Interview: Jo Brand

Tom Browne

The comedian and author discusses her new book Born Lippy and opens up about feminism, politics, hecklers and cold-water swimming

There are many words to describe Jo Brand. Thirty years ago, when confronted with her spiky black hair, DM boots and gobby stand-up routine, you might have used "aggressive", "intimidating" or "rebellious". These days, after a career that’s taken in everything from panel shows and novels to charity work and political activism, you’d be tempted to reach for "national treasure"—although, as she wryly points out in her new book Born Lippy, that’s often just a polite way of saying you’re getting old.

“It’s easy to become a kind of cartoon character when you do this job,” Jo tells me when I mention her evolving public image. “You tend to get allotted your three adjectives by the press and people assume that’s you. But we know that individuals are more complex than that. Then, as you get older, people tend to think you’re less of a rebel. Also, when I got married, all the tabloids went, ‘Hooray, a man has been brought in to tame her and now she’ll be lovely!’ The suggestion was that I’d had all the stuffing knocked out of me.”

"I always looked like I was up for a fight"

Born Lippy is quick to dispel any such notion. A mixture of comedy, reflections, anecdotes and advice, it contains, in Jo’s words, “all the things I wish I’d known” growing up—but delivered in a resolutely non-preachy and accessible way. Its main theme, however, is “what it means to be female today”. Jo has two teenage daughters, born when she was 43 and 45 respectively, and in many ways this feels like a book written for the generation growing up in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement.

“There’s been a fairly substantial change from when I was a teenager,” says Jo, referring to the issue of sexual harassment. “My daughters and their age group just assume that you don’t put up with that any more, which I think is great. The thing that really pisses me off is the anonymity of social media. You can threaten to rape a female MP, for example, and somehow that seems to be all right. A lot of this abuse is carried out by individuals assuming they will never be identified. They wouldn’t dream of saying this stuff to someone’s face, and I think that’s really cowardly.”

Jo herself has never shied away from confrontation. As guest host of Have I Got News for You, she famously challenged Ian Hislop when he seemed to play down the significance of harassment in the House of Commons—a clip that now has over 40,000 views on YouTube. Indeed, much of Jo’s early career was spent facing down hecklers at stand-up shows, many of whom were openly aggressive and misogynistic.

“I attracted that kind of stuff because I always looked like I was up for a fight. Also, they tended to assess female comics—there weren’t many of us at the time—on how attractive they looked. I think they thought, ‘Oh my God, who’s this creature here?’ and were trying to get in their heckles first. If you’re fat or bald or have what some people would consider a physical flaw, that’s what they pick on. Interestingly, nowadays both men and women are assessed on their looks, rather than neither of us, so there’s a bit more parity.”

If such experiences have given Jo an intense dislike of bullying (“there are few things that make me angrier”), it’s also given her a sense of fairness and proportion. Discussing the current tone of politics in her book, she regrets the fact that “the argument always seems to go from 0 to 60 in two seconds”. This can be seen in some of the comments Jo has attracted recently for defending Germaine Greer, the feminist icon who was almost no-platformed by Cardiff University for her views on the transgender community.

“I understand why student unions have reacted that way, and I’m determined not to get no-platformed myself so I can talk to them about it,” says Jo with a grim laugh. “The transgender issue is a complex one that’s been treated in a very black and white way, which is why there’s so much hostility and aggression. If we could just discuss it without people going absolutely over the top, we might start getting somewhere. But at the moment it’s such an emotional area.”

But while politics is clearly important to Jo, her book has far broader horizons. Among the topics we discuss are her school-exchange trip to Bonn (“I stayed with a very odd family that took me out to celebrate Hitler’s birthday”), her experience of cold-water swimming at Tooting Bec Lido (“I thought I was going to have a stroke, but fortunately I’m very well lined”) and the wittiest heckles she’s had (first prize goes to a comment about her short trousers: “Why don’t you put some jam on your shoes and invite your trousers to tea?”) In fact, if you’re looking for laugh-out-loud comedy, Born Lippy is a good place to start.

“I do have very strong feminist principles,” Jo concludes, “but I don’t march my daughters around the garden shouting, ‘I hate men!’, as the tabloids might lead you to believe. My first priority is to make people laugh, so it was important not to end up writing a book-length advice column. If people want to take the advice, great. If they don’t, that’s fine too.”

Born Lippy: How To Do Female is published by John Murray on October 18.