'I’ve been spat at, had drinks thrown at me...' Jo Brand reflects on 40 years of comedy criticism

Jo Brand with Jamie Laing recording the Great Company podcast credit:Bang Showbiz
Jo Brand with Jamie Laing recording the Great Company podcast credit:Bang Showbiz

Jo Brand has had to deal with criticism and bullying in the comedy industry for 40 years.

The 66-year-old stand-up began her act in the 1980s as part of the new wave of 'alternative comedy', and she admits that she has had countless insults hurled at her, mostly about her weight and looks.

But Jo insists that no audience heckler has ever really hurt her because she developed a very thick skin when she worked for 10 years as a psychiatric nurse, first at Cefn Coed Hospital in Swansea, Wales, and then at Maudsley Hospital in South London.

Appearing on the podcast 'Great Company with Jamie Laing', she said: "I've had that for nearly 40 years. I’ve been spat at, had drinks thrown at me. But having been a nurse on locked wards, I was used to getting some much better abuse, to be honest with you. Much more imaginative and much more cutting, you know? For example, someone would shout, ‘F*** off, you fat cow’. And it wasn’t like I hadn’t heard it before.

“I had heard it before, better – accompanied by a side dish of how they were going to kill me, or they were going to rape me. And I’ve been hit as a nurse – I’ve never been hit as a comic. I’ve had beer thrown at me, but you know.”

As a plus-sized woman, Jo - who first performed under the name “Sea Monster” - has always expected jibes from men about being overweight, but she became a specialist in coming back with an acerbic putdown which would often get a bigger laugh than her initial joke.

She explained: "I would say something like, ‘Oh, don’t worry, I deliberately keep my weight up so a tosser like you won’t fancy me’. So that would get a bigger laugh than the original heckle. As soon as you show a bit of vulnerability and start to falter a bit, audiences get worse. You can’t show any vulnerability at all.

"A woman in her early 80s came up to me in central London. She said, ‘I saw you many, many years ago and I remembered all your best putdowns. I’ve used them so many times with people that have been rude to me or shouted at me and they’ve just been brilliant, so thank you.'"

The 'QI' regular insists that resistance to a woman doing comedy doesn't just extend to comedy club gigs but also on the corporate circuit, but she has developed many tricks to appease even the most potentially tricky audiences.

Recalling one set she performed at a hotel for approximately 900 builders, she said: "When you do those gigs, they don’t know who’s going to come on, so you’re kind of a surprise. So I got announced and I could just hear basically an audible sigh of despair. So I said, ‘I can tell you’re looking at me and thinking what on earth does she know about building. Well, my dad is a structural engineer, my brother’s a quantity surveyor, and my husband’s an effing plank’. That got a massive laugh and then they were much warmer to me.”