We chat to straight-talking comedian JoJo Smith

She's been a musician, a journalist, and now she’s coming to Abu Dhabi's Laughter Factory to mark 24 years in the stand-up game

We chat to straight-talking comedian JoJo Smith

I started doing comedy in 1993,” comedic force JoJo Smith tells us. “It was the end of June and Glastonbury weekend. I’ve just had my 24th anniversary. I didn’t think I’d get away with it for this long.”

It’s this sort of self-deprecating, straight-talking honesty that makes Smith so charming. The London-based comedian from Preston, Lancashire, is a force of sardonic wit who has lived a life full of stories worth telling – from starting a fake fanzine so she could interview bands, to becoming a financial assistant to Mick Jones of The Clash and a PA for Dexys Midnight Runners. Yet none of it has gone to her head. “At the Evening Standard people used to say, ‘You’re so funny, you should go on stage’. All my life I’ve had that, but actually I was just saying how I felt.”

So how did she take the plunge into comedy? “I’d been a journalist for 15 years,” she tells us ahead of appearing at The Laughter Factory next month. “And in 1991 it was the first Gulf War. I got a repetitive strain injury in my hands from the computers at work. Even though I was only writing about TV, the schedule kept changing due to the news and I hardly took my hands off the keyboard.”

The injury caused further problems and, after a year of struggling with her health, she was eventually let go. Following a stint living off £60-a-week benefits, she started doing stand-up because “there was nothing else to do, really – it was a night out”.

Her brand of comedy is very personal, based on the world as she sees it. “You know, none of us are that unique,” she says. “Other people identify with it. There’s always common ground – mainly a bit of bitterness, a bit of angst befitting a 56-year-old woman.”

Smith’s appearances at the world-famous Edinburgh Festival Fringe have included solo shows about her time with Jones and Dexys, most recently I Was the Ninth Dexys Midnight Runner: Ten True Tales. It all started because of her love of punk rock. She put together a band, before realising that they couldn’t sing or play instruments. “I just wanted to meet these people,” she says, and eventually she decided to say she had a magazine. “I didn’t have a magazine, I just told them I had one. The first person I interviewed was Ian Dury and that was so good, that I was like, ‘Ooh, maybe we should get a magazine together’.”

The magazine didn't happen, and her friend found her a job as a bank clerk in London. “I ended up having to be the most un-punk rock person in the world.” This post was followed by one at a music paper called Popstar Weekly, where she wrote reviews while Paula Yates did the gossip column. “And that lasted about six weeks before it folded, it was rubbish.”

Eventually Dexys offered her a job after noticing her at all their gigs. “I used to iron their trousers, make cups of tea and I was the gofer really.” And she may have been the only person in Britain who stopped wearing dungarees because of the band. “They were a sticking point because I had dungarees and [lead singer] Kevin Rowland made me get rid of them because they were hippy clothes, according to him, in 1980. So I had to wear a donkey jacket and a woolly hat, which wasn’t fetching at all. They looked like Marlon Brando from On The Waterfront and I looked like Benny from Crossroads. It wasn’t a good look.” The band later became synonymous with their gypsy-style, denim overalls look, which was adopted by fans across the UK.

Yet comedy is where Smith found her true home. “I’ve always felt like an outsider – in the music business, in newspapers. But in comedy I don’t, because we’re all freaks.”

“Some people are practically normal, and others are basket cases. But comedians seem to be very accepting of each other’s foibles. The worst thing you can do is nick somebody else’s jokes, then you’ve had it.”

While Smith still loves music – right now it’s Run the Jewels, Stormzy and Radiohead – comedy has got her “through sticky situations”. She says: “For that few hours you’re watching comedy, it puts the world on hold. We all need that really. I just can’t imagine doing anything else at this stage.”

Her heroes are Les Dawson, Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper and Jo Brand, and we can’t help but see similarities between Smith and the latter, in attitudes as much as in name. “[Jo] made it okay not to be a glamour puss. Before her, every female comedian wore a frock and had their hair done. Jo came along and did it the hard way – she did the circuit when there wasn’t much of one, but what there was was tough. She had furniture thrown at her, not because she wasn’t funny, but because men weren’t used to seeing that.”

And Smith, too, has done her fair share to battle the oft-repeated line of, ‘Well, I don’t normally like female comedians’. When she started out, Edinburgh might have one woman appearing with a solo show, whereas this year there are “20 or 30”. “It’s fantastic, and that’s how it should be. Women are funny – as many men laugh at me as women do.”

We ask Smith to sum herself up in three words. “Bitter and twisted,” she replies quickly, with a throaty laugh. Accept she’s not bitter or twisted. She’s a fantastically interesting soul who has fought hard to be where she is. And then she adds: “But you can say that I’m nice really.”

Jojo Smith will perform at The Laughter Factory at Park Rotana on Wed Sep 6, and the Hilton Abu Dhabi Tue Sep 12. From Dhs140. www.thelaughterfactory.com (050 878 6728).

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