Comedian Jen Brister on moving to Brighton, home-schooling and the future of comedy

Jen Brister

Jen Brister - Credit: Archant

We speak to the Brighton comic on comedy in the age of coronavirus, home-schooling and being the ‘other mother’

Jen Brister

Jen Brister - Credit: Archant

hat I have come to learn very quickly is that my children do not respect me as a teacher, as a human being, or as a parent.” That is the lesson Brighton comedian Jen Brister has taken away from home-schooling. “The second they get a sniff of school, it’s over.”

I’m a little shame-faced speaking to Jen. The last time I saw her perform, in Brighton’s Komedia, I hadn’t been out in a while and things... well, they got a little crazy. The group I was with became increasingly rowdy and my companion was sick while Jen was onstage. Granted, it was a Bring Your Own Baby show and my date was six months old at the time but still, there are limits. Fortunately, Jen was well-placed to be tolerant of the unique atmosphere as a mum of twin boys. “They are not easy gigs to do,” she says, adding that comedians new to the format would often come off stage looking “utterly bewildered”. “You are essentially performing to people who are only listening 50-60 per cent of the time and never all at the same time. They are a good lesson in standing your ground.”

Jen, a lifelong Londoner who moved to Brighton with her partner Chloe just before their sons were born, has been performing comedy since the late-Nineties. “At first it was a stopgap – I wanted to be an actor or perform in some way. Stand-up comedy was something I could do with autonomy and I didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission. I could just write it myself and book a spot at an open-mic night.”

It wasn’t until 2008 that she began to pursue it seriously as a career, having explored other avenues such as presenting on BBC Radio 6 Music and doing sketch comedy with friends.

“Seeing other comedians that I’d started with having proper careers, while I had nothing remotely resembling one, made me realise I needed to make a complete 180-degree turn in terms of my attitude and change my approach. It wasn’t really until 2011/2012 that I began to make a living – not a good one, but one that meant I didn’t have to have a day job.”

Now, as well as appearing on Comedy Central and Live at the Apollo, she has several successful tours under her belt. These include 2018’s Meaningless, which a Chortle Edinburgh Fringe reviewer praised for “confronting her audience with unpalatable truths but no small amount of wit and hard-edged satire”. Jen was due to tour Under Privilege – which debuted at Edinburgh last year – from June, but the pandemic has put paid to that for the moment. She is spending her time in lockdown working on television scripts, one of which is already in development with a production company. Even after comedy venues are permitted to reopen, she thinks the return to full capacity may be slow. “I don’t know how much people are going to want to be in a space where they’re quite close to other people. And then if they apply social distancing measures and space the audience out, the whole point for any performer is that there is a cohesion there, that the audience is having a shared experience because they have that proximity and that creates an energy. So it would affect the way the show goes but equally it might create a different kind of energy because people will be so delighted to be out of the house.

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“The comedy community is adapting and pivoting,” she continues. “There are [virtual] nights running where you can perform and you can even perform live, but it’s not really stand-up comedy, you’re essentially performing a monologue. That’s a completely different thing because stand-up comedy cannot exist without a live audience. The reality is that at the moment my job just doesn’t exist – who knew stand-up comedians weren’t going to be useful during a global pandemic?”

Her general uselessness is a theme Jen likes to riff on in her book The Other Mother, published last year. It’s an account of motherhood from the perspective of the non-biological mother, ragingly funny and startlingly honest. Comedian’s comedian Hannah Gadsby is quoted on the book jacket: “I love Jen Brister. She is a like mind and damned funny. You’ll find the pages of this book brimming with rich and wonderful proof of all of this... and more.” The book came about via a series of articles Jen wrote for Sarah Millican’s e-magazine, Standard Issue (she has also written for The Huffington Post and Diva). “The book proposal took me forever, about 18 months. And then I wrote the book in four months. Literally nothing has ever been easier for me in a way that makes me feel really embarrassed. Because I know that people don’t just get to write books. It just doesn’t work like that. But everything else for me has been absolutely torturous. Comedy has taken me years, getting in clubs, getting into doing any kind of television, getting onto Radio 4, it’s all been like pulling teeth, but getting this book deal... I got an agent, she sent off my book proposal, two weeks later I got a book deal. It’s disgusting, quite frankly.”

The insights the book offers, however, are extremely hard-won. The babies didn’t sleep, and didn’t much care to eat, either. The mere process of leaving the house with two tiny infants was fraught with difficulty. Asked what insights she’d offer her pre-parent self, Jen says: “There’s part of me that would want to just slap myself around the face and say ‘Strap yourself in’. But then I think of the rose-tinted spectacles when Chloe was pregnant, and I would be loath to take that away from me. Also, there is just nothing you can tell somebody [before they become a parent]. I mean, you can’t, there’s nothing you can say. I’ve got friends who’ve had babies and they’re like ‘I know you told me this was going to be s***, but I thought that was just because you weren’t very good parents.’” But then it’s also wonderful. It’s both wonderful and awful.”

Of moving to Brighton, Jen says: “Nowhere else got close. Brighton was just right for us in every way. It fit our personalities, we have a group of friends here already, and they live very near us. It was kind of a no-brainer.” Asked if the city has inspired her comedy, she demurs: “There are a lot of comics who live in Brighton and there is very little about Brighton that hasn’t been covered by comedians. The person who does Brighton best would be Zoe Lyons.”

When it comes to enjoying the city, pre-lockdown her favourite thing to do was visit the city’s restaurants: “Just before the lockdown announcement we went to The Ginger Man restaurant which was lovely, the food was great.

“And the places we go to most as a family are Rottingdean and Saltdean. In Saltdean, we park at the Lido and there’s a playground on one end. We go under the subway and the kids scoot to the front and then you’ve got the beach. We’ve spent many a day out doing that.

“I just love mooching around the Lanes and it’s a great place to meet, especially in the summer, just sitting outside with a glass of wine.”

While Jen’s summer tour dates have been cancelled, she’s waiting to hear about the autumn shows. Comedy in the age of coronavirus has, like so much of our lives, moved online. Her current shows are, she says: “Basically just me having a breakdown in front of my laptop.”

Jen hosts an Instagram Live every Tuesday at 8.30pm with Maureen Younger.

The Other Mother is published by Square Peg, £14.99

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