Muddy Meets Jen Brister
Desperate for a night out and some belly laughs? We hear you, which is why we caught up with Jen Brister ahead of her drive-thru comedy gig, Car Park Party, this Friday at Franklin's Gardens in Northampton.
You’re doing an actual live gig at Franklins’ Gardens in Northampton on Friday, performing to a load of cars, is this what comedy and live performance looks like in the new normal?
Yes, we’re performing to a bunch of cars… I don’t think any of us have ever done anything like this before so it’s hard to gauge. It’s either going to take off or it’ll be a fantastic novelty for the summer.
Do you think our collective experience of lockdown will make for good comedy material?
You have to acknowledge where you are but I don’t think anyone’s going to make a full set of stand-up out of coronavirus. I tend to write on my feet so, although I do have written material, while I’m performing a lot of that is being improvised in the moment. Once I’m performing in front of a bunch of cars or in a pub garden or whatever, then I think I’ll be able to find my voice and read the audience. For me, the crux of a joke tends to happen then and there and it’s so weird that for months we just haven’t been able to let that happen. That’s why we’re all doing these obnoxious videos on instagram, just to get some kind of attention.
Is that kind of improvised performance a muscle that you have to exercise?
Comedians talk about being match-fit. When you’re match fit it means you’re gigging a lot, you’re exercising your brain in a way that it just doesn’t work in other situations. You can handle hecklers, you can handle the room going quiet, you can find your way in and out of a difficult situation. Whereas now we’re all just like, let’s just hope it’s an easy gig, because if things go pear shaped, I can’t handle it, I’m not firing on all cylinders.
How have you had to adapt to performing online?
Essentially, when you’re doing a Zoom gig, you are monologuing, you’re not doing stand up. It’s very intimate, my face is in your screen and it’s quite intense. Often, you’re doing a Zoom gig and the audience’s mics aren’t switched on, which is weird because you can’t hear the responses, but you can see people in their living rooms, getting up to go to the loo, getting a drink, having a chat. You’ve got all that going on. I’m already having a breakdown wondering how all this is going. So I don’t look at anything, I don’t look at myself or the audience at all, I just look into the camera. I’m assuming I’m getting away with it. I don’t know. no one’s emailed me yet to say “That was appalling, how dare you call yourself a comedian?”
Do you think that the evolution that comedy is going through at the moment will have a lasting impact on how people put their material out there? How do you think it might affect our consumption of live performance long term?
I think as soon as the doors open, people are going to flood in. If anything it’s highlighted the importance of the arts, and I think in this country it’s something we’ve struggled with because it’s seen as exclusive and elitist, not really for normal people. When actually almost everything we’ve consumed in lockdown has been art, hasn’t it? Music, tv, theatre, comedy. We’re all choosing something to get us through being stuck in our houses. It’s where we can make connections, it’s where we can live vicariously through others, it’s where we can feel schadenfreude, relief, empathy sadness, happiness. All those things when we’re on our own, we can switch on the telly or put on a podcast. I genuinely think as soon things open up people will want to go and consume live performance, it’s a very human inclination. It’s like an elastic band thats been stretched and once its let go hopefully we’ll go back to where we were without too much change, although one thing as comedians that we’ve delighted in has been not having to schlep into London to record a podcast, you can just do it on Zoom. So things like that, I hope we can just continue to do online, but everything else, bring it back!
Of course, we all want to return to normality but unfortunately for live comedy, our industry hasn’t been included in the arts funding so our venues might not be there next year. In which case there will not be the circuit that existed before, which was the biggest and most vibrant circuit in the world. Our venues need funding to get through this crisis or there won’t be any stand-up in future.
When people talk about the arts being elitist, live comedy is one of the few places where it doesn’t matter what your background is, as long as you’re funny. We can’t get rid of the one art form where that exists.
What was your route into comedy?
I studied drama and theatre at university in Middlesex and I loved it, and I’ve performed comedy in some capacity or other since then. I had terrible nerves at first, I used to suffer from awful stage fright and I’d die. It’s the most humiliating thing that happens in your life and you have to keep doing it.
How do you learn to overcome that fear and humiliation and get back on stage for another round?
It’s a compulsion. You’d happily not do it, but you can’t not do it. So you just have to do it. No matter how many times I died on stage, I knew I could do it if I just put my all into it. For me to get good at stand up comedy required me to focus on that exclusively for 12 years at the expense of everything else, and that’s how I got good. I made an active choice to make comedy my one focus.
Your feminism and your sexuality is often instrumental in your comedy material. Do you think being a woman and a parent has made making those choices harder for you?
A hundred percent. We’re not allowed to acknowledge that, but that’s definitely that case. Likewise with performance. When I’m performing, I’m a woman holding court, we don’t like it when women do that. People feel uncomfortable, even other women, they think “oooh she’s a bit gobby.” So just by doing that it’s political. That’s a political act and it can make some people uncomfortable and angry and I like that. When I see men feel intimidated or undermined by me then I will play to that because I know that it’s challenging them. And I think that is the least we can do as comedians – we can challenge people. We can’t change your politics, we can’t change your mind about something but we can make you feel uncomfortable, or happy, or make you laugh, or make you feel connected to something outside yourself. Laughing with other people is a visceral feeling and it does amazing things to your oxytocin levels, you’re high for a brief moment.
If you root things in the domesticity and the banality of our lives it doesn’t matter if you’re trans, lesbian, gay, Labour, Tory, black or white. If you can connect to the audience through your sheer humanity, that’s a very powerful thing. In a way, comedy is a way of reminding us of our connected humanity.
Grab your tickets for Car Park Party at Franklin Gardens this Friday 17th July here and tune in to Jen’s brand new podcast with Maureen Younger and Allyson June Smith, launching on 24th July.