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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Health woes and career tears led to a life of laughs for British comic JoJo Smith 

Smith began her career as a journalist before feeling so burned out, she decided to take a career shift into stand-up comedy

JoJo Smith formerly worked as a journalist. Courtesy JoJo Smith
JoJo Smith formerly worked as a journalist. Courtesy JoJo Smith

It’s a little ridiculous to hear JoJo Smith describe ­herself as “old”. She is vibrant, self-­deprecatingly funny, easy to chat with and ­completely aware of who she is: ­experienced, worldly and a veteran of the comedy circuit, but not “old”.

“Well, I was already old when I started – I was 33 when I began doing stand up ­comedy,” the 56-year-old says.

Despite appearing to be born to do this, comedy was not Smith’s first career choice. The Brit – originally from Preston, a small city in Lancashire, England – had spent 15 years building a thriving career in journalism, and had reached a point where she was feeling burnt out and unduly stressed. She was working 12 hours a day, terrified to take a day off, glued to a keyboard until she could “barely pick up a toothbrush” because of the pain in her wrists.

Mired with these health ­concerns, which forced her to take a year off, Smith ­attempted to recuperate and reassess what she really ­wanted to do.

“I was off for a year, then I got fired,” she recalls. “It was great I had a full year of feeling sorry for meself. And people used to go: ‘You’re funny, you should be a comedian.’ I certainly had no burning desire to do that; I knew nothing about it. I didn’t know how to learn lines. I didn’t know a thing.”

Still, Smith is not the sort to shy away from a challenge, even though her beginnings in comedy were rocky.

“Those first few gigs, I’d say my name and then go blank,” she remembers. “I had never appeared on stage before. It was new and brilliant.”

When she sat down to write material for her first few gigs, she filled four pages of A4 paper and still went blank on stage when it came time to deliver. That is when she began to ­understand how different ­writing stand-up comedy was compared to the ­journalistic writing she had been ­accustomed to.

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“I didn’t realise how much writing I needed to do to fill 10 minutes on stage,” she says. “I wrote those first four pages and easily read them in 10 minutes, but to perform them would take an hour. That’s why I used to go blank; it was so much trial and error in the beginning.”

It’s hard to imagine Smith ever freezing on stage, ­considering how naturally she manages to elicit a ­genuine laugh. She’s part of The ­Laughter Factory’s September line-up, performing in venues across Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

She has been doing stand-up comedy for 24 years now, all over the world. And regardless of who her audience might be, there is still the potential for laughs, because as Smith puts it, “life and human experience is the root of our similarities”.

“If I’ve learnt one thing, it’s that it doesn’t matter where you’ve gone in the world; we all have similar experiences,” she explains. “I’ve gigged in ­Bangkok, ­Cambodia, ­Australia, ­Scotland, The Hague, weird little places you wouldn’t even think of, and I’ve never been shocked by the audience, because basically we’re all the same. We might not speak the same language or look alike, but we all go through emotions and broken hearts.”

Despite an early reputation for ­outrageous material, Smith insists that she doesn’t change her routine when she comes to the UAE, and rarely had to censor herself these days.

“To be honest, I don’t really change very much because most of my material is about myself,” she says. “I’m bitter and twisted wherever I am – I don’t need to change anything.”

Her material, whether she is joking about going through menopause or likening ­relationships to job interviews, is easy to relate to.

“I’d gone through quite a huge chunk of my life ­thinking only I feel like this, then you realise once you find the guts to say something out loud on stage and see people ­nodding – well all right,” she says. “At the risk of sounding like Mother ­Teresa, comedy can be quite good for you [and it] shows you you’re not alone – you’re not the only one to think those thoughts and feel those ­feelings. I’m not trying to change the world, but just help other outsiders feel less outside.”

Smith says she knows a little bit about being an “­outsider” herself. When she first started, she says there were only half a dozen or so other women on the comedy circuit in Britain who were making a living and ­perhaps one of two in ­Australia.

“I used to get work just because I was a woman, when whoever was offering me a gig wanted to be politically correct,” she says. “Times have changed now, and that’s good.”

One thing that hasn’t changed for her, though, is why she does this in the first place.

I never earned much from comedy,” she says. “I was ­making an incredible salary as a journalist, walking around with my Amex card. That’s not what it’s like in comedy at all.

“But I’ve met some ­incredible people and ­travelled all around the world, and I get paid to say what I think. I’m ­unemployable in the real world because ­nobody would pay you to do this.”

She relies on her bluntness – a trait common to ­people from the north of England, Smith says – that gets her through a gig and, indeed, life.

“I know who I am,” she says. “I’ve made all the mistakes. I’ve made enough to laugh about. I know how ridiculous it all is, this thing called life. And I know how to laugh about it.”

The Laughter Factory’s ­September shows begin on Wednesday, September 6, at the Park Rotana, Abu Dhabi, from 8pm. Tickets are from Dh140 at thelaughterfactory.com