Jo Brand’s deadpan style is deceptive, as some blokes have discovered to their very public cost.
Perhaps it’s a strategy to undercut the notion that a woman whose work retains a certain anarchic punk indolence would do anything as uncool as lecturing people on how to do female, or anything else. “I wouldn’t say it’s a particularly well-formed strategy,” she says, on the phone from London, when she’s finally in one place long enough to take the call. “But I was very conscious of not wanting to sound patronising. First of all I wanted it to be funny. I also wanted people to think, oh, take it or leave it, really.”
Take it or leave it may be the guiding principle of her career. When she started out in stand-up comedy, her stage name, the Sea Monster, had the double advantage of rendering her a little scary and affording anonymity – she was working as a psychiatric nurse at the time. Motionless in the middle of the stage, she delivered her material in an ominous monotone. The only part of her that expressed a certain feral animation was her teased hair, which resembled an irate marmoset.
Industrial-strength self-deprecation has been her shtick: “My body is a temple,” goes a trademark one-liner. “It’s massive and it doesn’t move.” Her 90s television series was called Through the Cakehole. These days she’s a sort of alt Mary Berry as host of innuendo-sprinkled Channel 4 spinoff The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice. A critic once described the holy trinity of an evening with Brand: “Cake, fat, women’s bits.”
That may sound girly, but she can instantly weaponise all three elements should anyone be rash enough to hazard what she calls an “ironic” wolf whistle: “I deliberately keep my weight up,” she drawls dangerously, “so a tosser like you won’t fancy me.”
She has always done female, and everything else, her way. She’s never done adverts because she likes to be able to say what she really thinks. “I used to do this joke to make men in the audience feel at ease,” she reminds us unrepentantly in Born Lippy. “The best way to a man’s heart is through his hanky pocket with a breadknife.”
Brand’s deadpan style started as one part art, three parts pure terror. “I was so nervous when I started, I didn’t know in what sort of tone I should deliver jokes. It ended up being all on one note. At my first Edinburgh [Festival], I got a review saying I should read the football results. You know, ‘Arsenal 2, Chelsea 1.’” Compering gigs honed a chattier style. “That made me relaxed enough for it not to drive people mad that I was speaking in this weird tone all the time.”
“I handled that quite badly. I decided that I was going to bottle him. One of the other comedians took the bottle off me and said, ‘For God’s sake, think about what you’re doing.’ There were certainly a number of occasions on which I felt I really wanted to have a fight with someone because they said such awful things, but that doesn’t really get you anywhere.”
Ricky Grover, who worked with her on her hospital sitcom, Getting On, got heckled about his weight. “They were starting to pick on men the way they picked on women about their appearance. At least we had parity on that front,” she says with a wintry laugh. “Yay.”
Well before the Me Too movement, Brand was calling out jerks. At an awards ceremony she was emceeing, one company was winning big. She did a bit of teasing. The head of the company, up to collect the top award, whispered in Brand’s ear, “I always knew you weren’t funny but I never realised what a c--- you were.” Not what you expect in a formal setting. “No. Bullies rely on you being ashamed so you don’t say anything. You kind of shrivel up.” But then she took back the microphone and told the audience exactly what he’d just said to her.
“I’ve never heard a gasp like it. It was amazing. A lot of people from his company came up and said to me, ‘Yeah, we all hate him as well.’” Still, it’s brave to tackle someone who might have power over you. “I like to think that nobody has any power over me,” she says evenly.
You wouldn’t want to cross her. The new book is a rollicking blend of family memoir, wisecracks and the counsel of a woman who has, on occasion, had to be restrained from committing grievous bodily harm. “I have in the past asked someone big and scary to ask one of my neighbours ‘nicely’ if he would leave me alone,” she reports. He was leaving rubbish outside her flat and shouting abuse. “Maybe he didn’t like my jokes.”
She’s been there, done that, got the “lesbian man-hater” T-shirt. The British press can be savage. “Tell me about it. There’s always something there to trip you up,” she sighs, a survivor of the tabloid trenches. “The Daily Mail doesn’t really like gobby women, so that rules me out on two counts.” Sample snarky headline: “Jo Brand ‘isn’t prepared’ for her 170-mile Sport Relief walk, says her trainer – who confesses she’s STILL eating sausage rolls and chocolate bars.”
In what was referred to as the “golliwog row”, Brand called out Carol Thatcher, daughter of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, over ill-advised remarks she made in the green room of a television show they were both on. “That went mental in the press. Paps outside the house and all that kind of thing for a week.” It can be dispiriting. “They talk to people in my past to try and demonstrate that I was a poor little rich girl. Well, that didn’t work because I wasn’t. They phoned public figures and tried to get them to say that I was a lesbian. How weird was that? I know they phoned [comedian] Paul O’Grady and he just went, ‘Oh, ask her yourself’, which is obviously the way forward.”
None of this has made her any less gobby. “The privileged position you’re in as a comedian is that you can pretty much say what you like, and I’m prepared to take the consequences of that.” When we speak she’s been saying what she likes, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and reaping a small Twitter storm. Guardian headline: “Women avoid transgender debate for fear of reaction, says Jo Brand.” If one of her daughters identified as trans, “I would be open to the general idea of it. But I also feel younger kids are at risk of making the decision too early,” she told the Times. “For me, it’s kind of a generational thing,” she says now. “My daughters accept that it just exists and get on with it, whereas [for] the older generation like me it’s something new that we have found difficult to take on board and understand.
“I feel that there are issues that aren’t addressed because there’s too much shouting going on. Feminists and women are frightened of certain aspects of the way that the law seems to have changed very quickly and very dramatically. They feel vulnerable and unprotected.”
She’s talking about proposals for self-determining gender. “In my opinion they are not actually attacking trans people, they’re attacking a loophole which might be exploited by men.” Complicated issues to play out on social media. “Very complicated. I think as time marches on they will be discussed and people will come to agreements about them.”
Is it inhibiting when anything you say could become a lightning rod on Twitter? “I don’t really partake of social media so I don’t care. Life’s too short to constantly worry about what people are saying about you. It pisses me off that people expect you to somehow lay out your attitudes in a very black-and-white way when I personally feel that there are grey areas that I’m simply not sure about. There’s this constant demand that you stake your ideological claim in a way that I’m just not prepared to do.”
But many compelling bits of Born Lippy allow a reader a cautious glimpse into some of the rooms in her past.
When she was 15, her parents caught her coming out of Last Tango in Paris with seven men. Her father drove her home and burnt all her apparently unsuitable clothes on a bonfire in the garden. She left home at 16 when her boyfriend – older, posher, heroin addict – didn’t go down well. Her advice for younger readers, which she’d like to have read then, is that “it’s a really sensitive time of your life. If people put you down it’s so much harder to cope with. But there’s good news coming down the line, female teenagers, because as you get older, you do give less of a toss what people think.”
Brand’s father suffered from depression and had frightening rages. Writing about these things can be tricky. “I think things in the past are easier for me to talk about. Anything current, I consider that private, particularly as I’ve got children. I wouldn’t want to embarrass them with their peer group at school or give fodder to any bullies that might be teasing them.” She checked with her parents what she said about them and about her dad’s depression (he died last year). “Was the fact that he was sad a catalyst for me to try to make people laugh, to make him laugh? Seems a bit obvious, but I never was subtle.”
Dealing with her father’s volatility helped her handle hecklers. “You learn to be in a slightly Zen place so you don’t wind things up more than they have to be.” Her experience of working in a psychiatric emergency clinic also helped. “People are often in a very agitated emotional state. You learn techniques for bringing the temperature down.”
“Lower your expectations” is about as inspirational as Brand advice gets. In an age that offers an avalanche of anxious advice on how to live forever in a probiotic, Paleo purgatory, it’s refreshing. She seems to walk the talk. Sandi Toksvig has gone public with the fact that she’s paid 60% less for hosting BBC show QI than former host Stephen Fry. “I think you have to be careful revealing something like that. Sandi said that as well,” she says, expectations in check. “You don’t want to sound like you’re moaning. I’m a big supporter of parity but to say, ‘Oh, I’m really pissed off that I’m getting £100,000 for a series rather than the man who’s getting £150,000.’ It’s a difficult area, isn’t it?” Indeed.
Still, things do change. There’s a new generation of talented, feminist women in comedy. Some are New Zealanders. Rose Matafeo, who won the Edinburgh Comedy Award last year, was recently a guest on Brand’s Extra Slice. “I thought she was absolutely wonderful and very funny.”
Brand on the phone is fun, friendly and hardly ominous at all. Just don’t call her a national treasure. That kind of accolade can be unhelpful to a woman who can still rock an orange pixie cut and school male panellists on Have I Got News for You about sexual harassment jokes. “Absolutely. I always aim for national disgrace or national monument.” As she has explained, “If you’re a national treasure, you can’t go around telling people to f--- off and I still want to do that, really. F--- off, all you people that call me a national treasure.”
She might have to get used to it. She has no plans to retire. “I do think, as an older fat woman, it’s quite important that we have a bit of profile because there’s quite a lot of scandalous examples in Britain of women being sacked because they’re older and being replaced by someone who apparently looks better than them.” Diversifying what she does is an insurance policy. “In case one area goes horribly wrong.” She’s seen comedians say something outrageous and get shunned. “I can quite imagine myself doing something like that without thinking, just trying to entertain the crowd. It’s a balance between not becoming so entirely bland that you don’t offend people and so gobby that you do and you lose work.” It’s like treading a tightrope, she says. “I’ll just keep working till I keel over.”
She signs off Born Lippy like the sort of feminist firebrand Mumsnet-using cake eater in steel-capped boots that she is: “See you on the barricades for a nice cuppa!” As for the book’s subtitle, she needn’t worry. She does female like a legend.
BORN LIPPY: How to do Female, by Jo Brand (Hachette, $37.99).
This article was first published in the January 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.