Interview: Class Clowns star Joe Gardner on the challenges facing young comedians


Glasgow doesn’t stop in January – as the massive Celtic Connections festival draws to a close, Glasgow Comedy Festival kicks off, bringing in fresh new talent from all across the country. Commonspace caught up with one of Glasgow’s youngest stand-ups.

ABOUT to launch an under-18s comedy night , Joe Gardner is now no stranger to the stage. Back in 2015 he impressed the judges of Class Clowns so much that they crowned him winner of the young stand-up competition. And don’t imagine the teenager’s had an easy gig – one of the judges was Jo Brand.

“It’s a bit of a bug,” admits Joe, 17, as he tries to establish why it is he wants to spend his life making other people laugh. “When you get up there, when you get applause, that’s what does it.”

Having stormed the Class Clowns competition during the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe, Joe is looking forward to trying his hand at So you think you’re funny this summer. He enjoys the buzz of the Fringe and talks enthusiastically about the support the young comedians received from venue, Gilded Balloon.

Fresh out of high school last year, the Clarkston teenager also credits his drama teachers with first suggesting the idea of entering. “They come along to my gigs and everything – if it wasn’t for them encouraging me, I wouldn’t have put myself forward.”

Joe and the other young comedians face a particular problem though – being under 18. “A lot of comedy happens in licenced premises. Not a lot of venues let young people perform.”

Luckily though, there’s Glasgow’s Cafe Gro – just off the Bridgegate in the heart of Glasgow. A community cafe set up as an alcohol-free space where people in recovery can socialise, it will host the Teenage Comedy night – a collaboration between Joe and cafe founder Donna Campbell.

The opening night takes place on 23 January at 6.30pm, with a line-up of young comedians aged from 13 to 18. Joe is keen for it to be relaxed. “I want them all to have a great time,” he says. “I’ll be making sure they don’t get stage fright!”

And that, he says, is the point of the Cafe Gro evenings: no competing, no stress – just a friendly space in which even young teenagers can feel comfortable giving stand-up a go. “A non-competitive option is really needed – a space where you’re not being judged, where it’s just about the fun of it.”

Joe’s a sitcom fan. He’s watched all 92 episodes of ‘Allo ‘Allo and grew up in a household where Only Fools and Horses was a favourite. Then, he says: “My dad took me to see Michael McIntyre at 13 or 14 – now I’ve broadened my horizons, gone to see more comedians. I’ll be able to see more when I’m 18.

“My way of doing comedy is from a personal point of view,” he goes on. “It’s things that happen to me – observational stuff, things my friends have said. I was in a restaurant last week in London and I could have written a whole stand up just on those 10 minutes. Every joke has a degree of truth in it – in fact, I’ve not yet written a joke that hasn’t actually happened. Stand-up isn’t the place for lies.”

Comedy, he thinks, can be powerfully cathartic, and has been a crutch during difficult periods of his life. Joe explains: “You hear a lot about comedians who’ve had difficult experiences early in their lives – or have suffered with depression and so on, and in the toughest times you’ve got to laugh at what’s going on.

“Some of the best comedy has been about difficult, troublesome situations. Having a difficult period gives you more of a scope with comedy, you know you can push the boundaries a bit more. I took a knock when I was 15 – my brother died, it was a very difficult time – and the way I got through it was watching a lot of ‘Only Fools and Horses’. Once you’ve had an experience like that you realise that everything isn’t amazing all the time, but you can make things funny.

“I’m at a good point in my life now, but comedy’s still definitely cathartic – going to live shows, laughing – it’s a great way of picking yourself up.”

But when it comes to performing, is comedy always such a pleasant place to be? Joe is under no illusions about the scene, or about the comments that can come your way when you have a public profile. The recent example of artist Ellie Harrison, who sparked controversy (and received online abuse) with her ‘Glasgow Effect’ art project, made Joe uneasy.

“It’s not cool. There’s a way to communicate support for an idea and it’s not to abuse … constructively pull apart their idea – not the person. Of course that does happen in comedy and no doubt there’ll come a time where I have to deal with that. Comedy reviewers are particular harsh – but I’ll be reviewing comedy later this year and I won’t go slagging someone doing the same job as me.

“There’s no need for a personal attack,” he stresses. “You can be diplomatic.” And what about comedy itself – can it go too far, get too personal?

“Yeah – I don’t like Frankie Boyle’s jokes about Katie Price’s son, or Madeleine McCann – you know, the cutting stuff. But I really appreciate his political stuff.”

Speaking of politics, our cultural institutions have come in for a bit of a drubbing lately. With trust in the BBC falling, and Creative Scotland also coming in for criticism, is the support there for young talent such as Joe?

“It’s an interesting question,” he says, diplomatically. “I’d probably have to move away to get into writing [for sitcoms] – I’d want to start somewhere with much bigger appeal. I do think Scotland’s capable of supporting young people in the arts, though.”

The fate of BBC3, though – soon to become online-only – is something he finds worrying. “It’s really bad news,” Joe says. “BBC3 launched great sitcoms like Gavin and Stacey. With the referendum the big question was whether we’d get the same BBC programmes – or whether there would be a chance for new programming. But it’s exciting to be in Glasgow – BBC comedy’s got a good base here. They’ve just turned out Scot Squad which I think is hilarious.”

Whether he sticks to the stage or branches into writing, Joe Gardner is someone to watch out for.

His first Teenage Comedy Night at Cafe Gro will take place on Saturday 23 January at 6.30pm. The line-up is full – but if you want to put your name in for the next event, drop in on Saturday.

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Picture courtesy of Joe Gardner