ARTS / Jo Brand, a fat load of good: Fat? She deals with that one every time she opens her mouth. Man-hater? That's different. James Rampton meets Jo Brand

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The Independent Culture
The lights dim. Grown men and (particularly) women are whistling and whooping like teeny-boppers. Then the spotlight falls, not on Take That, but on a short, fat woman in a shapeless baggy black T- shirt and a cockatoo hairdo that looks as though it hasn't seen a comb since the Cure were in the charts. As the woman in black wanders on, a wardrobe assistant scuttles solicitously after her, a lighted cigarette at the ready. Once the ovation has finally died down, the woman raises an eyebrow and cackles: 'I bet you're as surprised as I am that the big fat bird's got a series.'

After seven years in the paddling pool of the comedy circuit, Jo Brand, the 35-year-old stand-up, is now plunging into the deep end with her first solo television series, for Channel 4. All right, so she has been a permanent fixture on the BBC 2 panel game, The Brain Drain, and had her own Radio 1 show with Donna McPhail, Windbags, but the show now being recorded in front of a live audience at Teddington Studios is the big one.

Big being the operative word: it is size that has largely got Brand where she is today. Fat is, professionally speaking, her favourite subject. Is this because it is a feminist issue? Or just because it is a good source of jokes? Unwinding after the show, Brand chews the fat: 'I say to people that I do those jokes to pre-empt heckling, but I really do them because I think they're funny. If you're a fat person - and especially if you're a woman - at all stages of your life you'll get abuse for it, so you have to work out a way of dealing with it. The best way is to be humorous about it - that defuses any tension. If someone thinks it's your Achilles' heel, they'll just dig, dig, dig away at it.'

Brand launched her career in comedy under the name of the Sea Monster, and has been using her size to her advantage ever since. Her television series will continue in much the same vein. It's title? Jo Brand Through the Cakehole. The opening credits feature a very rich cake recipe: 'Add some more cream, serve with custard, ice-cream and no friends, and garnish with chocolate and a large pork pie.' The set consists of two huge flats depicting Brand consuming various items: chips, burgers, sausages, popcorn, beer, cigarettes and baguettes, and cakes.

Her one-liners, the snacks between the main meals of her routine, return time and again to the subject of fatness. 'I moved to London when I was 15 . . . stone,' she wheezed to the studio audience. 'I don't like doing stand-up,' she continued, 'because I don't like standing up. I've asked if I can come in on a trolley in future.' Even between takes she's at it: when an assistant dashed on to powder her nose, Brand remarked: 'Everyone north of the Watford Gap will be saying 'Eee, these fat birds sweat a lot.' ' The comedian sticks as religiously to her theme as a dancer sticks to a diet.

Her weight may have got her written about, but it is her attitude to men that has got her argued about. One newspaper editor is reported to have turned down an interview with her on the grounds that she was a 'fat dyke'. After Brand cracked a (pretty tame) joke about the Sun on Wogan, Garry Bushell, the paper's television critic, described her as 'a hideous old boiler'. He elaborated on this last week: 'She's just another overrated low achiever. It isn't just because of her size. I've checked out her material, and it's got very little going for it. Perhaps it's a trite observation, but if a man said about women what she says about men, he'd have the United Dykes of England on to him. She fits the required ideological categories - it's a case not of what's good, but what's hot. The joke will wear thin before she does.'

The comedian is well aware of the tabloid perception of her. 'My label is fat, lesbian man-hater,' she laughs, 'the first one is true, but the second two aren't. I'm a heterosexual, and I don't hate men at all. What I hate is the behaviour that some men indulge in - particularly in groups. For a woman, to go into a pub and walk past a group of drunk lads is a terrible ordeal.'

Her motto is 'never trust a man with testicles'. But, says Brand, only the most Neanderthal fail to 'take it in the spirit in which it's intended. I don't actually want to go around stabbing men. People will laugh because they recognise what I'm saying. If I went on and said, 'Aren't lads horrible 'cos they wear pink dresses and sing songs from old musicals?', people would wonder what the hell I was on about.'

Brand sees herself as a man-baiter rather than a man-hater. But inevitably her observations ('The way to a man's heart is through his hanky pocket with a breadknife') arouse the anger of some sections of her audience. While she wouldn't go out of her way to perform at a rugby club dinner, she accepts that the personal abuse she receives in the comedy clubs goes with the territory. 'Women get judged far more on appearance than on content. If you're on a bill with three men, their heckles will be 'You're boring', whereas the woman's will be 'You're fat, you're ugly, get your tits out.' '

Here Brand's 10 years as a psychiatric nurse in a 24-hour emergency clinic have stood her in good stead. 'I've never heard anything worse from hecklers than I heard 20 times a day as a nurse. But I've got in terrible trouble with Mind for saying it.'

But Brand has the kind of relationship with her female audiences that is the envy of her colleagues. 'I don't want to sound like the typical right-on comedian,' says David Schneider, another stand-up, 'but as a woman it must be great to go to a Jo Brand gig. She brings the best out in an audience - not by doing tampon gags, but because she's a good, strong woman who's so funny.'

Women appreciate Brand's take on their lives, and, says Brand, men should appreciate what the women in the audience have to put up with. 'Women are quite happy to sit and listen to male comedians talk about their first wank or fighting in the playground. Conversely, men in audiences should be gracious enough to accept that women might want to talk about things that are particularly pertinent to them. To be able to get a laugh about female experiences is really good, because I like seeing women have a really good old cackle.'

For television, Brand has had to learn to get a laugh without the kind of language that is acceptable in a club. Shagging and periods will still play major roles in the television show, but the dialogue will be strictly made- for-TV. 'They ration you,' she complains. 'There's a weird hierarchy. If you say 'bollocks' twice, you can only say 'wanker' once.' This does not, however, mean a safety-first approach: 'I'd draw the line at taking the piss out of people who can't help it, but it's alright to take the piss out of people who can help it - like Michael Howard.'

Some of the buzz of Brand's live shows will inevitably be lost in the transmission, as is the case for all comedians selected from the menu of the comedy circuit and served up as dish of the day on television. That she will not be chewed up and spat out like so many before her may depend on a quality not readily associated with the comedian. 'Like Eddie Izzard and John Hegley, Jo gets the audience to love her,' asserts the promoter and comedian Ivor Dembina. 'She has that quality naturally, it's not something you can manufacture. She provokes love in an audience.' Inside this fat person is a cuddly one dying to get out.

'Jo Brand Through the Cakehole' begins on Friday at 10.30pm on C 4

(Photograph omitted)