Jo Prendergast on Navigating Life’s Twists with Heartfelt Humour and Wisdom

Jo Prendergast is a veritable force of nature, seamlessly juggling her multifaceted career as a New Zealand-based comedian, actor, improviser, and by day, a respected psychiatrist, author, and film producer. Despite the weariness that comes with wearing so many hats, Joanna’s passion and drive have catapulted her into the spotlight across a variety of platforms. From her beginnings in psychiatry in Sydney to her late bloom in stand-up comedy at 48, Jo’s journey is nothing short of inspiring. With a teenage mental health book under her belt and a string of successful comedy shows that have garnered critical acclaim, Jo is not just making waves but shaping an extraordinary legacy. Her candid exploration of life’s ups and downs, including her personal battle with cancer, resonates deeply with audiences in New Zealand, Australia, and beyond. As she prepares to bring her award-winning humour to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival with “Jo Ghastly: The Cool Mum,” Jo continues to prove that it’s never too late to chase your dreams, make people laugh, and maybe, just maybe, change the world one smile at a time. In the world of comedy, few voices resonate with as much authenticity and relatable humour as Jo Prendergast. Her show, The Cool Mum, a stand-out act at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, artfully merges the trials of parenting with the unyielding power of laughter, offering audiences a rare glimpse into the chaotic, yet profoundly amusing, realities of raising teenagers.

Jo’s journey into comedy was sparked by her own experiences as a parent navigating the often bewildering world of teenage slang and social norms. “My comedic debut centered around my attempts to decipher my teenagers’ language using Urban Dictionary,” Jo recalls, highlighting the universal appeal of family dynamics that transcend generations. Her show masterfully transforms parenting faux pas into comedic victories, portraying her comedic persona as a hilariously clueless and embarrassingly earnest figure. The Cool Mum transcends mere entertainment, embedding within its humour poignant truths about the parenting experience.

Your show ‘The Cool Mum’ offers a unique blend of comedy and parenting insights. Can you share what inspired you to create a comedy show based on your own parenting experiences, and how you balance humour with the realities of parenting?

My first ever comedy set was about trying to be a cool mum and looking up words my teens used on Urban Dictionary.  This comedy content seemed to really resonate with a wide audience – from teens to grandparents, as everyone has had family relationships. I started to write comedy about my challenges as a parent – but instead of wallowing in my failures in a self-deprecating way, I turned the disasters into evidence that I was a truly cool mum.  My comedy persona became how I thought my teens saw me – clueless, embarrassing and trying to be cool.  My show stays connected to the realities of parenting and there are several true take home messages – the things that actually helped me the most e.g., that kids learn through the rupture and repair of their relationship with their parents.  I land jokes very quickly on the take-home messages, so it doesn’t feel preachy or serious.  Basically The Cool Mum evolved from truth about my parenting experiences and morphed into a parody of a personal development seminar – helping people in their quest for coolness. Spoiler alert- Jo is not as cool as she thinks she is!

Entering the comedy scene at 48, Jo faced the daunting prospect of starting a new career path later in life. Yet, her unique position provided unexpected benefits. “Starting in Christchurch, I found a community that embraced and encouraged my comedic exploration,” she shares. Jo’s methodical approach to comedy, influenced by her background in psychiatry, allowed her to refine her craft without personalising the setbacks. This perspective, coupled with her mentorship under TM Bishop, helped her navigate the early days of professional comedy, turning age into an asset rather than a hindrance.

Having started stand-up comedy at 48 and quickly gaining recognition, including a nomination for Breakthrough Comedian at the NZ Comedy Guild Awards 2020, what challenges did you face entering the comedy scene later in life, and what advantages do you think your experience brought to your comedy?

I was lucky starting comedy in Christchurch as it was a very welcoming scene – in fact it was the main comedy producer who asked me to give standup a go, after he heard me roasting the other actors on a film shoot.  I found being an older woman often meant I was the only person in my demographic on lineups and I was perhaps less concerned about what other people thought of me which helped me stick with comedy.  I had a great mentor TM Bishop who supported me through the early days of pro comedy spots and developing my first hour.  I approached comedy fairly scientifically, by recording every set and rating every joke based on laughs across many audiences.  That allowed me to think – ‘that jokes a 1 out of 5’ – rather than ‘I’m shit’.  I feel like age is more of a disadvantage now I’m getting more established, as many of the emerging artist opportunities seem tailored for comedians in their 20s and 30s – I feel a bit like I’m their mum, rather than a peer sometimes.  At least many comedians have said they wish I was their mum!

For Jo, comedy and psychiatry are two sides of the same coin, each offering a unique avenue for exploring and addressing the complexities of human emotion and mental health. “Humor has been my lifeline,” Jo admits, noting its therapeutic role in her life during challenging periods, including her battle with cancer. While her day job requires a more serious demeanour, her involvement in comedy, improv, and clowning provides a much-needed counterbalance, emphasising the healing power of laughter.

As both a psychiatrist and a comedian, how do you see humour playing a role in mental health and wellness, especially in challenging times? And has your professional background influenced the content or style of your comedy?

Humour has been hugely important to me as a coping mechanism, especially going through the toughest times of parenting and cancer. I wrote both shows when I was in the thick of challenging times – so writing comedy was therapeutic at the time but I had to be ready to perform the jokes.  Definitely truth in ‘tragedy plus time equals comedy’!

 I sometimes find sharing a joke with someone I see as a psychiatrist helps us connect but I tend to be pretty serious when I’m working as a psychiatrist.  There’s some evidence that laughing helps well-being so I try and watch live comedy myself.  I am also part of improv and clown troupes and there’s always lots of laughter when adults are given permission to be silly!

I initially kept comedy and psychiatry fully separate and that’s one reason why The Cool Mum is performed as my comedy alter ego Jo Ghastly.  My second show is Jo Prendergast and I’m fully open as me – comedian, doctor and cancer survivor. I love performing The Cool Mum as it’s so much fun but I am also enjoying meaningful comedy with important health messaging in my second show.

People often ask if I do jokes about people I see as a psychiatrist and the answer is definitely no!  I stay away from jokes about mental health unless any experiences are my story – otherwise it feels like punching down at those who are struggling.

The universal appeal of The Cool Mum lies in Jo’s ability to craft a show that is as relatable as it is unique. Her talent for blending silliness with smart, in-the-moment audience interaction creates a communal atmosphere that turns strangers into friends. As Jo contemplates her next project, Empty Nester, she intends to delve deeper into the parenting journey, promising a mix of reflection, humour, and perhaps a bit of existential musing.

Jo’s remarkable career trajectory—from psychiatry to comedy and beyond—speaks to a multifaceted talent that defies easy categorisation. Each role informs and enriches the others, providing a wellspring of material and insight that enhances her comedic output. “Performing and psychiatry may seem worlds apart, but they converge in their exploration of the human condition,” Jo explains. This intersectionality has not only influenced her comedic persona but has also opened doors to unique opportunities, such as her book When Life Sucks, which bridges psychiatry and parenting with a light-hearted touch.

Your career spans a remarkable range across psychiatry, authorship, film production, and comedy. How do these diverse roles inform each other, and have there been moments where one role unexpectedly enriched another?

These different roles definitely enrich each other. As a teenager I weighed up going to drama school or medical school – my parents were keen on medical school – but have been strong supporters of my performing endeavours as well!

I was commissioned by Harper Collins to write a book for parents about teenage mental health – after the editor heard me on Radio NZ talking about being a psychiatrist, comedian and parent.  The book has been popular because it brings some lightness and realness to some pretty heavy topics.

Jo is keenly aware of the delicate balance required when integrating topics of mental health into her comedy. By drawing from her personal experiences, she navigates these waters with care, ensuring her humor uplifts rather than undermines. Her work, both on stage and in media, serves as a powerful vehicle for shedding light on mental health issues, leveraging humour to foster a deeper understanding and connection with her audience.

Your book When Life Sucks, a teenage mental health guide for parents, showcases your dedication to supporting mental health outside of your comedy. How do you intertwine your advocacy for mental health awareness with your comedy, and do you find that humour helps bridge conversations on these often challenging topics?

I’m increasingly finding comedy is a great vehicle for messaging about important issues.  I did a lot of media last year when my book was released and I think being a comedian psychiatrist allowed for light and entertaining conversations about mental health.  I feel very privileged to have the platforms of stage and media to be able to do what is essentially public health work.  I particularly find amusing anecdotes about my own parenting and kids helps bridge conversations on challenging topics.  My kids have been awesome in giving permission, or at least not complaining much, when there mum talks about them grunting or using the garage as a storage facility on national TV!

Jo’s personal battle with cancer and her decision to share this journey through Cancer and Cartwheels underscore her resilience and commitment to making a difference. This experience has sharpened her focus on the legacy she wishes to leave, prompting her to seize life with a newfound fervor. “Every clear scan is a gift, an opportunity to make an impact, to share a laugh, and perhaps, in a small way, to make the world a little brighter,” she reflects.

Having battled and triumphed over cancer, as well as showcasing this journey in your second solo show Cancer and Cartwheels, how has this personal journey influenced your perspective on life, comedy, and the stories you choose to share on stage?

Having gone through a life threatening illness has changed my perspective.  I care more about what footprint I leave, and books, comedy shows and media articles are all part of that footprint.  I’ve got much more of a YOLO attitude – I’m heading to Edinburgh Fringe this year because I can.  I make the most of every 6 month ‘hall-pass’ I get with a clear scan.  I’m much more willing to share personal stories as I can see the power they have – so others see their story on stage, can laugh at the tough stuff and maybe they check for lumps in their balls or boobs and my show helps pick up their cancer sooner.

With the Melbourne International Comedy Festival on the horizon, Jo is eager to engage with its dynamic energy and diverse audience. Her preparations include tweaking her show to resonate with local sensibilities while maintaining the core elements that have endeared her to audiences worldwide. “The beauty of festivals lies in the community they foster among performers and attendees alike,” Jo notes, anticipating a vibrant exchange of ideas and laughter.

Finally, your upcoming show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival is highly anticipated following your success at previous festivals. What are you most looking forward to about performing in Melbourne, and do you have any special preparations or expectations for this particular audience?

I had a great time performing for Melbourne audiences when I was here briefly in October.  I’ve put a few Melbourne specific references in the show but otherwise I’m leaving the show as it is, given it seems to be really enjoyed by Australian audiences so far.  Adelaide Fringe was a riot!!

What I love most about festivals is the buzz around town and connecting with other comedians and audiences. There are so many great shows on all at once – I’m looking forward to seeing as many as I can before my season starts on 8 April!

Through her compelling blend of comedy and insight, Jo Prendergast invites us to laugh at the absurdities of life, find common ground in our shared experiences, and perhaps, see the world through a slightly more humorous lens. Her presence at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival not only promises to be a highlight for those in attendance but also serves as a proof to the transformative power of humour.

As Jo Prendergast takes the stage, she does so not just as a comedian, but as a storyteller, a healer, and a friend, ready to share her journey with honesty and a generous dose of laughter. It’s this unique blend of authenticity and comedic talent that makes her show a must-see, offering not just a night of entertainment, but a moment of connection that resonates long after the curtain falls. In the laughter-filled rooms of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Jo’s stories of triumph, resilience, and the hilarious pitfalls of parenting and life promise to inspire, entertain, and remind us all of the joy that can be found in embracing the perfectly imperfect aspects of our lives.

Don’t miss the chance to experience Jo Prendergast’s unique blend of humour and heart at ‘Jo Ghastly: The Cool Mum’ during the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, running from April 8th to April 14th, 2024, at the Double Tree Hilton Flinders Street.


Season Details

Show: Jo Ghastly: The Cool Mum Melbourne International Comedy Festival
Dates: Mon 8 April – Sun 14 April 2024
Venue: Double Tree Hilton Flinders Street
Book tickets HERE

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