Onion Talking: Katy Brand on I Was a Teenage Christian

The Edinburgh Festival returns for its 69th year shortly, and a bevvy of TVO favourites are heading on up there to make people laugh. As part of our celebrations, we’ve been catching up with a handful of great performers we’re sure you’ll want to go and see at the Fringe. And while we’re itching to see all of this year’s new shows, the ‘big’ news perhaps is the return of Katy Brand after an 11 year absence from the festival.

© Katy Brand / Karla Gowlett

© Katy Brand / Karla Gowlett

Naturally, TVO had to talk to her about it all. Here’s what she had to say…

“I just sort of stopped for a while.”

That’s how Katy Brand describes her – thankfully temporary – retirement from the live comedy scene six years ago. Now she’s back with a brand new hour: I Was a Teenage Christian, in which she takes a look back at her real life experiences as a God-bothering teenager, and the result is her first turn at the Edinburgh Fringe for 11 years.

“I’m really excited about it,” she tells TVO when we catch up. “A few nerves, of course, but I think there would be something wrong if I wasn’t nervous about doing a new show. But I am curious to see what has changed, and what has remained exactly the same. I think that probably applies both to Edinburgh, and myself…”

Indeed, things have changed dramatically. The Fringe has been a big behemoth for many years now, but it seems to grow in stature every time it comes around. There’s more choice, and more competition. And for Katy, the last time she was there was for Celebrities are Gods in 2005 – a show that morphed into Katy Brand’s Big Ass Show for ITV. Eleven years ago, Brand was a character comedian, but now she’s taking to the stage as a comedic raconteur. The change, however, was a natural one spurred on by the end of a cycle.

© Andy Hollingworth

© Andy Hollingworth

“I wasn’t finding performing sketches live very enjoyable by the end of my tour in 2010,” Katy reveals. “And I didn’t know how to continue to perform live in a different way. And then I wrote my book and did a tour of literary festivals, where I spoke as myself, and I found it very freeing and spontaneous, which is what was lacking from the sketch shows. I felt that if I had an idea for a show, then I could see performing as myself as a real option. And two years later, I had the idea, so here we are!”

Brenda Monk, it seems, was the sincher. Released in 2014, Brenda Monk is Funny was Brand’s debut novel, telling the story of the girlfriend of a successful stand-up comedian who realises that his best material consists of recycled versions of her own restless, smart-arsed energy, so decides to keep the jokes for herself and become a comic in her own right. Much like Brenda, Katy hit upon the realisation that she could be doing something better, and that immediately began to inform her writing and performing.

“I think writing my novel was probably the turning point for me,” she explains. “By the end of the third series of my sketch show, I knew I wanted to write longer form formats. I kept delivering 12 page sketches! So I was writing pilot sit-com scripts and film scripts and so on, but it was hard and slow, as development for the screen almost always is. And then the chance came along to write a book and get it out there, so I grabbed it.

“It was creatively very freeing and satisfying,” Katy continues, “and it re-ignited the pure pleasure of writing. The feedback was good, and so that gave me a real confidence boost. So I think that’s what’s changed: I just have more confidence in my own instincts, instead of feeling buffeted around by what other people need from me.”

And what a time to return. Storytelling is the new rock-n-roll in comedy, and taking audiences on a journey is what audiences – and critics – are latching on to. TVO wonders if a shift is happening, and Brand agrees.

“I think that’s absolutely true, yes,” she states. “There is certainly now a kind of sub-genre of stand-up which is about telling a story, building a narrative, and then being funny about it. I think that has always been present in Edinburgh though – it’s part of the joy of the Festival. The challenge of constructing an hour, taking the audience on a journey. Of course, there will always be a big place for proper set-up-punch stand-up, and quite rightly so, but it’s great that the definition of stand-up is broadening.”

© Katy Brand

© Katy Brand

For Brand, her first big story is of her teenage brush with Evangelical Christanity. It’s a surprisingly personal choice, that tackles a difficult period in her life, but one that Brand is open to exploring.

“It is personal,” she suggests, “in that it’s true and it’s about me. But at the same time, it all happened so long ago I feel quite detached from it from an emotional point of view. I think it was such a strange chapter in my life, and I was so obsessive about it, that it seemed ripe for comedy. Also, I found parallels with teenagers being radicalised now, and so it felt relevant to explore it a bit.”

The topic is, it’s fair to say, a fascinating one. TVO mentions that they too, had a religious dalliance as a teenager, but it seemed at odds with interests in romance, loud music, and of course, comedy.

“I think a religious phase of some sort is very common for teenagers,” Katy says. “Since I have started talking about the show, so many people – friends and strangers – have said they also flirted with religion a bit, although not to the extent I did. Teenagers are confronting their own mortality for the first time, I think. It’s the time it really starts to hit home that they will die one day, and so I think a fascination with the afterlife is widespread. Vampires are another common obsession, for the same reason. I think it’s to do with wanting to feel important and immortal, and religion will do that for you.”

For Katy, the dalliance was rather intense, as Evangelical Christianity tends to be. In the UK, of course, we associate it most strongly with America’s notorious Bible Belt, but as Katy explains, it still felt just as intense in Hertfordshire.

“I went to church four times a week,” she reveals, “even when there was nothing going on. We spoke in Tongues, prayed out demons, evangelised on street corners. We tried to live as if we were Biblical disciples of Jesus, except we were in the Home Counties and still maintained an interest in which cut of Levi’s was the coolest. It was a little bubble in a lot of ways. We were given a lot of responsibilities – we felt like we were God’s Army, that Jesus was genuinely about to return, and we had to save as many souls as we could.”

In the end, however, it was Brand’s interest in religion that severed her ties. “Once I started studying Theology properly,” she explains, “I was much less welcome at my church, and I started to find it all a bit childish. I was loving University life, and I wanted to throw myself into that, if you know what I mean.” She stops for a moment, then adds: “They also tried to ban Harry Potter. And frankly, I liked Harry Potter and wanted to read the next book. If they had managed to ban it, I’d never have found out what happened next… can you imagine? Intolerable.”

© ITV

© ITV

Personally, and maybe this is the Hufflepuff in us, TVO finds it slightly more intolerable that ITV never released the third series of Katy Brand’s Big Ass Show on dvd: now seemingly lost into the ether, or the ITV vaults, at least. Featuring a bevy of Onion regulars, in retrospect the show was a real breeding ground for comedic talent, a lot of whom came up from Ealing Live alongside Katy. All these years later, Brand is still proud of the show.

“I’m extremely proud of it,” she explains. “I was so pleased so many people I knew were willing to come in and take part. Ealing Live was like Comedy College for me, and when I joined I was awestruck by the ability, talent and skill of those other performers. For me, it was an absolute no-brainer to try to get those people involved – they were the best around. I felt very lucky to have got a series. It could have been any of us. I was delighted they were up for it, especially as they all had their own things going on, and were very busy themselves.”

Well, quite. The Ealing Live scene remains the core of what we do at TVO, and Katy is perhaps one of its most unsung heroes. As time has gone by, however, it’s rare to get more than a handful of them together in one production, let alone in the same place for an evening. Lots of the team have spoken about it feeling like one big family, and Katy is quick to agree that – in spite of the haphazard nature of get togethers these days – the love for one another remains strong.

“Whenever we see each other,” she explains, “whether through work or social gatherings, it’s like no time has passed. There’s a real shorthand there. For example, I was at a screening of The Ghoul recently – Gareth Tunley and Tom Meeten’s film. It was so great to see people I hadn’t seen in ages. It’s like nothing’s changed. They’re just good, talented, decent people. And always up for a pint and a packet of crisps for tea.”

TVO is, understandably, glad to hear it. And since we last caught up with Katy in depth for Mongrels second series, she’s continued her association with the TVO crowd through shows like the sublime Psychobitches.

© Sky Atlantic / Tiger Aspect / Scott Kershaw

© Sky Atlantic / Tiger Aspect / Scott Kershaw

“I loved played Emily Bronte,” Katy says when we mention the show. “Although sitting with our heads stuck through a hole in the back of a sofa was murderously uncomfortable, and I was pregnant at the time so the contortion was not pleasant! But we knew it was funny, and that made it a joy. That whole show was great: just amazing women in ludicrous outfits walking back and forth from make-up to costume to set. I was quite star-struck actually. And Jeremy Dyson was a superb director. He was quick and efficient because he knew exactly what he wanted and he knew when he had got it, which made everything more fun.”

Brand also got to extend her talents by writing and starring in two of Sky’s short anthology series: the festive Little Crackers and Dave Lambert’s sublime Common Ground. And with great results already, it’s pleasing to note that dramatic comedy writing is an area that Katy is keen to explore further.

“I love the crossover of comedy and drama,” she states, “and I am glad that British TV is finding space for it now. The success of comedy drama in the US has helped a lot. Writing in which the jokes arise naturally from the action and the characters has always been my preference as a viewer, and it is what I would love to do as a writer.”

© Sky / Baby Cow Productions

© Sky / Baby Cow Productions

There’s also room for Brenda Monk – Brand’s stand-up character in her debut novel – to return in a second book, and potentially more to follow.

“I would like to follow Brenda through her whole career,” Brand explains, “over the course of several novels. The next one will be Brenda Monk is Famous, where suddenly she is playing huge venues, getting recognised in the street and dealing with online abuse. Then maybe Brenda Monk is Fucked? Brenda Monk is Forgotten? Then a big comeback for her late in her career – I need to think of a word beginning with ‘F’ to describe that – suggestions welcome… I can’t wait to get started on it.”

And she’ll have lots of time to do that in the Autumn, alongside her new role with Sharon Horgan and Clelia Mountford’s Merman production company which was announced recently.

“My role is to help them develop their comedy slate,” she tells us. “There will be plenty to get on with there. It’s a part time job, so I also have plenty of time for my own projects, so I will be getting stuck into more script writing, and possibly a tour of my Edinburgh show. We’ll see. I am open for business, so am up for anything that looks creatively rewarding. I have several scripts and projects in development, so I will be picking those up again and taking them further, hopefully.”

© Debra Hurford Brown

© Debra Hurford Brown

But first, Edinburgh. Brand is quick to reel off the shows she’d like to see, including Harriet Kemsley, Katherine Ryan, Grainne Maguire, Marcel Lucon, Sofie Hagan, Bridget Christie, Stewart Lee and Tony Law to name but a few that spring to mind. Brand, it seems, has caught her second wind, and her enthusiasm is infectious and much deserved. And for anyone uncertain as to whether or not to check out her Fringe show, she concludes our catch-up by summing it up as thus:

“Come along and hear me talk for an hour about what a dick I was. I was a massive, massive dick for Jesus.”

Katy Brand is back. Amen.

Katy Brand: I Was a Teenage Christian is at Pleasance Courtyard at 16:45 from August 3rd-14th and August 16th-29th. Tickets are on sale now.

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