Joe Sutherland: Shaking the Bars
"I think the idea of asking for acceptance is kind of bowing down, and revering a heterosexual agenda."
“I was a horrible attention seeker,” stand-up comedian Joe Sutherland says when I ask if he was a shy schoolboy.
“I was very confident. I think if you’re a bit odd or effeminate as a boy, there are a couple of options. You can try and hide it, blend in, and play sports; or you can go 100 per cent the other way, sharpen your tongue, be a bit vicious, and do your fighting with words.” He took the latter route, “and managed to use showing off and quips as my tools on the playground”.
And that kept bullies at bay? “Yes, somehow,” he answers. “It seems like it shouldn’t work. I’m almost ashamed to say it: I was probably so good at identifying people’s weaknesses, and mocking them for it, that people were just too afraid to engage. It kept people at that healthy audience distance, so I could keep them back, and show off, and flounce around in front of them.”
He says, “There’s a classic tradition of true camp: walking around in such an arch fashion that, even if people don’t quite understand you, they probably get an impression that you are kind of above them.” This way the camp can come across as “untouchable”, he says. “Bullies prey on the weak, they don’t prey on the high society. If you walk around as if you’re some Victorian gent, they’ll just sort of believe it.”
Joe Sutherland: Model / Actress comes to Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year. It’s a show about confidence, the Spice Girls, and homophobia, he says – “which are, of course, the holy trio of comedy. It’s a bit of a multimedia romp through those subjects, and how I’ve experienced them through being on the fringes of showbiz.
“I don’t give a shit about acceptance,” he says, as we discuss homophobia in more detail. “I think the idea of asking for acceptance is kind of bowing down, and revering a heterosexual agenda. I don’t want that. I want a revolution which makes a totally pansexual agenda the dominant one.” While not denying that significant progress has been made in gay rights over the years, there’s another step, he says, which is “actually saying: ‘Straight isn’t the norm. So marriage doesn’t necessarily have to be the thing to aspire to.’ We don’t need to emulate that kind of lifestyle. Let’s keep shaking the bars a little bit, and remind people that other things are possible.”
Sutherland was a model for a brief spell before becoming a comic – a mistaken year, or 18 months, of his life just after university, he says. He calls modelling a vicious industry, one that “can eat people up and spit them out a little bit. There are a lot of people who do it thinking, ‘Oh, this will be the making of me, this is the dream.’ And actually it’s not the case.”
I ask if people were horrible. “Not necessarily individual people,” he states. “I think it’s more that the setup of the industry isn’t exactly caring for your mental health.” Are you permitted a personality when you’re a model? I continue. “I think if you’re famous, then yes,” he replies. “But otherwise one is encouraged to be a bit more of an identikit model,” as the job title suggests, he points out with a little laugh – before citing the modelling world as not necessarily right for individualism.
There aren’t too many parallels between being a model and a stand-up, he says, bar “backstage bitching and a healthy dose of rejection to keep you humble”. Plus, “You’ve got to step out in front of discerning audiences, and face their judgement.”
Another challenge to what he does is dealing with Megabuses, he informs me. I tell him I don’t know what that means, thinking he’s using some sort of showbiz term I’ve not heard of. But no. He’s referring to actual travel, “genuine coaches full of other humans”, where “the gaps between the seats are not wide enough”.
Model / Actress marks his first solo show at the Fringe. He’s feeling fine about it, he says, also describing himself as “terrified and excited in equal measure”. He went often as a punter to the Fringe when he was a kid. “My dad was an English teacher in a sixth form college, and a great way for him to get a paid holiday was to arrange a school trip up there with a group of 20 students. It was the 90s and early noughties, so licencing laws weren’t quite as clamped down as they are now. He would set the kids free on a Monday, and then see them again on the train back on the Saturday. He couldn’t really afford childcare so he’d take me along with him, we’d go and see stuff in the day, and then he’d sneak me into stuff late at night. It was great.”
As our conversation ends, he invites me to come and say hello if I see him on the streets of Edinburgh when I’m up there. I accept. After all, I’ve no right to ignore a Victorian gent.
Joe Sutherland will also be appearing at The Bullingdon, Oxford on 2 September (glee.co.uk)
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