Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A daring new Brand image

KATY Brand may be television's hottest new comic talent, but she stops laughing the moment I mention the recent re-eruption of the debate about whether women can be funny or not. And specifically, why more of them are not being funny on television.

"Ah, the old 'gender glasses' problem," says the 24-year-old, rolling her eyes. "The more you talk about it, the more it becomes a problem. You end up giving women an excuse not to try. Comedy can be intimidating but it is intimidating for men, too."
That's me told.

You might think comedy would be all the more intimidating if, like Brand, you are a lapsed "fundamentalist Christian" (her phrase) with a figure that could politely be described as Rubenesque. But Brand's confidence in her own talent has led to a meteoric rise.

Having only begun performing what she calls her "insane monologues" - pin-sharp take-offs of celebrities intercut with acutely observed characters of her own creation - in comedy clubs in 2004, she now has her own vehicle, Katy Brand's Big Ass Show, and is being promoted as ITV's answer to Catherine Tate. "I tell people I'm Russell Brand's estranged wife, and I've gone into comedy to win him back," she deadpans. "Or sometimes I tell taxi drivers that Jo Brand is my mum."

Like Catherine Tate and the Little Britain duo, all of whom she admires, Brand delivers a gloriously monstrous form of 21st-century satire. In her view, this is a country obsessed with celebrity, body fascism and shopping, and she skewers it with a cruel wit that is part Swift, part Viz.

But it is her inspired spoofing of stars that sets her apart from the likes of Tate. There's Kate Moss as a naughty school bully, conspiring in the playground with Sadie Frost and Stella McCartney. Or Kate Winslet as a neurotic housewife, vacuuming the walls and struggling to turn on the oven in an increasingly desperate bid to appear "normal".

Best of all are her musical send-ups, such as Amy Winehouse slurring her new single, Booze on My Face, or the pop-reggae tune Banal, which mercilessly punctures Lily Allen's aspirations to working-class cred. "I can't help it if I grew up on a council estate..." Brand trills, "well, I walked past one."

She has a particular animus against Allen, it seems. "I just have a bit of a thing about very posh kids pretending they aren't posh. Be fine as you are, stop pretending you are something else," she says. But she is plainly delighted by the fact that, when Radio 1 played Banal, many mistook it for the real thing.

"Scott Mills played it without saying it was me and more than 20,000 listeners texted in thinking it really was Lily Allen. One even said it was 'a return to form'. Louis Walsh loved it," Brand cackles.

She denies that her parodies are cruel, insisting that she lampoons only the wider, weirder fringes of celebrity life.

"I just try to latch on to a particular comic aspect. The thing I like is the gap between what stars are actually like and the constant press package being rammed down your throat. So you have Jennifer Aniston going 'I'm fine', and you want to say, 'Jennifer, how can you possibly be fine, you were married to Brad Pitt and he ran off with a minx?'

"Stars are constantly weaving a web of bullshit around themselves and if you keep building this web eventually the spider is gonna eat you."

One of the delights of her job, she says, is that she can read the likes of Heat and Grazia and claim it is research. "I genuinely enjoy reading those magazines," she says. "Of course I feel a bit dirty, but in a good way. If all you ate was Pot Noodle it would be bad, but occasionally it is fine. What I'm always doing is waiting for a story to reach critical mass - like Angelina Jolie living in the jungle for six months - then trying to write the mental version of their story."

Mention of Pot Noodle draws me into delicate territory. If comedy is intimidating to women, television is notoriously hostile to those who are anything more than rake-thin, and Brand is, shall we say, considerably larger than most of the celebrities she impersonates.

"I have never let it stop me doing someone," she smiles. "I've never thought I can't do a character because I'm not thin like her, and sometimes the physical contrast adds to the comedy."

Her size can even be an inspiration for wit. One of Brand's non-famous characters (until she gets taken up in playgrounds, at least) is called Caroline "Little Treats". In one delicious sketch, Caroline and her chums sit in a pub calculating how long they have to spend in the gym if they share a plate of chips or a small glass of wine. The camera pulls back to show every other woman in the pub doing the same mental arithmetic.

"I've done it myself," admits Brand. "I've been there, I've had that conversation. What I do in my comedy is find the ruts you get into and beat them to death."

Given her brash self-assurance, it's surprising to find there was little in Brand's past to suggest a career in entertainment. Her upbringing was nice, normal, middle-class. Admittedly, her trumpeter grandfather Geoffrey Brand worked with Paul McCartney and played on a brass version of Yellow Submarine, which might suggest a certain propensity towards humour. And Brand's earliest memory is of listening to endless tapes of The Goon Show in the car from home in Buckinghamshire to rain-sodden camping holidays in Cornwall.

One summer, however, when she was 13, instead of camping with her parents, she went away with friends who were evangelical Christians. By the time she returned, she had become an enthusiastic convert and, much to the bemusement of her family, started going to church five times a week. "Maybe that's the only way to rebel when you've got liberal parents," she suggests.

She worked hard at the local comprehensive school and earned a place at Oxford to read theology but gradually became disenchanted with religion.

"After about a year, I realised it was mostly rubbish and that things are never as simple as they seem when you are 13."

So she spent most of her time at Oxford doing plays and musicals. When she graduated, however, Brand did not want to perform and went into television production. "I thought to myself 'I'll try to do something else and if I don't miss it that'll be great', but I kept bumping into people from university who said they'd always assumed I'd be a performer, so I just gave it a go."

Now, she says, she looks at a room full of 300 drunken strangers and just thinks "bring it on".

Brand is already a part of the comic fraternity. She dated controversial comic Reginald D Hunter for 18 months and, though they separated, he remains a friend and gave her the title for her TV show. She and her old chum from her Oxford student days, Katherine Parkinson, are also writing a radio comedy show.

The danger of the move into TV and the wider fame it brings is that Brand runs the risk of meeting the people she is lampooning. So far this has happened once: "I've only met Charlotte Church. We were both drunk and I said, 'I do you!' She said, 'As long as it's funny I don't mind!' The last thing you can do is get grovelly and pathetic, but I'm genuinely not trying to savage anyone." Well, not too much, anyway.

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