the interview JO BRAND, COMEDIAN, TALKS TO
To some she's a cake-eating Antichrist, but lads don't mind her. She used to be a 'miserable, alienated old sod' but she's cheered up now
Sunday 07 January 1996
Like much of the best of Jo Brand's material, this is a simple joke and an audacious piece of cultural criticism at the same time. Quentin Tarantino seemed to have reached the saturation point beyond which no reference to him or his work could possibly be of any interest. "It was a bit of a risk," Brand admits, dividing her attention good-humouredly between coffee and cigarettes in an airy Channel 4 conference room, "but it's got to the stage now where it was a few years ago, and that is the time where amateur dramatics societies would start to pick things up. The women really loved doing it too; they were all, 'Ho ho ho, what's my son going to say?' "
Some people, as is their right, will not find this funny. Some people will never find anything Jo Brand does funny. Talking to this extremely amiable woman, it is hard to keep a grip on the fact that there are people who regard her as some kind of cake-eating Antichrist. Brand seems to derive great enjoyment from provoking those who are pre-disposed not to like her, but when, say, she is being slagged off by the Sun (as she constantly is), does she on any level wish things didn't have to be like this? "I wish things didn't have to be like this on every level really."
The strange thing is that the people most likely to be upset by Jo's jovial brand of boisterous anti-machismo seem to be liberals, not lads. "A lot of the time," she says, "lads will just think it's a bit of a laugh. They know it's not going to change things politically - they're safe in their own kind of laddish kingdom, so it doesn't worry them. In some ways it's good that they've actually sat down and watched it; I don't have a grand plan - I'm not that organised a person - but if I did, that would be stage one. Stage two would be to try to take them a bit further than they expected to go."
Whereas other comedians plot their career strategies with military precision, Brand's more happy-go-lucky approach - "I never think, 'Where am I going to be in a year's time?' That seems to be a sure way of missing the fact that you might be quite happy now" - has paid huge dividends. Of all the generation of comedians to come through the Friday night Channel 4 slot, the very British broadness of Brand's humour seems to have won her the widest following. Ratings of the first series spiralled far beyond expectations, and pensioners as well as students flock to her marathon live tours.
Pre-comedy life experience probably helps in this regard - "you are a bit more normal if you've done a proper job for a bit." Brand also cunningly eschews the generationally specific routines which straight-from-college comedians tend to fall back on. You won't hear her wittering on about Star Trek. "A lot of people do that kind of nostalgia stuff believing that they were very happy in their teenage years," Brand observes sagely, "but that's probably just an illusion." She seems very happy in the here and now. "I'm miserable as sin a lot of the time," she says, "but I've been much happier in my thirties [she is now 38] than I was in my twenties. I like to read my diary occasionally to remind myself what a miserable alienated old sod I used to be."
Now very much a Londoner, Jo Brand grew up in Kent, in an idyllic country village "not unlike the one in The Darling Buds of May". Having moved to rough-and- tumble Hastings for what she smilingly refers to as "the nightmare adolescent business", Brand was "invited to leave home" at 16. She went into the lower echelons of the civil service, doing A-levels on day release. She also worked in a pub for a year, as a Barnardo's house mother, and at a flower nursery pulling the heads off chrysanthemums ("Particularly good preparation for the comedy circuit") before doing a degree course and becoming - the one thing everybody knows about her - a psychiatric nurse.
She had always nursed comedic ambitions, but her comedy debut - at an ill-tempered London benefit - was not overly auspicious. "I had the seven pints of lager temerity," she remembers wistfully, "to think I could go on after everyone else had died and storm it with my sad five minutes about Freud ..." The sad five minutes about Freud were soon dropped, but it took Brand some time to develop the barnstorming deadpan of today. Hamstrung by nerves, her delivery used to be such a grim monotone that other comedians could get easy laughs by doing impressions of her. In a successful bid to loosen herself up, she deliberately took on as much arduous compering work as she could get her hands on.
To find out just how far she has progressed, you have only to see her in her much less confident old incarnation as the Sea Monster on ITV's recent repeats of Friday Night Live. Jo herself "managed to avoid" this experience, though the man who does her hair phoned her up to tell her off for going to someone else. "I told him, 'That was 1988, you big div.' " The accolade of Best Live Act at the 1995 British Comedy Awards was a well-deserved reflection of the authority of her now imperious live persona. It's in building a functional television vehicle for this persona that Brand has really moved ahead of the pack.
"I always thought, 'I'm not going to do any crap sketches'," she says, "but then, funnily enough, I did." Brand continues in characteristically self-deprecating vein, "By the time you actually get to filming you tend to be so knackered that you don't actually give a toss anyway."
The new series has an imposing - and very funny - opening shot of Brand filmed from beneath a glass floor. Does she ever think of not doing jokes about her size? "You can't build your career on one set of values and then shift to doing jokes about embroidery," Brand argues. Now that she is firmly established though, isn't it tempting to leave behind the more self-hating material? "I know exactly what you mean," her voice crackles with the appealing grain of fine parchment, "and I don't think I can, because that's the kind of person I am really. I was like that before I got into comedy and I don't think I'm ever going to change."
Sometimes Jo Brand thinks that what she describes, not quite dismissively, as "the fat bird stuff" might be history. "Then something will just pop out and I'll think 'Oh well ... still doing it'." Sometimes, too, she'll set up a joke and you will wonder which way it's going to go, and then she'll almost wilfully bring it back to the obvious - as if that gives her as much pleasure as trying to do something different. "Absolutely," she says firmly. "I think there's always been a tradition in England of people being a bit useless, and that being something which this society thinks is quite loveable. I'd like to think I'm a part of that.
"I think there's a danger that we're moving towards a state where the people we are expected to admire are almost not human any more, and I don't like that. I prefer it when someone looks like a nice person and you think, 'I could have a laugh with them in the pub.' "
This, by happy chance, is exactly the kind of person Jo Brand is. Embarrassed by having - in her own words - "loads of money" she has invested in a small house in a Shropshire field near where her Mum lives, and discreetly gives the rest away. When mention is made of her long-term beau, comedy writer Jim Miller, Brand almost blushes. Do they live together? "No, but," - a winsome smile - "we do see each other occasionally."
8 'Jo Brand Through the Cakehole': Channel 4, Fri 10.30pm.
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