Tag Archives: Jo Burke

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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Terry Wogan, James Bond, Superman and The Short Man With Long Socks

Terry Wogan and Jo Burke

Terry Wogan and performer Jo Burke at yesterday’s launch

Yesterday afternoon, I went to the book launch for Terry Wogan’s first novel Those Were the Days.

In passing, he mentioned that, at one point, he had been considered for the part of James Bond. But producer Cubby Broccoli thought his ears were too big and chose Roger Moore instead.

I took this as a joke, but one never can tell.

Terry Wogan novel

Terry Wogan’s first novel – autobiographical?

I seem to remember that movie producers the Salkinds seriously considered the younger Salkind’s wife’s dentist for the role of Superman and screen-tested him at least twice.

Yesterday evening, I went to see the Comedy International Showcase at the Pleasance in Islington. Full of interesting acts and not just on stage.

In the audience, I bumped into The Short Man With Long Socks, who had come specifically to see the always excellent Men in Coats. I half expected to find a whole row of clothes-related acts.

Men in Coats

Men in Coats were seen by The Short Man With Long Socks

I have never seen The Short Man With Long Socks perform – few people in the UK have. I have only heard of his act by repute from the late Malcolm Hardee and Martin Soan (both non-clothes-related acts) who talked about him in an October 2013 blog.

“Are you doing any London shows at some point?” I asked The Short Man With Long Socks.

“Well,” he said. “I… Well…”

Short Man with Long Socks

This appeared in my cyber In-Box this morning

“Could you send me a picture of you performing?” I asked.

“Well,” he said. “Well…”

“Here’s my e-mail,” I said.

“Well…” he said.

I thought: Well, I’ll never hear from him again… and don’t try talking to mime acts.

But, this morning, I got an e-mail picture of a sock.

Well, it’s a start.

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iScream – Jo Burke on stage and page

Jo Burke’s poster for The Museum of Comedy

Jo Burke’s poster for The Museum of Comedy

Creative life can be very confusing.

This Saturday, Jo Burke is performing her Edinburgh Fringe show iScream at the Museum of Comedy in London.

And her book iScream is on sale.

“Is the show based on the book?” I asked. “Or is the book based on the show?”

“The show is not based on the book at all.” Jo told me. “It’s just got excerpts, because it’s based on my life in general. The book is just about my dating experiences. When I started writing iScream, it wasn’t called iScream – neither the book nor the show. It kind of all came about by accident.”

“Is there going to be a sequel?” I asked. “To either the book or the show?”

“I was thinking of doing another show solely based on the book, because people seem to like the book bits in the show.”

“You could call it Burke’s Lore,” I suggested, “though no-one remembers the Burke’s Law TV series.”

“Or Burke’s Peerage,” suggested Jo.

“With you peering into something?”

“Mmmm…”

“And a second book?” I asked.

“I bought 100 ISBN barcodes.”

“One down. Just 99 to go,” I said. “So a sequel to the iScream dating book?”

Jo Burke is delighted with her book

Jo Burke: 99 possible books but not a sequel

“Not unless the public demand one!” Jo laughed. “I don’t think so. It was a very personal book. I think I’ve already over-shared in that one, frankly.”

“Over-shared?” I asked.

“There’s quite a lot of personal information in there.”

“So which page is the filth on?” I asked.

“It’s not filth! It’s quite deep and thoughtful and challenging. I think it’s a 21st century Bridget Jones. But she was fiction and posh. And Jo Burke is fact and poor – which is an entirely different point of view that’s hardly ever heard nowadays – a poor working class voice. And it’s not as fluffy as Bridget Jones. It’s got some depth to it that Bridget Jones definitely doesn’t have at all.”

“I saw you being grabbed by someone in the street in Edinburgh,” I said, “wanting you to sign the book. Who was he?”

“No idea. He looked like James Corden, but wasn’t. I had just finished my show and gone for a drink with my accountant and – this is how well my accountant knows me – I offered to buy him a drink and he said: No, no. I should buy you one… You know you’re in trouble when your accountant won’t let you buy a drink.

“I was signing a lot of books after my shows and most people wanted me to put their name in it – To Whoever… but this one guy went: Oh no, don’t personalise it – It’ll be worth more on eBay. I thought he was joking and he really wasn’t.

“My room was packed every day. I don’t know where they came from. On the first Sunday, I was expecting to come out to a room of four people and it was packed, with people standing. It threw me. you don’t expect that in Edinburgh. Not me.”

Jo Burke, mildly amused by Nathan Cassidy yesterday

Jo Burke & Nathan Cassidy before not meeting James Corden

I reminded her: “When the bloke in the street in Edinburgh wanted you to sign his copy of the book, it was by a DeLorean car that Nathan Cassidy was using to plug his Back To The Future shows. Perhaps the bloke had come back from the future to get your autograph, knowing you are going to be very, very famous in a few years time.”

Jo shrugged. “I just think the image really works.”

The cover of Jo Burke’s successful book (artwork by Steve Ullathorne)

The cover of Jo Burke’s successful book (artwork by Steve Ullathorne)

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Edinburgh Fringe: The unavoidable Lewis Schaffer & the African President

Priscilla Adade, Tom Stade and Lewis Schaffer of Giant Leap(Photo by Trudy Brambrough)

Priscilla Adade, Tom Stade and Lewis Schaffer of Giant Leap (Photograph by Trudy Brambrough)

Yesterday, I was talking to critic Kate Copstick and I think we came to the conclusion that, this year at the Edinburgh Fringe, there is no one ‘hot’ act whom everyone is talking about. Although Phil Nichol seems to be everywhere either as a performer or as a producer – the ten shows to promote the tenth anniversary of his Comedians’ Theatre Company is only the tip of an iceberg.

I saw one of his shows yesterday – Giant Leap, about the alleged writing of Neil Armstrong’s first words during the allegedly faked Moon landing in 1969.

This is the one which has Lewis Schaffer in his first on-stage acting role since his schooldays. And he is very good. But, talking to him afterwards, it was all about the review he got for his stand-up comedy show from critic Bruce Dessau. It was only a 3-star review and Lewis Schaffer seems to think Bruce told him it could have been a 4-star review but he (Lewis Schaffer) was not bad enough. If you build an entire career on being a failure as a comic, you rather screw yourself if you are rather too good. Sure enough, when I looked up the review, it ends with the words: “Go along and you won’t be disappointed. It’s a good gig. But if you are lucky maybe you will catch him have a bad gig”

Mr Twonkey and friend yesterday

Mr Twonkey and his close friend yesterday

Also in the audience at Giant Leap was Mr Twonkey who, the previous day, had supplied cheese at the surprisingly busy Grouchy Club show. He told me he had run out of cheese and was not coming to our second show.

And no-one else did either. The allotted time – 3.45pm at The Counting House Lounge – arrived and no-one turned up to participate, something that hadn’t happened in the two Fringes we have been doing it.

But then, three minutes later, Italian Luca Cupani turned up. So the three of us – Kate Copstick, Luca and I talked about his forthcoming appearance in the final of So You Think You’re Funny, comedy in general, Italy and toilets. I have posted a 26 minute extract online in what I presume will be a daily podcast extract from the show.

Today’s Grouchy Club will be interesting as Copstick is off at some dodgy venue doing a panel discussion with Janey Godley and others for online magazine Spiked on the subject of That’s Not Funny! Are Offence-Seekers Killing Comedy?

So, tomorrow, there may be a podcast posted of an extract from me talking to myself.

Anyway, after today’s threesome, I went off to see Nathan Cassidy pulling another publicity stunt in the Cowgate for his Back To The Future shows featuring the DeLorean car he has managed to half-inch from someone (possibly in the past).

Jo Burke, mildly amused by Nathan Cassidy yesterday

Jo Burke was mildly amused by Nathan Cassidy yesterday

I seem to spend most of my days figuratively bumping into people in the street but yesterday, by the DeLorean, I was literally bumped-into by Jo Burke.

She appeared to be having a fit of the giggles and, on leaving (she was rushing to Waverley station to put a friend on a train) got stopped by a fan who wanted her to sign a copy of her iScream book for him.

Thought to self afterwards: Was that impromptu book-signing a set-up?

Decision by self: No, I don’t think it was. I think it was actually real. It was bizarre. This is Edinburgh. Bizarre things happen all the time.

When I too left the DeLorean, 30 seconds later, I bumped into Alexander Bennett, but only figuratively.

Alexander Bennett in Edinburgh street scene

Alexander Bennett in Edinburgh street scene

“All hail Alexander Bennett!” I shouted out. “Have you any hilarious anecdotes for my blog?”

“John,” he replied, “you are the bottom-feeder of comedy. You are scraping around. Have you got any anecdotes? Have you got any anecdotes so I can sort-of write down what you’ve said.

“That’s a bit harsh,” I said. “I hailed you – and this is what I get.”

“The trouble is,” said Alexander, “my catchphrase (All hail Alexander Bennett!) is only working with you. Maybe it will take off and…”

At this point, I saw John Robertson walking fast on the other side of the road holding a placard advertising his Dark Room show.

I shouted loudly across the street: “Have you any hilarious anecdotes for my increasingly prestigious blog?”

He half raised his hand in what looked like a slightly tired acknowledgement and hurried on his way.

When I too hurried on my way, I got a message from Malcolm Hardee Awards judge Claire Smith: Lewis Schaffer was ASTONISHING yesterday.

Matt Price looking for a bargain yesterday

Matt Price looking for a bargain in Edinburgh yesterday

I turned a corner and bumped into Matt Price. He and his partner Martha McBrier are turning into Lewis Schaffer.

Ever since Martha got a 5-star review in The Scotsman, their venue has been swamped by ‘star-chasers’ – people who only go to shows because they have stars in The Scotsman and elsewhere, not because they are interested in the show as such.

“You are turning into Lewis Schaffer,” I said. “If good things happen, you get worried.”

“He has re-defined failure and it’s amazing,” said Matt. “We saw him yesterday and Martha had never seen him perform before. It was just unbelievable. Amazing. Martha said: Oh. Is this what he does, then?”

Then my evening was spent watching three superb comedy shows.

Lynn Ruth Miller: Get a Grip
Arguably the warmest and cuddliest autobiographical storyteller on the Fringe. Well, I got a cuddle, so I’m happy.

Janey Godley: Honest To Godley
I think I have said in this blog before that she is he most all-round creative person I have ever met and these two quotes from elsewhere still remain true:

“The most outspoken female stand-up in Britain” (Daily Telegraph)

 “Some of the sharpest-elbowed comedy in the world” (New York Times)

President Obonjo: dictator to Benjamin Bello

President Obonjo: dictator to Benjamin Bello

President Obonjo: The Man Who Stole My Identity
President Obonjo, African dictator, is actually comedian Benjamin Bello and he lives in St Albans – on the same railway line as me. So I have had about three rail journey chats with him – one of which I think involved the basic idea of this show – but only seen him perform one 10-minute spot in London. This hour-long show was a revelation.

He has great audience control. The character was immediately taken-to-heart by a mostly male audience. And then he takes the uniform off, becomes Benjamin Bello and analyses the nature of character comedy, wonders why the character he writes and performs is funnier than he himself is on stage… and then puts the uniform back on and becomes the character again.

Loud, loud laughter in the first and third sections; total silence in the middle broken by occasional laughter when he bungs in a joke. But it is not silence because they don’t like the performance. It is the silence of wrapt attention and – I think – fascination.

Nothing at all like what I expected.

The downside of the Edinburgh Fringe is that, although he got in a good audience last night, he is unlikely to get reviewed because he is unknown, hidden away in the labyrinth of the impenetrably badly-signed Cowgatehead venue and does not have a big-bucks promoter behind him.

So it goes.

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Edinburgh Fringe: 5-stars, fake breasts, deaf squirrels, iScream and Hokum

BethVyseA lot of Edinburgh Fringe acts do not need publicity in this blog any more. They are doing too well.

This morning, on my way back from the laundrette – oh, the glamour of the Fringe – I bumped into comedian Beth Vyse who, two days ago, had a full half-page article about her in the Guardian.

As a result, she told me, the audiences for her show As Funny As Cancer have changed for the better. Instead of (my phrase) drunken passing Scots, she is now getting more women interested in the actual subject of her show. The Guardian piece was headlined: Fake breasts, ping-pong balls and tears in a comic exploration of cancer. 

We will return to this morning at the end of this blog.

Tom Binns’ characters

Tom Binns’ characters need no help from me after that review

Yesterday, I went to see Tom Binns. He had just got a 5-star review from Kate Copstick in The Scotsman for his Club Sets show – hardly surprising as it showcases his three characters and himself and he does a genuine psychic trick, a card trick, ventriloquism and a plethora of sharp verbal and musical jokes.

Then I went to the Italian Cultural Institute where they were showcasing Italian-related acts and shows linked by comic Luca Cupani who surprised me – I have no idea why – by being a very very good MC.

Amy Howerska - allegedly

Amy Howerska – the word of mouth will deafen squirrels

Then Amy Howerska Sasspot – she really DID grow up in a family of trained killers – had her room so packed to the rafters with appreciative punters (on a day when, traditionally, audiences drop off) that she needs no publicity from me and the word-of-mouth on her energetic show will be so loud it will deafen squirrels at 200 yards.

Coming down the Gilded Balloon’s spiral stairs after seeing Amy’s show, I bumped into Charmian Hughes whose daily show When Comedy Was Alternative (The Laughs and Loves of a She-Comic) actually names names, including ex-boyfriend Dave Thompson (Tinky Winky in TV’s Teletubbies).

Charmian Hughes When Comedy Was Alternative

Charmian Hughes knew how to get booked

“I’m doing two of Dave’s jokes,” she told me, “to portray his part in my life. He said I could do it only if I told his jokes right, but I can get very muddled up. So he’s coming up from Brighton next week and he will have a walk-on part in my show next Tuesday or Wednesday, when he will do his own two jokes.”

“When did you two meet?” I asked.

“When he ran a show which included an open spot. My open spot went really badly and I thought: How can I get another booking? I know! I’ll get off with him, become his girlfriend and then emotionally blackmail him throughout the relationship so he has to give me gigs… And it worked!

I then went to see Adrienne Truscott’s a One-Trick Pony!

Yesterday morning, Adrienne had posted on her Facebook page:


Adrienne Truscott

Adrienne Truscott is not a one-trick pony

In the States they say that, if a pigeon shits on you, it’s good luck. 

I went out for coffee at the corner and came upon a 2-star review of my not-yet-ready-for-prime-time second show by a very thoughtful and fair writer.

I agreed with his observations heartily and went directly home to continue working on it and, in my lounge room, came upon 2 trapped pigeons! One for each star?!! They were flying everywhere and nowhere, mayhem back and forth, all around me, smashing into the windows, smashing into the walls, swooping past my head, feathers and wings everywhere.

They shat everywhere!!

Neither shat on me. Not one ounce. 2 terrified trapped pigeons and one shit-free me!

I am not yet an experienced stand-up comedian but I have a hearty sense of humor. I’ve cleaned up the shit. I’ve made my show better. I love it now and can’t wait for tonight.


She was still shit-free last night and the show was as she hoped.

PhilJarvis

Phil Jarvis’ Hokum. Don’t ask… Just don’t ask

The last show I saw yesterday was Malcolm Julian Swan Presents Hokum at the Freestival’s new venue in the New Waverley Arches. The repeated cry was: This is not a show. It’s an album!” And, indeed, it was not really a show, more a time trip to some deranged 1967 Happening which involved kazoos, pipes, much banging and chanting of random phrases like Human Detritus! plus a bit of nudity, projected computer screens, bits of cardboard and the repetition of phrases through a loud-hailer. Oh – and Phil Jarvis, whose admirably shambolic show it really was.

Hokum (if it really was called that) is highly recommended as a one-off which was really a two-off (it was only on for two days) but you can’t see it – last night was the final show.

So back – or maybe forward – to this morning.

This morning, comic actress Jo Burke was flying up to Edinburgh for her show iScream, which starts on Sunday.

Texts and e-mails flew, because she has also written a book iScream – now available – to go with the show.

Jo Burke with her physical book

Jo Burke with one of her physical books

“The show is new,” she told me, “but I wrote the book about ten years ago – It was a book about internet dating and a year in my life with a brief history of me to set it up. At that time, it was called From Strangers with Love – like in the subject heading of an e-mail.

“This year’s Fringe stage show was called iScream and I did a preview in London and someone – well, you, John – told me it should be more about me. So I took some stuff out that was not about me and thought: What shall I put in to fill the gaps that’s about me? And then I realised: Y’know what? I already have a whole book of stuff that is ‘me’ and, when I looked at it again, I found two little things from the book which I added to the stage show and I then thought: This is a perfect opportunity to release the book as well. So the book is now called iScream too.”

“Did you re-write bits?”

“No. It was written ten years ago and now I am a completely different person to the one who wrote the book.”

“So are the book and the stage show about the same thing?”

“No,” replied Jo. “The book is maybe only under ten minutes of the hour-long show, which is the abridged version of me. The stage show is very personal to me and it does end on what could be considered a downbeat note, but it’s actually not; it’s a very positive note. Like everyone else, you trolley through the shit and come out the best you can.”

Jo Burke iScream designed by Steve Ullathorne

Jo Burke’s show poster, by Steve Ullathorne

“You must be happy the book is out,” I said.

“It is doing extremely well and has been as high Number 17 on Amazon in Comedian Biographies. But I’m actually terrified people will read it and never speak to me again – I have been ridiculously honest. Friends read early drafts of it and told me to take things out and I refused. I’m already writing the second book.”

“The story continues?”

“No. I’m easily bored. I like to try my hand at different things.”

“With luck, money might roll in,” I said.

Jo Burke with butterflies and Prosecco a London City Airport

Jo – butterflies and Prosecco at City Airport

“If money was the prime motivator,” said Jo. “I wouldn’t have done all the things I’ve done in the last ten years. Unfortunately, money doesn’t motivate me; but doing stuff I can feel proud of or which makes other people happy or think… I enjoy that. Just a living. I’d just like to make a living out of it.

“If you’re money-motivated, you gravitate towards the City and almost no-one I know is a City suit person. I don’t want to meet City suit people. I don’t like them. They lost everyone’s money and are still rich and it makes me sad.”

“Where are you now?”

“Currently at London City Airport awaiting lift off. I have butterflies and Prosecco…”

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Comedy actress writer Jo Burke wants to scream about her life in her new show

Jo Burke iScream designed by Steve Ullathorne

Jo Burke is slightly worried about her new show

Jo Burke is slightly worried about performing her new show. She is performing it at the Brighton Fringe for three nights in May. Then at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

“I’m on the Edinburgh train again,” she told me, “but with far fewer suitcases. I started writing the new show in my head from the minute I realised I had taken on too much at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe.”

“Why too much?” I asked.

“Because I took up not one but two shows that I had written and was producing and was flyering for and was teching… and one of them involved hoofing up with a projector and a projector screen and I had basically made my life as difficult as possible and I was exhausted. I had done Edinburgh four or five times before and that was the worst one I had had – I did not enjoy a single day.

“If you look at the reviews and audiences, I took up two 4-star shows and that side of it was all great but, personally, I was absolutely miserable. I know that’s how you are supposed to feel when you are performing at the Fringe but, up until then, all the other years I’d been up, I’d always really enjoyed it. It was always hard work, but not THAT much hard work.”

“And,” I asked, “your show this year is called…?”

iScream

“With a very good poster,” I said.

“The spec I gave the designer, Steve Ullathorne, was basically the Carrie poster, because I love dark humour and my shows are always dark.”

“Good use of blood,” I said. “And your show is basically about your three-and-a-half weeks of hell at the Fringe in 2014?”

“No,” said Jo. “Not that. I specifically did not want it to be a rant about Edinburgh because, if you’re not a performer it would mean nothing to you. Just the first five minutes are about last year – to put it into context – then the rest of the show is entirely different.”

“And you’re slightly worried about it?”

Jo as her Mary Magdalene character

Jo as her Mary Magdalene character

“Well, I have only ever done character shows – I have never been ‘me’ on stage for an hour – so this is my first ‘personal’ show and, because I’m an all-or-nothing kind of girl, I think maybe I have over-shared. It really is warts and all. You get me on a plate, basically. It is not necessarily pretty or clever, but it is definitely me… the kind of shit that’s gone on in my life.”

“You wrote a dating book, didn’t you?” I asked.

From Strangers With Love, yes.”

“Is that in it?”

“No. The normal things are covered that a stand-up does when they talk about themselves. But they are covered in a non-normal way. At the moment, my head is in this world of terrifyingly opening myself up to the public whereas, in the past, I have not been ‘me’ on stage.”

“Actors,” I said , “often claim stand-up comedy is the most difficult thing to do, because you have to be yourself.”

“Yes,” agreed Jo, “I never wanted to do comedy. I just shifted into comedy because the need and wish to perform over-rode the fact that comedy wasn’t really what I wanted to do. However, I seem to be able to do it.”

“You called yourself a writer earlier,” I said, “as if you put being a writer above being a performer.”

“I think I probably am. I think I would never not write, whereas I can see myself not performing. At the moment – though it’s been a bit interrupted by preparing for the iScream previews – I’m towards the end of writing eight monologues that I’d like to put on as a single show – four female monologues and four male monologues. They’re basically different characters at the same rough life stage. The overall title is Broken, which is what it is about.”

When I chatted to Jo, she had come straight from attending a course – Master Practitioner in Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

The real Jo Burke

The real Jo Burke, after her Neuro-Linguistic Programming

“Why are you doing that?” I asked.

“Because,” she told me, “as a writer, I have a natural interest in why we do things and how we are capable of changing those things. Intrinsically, everything you do informs your writing. So there is quite a clear clue as to what’s been going on in the iScream show – I’m not going to say what, because I don’t want to give it away.”

“What’s been going on with what?” I asked.

“With my writing and where I’m at… It just makes you realise patterns that are maybe not helpful that you’ve been doing. Things like self-sabotage and unhelpful thought patterns.”

“Doesn’t sound very linguistic to me,” I said.

“Well, how people speak is a massive clue to how people are feeling about themselves and other people. I mean, everyone has a friend and every time you meet them it’s all negative and, when you walk away, you feel drained.

“I’ve gone from what I would consider being a walking re-action to everyone, to deciding how to react to everything. Or not. If you suffer from road rage, you can notice what is building up and choose whether or not to get into that state. A lot of people don’t realise they have a choice: they think it’s just a knee-jerk reaction to a situation: If this happens, I WILL lose my rag or feel sad or eat biscuits. Everyone’s got these patterns and habits.

“You can’t really be a writer and not be interested in – and I don’t mean just a comedy writer, because I write other stuff as well – I don’t think you can be a writer and write about humans and the human condition and not be interested in why we think like we do and where those thoughts come from.”

Jo is previewing iScream at the London Theatre in New Cross this Thursday, then at the Leicester Square Theatre on Good Friday.

Rather obviously, I asked her: “What if you get crucified?”

“I will rise again on the third day and do another show on the Monday,” she told me.

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Comedy performer Jo Burke on actors, breast implants, conformity, Streisand, her fear of buttons & her dad’s 3 vices

Jo Burke at the Soho Theatre Bar

Jo Burke was being forthright at the Soho Theatre Bar

“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?”

Jo’s FunBags sketch group

Jo’s FunBags sketch group – finalists at the Fringe

“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?”

“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.”

Jo Burke - Burke Shire

Jo Burke advertises her Edinburgh show

“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.

Jo as her Mary Magdalene character

Jo as comic character Mary Magdalene

“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.”

Jo Burke

“The next step is paralysing facial expressions so you can’t show you are happy, upset or sad”

“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.

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