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'Lots of comics are mentally disturbed'

And Jo Brand should know...

Jo Brand has claimed there are ‘quite a lot of mentally disturbed people in comedy’ – based on her former experiences as a psychiatric nurse.

She said she has had to offer ‘lots of counselling’ to other stand-ups while on the circuit, while many comics exhibit the symptoms of her former patients.

‘Surrealists like Eddie Izzard emit a flight of ideas that you get with bipolar people,’ she said. ‘It’s called pressure of speech: you just splurge out nonsense. He has managed to hone it into comedy… other people haven’t.

‘Harry Hill [who used to be a doctor] used to get pissed off because people treated him like a walking surgery. I acted more as a psychiatric referral service, with lots of counselling.’

Her comments came in conversation with broadcaster Mark Lawson in an event at London’s National Theatre last night.

She also said that comedians were often of a personality type that demanded attention, and were fiercely protective of that.

She explained: ‘In about 1990s we tried to set up a comics’ union when clubs started playing differentials – more money the higher up the bill you were. As alternative comedians, we thought everyone should be paid the same.

‘At the first meeting there were 150 comics. It was hell – constant heckling and people trying to outdo each other. At the second meeting there was 27, then after that, just seven. Comics are individualistic, and do protect their personal arena quite fiercely.

‘I think because I had a real job for quite a time, and was just happy to be doing comedy, I wasn’t quite so insecure.’

She said that competitiveness is very visible in Mock The Week, a show that has been much criticised for that aggression previously.

‘Mock The Week has younger comics more keen to prove themselves good at making jokes,’ she said. ‘Plus you have six comics, plus Dara in the chair who wants to do his jokes as well… that’s seven of you competing. The air is full of testosterone.

‘There’s something about turning a camera on that makes people competitive. It’s quite an uncomfortable environment, and I don’t like it. Other panel shows have an element of that – but not as intense as Mock The Week.’

Brand was talking to promote her new memoirs, Can’t Stand Up For Sitting Down, about her experiences on the stand-up circuit. Of her approach to comedy, she said: ‘Traditional comedy spent so long having a go at women, I thought I’d take he piss out of blokes and see what happened. I think I’d done something wrong if I didn’t wind them up so much.’

And she said the book concentrated on her work because: ‘I have difficulty with my private life being held up to scrutiny’.

‘Once you reach celebrity status the media expect you to vomit up everything you do,’ she said. ‘And if you do any publicity for things, you’ve jumped into that pit of evil.’

She says she has become used to abuse in the press because ‘I stand for everything the Daily Mail hates’.

‘In the tabloids I’m just called "fat" as if I didn’t know,’ she said. ‘I’m used to getting abuse. Comedy is great because you can answer back – as a nurse I knew they were ill so had to maintain a façade of professionalism. But all those years of holding back splurged out when I became a comic.’

She said her reputation as a supposed ‘man-hater’ often precedes her. ‘I had a run-in with Jeremy Clarkson when I sat next to him at a BBC talent dinner, which was hosted by Peter Salmon [then controller of BBC One],’ she said.

‘He asked us for ideas for how to improve the BBC. Then for a joke, I turned to Clarkson, and said “Take him off”. It was only a joke but he went off in a rage, ranting “All you ever do is go on about periods.”

‘For my own interest, I worked it out. And out of 14 or 15 hours of stand-up, I’ve done five minutes on periods.’

She also admitted her parents have mixed feelings about her being a comedian. ‘Mum’s never really seen me live. She gets too nervous on my behalf,’ she said. ‘She’s terrified I’d be heckled and feel she’d have to get stuck in.

‘The only gig she came to, she took half a Valium beforehand, and when the compere announced my name, she ran out – so she’s never really seen me.

‘Dad likes the fact that I’m on telly, but secretly thinks I should be more like Thora Hird.’

Jo Brand’s Can’t Stand Up For Sitting Down is out now, published by Headline Review at £20. Click here to order from Amazon at half price.

Posted: 18 Nov 2010

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