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Backstage musings with Gina Yashere and Jojo Smith

Backstage musings with Gina Yashere and Jojo Smith

“The last bastion of the misfit”


This International Women’s Day St James put on a comedy night with two popular and exciting female comedians. Gina Yashere’s and Jojo Smith’s unique, often raw, comedy made for a great night and left the crowd in stitches. I was lucky enough to interview them and asked about their pasts, their views on the contemporary comedy scene and what plans they have for the future.

The St James’ stage was not the first that these two comics had shared. Jojo tells me how she gave Gina one of her first open spots at the venue The Boardwalk: “Remember The Boardwalk? [Gina] turned up, ‘I’m ready, I’m here.’ I went, ‘There’s no audience. Nobody’s come.’  [She] didn’t drink or anything ‘cos I was about to say, ‘Oh there’s a little bit of alcohol and stuff downstairs’ and [she] just said, ‘Oh right,’ and turned round and walked out.”

At this point Gina admitted “I don’t remember that.”

Jojo continues, “We saw each other on the set. Very rare, especially in those days, two women put together but because we’re black and white. We can’t both be talking about periods. So you know, we would both get on the same bills quite a lot.”

“And then I supported Gina on her Skinny Bitch tour and did the video thing at Hackney MTV.” Gina adds, “And you did my show at Croydon. That was the next tour. That wasn’t even Skinny Bitch. That was the following tour a few years later.” Thinking back Jojo muses, “ I remember that one being a brilliant gig.”

Prompted by the occasion of International Women’s Day I asked them if they felt gender inequality on the comedy circuit in recent years. Jojo tells me that, “It’s worse than it ever was because they’re not trying to be politically correct anymore. When I was a kid, female comedians had to be very sexy and very slinky and very slim and very elegant and there was a woman called Marti Caine. [She was] how female comedians had to look. They could be as silly as they wanted but they had to have a long frock on. Now we have all those women who all have writers and stylists and often they have stylists before they have writers. TV has gone right back you know. When Jo Brand appeared on TV it was like, ‘Wow! Normal people. She’s normal. Look at her – she’s overweight; she’s not that good looking’…” Gina interjects, “Well, that was what comedy was supposed to be. Comedy was the last bastion of the misfit. It was people who were not cool, not the best looking who got to do comedy and that was our thing. Now it’s gone the way of music where it’s all about youth and looks.”

Prompted by this trip down memory lane, I asked Gina about the exciting news that she has just started writing her autobiography. She explained to me how she came to start writing it: “The whole thing started ‘cos I used to do the Throwback Thursdays on Instagram. I’d throw up a picture of me and I’d put the story behind that picture and people just kept going, ‘Wow! You’ve had such an amazing life – you know you should write a book,” and after several people saying that I started making little notes in my phone and started collecting those Throwback Thursdays to remind me. And then an agent in New York followed me on Instagram and he was a literary agent and yeah he just called me up and said, ‘You interested in writing a book?’ and it just went from there.”

As for how she’s finding writing about her life, “It’s very cathartic. Stuff is just pouring out of me. It’s weird I didn’t think I could write a book… But I’m writing it. It’s great! I’m enjoying it, whether it’s going to be any good or not…” She laughs and trails off.

Almost the opposite Jojo Smith started off her working life as a journalist in her own punk fanzine. Without any professional training she joined the two punk fanzines of the time, “There was Sniffin’ Glue and there was Gary Crowley’s The Modern World or something. But Sniffin’ Glue was the one everybody knew and that was all you’d do. You’d just cut and paste and, you know, make a magazine.”

This fanzine put Jojo in the position to meet some amazing people and she tells me the story of her first interview with The Blockheads’ Ian Dury. “ Ian Dury and The Blockheads were playing in Preston when I was seventeen. That was about as punk rock as we ever got and I was like, ‘Let’s say we’ve got a fanzine and we want to meet him.’ We already had tickets for the show so we went to the venue in the afternoon and there was this kid, well he’s a man now, but he was a kid back then who worked for Ian Dury. His name was Cosmo Vinyl and he went, ‘Well, do you need tickets?’ and I went, ‘No we’ve got tickets and we’re coming to Liverpool tomorrow’ and he was like, ‘Rule number one – don’t ever buy tickets and don’t ever pay for records.’ We called our fanzine The Ligger because a ligger was somebody who hung out with the band. Not a groupie you know – we didn’t have any sexual relations we just wanted to be their friends. Those are the first rules of being a ligger. We all had punk names as well, I was Gay Abandon and my best friend was Ana Key but not only could she not do shorthand she had a bit of trouble with longhand as well.”

As Gay Abandon of The Ligger, Jojo then went on to interview people such as Blondie, The Clash and many others. Prompted by Ana Key’s suggestion, Jojo left journalism for a short while to get an apartment and a job in London as a bank clerk in the branch where Mick Jones from The Clash kept his account. Once she was living in London, she returned to journalism writing as a freelance journalist for publications such as Pop Star Weekly, Record Mirror, Smash Hits and NME. This led to her time working for Dexy’s Midnight Runners. (She still sports the dungarees.) Her final career in journalism was a job working for a “proper newspaper”, the London Evening Standard. She was there until 1993 when she turned her efforts to stand up.  

A big part of these comedians’ lives is travelling all around the world for shows and I was interested to find out whether they adapt their sets to where they are performing. Gina told me about how she makes sure the audience is enjoying themselves without losing who she is, “When I go to different places, I like to reference where I am ‘cos it makes every show different and it makes the audience respect that you’re not just doing the same old stuff for every single crowd. So you know, the first eight to ten minutes tonight talking about the hotel in Guernsey. That makes it fun for everybody because there’s that recognition and there’s that thing that, ‘Oh damn she’s actually doing this show for us she’s not just reciting.’ So I do like to do that whenever I travel to different places. I don’t change the essence of who I am, like the last fifteen minutes people might have been uncomfortable with the subject matter but I’m still going there because I think it’s good material, it’s funny and it’s kinda educational as well. I would adapt to make sure the audience is enjoying themselves, after all I am an entertainer, first and foremost, it’s about getting the laughs but I won’t change the essence of who I am.”

Similarly, referencing the start of her set where she had a laugh about her outfit choice, Jojo says, “I’ve just come back from Dubai, Vietnam, loads of places. Bizarrely there weren’t lots of Brits in the audience, there usually you see, and so I had to explain that children’s TV presenters in the 70s, and I go, ‘For those of you who aren’t from the UK, the reason that’s funny is because they all turned out to be paedophiles’. So you bring [the audience] in. I love to explain and actually, you know, everybody quite enjoys me doing little English history lessons. Well obviously if you’re talking about London and stuff someone in Hanois doesn’t want to hear about that. But we both talk about quite personal stuff. The real world is far too terrifying to make jokes about. It’s beyond satire.”

I loved interviewing these two ladies and they’re definitely comedians you should catch at any opportunity you get. Keep an eye out for the next comedy night at St James on the 12th of April.

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