Can you tell us a little bit about the premise of your new show Jo Brand’s Great Wall of Comedy?
It’s a sort of relaxed panel show which pays homage to sitcoms past and present. It’s arranged in a panel show way in the sense that there are two teams headed by Barry Cryer and Rebecca Front. Each week there’s a guest from the world of sitcom on either sofa, and they kind of get asked a few questions, really just to get discussion going, so no one really remembers or cares who wins!
It must be fun getting to go back and revisit lots of old sitcoms…
It was, because we go back quite a long way, to the 1970s — when I was one. She lied! But, yeah, it was interesting because sitcoms obviously are very much an acquired tasted. There were some I loved and some I wasn’t quite so keen on, but it was nice to revisit them.
Can you possibly pick a favourite?
My favourite sitcom probably is Fawlty Towers. Now, looking at it today, it’s anachronistic in to the extent that there are jokes in it that just wouldn’t be acceptable anymore. But actually when we were all very ignorant in the 1970s and I was 14 I thought it was hilarious. So, it would be Fawlty Towers but it would be Fawlty Towers in the 1970s when I was a teenager. Not now.
In the first episode of your new series you ask guests to suggest fantasy sitcoms. Do you have any more script ideas floating around?
I did write a sitcom script with Morewenna Banks, who’s a friend of mine, about a social work department and we did do a table read of it at the BBC. It actually wasn’t quite right, but I’m still very keen to go back to it and try and re-jig it and make it work. It had the same elements as Getting On, in the sense of the realness of it, but it’s not an easy area to parody because it’s sort of already parodied by people anyway.
Getting On has just been made a full series in America. Have you been involved in that?
Only to the extent that the scripts, which are written by the three of us, went over to America and got “American-ed up.”
Have you found that the humour has changed across the pond?
It is quite different… If you take a look at the scripts, they’ve kept the same sort of narrative thread going through it, but they’ve kind of speeded it all up a bit. On this side it’s a bit drudge-y and the atmosphere is very slow and depressing. And obviously in America, they won’t put up with that!
So it’s more glossy?
It has gone a bit glossy. Everybody’s gotten a bit attractive. A bit of makeup has been applied. Not quite as much as Nurse Jackie. It’s not quite at the stage where their uniforms are darted so they show off their waists and everything, but yes, it has gone nicely lit and a bit more glamorous.
Sitcoms aside… You were a judge on Splash! recently.
Ooh, I was. I loved doing that.
Some people were a bit confused to see you on the judging panel…
They were. They didn’t know that I was a champion diver.
You are a keen swimmer, aren’t you?
I love swimming and I did a lot of diving at school. I used to do diving in competitions at school and that kind of thing. A couple of years ago I did a series called “Big Splash” where I did diving in that as well. So I had tiny credentials to be on it.
How did being on a glitzy Saturday night show differ from being on a panel show or doing stand up?
Bigger dressing room. More presents. It’s just a totally different atmosphere altogether, really. Splash! has got a very Saturday night feel to it. It’s more glitzy and they want to make me look like a sort of sparkly matron rather than a subversive elderly punk. So it’s those sorts of things. It’s like a shift in reality, really. But it was such an enjoyable experience for me because I’d never done anything like that before.
It’s been recomissioned for another run. Would you like to go back for series two?
Well, if they ask me back, then, yes, I would go back. But I wouldn’t get a cossie on and I wouldn’t dive!
Moving on from sequins and swimming costumes… You’re something of a feminist figure in the world of comedy. Do you have a favourite female comedian?
I have to say that pretty much my favourite would be Linda Smith, who was a political comic on the circuit for a very long time. She won the Wittiest Person on Radio 4 Award some years ago and sadly died of ovarian cancer about seven years ago. Everyone misses her very much. She was a lovely person with a very witty, sharp, very dark sense of humour. I loved her stuff.
Have you noticed whether the comedy circuit has changed for women since you started stand up?
There’s far more women than there were when I first started. Also I think women are more confident to explore different ways of appearing onstage. Certainly, when I started out, a lot of us were quite in your face and a bit aggressive because we felt we needed to be to get the message across. So there was me, Jenny Eclair, Donna McPhail and Jenny Lacoat, women like that, who were all kind of quite bolshy feminists really. But I think these days it seems to me like acts like Josie Long and Izzy Sutty feel more comfortable trying out characters. Sarah Millican is a good example. You know, it’s not aggressive at all, whereas we felt we had to come up and shake our fists and say, “Shut up, or you’re getting’ it!”
Do you feel proud that you helped break down the stereotype that women aren’t funny?
If I have indeed done that, I would feel very proud. I think women have always been very funny. If you look a very long way back to music hall and women like Mae West and Bessie Smith – a jazz singer – women were hilarious. But there’s always been this kind of cliché that women aren’t funny. Hopefully that really does seem to be changing. If you look at the number of shows with women in them on TV now – it’s great.
Is there anything you’d like to see more of on TV?
I’d like to see more stuff with older women in it, actually. I think it is getting better, and I’m not saying I don’t want to see stuff with older men in it as well. I think the thing is a lot of much older people watch TV and they don’t get anything that’s suitable for them. I’m just trying to put in place so that when I’m 95 so that there’s something on that I like. Maybe some more comedies, documentaries, what have you…
Jo Brand’s Great Wall of Comedy starts on Sunday 16 June at 7:30pm on Gold