Part of the Humourology series
Season 2, Episode 3
Jo Brand – Beating Bullies by Weaponising Wit
Award-Winning comic, author, and screenwriter Jo Brand joins The Humourology Podcast to discuss the power of humour when it comes to defending yourself. Whether while on the stage or off it, Jo knows that a joke can be used as a jab and a punchline can protect people from difficult situations and dastardly degenerates.
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Legendary comic Jo Brand joins the show to share stories from her history as a psychiatric nurse and her time as one of the country’s top comics. Jo pulls on years of experience to talk about the psychological benefits of having a great sense of humour. Jo says that in the darkest of times, a sense of humour can build your resilience and protect your mental health. For Jo, a jest can justify a difficult situation.
With a career in comedy, Jo knows the importance of humour in everyday life. Whether on the stage or providing medical service to psychiatric patients, Jo says that humour can create connections and change people’s perception of any situation.
“I think in those ways, you can really contribute to changing people’s minds a bit.”
Want to learn how to handle the hecklers on stage and in the office? Join Jo as she jokes and jousts with mental health and bullies only on The Humourology Podcast.
To find out more about what Jo’s up to, you can follow her on Instagram
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Jo Brand – Beating Bullies by Weaponising Wit
– Humour is so extraordinarily helpful. Like, particularly in work, you know, for me, having been a nurse, and you’ll find, I think, the more stressful people’s jobs are, the more dark their humour is.
– Welcome to The Humourology Podcast with me, Paul Boross, and my glittering lineup of guests from the worlds of business, sport, and entertainment who are going to share their wisdom and their use of humour with you. Humourology is the study of how humour can dramatically improve your business success, mental health, and your life. Humourology puts the fun into business fundamentals, increases the value of your laughing stock, and puts a punchline back into your bottom line. Please remember to like, subscribe, and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. My guest on this episode of The Humourology Podcast is an outstanding multi-award-winning comedian, author, screenwriter, actor, and presenter. She is known for her acerbic wit, biting humour, and sharp observations with a polemic perspective on all modern life’s madness and mayhem. Her first job was as a psychiatric nurse, dealing with drug addicts, alcohol abuse, and the clinically depressed, which turned out to be a perfect training ground for dealing with the frequently volatile and vitriolic audiences of London’s late 1980s comedy circuit. Aside from her award-winning shows, like “Through The Cake Hole” and “Getting On”, her television appearances include, “Have I Got News For You?”, “Never Mind The Buzzcocks,” “Absolutely Fabulous,” and the hilarious comedy panel show, “Question Time.” Audiences and contemporaries alike consider her to be brilliant, bold, and brave beyond belief. Jo Brand, welcome to The Humourology Podcast.
– Crikey, what an introduction. Thank you very much, Paul.
– Well, it’s all true, and it’s all from the heart. We first met in the late 1980s, working at the Comedy Store, where you were one of the very few comedians, either male or female, who could handle the frequently volatile mayhem of the late show. I recently read a quote about you, which said, “I felt no one in the audience could abuse me worse than the sort of abuse I had at work as a psychiatric nurse.” Is that what gave you your attitude and your bravery?
– Well, I think it really helped, because the particular environment I worked in was an emergency clinic, which meant that people that we saw were people in sort of extreme distress in many ways or extremely drunk or extremely desperate, because they were withdrawing from drugs, or people who had been brought in off the street by the police, because they were a danger to other people or themselves. So, a real mix of very desperate people, and I think very desperate people do have a bit of a tendency to behave very badly indeed sometimes because they want something, and if you don’t give it to them, then you just, it’s like a hairdryer. You know, you just get a wave of abuse. I was in charge of the department. So I was always wheeled out to say, “I’m sorry, you’ve got to leave,” or, “You can’t have that,” or whatever. So I was the one that was, you know, got all the abuse basically, yeah.
– And so when it came to the Comedy Store, it didn’t feel like anything, because I should remind our listeners that it was, I mean, a zoo at times, and people were encouraged or thought that they had to go and heckle. So it just felt normalised to you.
– Well, in some ways it did, and also, I mean, I have to say this and no disrespect to comedy audiences, but they’re not terribly imaginative, and what they tend to do is pick on the thing about you that stands out the most. So, obviously, with me, it was my weight, you know, and also being a woman, and I think that’s changed a bit recently, but your weight is so much more important if you’re a woman, because you’re supposed to be making yourself attractive to people. So, it was a big source of abuse I got from audiences, and I did get that sort of abuse when I was a nurse as well, but I also got added kind of threats to kill me. I got people throwing punches at me, you know, all that sort of thing, so comparatively, it was quite mild, even though it was horrendous some nights, yeah.
– For some reason, it was encouraged and it was of its time. Do you think actually things have moved on at all, especially for women? You sort of hinted at that you probably thought things are a bit better now.
– Yeah, I really do think they have. I mean, when I talk to women comics who are kind of a million years younger than me, they seem really shocked when I talk about the sort of abuse I used to get. They’re kind of really outraged by it and sort of put out that anyone would dare to behave like that, and I think, because of the sort of evening up of the sexes and far more women working in comedy now, there is much more of an attitude of, you know, that that sort of behaviour by audiences isn’t acceptable. Not to say it’s stopped completely, but, you know, it’s much better than it was.
– Well, you were a trailblazer in that, and as I said earlier on, I think that ability to go on at the late show, because if you close the show, you went on at 2:20 in the morning and people had been out since six o’clock.
– I know, yeah.
– Do you remember the fights backstage about who was going to close?
– Oh, I do, I do, and I also remember, you know, that the compere was, it was a bit like sort of being, you know, being in a sort of war, really, because the compere was like the scout you sent out ahead to see how dangerous it was, and so whoever it was, I used to remember, particularly Fred MacAulay, who I think is a brilliant compere, coming back in and kind of going, “Oh, they’re terrible out there tonight. There’s a bloke on the left who’s doing this and there’s a guy two rows back who’s done that.” So it was almost like giving you a warning of who the dangerous people were in the audience, which is great.
– Well, and we all used to take notes, because, I mean, I think people assumed that, you know, we were all relaxed. We were all nervous as hell backstage, really, weren’t we? And I’ve seen every comic just sort of like going, keep it tight, keep it tight, because you knew that if you went over, they would get more abuse, basically, because they were more tired and they were more drunk basically.
– Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I always used to find, especially, there was also a club called The Tunnel down in Greenwich, which was infamous because their audience was much more, their audience was sort of much more attuned to really destroying comedians, because there was a lot of very witty people there, and they kind of knew exactly what to say, whereas, you know, the Comedy Store, sometimes it was just like drunken groups of lads from the city on a night out, wasn’t it? Who would just go, oh, you know, “Look at the fucking state of you,” or whatever it was. So that was a scary place, and I used to find that if I just stood there and looked like I didn’t care for long enough, they would just shut up eventually because you would go on and you’d just get this wall of abuse, which was very funny, some of it, and it wasn’t actually worth trying to come back at them all the time because there was so much of it. So I just used to stand there and look at them and smile a bit, look a bit smug until they stopped, you know? And it did work, actually.
– I worked The Tunnel a lot, and I have to say that, the last time, it went too far, when there was actually racist abuse when we were walking to the stage.
– Oh, no, that’s not on. That would never happen now, would it?
– Yeah, yeah, and that’s actually a good thing. I mean, people are talking about sort of, you know, PC gone mad and everything, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s just politeness, isn’t it?
– Absolutely. Absolutely, and I also remember, the audience at The Tunnel, they would randomly decide to hate someone, however good they were, and so one night, Harry Enfield was on and he was a big star at the time. He was on, you know, Friday Night Live, and they absolutely destroyed him after about five minutes, and then a guy came on afterwards and told a joke, for about 10 minutes in Serbo-Croat and he got like three encores. So they would do weird things like that. They would kind of act as a group, you know, to sort of piss you off on the stage, really.
– You learned very early how to deal with this, both as a psychiatric nurse and on stage. If you had to give one piece of advice to, let’s say, to women who are being bullied or antagonised at work, what would that be?
– Well, I think just two, basically. First off, the first one I’ve already mentioned is look like you don’t care, because I think if people feel that they’re getting to you, there’s a certain sort of personality that’s going to be encouraged to do that more, because some people are just cruel, you know, and they like to see someone sort of squirm in front of a group of other people. It’s basically bullying, isn’t it, really? So I would say that, but I would also say, which used to really help me when I was a comic, to have a sort of ascending number of heckle put downs which you can use in real life, because I’ve had quite a lot of people say to me, “I used your put down about such and such on some guys on a building site,” or something, you know, and it does actually work, because for a long time, I think kind of groups of men who are inclined to do that, and it does tend to be men against women. Well, it certainly did then. They don’t expect you to in any way respond, because they just think that, you know, you’re going to just fold under whatever their line, you know, of abuse is, or comment about your looks or whatever it is. So, to say something to them, and particularly, you have to do what a teacher does. You direct it at one individual and single them out, and then people’s mates are kind of very fickle. If you single them out and make them look like an asshole, the mates will go, whoa. you know, like that. So, it’s kind of, it does work, I think.
– I think that’s brilliant advice, and by the way, I think pretty much all comedians will have some heckle responses in their back pocket.
– Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I used to go from, you know, like, some that were kind of not too bad, and like, especially if I had a bloke kind of heckling me about my looks, I would say, “Oh, well, you look like you’re on your own tonight. Where’s your girlfriend, outside grazing, I presume?” And, you know, that would get a big laugh. It never failed, to be honest, and also that would be the sort of joke that would make his mates go, “Oh, you wanker,” you know, and sort of turn on them a bit, and I would have sort of several, and there was one sort of nuclear put down that I had, and if that didn’t work, I just went off, and that was to do with sitting on people’s faces.
– I seem to remember that one, yes. Yeah, that was a killer.
– Yeah, well, I used to follow it up with a line about periods, which is really unpleasant, and at the same time, it would just make people feel ill, but it certainly stopped most of them in their tracks. So, it did work, and again, I think it was just a shock that a woman was like being so absolutely horrible.
– From my psychology background, I think that’s very true that when, it’s really interesting that when you go for bullies, if you stand up to them, it’s the classic playground stuff, isn’t it? And then go for one of them, the others will disperse.
– Yeah, absolutely. They really do. So I would just kind of say to women, just think about some kind of very simple line that you can have if someone’s sort of harassing you, and it doesn’t even need to be that sophisticated, you know.
– To be honest, here’s the other bit of that advice from the comedy perspective is, you just touched on it. It doesn’t need to be that good, your comeback. What it needs to be is well-timed.
– Yeah, absolutely, and delivered as if you mean it, if you can, you know, but not delivered, like, shaking and crying. If you can possibly manage to act, that you sort of couldn’t really care.
– But it’s all, that’s, you just used the analogy of the teacher, but it is about, you know, I always say when you had a supply teacher at school, you could smell fear.
– Oh, I know, I know, and kids are not kind, are they?
– No, and kids grow up to be comedy audiences or bullies at work and those kinds of people. So, it’s actually about, you know, you just said it, act as if you are completely in charge of this, because that’s what will turn them, I think.
– Exactly, and kind of use other people’s lines that you’ve heard. You know, I mean, if you look at like, two of my favourite comics are Greg Davies and Romesh Ranganathan, and they’re both ex-teachers, and you can really tell, because they’ve both very much got this aura about them that they’re in control, and I think people are a bit frightened of heckling them, because they come across as someone that can deal with that, you know?
– I mean, it is about attitude, isn’t it? Because, I mean, we are all, you know, I know we talked about backstage at the Comedy Store. We’re all slightly trepidatious about going on that stage.
– Oh, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.
– But our job is that, as soon as the foot lands on the stage, we have to look like we’re completely in charge of this.
– And that’s a great trick for your boss as well, or somebody who’s, you know, oppressing you, is to do that. I think that’s really useful.
– And also, we also all know that in nature, you know, that predators will pick on the weak one, won’t they? It’s natural.
– And from a psychological perspective, I mean, all the social science around this is when people make themselves look smaller or sound smaller, they are much more likely to be attacked.
– Yeah, yeah.
– And that’s why more women get attacked on public transport is because they try to, actually, because a man, you know, traditionally, men spread more.
– Yes, and they try to shrink a bit, do they?
– That’s it, yeah, and it’s biology, really. And so you have to, crikey, you know, the idea that every comic was confident when they went on stage. No, they looked confident.
– No, exactly.
– They played confident, yeah. Jo, what makes you laugh?
– Well, I think it’s kind of a mix of things. I think, you know, I love sort of comedy like, I’ve always loved Victoria Wood, “French & Saunders,” that sort of comedy, because they’re women, and it goes to the, you know. What made me laugh most with “French & Saunders” was those two fat blokes they used to do who-
– Oh, brilliant.
– You know, who used to kind of like try to shag the telly when Miss World was on and that kind of thing. It just sort of sums up the sort of guy that kind of comes onto women, who sort of thinks that he’s their equal, you know, and just that he’s kind of gracing them with his presence, really. So, I loved those sorts of characters. Victoria Wood, I think, just conjured up brilliant images of women’s lives, you know, and a lot of stuff that I can identify with, and a lot of that is summed up, I suppose, in that song that’s so brilliant, Freda and Barry. That really makes me laugh, and I can listen to that over and over again, and it still makes me laugh.
– Which is amazing for a comedy song, you can listen to it again and again, because-
– It is, absolutely.
– ‘Cause it’s not like a standup routine whereby you’ve heard, you know, the punchlines. You are still going with the whole thing, and the hostess trolley line gets me every time.
– Oh, I know, I know, it’s brilliant, isn’t it? Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, right. It is really hard to have a comedy song that people will give more than a couple of listens to, you know, so it’s quite an achievement, that.
– Yeah, thanks for not mentioning “Stutter Rap.”
– Now, now, now, now, come on. I’m not going to stroke your ego this early on.
– All right, dinner and a show, and the ego will be stroked. So, tell me a true funny story about something that’s happened to you.
– Well, most of my funny stories do involve behaving quite badly, and when I was a nurse, I had a really, really bad day at work, and nurses and doctors are fairly notorious for repairing to the pub after work if they’ve had a bad day, you know, and this was like a really bad day. So I went to the pub. I had my car with me. I, foolishly, after having a lot to drink, and I don’t recommend anyone to do this, I’m not encouraging you. I drove home. It was about half a mile. I jumped some lights, because I didn’t realise. I didn’t even look at them, I don’t think, but not realising there was a police van behind me, who’d been following me for a bit. Anyway, I drove into where I lived, which was sort of a block of like 1930s flat with some ornamental gardens, and I had friends in the car and we were all laughing and mucking about, and just for a laugh, I pulled into the ornamental gardens and drove round and round the fountains, over the rose beds, and basically caused quite a lot of damage with my friends all hysterical in the car, drove back onto the road outside my flat, not realising that all this time, the policeman had been sitting there in the van, just observing the whole thing, and he got out of the van and came over and just said to me, “Have you been drinking?” And I think because I was so drunk, my answer demonstrates how drunk I was. I said to him, “I should say so, big boy.” And then… And then he said, “I’m going to have to breathalyse you.” So he did, and obviously, I was over the limit, and he said, “Oh, you’re over the limit.” And I went, “Oh, now, there’s a surprise. Okay, where’s the handcuffs?” You know, like, so cringey, but when I think back on it, it was just making my friends hoot. Anyway, what was so lucky was I was with a friend who was also a nurse and we worked in the same hospital, and you know, there’s a nurses and policemen thing. She said to this guy, “Look, she works in the emergency clinic at the Maudsley, so she’s had a really terrible day. I’m sorry. We went to the pub and she never does this normally. She’s really, really sorry, and she won’t do it again.” And he said, “Right, get into your flat before I change my mind.” And let me go, which was really incredible, you know? And just the addendum to that story was, the next day, I was at work again, and this policemen came in, I didn’t know him, and said, “Oh, can I speak to Jo Brand?” And I said, “Well, yeah, obviously, that’s me.” And he went, “And do you know who I am? And I said, “No.” And he said, “Well, I was the one who arrested you yesterday.” So I was that drunk. I didn’t even remember what he looked like, you know, and he had actually come in just to check up that my story was true, because I think if it hadn’t been, he would have sort of followed it up. So, those were the days. I’m saying it again, as I said, I don’t advise anyone to do that, but like, getting away with something like that made me laugh even more, really.
– Yeah, all I could think of was Theresa May being asked, “What’s the naughtiest thing you’ve done?”
– I know, yeah.
– And I’d vote for you for Prime Minister, to be honest with you, but you maybe not tell that story on “Parkinson” or “The One Show.”
– No, exactly. Well, I quite like John Lewis furniture, so I think I’d be happy with that flat.
– Is there any hidden valuable learning in that story or is it all on the surface?
– In that day, in that day and age, things were kind of different, but actually, it taught, I never drank and drove again after that. So I learnt that, at the very least, you know, and I just also learned that, obviously, policemen were always very handy if you were a nurse for whatever you, you know. I think there’s a big learning in that, which is don’t drink and drive and don’t be irresponsible, and it’s even worse if you’re in a job like mine. I mean, in this day and age, I probably would have lost my job and gone to court and blah, blah, blah and all that sort of thing, and, you know, so it sort of did teach me to be a bit more of a grownup.
– Is everyone potentially funny, Jo?
– I don’t think so. No, I don’t, and I think there’s two types of people, people that just aren’t funny and they never try to be, because they’re just not that sort of person, but you also get people who think they’re funny, but they’re not, and in a way, they’re worse, because it’s very hard to break it to them that they’re just being quite annoying, and then the third aspect of that is comedy is a very subjective thing. So I accept that there are people, I think, aren’t funny, but someone else might. So it’s kind of quite a complex issue, really. So, you might say, well, in that case, surely, everyone’s funny because someone thinks they’re funny, but I would say, I’m sure there’s a core of people that nobody thinks, you know, no one thinks they’re funny, sadly. It’s probably quite a small group.
– Well, and from the psychological perspective, I think it could have been knocked out of, you know, it’s the nature versus nurture argument, but it could have been knocked out of them by a teacher or parent going, “Oh, don’t be silly, you’re not funny.” Whatever it was which has basically led to that. So they don’t ever try. I think you would like my friend, Jackie Green, who’s a publicist on Broadway who’s very New York and she always has this saying to people. She says, “Be funny, be clever, or be quiet.”
– Yes, that’s great.
– But no in-between on that, but isn’t it also about knowing when to be funny?
– It is, but then again, I think on the other hand, sometimes, it’s when it’s inappropriate to be funny that it’s funniest, if you see what I mean.
– Oh, yeah.
– But that’s a big risk, isn’t it? When you do that. I’ve done that a few times, I think. I’ve tried to sort of make a joke in the wrong circumstances and it’s kind of backfired. You know, I think you have to be a good judge, really.
– Well, that’s… Well, tell us about one of those actually. That’s what I want first of all.
– Well, sometimes, I think things that are quite dark are funny, and they’re just too dark for an audience. So, for example, you know, you’ve obviously must’ve done this as well in the past, gone to lots of new material nights and tried stuff out, you know, and I was at, actually, this one wasn’t a new material night, but I was at a club called The Red Rose, which I’m sure you remember, which was quite a big place, wasn’t it?
– Yeah, it’s Ivor Dembina’s place, wasn’t it?
– Yeah, that’s right, and there were probably, what, maybe 200-300 audience, and it was in a Labour club in North London, but I tried a joke out and I said, you know, very sadly, I decided to have an abortion recently because my boyfriend didn’t want me to have the baby, and he was pretty supportive up to the point where he came to visit me after I’d had the termination and brought me a bag of jelly babies, and just like tumbleweed, you know? Just didn’t go for it, and I thought it was hilarious. So that sort of misjudgment happens with me quite a lot, to be honest. I try something out that’s too much for people.
– The whole point of comedy is finding the line, isn’t it? Sometimes, it-
– And if you don’t cross the line, you never know where the line is.
– Where it is. No, you’re so right, actually, and I think, you know, you’ll find the problem with social media, well, amongst other a million other things, is that everything you say instantly goes everywhere these days. So, whereas you could be shamed by a joke of yours dying on its ass, on the whole, it would stay within the theatre, because people couldn’t be bothered to go and find a phone box and go, “Hey, guess what?” You know, but these days, everyone can send it out immediately. So, everyone knows what you’ve said sort of seconds after you’ve said it, really, and it makes life very hard for people, I think.
– Yeah, and then we get into who controls what is funny. Is it group think about, you know, now we’re getting on this and this is not funny, and this can’t be said, which, you know, I think is slightly problematic, especially in the world of comedy, because comedy should be used to puncture the bubble of pomposity.
– If you are held back on that, you go, well, well, now, let’s not take the piss out of Putin, because we know what will happen. You know, we’ll get a pile-on, and so I wonder what you think, if, actually, humour can be a useful political tool to actually get change.
– Well, yes. I mean, I think it’s dangerous as a comedian to think that you can actually facilitate change, but I think that you can contribute to the general sort of political push in a kind of minuscule way, really, I suppose. You know, no comedian’s going to bring down a government, but on the other hand, you know, if you’re very funny about something and people are watchable, I mean, there’s that amazing woman. I can’t remember her name. I feel awful, but she’s American, and she re-voices Trump’s speeches . She is so funny, and what that means is that a lot of people who would not have watched Trump saying the ridiculous things that he says would maybe watch that because she made it funny, although she’s like voicing his words, you know, so there’s a lot of truth in there. So I think, in those ways, you can really contribute to changing people’s minds a bit, but you can’t ever have a serious effect, you know?
– Yeah, but totalitarian regimes, and if you think about apartheid and things like that, they banned theatre and comedy, didn’t they? Basically because they were terrified of the effect it would have.
– Well, that’s true, but I think to some extent, what it was more about was the thin skin of the leader probably who didn’t want to hear any jokes about himself because he couldn’t take it, you know? And I think, to be honest, like, you know, they do say, whoever they are, and I have read, and I don’t know whether you would concur with this, that quite a lot of bosses have a personality disorder, which makes them kind of difficult characters to either criticise or to try and change in some way, and so I think what something like a personality disorder might do for you, and I think people might be offended to hear me say this, but I don’t mean it offensively, but it will give you the drive to get where you want to go, which other people may not have, but it will also not enable you to take criticism once you’ve made the success that you’ve made, because you’re somebody who finds it very difficult, because of maybe when you were a child and your parents relentlessly teased you or you were bullied at school or whatever it is. People build up defences to cope with that, and so when they’re very important, like the president of Russia, you know, they don’t feel that people should be allowed to criticise anything, which is why Navalny has ended up where he has. You know, and it’s terrifying.
– I don’t know if you’ve read Jon Ronson’s book, “The Psychopath Test.”
– You know what, I keep meaning to. It’s on my list but I haven’t actually got around to it yet.
– Okay, no, no, but it’s very good, but I think it says that like 40% of people in high positions on boards or CEOs are psychopaths, and one of, well, you will know better than most, that one of the things about psychopathy is that that you can’t, there’s no empathy.
– Yeah, absolutely.
– So, you can’t actually empathise with people, and when you are attacked like that, it goes, that’s about the only thing that really works against a psychopath.
– And I think the thing is that people sort of have an image of a psychopath as being someone who’s got a machete and is breaking into someone’s house in the middle of the night, but the fact is that that’s like grossly distorted, and in fact, many people who have psychopathy are now referred to as people with different types of personality disorder, which I think things have changed, because attitudes have changed now, and people are willing to say, you know, or they’ve been diagnosed with a personality disorder or whatever it may be, and that’s not necessarily a negative thing, but there are some aspects, I think, of personality disorders which make you a difficult person sometimes to relate to.
– And also what people forget about psychopaths is they can be very charming.
– And they learn to be very, very charming, which takes me on to something I read you say that a lot of comics display psychological problems. So I was going to ask, is comedy therefore a care in the community for comics?
– Well, it’s an interesting question. I think the thing is that that comics can pretty much, most of them come under the umbrella of outsider in some way, and whether they’re an outsider because they found it difficult to relate to people or they’re an outsider because of their upbringing. You know, the thing I’ve always thought about, sort of problems that you have when you’re a kid, which I think is really, really the biggest sadness about kids that suffer in one way or another, is that when you’re young and you’re in a family, that’s the only family you know, so that’s normal for you, and it’s only when you start to get older as a child and, you know, go around to other people’s houses that you realise it’s not normal for your dad to be pissed every night and hitting you or it’s not normal for your mom kind of never to be there and for you all to be left on your own, or it’s not normal for you just to be fed sandwiches all the time or whatever it might be, you know, and I think by that point, a lot of people are kind of quite damaged by their experiences, and that’s kind of what I mean about comics kind of being, you know, sort of outside the radar, if you like. I mean, in a way, I had a strange upbringing because my dad suffered from depression and we were all a bit scared of him, to be honest, ’cause he had like big rages a lot of the time, and so you learn to operate within your family in a certain way, and I think that that’s what lots of comics that I’ve spoken to, they don’t have identical experiences to me, obviously, but they have some sort of experience that set them apart from feeling like they could just be a happy person who would get on with their lives, you know?
– It is, I mean, surprising because Ainsley and I talk about this quite a lot because we both came from broken homes and not very nice, you know, backgrounds, and it’s like, how much of that sort of is, well, actually, we go to nature versus nurture. How much of that is you now have to have the show off gene in order to get some love coming back?
– Well, I mean, I think, you know, if we look at where research is into this sort of thing, on a 12 hour clock, it’s probably about 10 past, isn’t it? You know, we’ve got a huge long way to go. I mean, brain research will show in the future, you know, a much clearer relationship between stress and your physical and emotional wellbeing and children under stress, they do know, you know, produce far more cortisol than kids in a kind of normal sort of, you know, happy family, and I think that does have sort of, it does long-term damage in a way, and it does make changes to who you are and how you deal with this sort of thing, and, you know, I do think a lot of comics that I’ve met have been in a similar position and have had, for one reason or another, a broken childhood or lost a parent when they were very young, and that’s something quite common, I find, amongst comics, that they lost a parent young, and so, you know, it’s made their life very different from everyone else’s because you haven’t got the traditional mom, dad, and the kids sort of set-up.
– Yeah, and so your view of the world gets skewed, but also how you receive love is, and so you have to go searching, I think, on some level outside for the level of love that would be the norm.
– Yeah, I totally agree, yeah.
– So what would the world be like without humour?
– Well, I think this is, like, this is a really interesting question, and it’s very hard to say, because I think humour is so knitted into the fabric of everything we are and everything we do, that if you kind of extract it with a big humour hoover, it would be hard to tell what was left, really. I think humour can be used maliciously to bully people. So, from that point of view, would it be an improvement? I don’t know, humiliating people not being there. I think people might just be bullied in other ways and just be cruel. I also think humour kind of, it’s a language that we all have, really, you know, to sort of facilitate getting on with other people, recognising kind of common themes in our lives. So I think the world would be a much poorer place, to be honest, if we didn’t have humour.
– Yeah, well, I couldn’t agree more, but it’s that, I love the idea of a humour hoover. It’s probably the biggest insult in the world as well. He’s a bit of a humour hoover.
– Yes. Well, some people are like that though, aren’t they? You know, they sort of shut you down.
– Well, yeah, and some people, what’s the thing in “Harry Potter” where they’re, the Dementors?
– Oh, yes, yes. I’m like that most mornings, I have to say. Once I wake up properly, I’m all right, but yeah, no, I know exactly what you mean. Yeah, I love “Harry Potter.” Do you?
– Yeah, I do.
– I think it is so much more than a kid’s book, you know, and at the heart of it, Harry Potter is an orphan who has lost his mom, you know?
– And so is he creating all this stuff and all this learning because of that? We go back to the humour thing. Do we create this to substitute for something else?
– Absolutely, absolutely, I think so.
– In your view, is humour a superpower then? I mean, because remember that I think very, very few people can do it to the level you’ve done it all your life, but is it, I mean, we all know that it’s a lot of work, but is it also some kind of super power that you can turn on that, you know, I think Marvel are going to be calling you soon. Will that do?
– Well, I think humour is so extraordinarily helpful, like, particularly in work, you know, for me having been a nurse, and you’ll find, I think, the more stressful people’s jobs are, the more dark their humour is, and I’ve heard some examples of humour, which most people would think are like truly shocking, but they’re sort of at a level. I mean, for example, you don’t have to put this in, but I’ll just tell you, but I remember someone telling me that somebody they knew who was a policeman, they arrived at a light aircraft crash, and I think everyone on board had been killed. There were about six people and they had to go around the plane and try and identify everyone. So they were taking people’s wallets out of their pockets and looking for names and that sort of thing. Anyway, they took one guy’s wallet out and he had, I don’t know, some sort of ID there, and they realise that that day was his birthday that the accident had occurred on. So they all stood around his body and sang “Happy Birthday” to him.
– Now, that is like, you think, oh my God, that is so horrible and kind of cruel, and so, but I think if you’re in a job where you look at, you see death all the time, you see people treating you like shit all the time, you see violence, that’s the level of sort of defensive humour that you develop sometimes to deal with something so catastrophic, and you’ll find, I think, that surgeons and doctors and nurses are also equally what you might tend to think of as tasteless in their humour.
– It’s survival mechanism. I spent two and a half years of my life teaching doctors and nurses at Guy’s, Kings and St. Thomas’ and that gallows humour was actually prevalent there and actually useful because it relieved the stress and it gave them resilience at the end of the day.
– And it knitted them together, as well, as a team. So, yeah, I think it is very useful. I certainly was someone that would be humorous with people, and, you know, there was some sort of understanding, which I personally thought was wrong, that you shouldn’t use humour with people with mental health problems for fear of them thinking, I don’t know, you’re taking the piss out of them, but human beings, you know, we do understand subtlety, and there’s a very big subtlety, rather, there’s a very big difference between taking the piss out of someone who’s mentally ill and having a joke with them on equal terms, you know. I mean, I remember once, you have to do something when you’re a nurse called specialing, which you have to be with someone 24 hours a day. I mean, not on your own, but you swap with other nurses because you’re worried that they’re going to damage themselves or other people. I remember going to the canteen with this girl who was quite out of control, you know, and she was sort of mucking about in the queue. She got her food, and I said, “Oh, don’t do that. You know, come on. Why don’t you just sit down and eat your lunch?” And she didn’t like me saying that. So she got her dinner and she went thwack like that on top of my head with it, and it was mashed potato, there was gravy, so it was all dribbling kind of down my face, you know, in the middle of this massive canteen with everyone, and so I just said to her, “What’s for pudding?” And she just started laughing, you know, and she sort of calmed down and it just made things much easier between us and I think, you know, nurses are sort of switched on enough to know the difference, and I certainly, you know, I did find certainly when I first started that there were some nurses that were quite cruel about patients, we called them then. We now call them service users, but, and I always felt uncomfortable with that, because that’s not the point of it. You’re meant to be treating them like, well, just like us, because they are, you know, and potentially any of us might be in that position sometime, and so, you know, I think in the old days, there was a bit more of a culture of kind of bullying in the big sort of psychiatric institutions, because they were such overheated, you know, separate communities, that it was very easy for a regime to get going, depending on what the boss was like.
– If I asked you to write a business case for humour, do you think you’d be able to do that?
– I wouldn’t have a fucking clue. Sorry, I just don’t know. I just don’t think I’m business-minded at all.
– Why is it important that people actually consider having fun at work, if you want to put it like that?
– Well, that’s true. I mean, one thing I would say, you know, about sort of trying to apply some principles of humour to work and that sort of thing is not to make it too… Formal, if you like, because once you start imposing, you know, it’s like, I don’t know. It’s like having a kind of comedy workshop at work and trying to get people to join in, and people are like, oh my God. You know, because we’re not all comedians and we’re not all comfortable about speaking in public and that sort of thing. It’s just kind of doing things without saying what you’re doing, so people don’t feel that they’re formally being, you know, induced to do something that they’re not comfortable with, really.
– So it’s about bringing lightness into it and allowing humour, having an atmosphere where humour can exist nicely. Is that it?
– Try having me at your annual Christmas party.
– Oh, well, there you go.
– Joking, but there’s another thing as well. Like, corporates, you must’ve done loads of corporate gigs, you know, and you can really tell a lot about a company or about a profession by the way that people behave. You know, whether, I mean, I used to do a thing at corporates where I’d find out the name of the sort of CEO and I’d do this really long story and go, you know, “I don’t want to burden you all with this, but for a long time, I’ve been kind of harassed by someone who keeps writing to me all the time, and there’s really quite a lot of unpleasant stuff about me and they’ve sent me a picture of themselves, and honestly, they just look really kind of grim, and their name is,” and then say the name of the CEO. You can really kind of tell what sort of company it was by how able to laugh they were, you know, because sometimes you can sort of see the fear in people’s eyes, like, “Oh, I don’t want him to see me laughing at this sort of thing.” And other times, you’d have the, like, whoever, the CEO or whoever it was on the front table, they’d be there, and if the whole table would just laugh and he would laugh too, because I obviously don’t know him from Adam, so I’ve just made it all up. You know, it would be fine, but conversely, you know, I remember once doing an advertising awards. God, they’re drunken affairs. Have you ever done one of them?
– Yes, oof.
– And there was this one company that just kept winning everything, and so I was what I considered to be gently just taking the piss out of ’em. I’d go, “Oh, they’ve won this category as well. Now, you know, how much are they paid for this?” And all that sort of thing, just mucking about. So they won the overall prize for the evening, and the boss came up to accept the award and he came up, and as I was giving it to him, he just whispered in my ear, and he said, “I always knew that you weren’t funny, but I never realised what a you were.” I was like, wow, you know? And I thought that’s kind of the ultimate in bullying, really, isn’t it? You know, to whisper that to me and to try, I think, he was trying to make me feel like really humiliated and ashamed, and it was the end of the evening. So, I just said to the audience, “So, thanks very much. I’ve had a really nice night, but the boss who I’ve just given the award to has just said this to me,” and I told them what he said, and it was like a really interesting reaction. I mean, you know, they were really shocked, and also, like, quite a lot of his employees came up to me afterwards and went, you know, “I’m really glad you did that, ’cause he’s an absolutely horrible boss, and he really treats us all like shit.” And, you know, I kind of felt, that’s what, because bullies expect you to be humiliated or frightened of them and to keep quiet, and I think if you can not keep quiet and, you know, talk to the right people, that’s what sorts things out, it’s the keeping quiet that allows bullies to carry on being as awful as they are, quite honestly, I think.
– And you’re dealing with either psychopathy or sociopathy on some level. So they’ve got used to this, they know this works, and so you have to break the cycle, and by the way, you know, in my introduction, I said you were one of the bravest people I’ve ever met, and I really do believe that. If you wanted a career sort of going around America, you know, empowering women to be brave, you could have that, because it’s enormous bravery, choices you have made, but also that ability to give other people, not just women, but other people that ability to be brave in the face of these sociopaths and everything, because you just made a really brave, because you could have made a decision that, you know, don’t book Jo Brand because she’s done this, but actually, you made a brave decision to call it out and it came back and people went, “Thank you, you’ve done us all a favour,” but I think it’s so important, and I think humour can call these things out as well.
– Well, I agree, and if we look at things like, you know, there are so many people getting away with it, aren’t there? But again, in these days of, like, increasing, kind of like, you know, the reach of social media and women knowing that they’re not just on their own anymore, and there are other women who feel the same as them, and men as well. You know, just being able to kind of talk to other people and have a bit of a feeling of all of us in it together against the horrible, whoever, you know.
– Well, we’ve just gone on some wonderful tangents, which I absolutely adore, and that’s exactly what The Humourology Podcast is about, but now we come to the end part of the show, Jo.
– Which is called Quick Fire Questions.
– [Voiceover] Quick Fire Questions!
– Quickfire question number one. Who’s the funniest business? You’ve talked about doing a lot of corporates. Who’s the funniest business person you’ve ever met?
– Well, actually, it’s a guy called Andrew Saffron, and many years ago, his wife, who was a comedy sort of romance writer, died of cancer very sadly, and he wanted to set up an annual awards for her to remember her and to award writers of very specifically kind of comedy chick lit type thing, romance, and so I got to know him very well over the years, and he stopped doing the awards a couple of years ago, because I think we went on for 10 or 12 years, and he’s now set up a company and he’s absolutely hilarious, and I know that he uses a lot of humour, you know, in his business, and he’s such a nice guy, and the humour just kind of enhances the way that he works, I think.
– Oh, what a lovely testament. What book makes you laugh?
– Well, I was thinking about this. You know, do you actually ever laugh out loud at a book?
– Occasionally, occasionally.
– Yeah, it’s not very frequent, is it?
– No, it’s not very frequent, but I mean, if it’s funny enough, I still laugh out loud. Monty Python’s “Big Red Bok.”
– Oh, yes.
– Yeah, no, I know what you mean. I think the one that I really remember, ’cause it’s not so much that it’s got jokes in it, but it’s got situations, was Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” I loved some of the ideas and I think I laughed inside. You know, sometimes you see people out on the train, and they’re actually laughing. I wish I could do that, but I can’t, ’cause of my face and my demeanour, but there’s lots of really lovely ideas in “Catch-22” that made me laugh.
– What film makes you laugh?
– Well, weirdly, it’s a film called “Terms of Endearment,” which has got Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson in it. It also makes me cry the most. I mean, I have a totally sort of like automatic reaction. If I hear the music to it, I start crying, which is so weird, and I have to explain it to people, you know, but it’s so funny as well, but basically, very, very briefly, it’s about a woman whose daughter is dying of cancer. She has very young kids and it is very harrowing, but this ex-astronaut, Jack Nicholson, moves in next door and he’s like the big Mr. “I Am” with nothing to back it up. He’s not very attractive anymore. He’s gone to seed, he’s a bit fat, and all the rest of it. She’s like very kind of sharp, very bad-tempered, very negative about everything, and they have a relationship together, and he takes her on a date and it all goes hideously wrong, but honestly, it is hilarious, and his character and her character are hilarious. So you have this weird thing of me crying for 75% of it and then laughing my head off for the other 25% for some weird reason.
– That’s wonderful, and I love the idea that the music can anchor you into that state straight away.
– Isn’t it weird? Someone actually played it on the radio the other day. I’ve never heard it on the radio before, and I didn’t know what it was at first, and I realised I was crying and I thought, what am I crying for? What’s this? What’s going on? Because I haven’t seen it in such a long time, and then they said it, and, of course, that was the theme music to “Terms of Endearment.” And I went, oh, there you go, then. Yeah, weird.
– No, no. It’s not weird at all. I mean, it’s Pavlovian, really.
– Yeah, it absolutely is. I think music is so powerful, isn’t it, really? I mean, there are bits of music, like music was played at my brother’s funeral, for example, I just can’t even listen to them at the moment. At some point I will be able to, but it just goes to show, it’s how important it is, really.
– Well, and here’s a tip for our listeners and everything. If you want to feel better about stuff, play music deliberately that actually makes you feel good and you can actually change the whole structure of your brain by that, and your example, you know, but don’t play “Terms of Endearment” near Jo.
– Yeah, play “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.” Back to Monty Python.
– Exactly. It’s still a great song, still a great song. Taking a shift to the other side, what is not funny?
– Well, I think there are certain things that aren’t funny in terms of comedy, which you simply. Well, no, this has always been a problem. I think, actually, in some ways, it’s not the actual topic that’s not funny. So, race, for example, or disability, it’s the attitude which is not funny. So, racism is not funny, I don’t think at all, and never could be, and the same goes for treating anybody with that sort of disrespect for something that they can’t do anything about. So you can treat people with disrespect because of their attitude, but you can’t treat them with disrespect or make jokes about them if they have an issue, a disability, or they’re a woman or they’re a man or whatever they are and it’s something they can’t do anything about. So, you know, I’ve always sort of differentiated, so you can take the piss out of Boris Johnson or you can be rude about Ann Widdecombe, or. There’s a theme building here, but you know, or Keir Starmer, just to balance it out, or, you know, whoever, but I think that if you do that by taking the piss out of their appearance or maybe they have a disability or, you know, you’re racist towards them, then that’s not on. So it’s all a question of attitudes, really, I suppose.
– What sound makes you laugh, Jo?
– Oh, what sound makes me laugh? Um…
– I just threw that in, actually.
– Yeah, I quite like the sort of sounds that are meant to make you laugh like a tuba. You know, the sort of comedy sounds, really, that you would get in a silent movie maybe, or that sort of “ruh” type of sound. I suppose I’m a bit of a sucker for those kinds of things.
– I love that. Wasn’t there, I can’t remember who it was. Wasn’t there a dictator who came over to visit Margaret Thatcher and somebody went along with a tuba sound, doing “wuh-uh-uh, uh-uh-uh”, or something, just walking up and down the street, and I was crying with laughter. So, the whole tuba thing or the euphonium.
– Yes, no, exactly. There’s something also about that little band that plays in the world cup, you know, in the football stadium, that’s just so funny, you know, because it’s like a little brass band, isn’t it?
– [Paul] Yeah.
– And yeah, I don’t know why that should be funny, but it just is.
– Would you rather be considered clever or funny?
– Oh, funny, definitely. Definitely, because I think, you know, clever isn’t necessarily a route, is it? To sort of making people’s lives better, because I think telling jokes does make people’s lives better, and I’m not saying being clever doesn’t make people’s lives better, but you have a choice about whether that’s what you do with your cleverness, but I think if you can be funny and make people laugh, everyone can do that, who is a comedian. You know, so for me, funny, every time.
– And finally, Jo, Desert Island Gags. You can only take one gag with you to a desert island. What is it?
– This is so hard. I think I would write a gag which was a very long shaggy dog story that included how to make a raft, and I would tell it loads of times, so that by the time I got on the desert island, I could actually make a raft and kind of escape. That’s cheating, really, isn’t it? Well, I think what I probably would do is I would have a funny poem, like something by John Hegley maybe.
– Or like John Cooper Clarke’s poetry. It makes me roar with laughter, you know.
– So it would be nice to have one of those in my head, really, I think, because I wouldn’t mind repeating that over and over again.
– It’s yours, Jo.
– John Cooper Clarke and a John Hegley poem. There you go. You can have both.
– Marvellous. Jo, it’s been such a pleasure. You’ve made so many people’s lives better and you’ve really made my life more complete by being on The Humourology Podcast. Thank you so much indeed. The Humourology Podcast was hosted by Paul Boross and produced by Simon Backs. Music by Steve Haywd, creative direction by Les Hughes, and additional research by Helen Sykes. Please remember to subscribe, like, and leave a review wherever you get your podcasts. This has been a Big Sky production.