“The attitude was women weren’t funny:” Comedian Jo Brand on 30 years in the business and returning to Edinburgh

Jo Brand returns to Edinburgh for a new nativity play. (Pal Hansen/Contour by Getty Images)

AS a stand-up comedian with more than 30 years’ experience, Jo Brand is no stranger to the Edinburgh stage.

With the Fringe an essential step on the ladder for any comic serious about making it in the industry, Jo was a frequent visitor north – until having two children made it too stressful.

Now she’s returning to the capital with significantly more than two kids, when she shares a stage with dozens of youngsters in Nativity! The Musical, an adaptation of the hit British Christmas film.

Jo plays The Critic, the role played by Alan Carr in the Nativity movies, and smiled: “Anyone with kids of a certain age will have been forced, under pain of death, to watch the films.

“I’m looking forward to coming back to Edinburgh. I did the Fringe for seven or eight years in the ’90s.

“When I first went it was really daunting, but after getting in the swing of things it was a great place to be. It’s the socialising event for comedians because it’s the only time we see each other.

“I loved it, but the cut-off point for me was having kids.

“I did a play every night at 7.30 and then my stand-up at 10.45, and I had my 18-month-old and six-month-old daughters with me.

“It was hell on earth and really stressful. They weren’t sleeping and we had no time to do anything, so since then I’ve only done a few really short runs.”

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Jo’s TV debut, on Channel 4’s, Friday Night Live.

She had been performing her brand of alternative comedy on the circuit for a couple of years by that point, juggling it with her job as a psychiatric nurse.

But making the jump into full-time comedy was no easy decision, especially in a time when there were far fewer female comedians than there are today and people’s attitudes to them were much different.

“I was senior charge nurse at a psychiatric emergency clinic when I was asked to do Friday Night Live and I didn’t think I should be on TV when I was in that role, so I decided to give comedy a go professionally,” Jo continued.

“I decided I would assess it in six months and if I was earning enough to survive, I would carry on. Thankfully, that’s how it worked out.

“When I started there was an attitude that women weren’t funny.

“You could see the looks of despair when a female stepped on to the stage in a comedy club.

“I would like to think I helped change things in some way, but I don’t know if that’s the case. There was a general march from the ’70s and ’80s on that women could tap into male-dominated jobs.

“I’ve tried to work out how many were on the circuit back then and it was roughly 200 men to 20 women, so we made up just a tenth in the mid-’80s.

“That’s changed beyond recognition.

“Not only are there far more comics now, but the number of female comics has shot up. We are at 40-45% now, so almost half.

“The tone of female comedy is far more varied now, too. I suppose in my day we felt we had to be shouty feminists who threatened men!”

When 61-year-old Jo made her small screen debut 30 years ago, she could never have imagined how much she would become part of the mainstream.

Nativity! The Musical with Jo Brand as ‘the critic.’ (Simon Turtle)

From her frequent appearances on Countdown and hosting The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice to presenting shows about cats and dogs and being a judge on Splash!, Jo is very much in-demand.

And that’s because, despite her comedy style being dry and cold, she is a warm and genuinely likeable person.

Also a successful author, Jo’s new book is the semi-autobiographical Born Lippy: How To Do Female, in which she attempts to analyse what it means to be a woman today while guiding readers through the potential pitfalls.

“It’s a real hotchpotch of things and hopefully it’s funny,” she continued.

“I touch on important things, like friendship and not being horrible to people, and I’ve woven in personal experiences.

“My daughters are teenagers now and the advice I’ve given them is they are going into a convent and staying there!

“I had my daughters when I was in my 40s and everyone thought I was their gran for a long time, so I’ve had the privilege of looking into their world in a way that perhaps a lot of people my age haven’t.

“While my girls don’t think my stand-up is funny, I do seem to be a source of great entertainment to both of them.

“The book is an attempt to link the changes from my teenage years to theirs.”

Those changes have been huge, most notably social attitudes, especially in recent times with campaigns such as #MeToo gaining huge traction.

Jo said: “The last few years have been very interesting and attitudes are much different these days.

“The expectation now is that females will be treated equally and that’s the way it should be, but that’s different from when I was a teenager, even though there had been a feminist movement by then. I hope it continues in that direction.

“I find a lot of younger men are very different from how they were in my day. They are much more attuned and happier about gender equality.”

Also a successful actress, having written and starred in shows such as Getting On (for which she won a BAFTA) and Damned, Jo is passionate about devoting a lot of time to charity – much of which goes under the radar.

While she is often seen taking part in high-profile challenges for the likes of Comic Relief, she’s more likely to be helping out smaller charities that are trying to get started.

“If you’re someone who has been successful but also know what it’s like to have a proper, badly-paid job and to struggle, I feel it’s important to contribute in a way,” added Jo.

“As a nurse I saw people who had been scarred by poverty and violence.

“Some people pick one or two charities to back and only do things for those ones, which is perfectly reasonable, but that means all the new charities don’t get a look in.

“Although it drives my husband nuts when I say yes to every request, I like to try to sweep up all the smaller ones that are attempting to get off the ground, all the charities that aren’t so glamorous – a bit like me, I suppose!”

Nativity! The Musical, Festival Theatre, Nov 28-Dec 2.