COMEDY / Fat and other feminist issues

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The Independent Culture
THE ECSTATIC reception that greets Jo Brand at the Bound and Gagged Comedy Feast confirms that television has sent her star into orbit. Her series, Through the Cakehole, may have had the occasional jotted-down-on-the-back-of-a-fag-packet element, but that did not stop it riding high in the Channel 4 ratings, or being all the talk on Saturday morning trains into town. And her domesticated cockney cop-show spoof, 'Drudge Squad', was the stuff of which legends are made. Striding into the Bloomsbury Theatre spotlight with her electric-shock hair and sweet-wrapper trousers, she has certainly come a long way from the sad figure who used to creep on stage as the Sea Monster on Friday Night Live.

Like Lenny Henry, Jo Brand has progressed from indulging the preconceptions of the less enlightened members of her audience to throwing them back in their faces. 'I do deliberately keep my weight up,' she tells the tragic token heckler, 'so a tosser like you won't fancy me.' Brand still does a lot of fat jokes - in fact it would be fair to say that they make up the main body of her set - but fat is now a means rather than an end. When she makes an apparently simple gag such as, 'For years I never bought South African fruit. In fact I never bought any fruit at all', she is actually doing something that is quite complicated.

Jo Brand's unabashed celebration of all things supposedly unladylike - gluttony, drunkenness, sexual licence, toilet humour, nicotine dependency, hitting people - is not just fun in itself. It also makes an effective cover for political observations which a less laddish comedian might find hard to get away with, in what you might call the post-alternative era. Discussing the central character in the recent film Boxing Helena, for example, she first grosses her audience out - 'What if she had diarrhoea or a really heavy period?' - and then turns them on their head: demanding why they find normal bodily functions disgusting but are willing to accept the notion of a woman having her arms and legs cut off.

Brand's genial man-baiting - 'On the rare occasions that I do get a man in a room on his own, it's too good an opportunity to miss to just punch him in the gob' - seems to delight the men in the audience as much as the women. Not all, probably not even half her routines, are didactic in intent; and she transparently enjoys a cheap laugh as much as, if not more than an expensive one. In fact there is a truly ribald spirit about this woman at her best that recalls the late, great Les Dawson.

It seems unlikely that success will go to her head either. When a voice from the audience cheekily demands to be taken out to dinner, Jo Brand is not entirely joking when she says yes. 'The only reason I ever wanted to make money was so I could pay a thin person to go to the chip shop for me.'

Brand's high-class supporting turn, Arnold Brown, still has the best opening-line in the business: 'I don't like too much applause at the beginning; that's how Fascism started.' Some of this wry and dry Glaswegian's other material is showing signs of wear and tear - The Clash, for example, no longer really qualify as a topical reference - but if he could get round to writing some new stuff, it would probably be excellent. 'My uncle Harry,' he reminisces archly, 'who doesn't exist . . .' Brown's eyebrows might be heading for the middle of the auditorium, but his brain is securely in place.