Book Review: "Can't Stand Up for Sitting Down" by Jo Brand
Autobiographies written by comedians are great. What subject could a comedian know better or be able to work with as well as their own life story? None. Through their memoirs, we can learn more about what makes a comedian tick, how they developed their sense of humour, how they got into the business and so much more. Can't Stand Up For Sitting Down offers all of this, as well as something extra not usually found in this type of book.
Can't Stand Up For Sitting Down is Jo Brand's 2010 part-memoir, part informative guide to the world of stand-up. It takes us from the moment she decided to leave her stable job for the world of comedy to the time the book was published (beyond that would have been impressive). It follows on from Brand's first memoir Look Back In Hunger which covered the earlier parts of her life. The book is unique in that it offers all of the feelings of intimacy and insight offered by an autobiography, whilst also containing huge amounts of organised information about the stand-up comedy industry. As such, this book will be doubly interesting to anyone with an interest in comedy, the comedy business or comedians and Brand herself. Anyone who simply wants a laugh will also find plenty for them in this book- it is amusing and honest, as befits Jo's brand (if you'll pardon the pun).
More About Jo Brand:
Brand has been one of Britain's best-loved comedians for over three decades and is well known for her stand-up comedy, her appearances on QI, as a judge on Tom Daley's diving show Splash! and as the presenter of The Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice.
Brand splits her book into three main sections, each of which contain a large number of smaller chapters (at three hundred and ninety-nine pages, Brand packs a lot in). The first of these sections is entitled "Trying To Be Funny" and it should be noted that we see a definite progression to 'being funny', as Brand charts her rise from member of the early-eighties 'alternative' comic scene to modern touring comedian.
In case you were wondering, the 'alternative' comedy scene, as it was known, started out in London during the eighties as an answer to more traditional comedy acts. The traditional acts of the time often used material that the comedians had not devised themselves (a bit like jokes that nowadays can be found in joke books) and this material was often racist/ sexist. Alternative comedy was conscious not to be such things and was devised by the comedians themselves. It was what many would nowadays consider modern, 'mainstream' stand-up comedy. It was during the early days of this form and as a member of this scene that Brand spent her first years as a comic.
We are told of grotty mid-eighties comedy clubs and a "civil war" between comedy styles- in which, one could argue, Brand was a foot soldier. Brand gradually grew her career as a frank female comedian at a time when every joke told on stage was a campaign against the old guard. The comedy scene of those days was very different to London's polished scene of today. We are treated (and I use that word lightly) to tales of naked comperes and police raids on clubs. But we're also told of a tight-knit community of comics with big hearts and Brand remembers the scene including such alumni as Alan Davies and Mark Lamarr. If you would like to find out more about London's eighties alternative comedy scene, Stewart Lee's How I Escaped my Certain Fate is a great resource and is available here.
A time of mega-laughs, a few fights and making really good friendships.— Jo Brand, encapsulating what the 80's alternative comedy scene meant to her.
So you now understand the eighties alternative comedy scene but as we in the present day know, Brand eventually moved on from only working in these clubs. She documents her first television appearance (on the eighties comedy and music show Friday Night Live) in hilarious detail. "Having never done telly before I was swept along in a miasma of glamour and fear, doing a sound check, sitting in my dressing room telling myself all the clichés such as, 'You've made it'". Such sentiments give way to a performance involving Brand's arm "going up and down in a chicken-flapping-its-wings style", the use of a "monotone voice" and a heckler cutting through the crowd- "'Get off!'"
Brand is in fact too hard on herself when it comes to this performance- she is of course going for the comic element. It's fascinating to hear a first hand account of a comedy star's first foray into the spotlight and this section of the book is made all the more rewarding by the fact that said performance is available online, for you to judge yourself. You can watch it below.
Brand in fact does exceptionally well for a first-time media appearance, and her monotone delivery actually works very well. We're all our own greatest critic but as the book details, from this performance Brand does eventually springboard forward and doesn't look back. The rest of this section of the book is full of fascinating guides to her subsequent experiences. These include accounts of the touring process on various different scales, a guide to her favourite and least favourite comedy clubs (not all of which are still around), a brutally honest tour diary, a country-wide comedy guide (Maidstone apparently had "the worst toilets of any theatre") and of course a suitably hedonistic account of the frequently boozy Edinburgh Fringe Festival. As I mentioned and as will now be apparent, this book is a genuine goldmine of insight into the comedy industry.
The middle section of the book sees our author sharing more about the general business of "Being Jo Brand", as it is entitled. Brand is honest here about the demands of her job and perhaps more so, her role in the public eye. We are told of early mornings shooting, late nights performing and difficulties finding enough time to spend with family members even when at home, due to scheduling demands. Brand also shares her feelings towards getting recognised in public- a phenomenon with which she is distinctly good-natured. "Some people just think they know you and say hello as they pass; I always give a cheery hello back." Of course, there is still a flip side to this phenomenon, and Brand is rather less positive when describing an occasion where a doctor asked for her autograph whilst she was giving birth. Her evasionary tactics such as tying a false shoe lace or ducking into a doorway were not such an option here. You couldn't make it up. These tales are found in such sub-sections as "A Day in My Life", "Being Clocked" and "Comedy Holidays with Comedy People".
Writing this book has been bloody hard work.— Jo Brand, Can't Stand Up For Sitting Down
As you may have judged from the quote above, Brand is even more loose and mischevious in the final section of the book, entitled "The Box". A smaller section where she mostly discusses the world of television, this part of the book includes her take on comedy panel shows, a section on writing this book and even a section devoted to whether any celebrities she has met are less pleasant than they seem (spoiler: the considerate Brand does not name and shame).
Brand's personality really radiates through this book, which is an utter joy. This is an especially considerate autobiography in that it doesn't just provide us with the story of a section of Brand's life, but provides huge amounts of information that you would struggle to acquire from another comic of Brand's standing, which helps us understand the world Brand occupies. As I said in my overview, whether your interest lies in Brand herself; or the comedy industry itself, this book is an absolute must-have. You will struggle to find another book that provides the same balance of material- or for that matter the same perspective- as this one. In my opinion, it is one of the finest and most refreshing comedian autobiographies available. If you would like to read it, it is available to buy here.
© 2018 Jamie Cahill-Kearns