’re not a hard man, then people will leave you alone.

JOHN: And, if you say you are a hard man…?

MATT: …I imagine there will be more… ermm…  challenges.

JOHN: Difficult to keep it up weekly, missus: the podcast.

MATT: Well, it’s not easy interviewing people who are on the wrong side of the law, because they tend not to make plans for the future. You can’t phone someone up and say: “Oh, can you have a look in your diary… We could do lunch next week?” 

That’s not how it works. And sometimes there are misunderstandings, of which I’ve had a few. The most recent one was with a guy called Andy Costello, who was in Episode 3.

He really intrigued me because, in a way, he’s a vigilante. He was a policeman and lost his job because – this is 20 years ago – somebody punched his teenage daughter and he took violent revenge on the guy – He beat up him and his mates – and went to jail for it. But he has turned his life around completely now; he’s an amazing guy.

JOHN: What does he do now?

MATT: He teaches martial arts. He trains some of the best fighters in the country if not in the world.

I met him through a friend and I went out to meet him on a farm where his gym is and I thought he knew I was doing my weekly podcast.

But he thought – because he has just started doing stand-up comedy – that I, as a comedian, was going to interview him about his new career.

We met and I said: “Look, I’m not here to judge you in any way…” and he thinks Great! Because he’s just started performing comedy and I’ve been doing it a while. And then we start talking about crime and revenge and what it’s like to be in jail. And he was too polite to say anything. He thought it was odd but maybe I was trying to ‘big him up’ with an interesting angle. 

It was only afterwards that our mutual friend told him the title of the weekly podcast was Conversations with Criminals.

But the interview was great and he and his daughter like it. So it was all fine and mellow.

JOHN: Have you had less mellow misunderstandings?

MATT: Yes. I met somebody else through a mutual contact and the three of us got into a car with Mister X who, to be honest, I knew very little about.

Our mutual friend says to Mister X: “You remember that time you chopped somebody’s arm off?”

And Mister X says: “No. I have absolutely no recollection of that whatsoever.”

“Ah, no,” says my friend. “You remember – that geezer with his arm hanging off and the claret everywhere?”

“No… I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about. And, by the way, who are you?” says Mister X to me.

I said: “My name’s Matt and I’m a comedian.”

“Well, you don’t look very funny,” he says.

So we get to this strange pub and at that time I had flu – my eyes were watering and Martha had told me I needed to be drinking lots of water – so, of course, I downed four pints in one go and arm-chop man was already quite nervous and he says to our mutual friend: “Your mate looks a bit dodgy. What’s the matter with him? Is he a policeman? Is he wired-up? Is he a journalist?”

“No,” my mate says. “He’s just an idiot who is too scared to ask where the toilets are.”

So we had this very awkward, very tense interview with power ballads playing in the background and I said: “Can you give me some advice?”

And he said: “Yeah. You should chill out, mate. Relax. You look really twitchy and you’re making ME feel nervous now.”

Then two guys walked in – two total strangers – and my friend just walked out of the venue. So I followed him. 

A couple of days later, I got a phone call from Mister X who says: “You really ARE what you say you are. Shall we start again?”

So we did and we had a delightful chat. He is going to remain anonymous not for any particular sinister reason. It’s just he has moved on with his life. He said: “You can have a selfie with my dog, but don’t put the picture of the dog online, because that will give away my identity.”

JOHN: Quite a few comedians have dodgy pasts.

MATT: One day I was in a car on the way to a gig with Mister A, talking about the podcast and he said: “Well, as comedians, we are on the periphery of society anyway, so we have a lot in common with these people. We’re just alternative people who are not going to work 9 to 5 staff jobs and neither are they. We are just people with a different lifestyle.”

Unfortunately, crime pays an awful lot more than comedy does. 

Lets be honest, everybody says: “Ooh, I’d love to get on Netflix as a comedian but, failing that…”

JOHN: Do they?

MATT: True crime is very popular at the moment.

JOHN: I guess everybody thinks they would like the excitement of being a criminal.

MATT: Well, not me. I’ve met them. At various levels. And I don’t really know any one of them – yet – who says Oh yes! Crime is great!

Crime is great when you’re driving around in a BMW. But then you get caught and suddenly all the people who said they thought you were amazing don’t want to know you any more. I don’t see what’s glamorous about that.


CONVERSATIONS WITH CRIMINALS IS ON

iTunesSpotify, Podbean and all usual platforms.

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Eric (Just Eric) pays tribute to the OTT comedian Ian Cognito, who has died

Ian Cognito’s Facebook photo – presumably how he would like to be remembered

In the previous blog here, Becky Fury remembered Ian Cognito, who died while performing on stage last week.

Now fellow comedian Eric (Just Eric) adds his own tribute…


When I saw the headline BRITISH COMEDIAN DIES ONSTAGE, I thought: Oh, that will be Cogs…

Then, when I saw the full story, I was devastated to see that, tragically, my instinct was correct.

Like Malcolm Hardee before him, probably no-one ever expected to read the words “After a long battle with illness, he passed away peacefully in his sleep.”

Cogs just wasn’t that kind of guy.

He died as he lived, in the spotlight, commanding full attention, with no-one quite believing what they were witnessing.

We all have our own memories of Cogs and bizarrely I have enjoyed reading the stories that others have shared of this marvellous mischievous maverick.

I first met Ian Cognito at Malcolm Hardee’s Up the Creek comedy club when, as he passed my table en route to the stage, he scooped up my pint and drank it while headlining the night.

The Greenwich club was a renowned bear pit and it wasn’t long before he got his first heckle. Whenever this happens, it is the stock-in-trade of the comedian to deliver smart-put downs in response and the more cutting they are the better; and Cogs could cut anyone to the quick. But Cogs didn’t just embarrass his detractors: he went further, much further. He would intimidate them.

So, climbing across the seats in the direction of the hapless heckler and standing astride the back of the chairs either side of him, Cogs delivered his withering repost, while towering over the now cowering heckler. Not surprisingly, it was the only heckle that he received that night.

Given what I had just witnessed from his awesome onstage persona, I did consider saying nothing and just getting myself another beer. But, with what I now realise was a somewhat foolhardy and reckless regard for the ‘perceived’ risk to my personal safety, I summoned up all my courage and, after the show, I challenged him about drinking my pint.

I was then astonished to find him most apologetic. He had just made an honest mistake, confusing my Guinness for his own, which he then realised he had absent-mindedly left on the bar.

So he bought me a replacement and, with a mutual love of the black stuff and comedy in common, it was the start of a friendship I could never have expected. Over the next few years, I did numerous gigs with this comedic whirlwind, who would proudly announce to audiences that he had been banned from more comedy clubs than any other comic.

But that brash onstage (and sometimes offstage) persona belied the sensitive, caring, supportive soul which lay beneath.

I should imagine that anyone who ever had the privilege of being invited to his home will have the memory of that visit etched on their memory forever.

I certainly remember my first visit. Pulling up in a layby in the middle of nowhere, thinking: Why on earth would he want me to meet him here? Only to find Cogs suddenly emerging from a bush and extending an invitation to climb over a crash barrier and down a bank. Where, only a few yards from the busy highway, a boat is moored on a slow-flowing river in an unfeasibly serene spot.

In my experience the standard invitation would include a meal, which Cogs would cook in his galley while his guests sat on the bank enjoying the unexpected calm after the long drive from London.

Then, over lunch, we were treated to a side of this quiet, reflective, thoughtful man that his audiences would probably never get to see.

Then, it seems, no-one would be allowed to leave, without first choosing a book from his shed to take with them. I remember choosing The Book of Shit Towns.

Then it would be back into the car and on to the gig, where it was sometimes difficult to reconcile that the astonishing and aggressive performance the audience and fellow performers alike were treated to that evening was delivered by the same man who had humbly dished-up the pasta a shortly before, while sharing stories about his children.

When I first visited Paul (his real name was Paul Barbieri) and discovered that he lived on a boat, he said: “It’s the most interesting thing about me.”

Which is patently untrue.

No, it isn’t, Cogs, YOU are the most interesting thing about you!

Some things I know. Some things I will never know.

One thing I do know is that the world of comedy has just become a far less interesting place without you…

We have lost another shining light from our world.

What is it that is said about the flame that burns brightly…?

RIP mate.

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RIP Ian Cognito, dangerous comedian and great opera singer

“Even when I walked on stage and touched his arm I was expecting him to say Boo!”

Comedian Ian Cognito died on stage on Thursday night at the Lone Wolf Comedy Club in Bicester, Oxfordshire.

So it goes.

He reportedly “sat down on a stool while breathing heavily, before falling silent for five minutes during his show” and the audience thought it was part of his routine. He had earlier joked: “Imagine if I died in front of you lot here”.

In the US, Variety quoted audience member Ryan Mold: “He sat down, put his head and arms back; his shoulders were twitching… His behavior didn’t come off as unusual to those used to his flamboyant character.”

Compere Andrew Bird told the BBC: “Everyone in the crowd, me included, thought he was joking. Even when I walked on stage and touched his arm I was expecting him to say Boo!” 

The BBC quoted audience member John Ostojak as saying: “Only ten minutes before he sat down, he joked about having a stroke. He said: Imagine having a stroke and waking up speaking Welsh… We came out feeling really sick, we just sat there for five minutes watching him, laughing at him.”

Andrew Bird said dying on stage would have been the way Cognito “would have wanted to go… except he’d want more money and a bigger venue.”

The comedy website Chortle rather understated the case when it wrote he was “known for his outrageous and unpredictable stage act and would often boast of the number of clubs he was banned from”.

At one time, he used to start his act by walking on stage with a hammer, banging a nail into the wall and then hanging up his hat. “This lets you know two things about me,” he would shout. “Firstly, I really don’t give a shit. Secondly, I’ve got a hammer.”

Over the course of a 30-year career, no British TV company ever took the risk of putting him on screen. Yet today The Times, reported his death and called him a “cult comedian”. The Daily Mail today called him “a proper comic”.

The lesson to other comics seeking media coverage is clear: literally die on stage.

In comedian Malcolm Hardee’s 1996 autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake, there is an anecdote which starts: “An excellent performer called Ian Cognito was there and he was very drunk, as is his wont. When he’s drunk, he gets aggressive.”

I always found him very amiable and intelligent though with a slightly insecure glint in his eye. Well, he WAS a comedian.

In 2005, I shared a funeral car with him and Jenny Eclair at Malcolm Hardee’s funeral in Greenwich. Malcolm had drowned by falling in a dock while drunk… So it goes. 

Ian Cognito and Pam Ford at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013

In a 2013 blog from the Edinburgh Fringe, I wrote: “Last night, Cognito told comic Pam Ford and me a very funny series of stories about his own dad’s funeral and what happened to the ashes afterwards. Alas, I don’t think I can repeat them, because I was harassing Cognito that he should do death stories as an Edinburgh Fringe show in 2014.”

He didn’t, but no matter.

And, alas, I have now forgotten the stories.

I also wrote in that blog: “He was wearing a hat. He said he had a song about the late Malcolm Hardee. I invited him to perform it at the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Awards Show on the final Friday of the Fringe. He said Yes.”

He didn’t.

But no matter.

Today his son, Will Barbieri, shared a quote from his father: “I hope when I am gone, that you will remember me for all the things I didn’t do, but could have done so easily.”

In 2014, I quoted the comedian Matt Price in a blog. He said:

“I mentioned to Ian Cognito: There’s a rumour going round you used to be an opera singer and he said: Oooh! Keep that one going, dahlin’ I do like that one!

So I will remember Ian Cognito as an interesting human being, a fascinatingly dangerous performer and a great opera singer.

But I did not really know Ian Cognito.

Malcolm Hardee Award winner Becky Fury did know him better. She sent me what follows under trying circumstances this morning.

She wrote: “I am a bit distracted by a total freak show in the kitchen and a man naked in the kitchen. Just a standard day in Deptford.”

Here is what she sent me…


‘Cogs’… in one of his quieter, more reflective moments…

I’m sad about – but also keep laughing hysterically about – Cogs.  

He actually died on stage, the mad bastard, and people thought he was pretending but he was actually dead. The compere came on and went to prod him as he thought he was joking but he was actually dead. Fuck me, that’s hilarious.

The man was a crazy, beautiful diamond and, like all diamonds, it’s the darkness that give them their brilliance.

Last night I went on stage and told the story of Cognito’s last prank. I’m still hoping he jumps out of the coffin at the funeral and shouts: “Gotcha, you cunts!” and then dies again – because that will be really funny.

It is interesting giving people permission to laugh at death.

It’s a taboo and Cogs liked smashing those. 

It’s the essence of liberation. 

It is nice to be given permission to continue to erode those taboos and it is an honour to explain to an audience your friend died like Tommy Cooper but he did it better. Dying on stage is a very naughty thing to do and the person was very naughty to do that but you can and should laugh because the person was a great comedian and it’s what he would have wanted.

I also explained I would be doing my Ian Cognito tribute act later and I had already taken the capsules of cyanide which was the grand finale after the crowd surfing just to put my own spin on it.

I’d known Cogs since I was 19. He ‘pulled’ me after a gig I was running with my we’ll call him ‘ex’ boyfriend as he was after that happened and who also happened to be the promoter. 

My relationship status with the promoter was unknown to Cogsy but was in hindsight a classic Cogsy as he had an almost supernatural knack of pissing off promoters

We were friends after that. Me and Cogs.

Me and the ex-boyfriend never recovered.

The Cogs I knew was a lovely, fascinating guy and I had a load of really interesting times with him, like a lot of people did. 

After our initial encounter, we met again in the backstage area of Reading Festival and spent the weekend getting drunk and talking and not seeing any bands. Why would you go and see Blur when you have Ian Cognito to talk to?

He even surfaced a few months after that and helped me get rid of another unsuitable ex-boyfriend and helped end another relationship for me. Like a sexy, crazy, cool dad that you can shag.

He had an uncanny knack of appearing when he was needed like a swaggering Cockney genie that lived in a bottle of Jameson’s.

And then a few more times after that.

When I started comedy, I did a few gigs with him at the Edinburgh Fringe where he was kind enough to offer me to share a spot he had in a show at the Pleasance. I was unfortunately too pissed to take him up on the offer. I could blame the fact I was keeping up with his drinking habits but that wouldn’t be true and truth was something that was very important to Cogsy in his life and his art – not that he would have said anything that pretentious.

I never knew him to be anything other than a lovely, wise, bright, shiny, gem of a person. An authentic soul and genius comic. 

There are very few of those and now one less. 

I’m still kinda hoping he kicks his way out of the coffin, does that song about his dog farting and then makes use of some of PR his death generated. But it was never about that.

It’s about living your truth to the full and making your life and death a work of art.

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Comic Lynn Ruth Miller in Amsterdam meets a man she stimulated 12 years ago

The unstoppable 85-year-old London-based US comedian Lynn Ruth Miller continues her travels. Last time it was Glasgow. Next time, it is New York. This time it was to perform for a week in Amsterdam… where she met a man from her past… Here she tells all…


Amsterdam is a fun city and this trip was even more rollicking than ever.

The local food is execrable which makes it more amazing that all of the natives are tall, blonde and exceptionally healthy.  When I walk down the street dodging between the bikes, I feel like all of them are Snow Whites and I am the dwarf.

The typical foods are things like deep-fried meatballs with a mustard dip, gooey pancake sandwiches and thick greasy Dutch fries. The Dutch actually hunger for raw herring and deep-fried sweet dumplings. Their comfort food is stewed mashed potatoes, cabbage and kale topped with a fat greasy pork sausage. I cannot believe any of them have a waistline much less any teeth. Evidently their metabolism considers these delicacies to be the equivalent of sprouts on whole grain toast.

In addition, Dutch people are very reserved.  When they hear a joke they nod approvingly and say: “That is funny” (in Dutch of course). But they do not laugh. That type of uncontrolled reaction is reserved for the tourists.

As is getting stoned.

Dutch people do not do marijuana.

They are very smart business people. Pot is good money. Their motto is: “Let the tourists get high. We need to keep our wits about us so we can make a profit.”

“It was a beautiful experience, but quite a challenge…”

On my first night in Amsterdam, I headlined at The Comedy Cafe. I have worked there before and it was a beautiful experience, but quite a challenge. The audiences were at least 70% native Dutch which means that English was their second language. They got the jokes all right, but they needed time to process the punch lines. This meant that I was two jokes ahead of them. I had to adjust my pace so they could absorb what I said.  

It was a huge challenge and an exciting one because, when you succeed in making them get the humor, you have overcome a huge hurdle in your presentation. The last time I managed three times out of five and the truth is that it is those two failures that have haunted me ever since. I guess that is why I call comedy an art instead of a craft. You have to have that instinct that knows the pace, the emphasis and the time to pause for each individual audience.

I was very, very worried about this new performance because of the mixed reactions I got the last time, but this was a very different crowd. The show was run by Tim van’t Hul who has joined several other comedians to form a troupe called The Comedy Embassy. They put on English shows at comedy venues on their empty nights.

And the Comedy Cafe has become an all-English club. It was founded by Bob Maclaren who is a magnificent comedian. When I was there two years ago, he presented both English and Dutch language shows. Thursday night was his only all-English show. Now, Tim and his group fill in the extra nights with their own comedians. They are all young, upcoming performers and, although the quality varies, the enthusiasm is wonderful and the shows are always a delight.

Because all the shows are now in English, tourists make up most of the audience. On the first night, there was a group of about 20 men in the audience who were there on a training weekend to learn internet marketing techniques. They had evidently decided to take in some comedy after their dinner. They were from all over Europe, but most were from England. 

When I saw them, I was terrified. My comedy makes fun of men and there were hardly any women in the audience. Those I saw were obviously on a date and were unlikely to encourage emasculating humor. It destroys any hope of a happy ending (so I am told, of course).

But I had forgotten that there is nothing the British like better than to excoriate themselves. The more you insult them, the more they love you. I think it is a male thing. You cannot get a British man to admit he has one good quality. To do that is in bad taste. And this self-flagellation seeps into the rest of their lives. 

They celebrate the people who defeat them like Guy Fawkes. They gobble up fish and chips and complain that they have horrid teeth and bulging bellies. They do not know how to express disapproval. They shrug their shoulders and roll their eyes when you do something they think is gauche, like laugh out loud or rattle a newspaper. They are the prototype of up-tight. And this audience was very British.

I got on stage with the help of a pulley and a rope and discussed my views on male inadequacy, blaming men for the state of society and all my personal failures in life. I was greeted with thunderous applause so loud I actually heard it.

The man who didn’t want to be a comic at one point…

After the set. I went to the bar for a drink. A man named Kees van Amstel said: “I have something to show you.”  

Naturally, my first reaction was to explain I wasn’t interested in seeing his, but then he bought me a drink and explained that, back in 2007, he was in Edinburgh at the Fringe, having a terrible time getting audiences for his comedy show. (And who among us cannot relate to that?)

He was terribly discouraged and ready to give up the whole project when a friend of his took him to see a late night show to take his mind off his troubles. I was in the line up for that late night show.  

He said: “I watched you having so much fun up there on stage and I thought If that old woman (I was a young chick of 74 at the time) can have so much fun AT HER ADVANCED AGE and be that funny, why am I complaining about low attendance and huge monetary losses?  I have plenty of time to create my dream.

So, that night, he went back to his Edinburgh flat and wrote a blog (HERE it is, in Dutch) about the ancient hag who inspired him to continue has career and not give up too soon.

(BLOG EXTRACT: “Old School kicks ass! Ze sluit af met een liedje over hoe sex is als je man net een niertransplantatie heeft gehad en krijgt het grootste applaus van het festival. Ik sta perplex. Lynn Ruth Miller. Om 2 uur ‘s nachts. Fucking hell, ik ben eigenlijk helemaal niet oud. Find of the Festival.”)

That incident was twelve years ago.

Now, he has his own shows and is on the board of directors of Toomler, the other major comedy club in Amsterdam. He decided to take a night out to see what the competition was doing. He did not know I was on the bill.   

“When you got on that stage,” he told me, “I said to myself I KNOW that woman. And then I remembered that time so many years ago when you changed my life.”

When you are at the Edinburgh Fringe, slogging from one open mike to another, you never think that you are accomplishing anything more than getting a couple of bums on a few seats for the show you are doing. It certainly never occurs to you that someone might actually remember you twelve years after they hear you perform.  

I cannot even remember something that happened twelve minutes ago much less twelve years ago. I assure you both my husbands instantly forgot everything I ever said within seconds of their departure from my life.  

And here I was talking to a man who remembered everything I said twelve YEARS ago.

I have always believed that I do comedy because I love it and that is all the reward I really need. But that man gave me something far more valuable than 20 Oscars and 50 Nobel prizes. He made me feel that I was actually part of a bigger picture, one that tells the world they can do whatever they want to do if they just get out there and do it.

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Peculiar – Comic Jo Burke disappeared for 3 years, found true love and a show

The last time performer/writer Jo Burke appeared in this blog was in September 2015. There is a reason for that gap of over three years.


Three years absent and three books published

JOHN: So you have three children’s books here which you wrote. There is Standing on Custard

JO: That’s the first one. It’s a book of funny verse – for up to 10 year olds – and it’s really good for small ones because it’s rhyming. Then A Squirrel’s Tail is a whole story rather than verse. A really lovely story about inclusivity and diversity about a squirrel born without his tail. And then Molly, Chip and The Chair is for slightly older children: when they’re moving on to reading adult-style books.

JOHN: Why’s it called Standing on Custard?

JO: The book has lots of useful facts. So one interesting fact is that you can actually stand on custard.

JOHN: Eh?

JO: You get two tins of Ambrosia, you put them on the floor and you stand on them. (LAUGHS) No… It’s called a non-Newtonian fluid. You have to make it with cornflour and lots of it. What a non-Newtonian fluid does is, instead of like most fluids and liquids, it becomes harder the more pressure, the more weight you put on it.

JOHN: The books are beautifully illustrated.

JO: My talented husband Philip Price.

JOHN: You gave up comedy for three years.

JO: I didn’t intend to. My last show – the last time we had a chat – was 2015 and that was my I Scream show and I’d written a book about that as well. It was about online dating. 

“Most successful show… I was quite annoyed”

That was my most successful show so far and it was me as me. Before that, I had been doing character-based comedy. I was delighted that the one with me as me was the most successful. But also quite annoyed, because I had trained for many many years to be an actress. And the show I did as me was the most successful. 

I think I just felt like I’d plateaued a bit: that I didn’t have much else to say. I had sort of fallen… not out of love with it because it was fantastic… but I felt that, if I were to come back with something else, it would have to be as good and I didn’t want to rush into the next thing. I had kind of had enough of the whole Edinburgh Fringe thing. I had done about six Edinburghs in a row by that point. Six shows up to 2015 and, in two of those years, I did two shows each year, which was ridiculous.

Initially, I thought I might take a year off. But, I got back to London from Edinburgh in the September and, in the October I met the man who is now my husband. It was ironic that whole I Scream book and show had been about my disastrous love life. Then, lo and behold…!

JOHN: So you were only doing comedy to cover gaps in your acting.

JO: I had always done acting and ads and whatever and, up until that point as well, I also had a  mortgage-paying job which most performers have – a horrible office job three days a week which was not playing to any of my strengths and just to pay the bills. I had started to feel quite unhappy there and I thought: You know what? It’s time to move on. So I did. 

What I needed then was a revenue stream. So I thought: Actually, now I’ve met Phil, who is an artist… I had already written this book years and years ago for a friend’s daughter. And I said to Phil: “Do you think you’d be interested in doing the artwork for this book?” 

So that was our first project. We have released a book a year, basically; we are just finishing off a new one.

JOHN: You said you needed a revenue stream – to make money – so you started writing books… That is not a way to make money!

JO: The books are really popular in Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand, America. I sell them online and at a stall in Greenwich Market and I sell hundreds of them a month and we sell prints and artwork as well. I do a maximum of about three days there and it’s great because I can work it round castings – I just shot a commercial for IKEA in Italy for four days.

JOHN: And next Saturday (6th April), you are back on stage at the Museum of Comedy in London with a new show called Peculiar. Is it you as yourself or is it character comedy?

JO: It’s me again.

Jo Burke no longer screaming; just as creative

JOHN: A follow-up to I Scream?

JO: No, that’s why to have the space of three years between the two shows was good. I don’t really feel like that person I was any more. Straight after I Scream, I met Phil. I feel so far removed from that (previous) person and all of that angst and heartache and stuff. Everything changed. It was like a cathartic thing. I released the I Scream book and did that show then, all-of-a-sudden, the love of my life walked in the door.

JOHN: Is happiness good creatively, though? I heard Charles Aznavour interviewed and he was asked why he sang sad songs. He said they were more interesting because, when people are happy, there’s not a lot you can say. People are happy in the same way but, when people are sad, they are sad for all sorts of different. specific reasons.

JO: Yeah. Also happy people can be a bit annoying to be around sometimes. I spent a huge chunk of my life being single and being around happy couples and I know the annoyance of it. (LAUGHS) Nobody’s interested in you if you’re happy and I don’t really write when I’m happy. I have always written when I’m annoyed. When you are happy, it’s quite dull creatively, I think.

JOHN: So when you got happy it must have screwed-up your creativity for the last three years?

JO: No. I never stopped writing. I made notes all the time in those three years and I did the children’s books. The children’s books are a gentler… they’re still funny, but it’s a gentler humour and a different audience. But I still always had dark, evil thoughts that I would set aside for future shows.

So when I decided to do this new show, Peculiar, I started looking back through all my notes and maybe I had written the equivalent of a show a year anyway, so Peculiar is really the best of all of that.

“It’s a whole diatribe of things I find absurd and odd”

JOHN: What’s the elevator pitch for Peculiar? Is it angry?

JO: No, but it’s a whole diatribe of things I find absurd and odd from nail varnishes to medication to marriage to eBay.

JOHN: So observational comedy.

JO: Yes, but not really. It’s… Jo Burke calls out the absurdity surrounding our every day life. She shoots down the lazy marketing we are perpetually bombarded with, ridiculous products and Amazon reviews plus a fair few things in between.

JOHN: Last time we talked, you wanted to do a show about working class life.

JO: Well, that’s always a bugbear of mine. I’m always slightly peeved at the fact there are fewer and fewer working class voices. There are sketches I’ve written just for bizarre funny’s sake, but a good 90% of what I do is with a reason, a message behind it. 

JOHN: To get your message out? But you’re not going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

JO: Part of the reason I’m doing Peculiar at the Brighton Fringe in May but I am not doing Edinburgh is that I priced it all out and I would love to go to Edinburgh – I absolutely love it – but, you know, I am still paying for the seven years I did before!

Why would I go to the Edinburgh Fringe? Because I love it. But that is not a good enough reason. It has not been a stepping stone for me so far and I can’t really afford to keep trying. I’m taking another tack now. I’m not really doing stand-up spots on other people’s gigs. It’s time-consuming and means travelling all around and I prefer doing my own shows. 

I did consider doing a children’s show in Edinburgh. Standing on Custard would make an amazing children’s show but… Well, it’s all very well signing books and making children laugh but it’s a whole different ball game when you can make a whole room of adults laugh.

JOHN: The lure of the applause?

JO: I was missing the feel-good. Also, because everything is so politically dark and horrible at the moment, I think if you have a skill – to make kids or adults laugh – now is definitely the time to be doing it.

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85-year-old Lynn Ruth Miller tries out her 68-year-old Spanish in Barcelona

And so we continue the globetrotting adventures of 85-year-old London-based American comic and occasional burlesque performer Lynn Ruth Miller


The artful Lynn Ruth Miller in Barcelona

I was in Barcelona again. It is a wonderful place to wander. It has narrow, winding streets filled with art galleries and expensive shops.  

I took Spanish 68 years ago, my freshman year at the University of Michigan, and I was quite good at it.  

All the football players took that class because it was so easy and we had the captain in our class: Señor Perez. I managed to teach him several words because he had trouble reading. (He was a football player; the university did not accept him for his literary abilities.) 

I still remember the vocabulary I drummed into his head but I never got a chance to use those words with real Spaniards until I visited Barcelona. 

When I checked in at my hotel, I said “Hola!” to the surprised young lady at the front desk and it made her smile. 

I explained (in English, of course): “I am a professional comedian and my job is to make people laugh.”  

She laughed.  

“Gracias!” I said.  

“De Nada,” she said (with a very thick accent) and I actually understood her.  

I can tell you I felt very Spanish as I tangoed up to my room in the attic of the hotel.  

It was a small room, just about the size of a telephone booth, but it had an unusual feature. The back wall was actually a skylight. You pushed a button to make the shade come down and block the light.  

When I pushed the button the whole room shook, which helped me get my circulation going. 

I thought that was a nice feature in addition to fresh towels and soap. It made up for the hotel not providing a kettle.

Lynn Ruth and Christine go Catalan

My companion this time was Christine, a superb artist who lived in Barcelona for over two years before she returned to Brighton to remind herself that she was really English. Her Spanish is REALLY good and she said wonderfully melodic things like “Por favor” and “No hablo español”.  She was really a great help to me when I tried to order food at the restaurants while I was in town. 

The first night we were there, we went to a Spanish bodega and I tried to order typical native cuisine. I asked Christine to get me a burger with fries. She smiled at the waiter and said something I couldn’t really decipher but the wine was wonderful.

The next afternoon, we happened into an artist’s studio and gallery. The paintings were huge and reminded me a lot of Picasso during his psychotic period.  

The artist was an elderly man with flowing gray hair and he had tubes of paint scattered everywhere. He offered to show us his technique but I explained that I was very old and my muscles weren’t as supple as they once were.  

Thank goodness he didn’t speak English.

Then Christine and I went to an improv jazz place called JazzSí where musicians rotate on stage and play marvellous, hummable jazz. I sat next to a lovely young man from Brazil who explained that this was the place where students could practice their music. I asked him if he played too. And he said of course he did – but not music.

That night was my show at Craft Barcelona and it was magnifique, as they say somewhere in Europe. Not in Barcelona evidently. I tried it and someone said they didn’t have that kind of tapa.  

On stage at Craft Barcelona after dog food memories

I have performed at Craft Barcelona twice before and each time has been an amazing success. This time, the host was Matthew from Perrysburg, Ohio, which was amazing to me because, during my salad years, I was from that very same place. I shopped at Kazmaier’s, the only supermarket in town. I asked Matthew if he remembered Bro, the son of the owner, and he said actually Bro WAS the owner now which all goes to show that even established grocery stores eventually change management.  

I asked Matthew if they still sold Alpo, the dog food good enough for people to eat. I explained that there had been a man in Perrysburg who used to buy a case of Alpo every week and when Bro said, “You must have a really hungry dog,” the man said, ”It isn’t FOR my dog.”

Matthew said: “That was my father.”

Ohioans have very strange taste. That is why we both left.

In Barcelona, the other comedians and the audience were mostly expats and I was the headliner. I did just short of an hour and everyone stood up and cheered. I was thrilled that they enjoyed my performance so much but Vinnie (the man who booked me) explained that wasn’t why they were cheering.  

They were just amazed that I had stood that long.

I always say you take your accolades any way you can get them.

The next day we ‘did’ Barcelona which is the most do-able city ever. I saw a woman sitting at a sewing machine sewing people’s names into cardboard for souvenirs and a shoe shop where the shoes had slogans like I LOVE TO DANCE and I AM CUTE and TRUTH CAUSES INDIGESTION.  

Christine and I indulged ourselves in very expensive Piña Colada’s and then we hurried over to Spank the Baby which is not what you think it is.  

It is a dance studio and my hero Pablo teaches the Lindy Hop there. It has become a tradition that I go there and Pablo dances with me.  

The long and the short of it for Lynn Ruth Miller in Barcelona

The problem is that, each time we dance, I get a bit shorter and Pablo gets a bit taller. 

This time the poor fellow had to go into traction after we whirled around the floor to Tea for Two 

I was not in very good shape after the dance myself. One of my lungs collapsed at the second chorus and my foot slammed into my ankle at the finale.

I wanted to thank Pablo properly in Spanish so I said, “¿Dónde está el baño?” and he said, “Adios, muchacha.”  

Which I thought was very sexy.

We wandered down some dark alleys on our way to a real Catalan restaurant and stumbled on another artist’s studio.  

This artist was Isabella and she was from Ecuador.  Her husband was an actor and she worked with glass and metal to make interesting goblets and rings. She created whimsical necklaces and earrings as well.  

We chatted about the importance of creativity and the joys of being an artist and I praised her work with one of my Spanish phrases, “Amo a mi perro,” and she smiled and said, “Tengo un gato.”  

“You are so welcome,” I said and we hurried to the restaurant where we met Vinnie and his new wife Dana.  

Vinnie is from Manchester and has a thriving internet business as well as a production company that books musicians and comedians.  

He took us to Los Caracoles, which is an old-established Catalan restaurant. The place was filled with antique paintings and happy people. We loved the food, especially after the fourth glass of wine.  

The next morning we said a sad goodbye to this lovely city.  

A drunk at the hotel front desk asked me if I knew what a homosexual was and I said: “Darling, I lived in Brighton for two years.”  

I thanked the girl at the desk with another of my Spanish phrases: “Hable despacio!” 

She replied: “All you owe is the room tax.” 

Christine and I stopped for a quick coffee and we both got a hug and kiss from an Argentinean who said he lived in London for six months. That was when I realized that you get a lot more than coffee at a Barcelonan coffee shop.  

As we boarded the plane to Gatwick, I shouted ”Muchas Gracias!” and off we disappeared into the bright blue skies.  

As soon as the sky turned dull and gray, we knew we were back home again. 

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The Museum of Comedy’s Monday Club – “London’s best ‘new material’ night”?

In London, there are loads of free ‘new material’ comedy nights. This often means inexperienced comedians turn up with half-written, half-baked half-ideas and the evenings can sometimes be more endurance test than entertainment.

One exception is the (in my experience) consistently good and – amazingly – free Monday Club show, held in The Museum of Comedy on – well – on Mondays.

The Museum of Comedy is a random collection of comedy memorabilia and a well-designed performance space in a crypt under St George’s Church in Bloomsbury.

It (The Museum of Comedy not the church) is owned by the Leicester Square Theatre and this coming Monday is the 1st anniversary of The Monday Club.  

So yesterday I chatted to David Hardcastle, who (with Tony Dunn & Patch Hyde) organises The Monday Club and runs comedy competitions for the Leicester Square Theatre and the Museum of Comedy.


David Hardcastle and (top) Tommy Cooper

JOHN: The majority of new material nights in London are – well – not very good but you always maintain a high quality. Genuinely.

DAVID: I hope so. It’s mostly invitation only – some people get in touch, but they have to be of a certain level. Because a lot or some of the acts know each other, there’s a sort of support group AND competitive element in it: they HAVE to write something new for it, otherwise people will know they’ve been lazy. 

JOHN: What is your actual title at the Theatre and Museum?

DAVID: Artist Development. 

JOHN: And comedy competition supremo…

DAVID: Well, originally, at Leicester Square, we just ran the one competition and now it’s the Leicester Square Theatre AND the Museum of Comedy AND the Great Yorkshire Fringe – and there are four competitions within them, so I’ve sort-of invented my own job.

One of the reasons for The Monday Club is we used to have people coming in through competitions but then we had nothing else to give them; no way of supporting them by giving them stage time unless they came back and rented the space to do a preview. So it’s hopefully a way of keeping those people in the loop and involved in the venue.

JOHN: You have a New Comedian of the Year competition, but you no longer have an Old Comedian of the Year competition.

DAVID: Now it’s called the Not So New Comedian of the Year.

JOHN: And the title was changed because…?

DAVID: A lot of people refused to enter a competition that had the word ‘Old’ in it. It is for comics over 35 years old and people argued 35 is not old enough to call anyone old!

JOHN: I say just give it to Lynn Ruth Miller every year: she’s 85!

DAVID: Well, she MCs it every year now.

JOHN: You sometimes MC at The Monday Club yourself, but not always.

DAVID: I quite enjoy it when I do it, but I never particularly want to do it.

JOHN: You’re not frustrated by putting acts on but you’re not one of them?

DAVID: You perform comedy and you reach a stage where you are sort-of competent but, if you’re not aged 23, it’s very hard to get further than that.

My full-time job is comedy admin, so I don’t have the time to perform as well, really. And I’m too lazy to perform. I’ve not written a joke in four years.

JOHN: Before comedy, you were doing what…?

David’s poster for US comic Doug Stanhope

DAVID: Graphic design, which I still do. I still do the design work for here and Leicester Square Theatre.

JOHN: Graphic designers and stand-up comics surely have a different mind-set?

DAVID: I think, if it’s a creative thing, that’s… Well, weirdly, there are a lot of comics from an art and design background. They start popping up online at this time of year saying Do you want poster designs for your Edinburgh Fringe show? 

I did fine art originally, at Bradford College of Art.

JOHN: You are from Bradford.

DAVID: Yes. Then I did an MA at Camberwell in London. There is no money in doing fine art, but you can make a living doing graphics. So I started doing that by accident.

JOHN: You used to run a night called Get Happy in Farringdon.

DAVID: My girlfriend at the time and I had both done Logan Murray’s comedy course and running Get Happy was an easy way to get stage time.

JOHN: You did Logan Murray’s course because…?

DAVID: I think stand-up comedy is one of those things where you always fancy giving it a go.

JOHN: Not me.

DAVID: I had always fancied doing stand-up.

JOHN: So you started in…?

DAVID: Around 2007, I think.

JOHN: And now you are in theatre management and Artist Development… So do you get a hard-on by finding new talent? I will think of some better way of phrasing that when I transcribe this.

DAVID: I’m spunking my pants even as we speak.

JOHN: Perhaps I will leave it in, then, if that’s the phrase.

Behind The Scenes at the Museum… of Comedy

DAVID: I know what you mean, though. When I first started running my own comedy night, I actually found that there was more satisfaction in putting an entire night together that works than there was going up myself and performing. I just found there was something really nice about the fact that people would come into a pub and watch something for an hour and a half and go away happy.

JOHN: Because you had structured it well.

DAVID: Exactly. There are so many comedy nights that aren’t structured and are just a shambles and then they wonder why they don’t work.

JOHN: I think club owner Malcolm Hardee’s rule-of thumb was you end with the best act, start-off with the second best act and have a good solid act at the end of Part One. So what is your template structure?

DAVID: Don’t let people bang on too long and let the audience know what’s happening.

JOHN: The acts all get 5 minutes.

DAVID: Yeah. It’s all about keeping it in manageable chunks, I think. And proper lighting; proper sound.

JOHN: Have the nights got better over the course of the first year?

DAVID: Yes. Because we have started to get some regulars in the audience. People don’t come back every week but, if we ask at the start, usually at least half of them have been before, which means we now have an audience that knows what’s going on and are on-board with the concept. Which is nice. You start with a warm audience, so it’s better.

We want it to be relaxed for the audience AND the acts. One of the reasons we start at 7.00pm and finish by 9.00pm is it leaves time to have a chat afterwards.

Crypt-ic comedy under a Bloomsbury church

JOHN: The acts you have on are good solid acts but not ‘TV names’ or mega names. Are the Big Names too big to play The Monday Club?

DAVID: I think audiences generally are more aware of the concept of new material now. I think once you reach a certain level, you can do a whole hour of new material rather than rock up and do five minutes. The Big Names can do an hour and sell tickets to it. Michael McIntyre has been here at the Museum of Comedy doing new material. Alexei Sayle is on for a week with a new show.

JOHN: When they’re Big and more experienced, they can try out entire shows rather than five minute chunks, which is the Monday Club format.

DAVID: Yes. But Josh Widdicombe has done a Monday Club. Rachel Parris did one.

JOHN: Next Monday is going to be a special show to celebrate your 1st anniversary?

DAVID: Yes, we are going to have on exactly the same people we were going to have on before we realised it was our birthday.

JOHN: But with added free cake, I heard.

DAVID: Oh yes. We’re having cake.

JOHN: Then I’ll be here.

DAVID: We have started describing it as “London’s best new material night” purely on the grounds it is difficult to prove any different.

JOHN: I like your way of thinking.

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