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Jordan Brookes: Bleed, Edinburgh preview

| Comedy, Festivals | 01/08/2018

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In the second of our Edinburgh previews, Ian Cater speaks to unconventional stand-up Jordan Brookes about Bleed, perhaps the most eagerly anticipated show at this year’s Fringe.

Few comedians have as big a buzz around them right now as Jordan Brookes.  The 32-year-old heads north on the wave of a soaring reputation amongst critics and fellow comics, evidenced by last year’s Edinburgh Comedy Award nomination and Chortle gong for the 2018 Comedian’s Comedian.  As a further mark of progress, Brookes has gone from beginning his last run at a remote Free Fringe venue to a primetime slot at Pleasance Courtyard – still perceived as the Edinburgh gold standard.

The plaudits and upgrades stem from the unfeigned, unflinching and unconventional style of comedy that stands him apart.  “Oh Christ,” Brookes groans.  “Why the hell did you have to say that?  Now they’ll expect too much.”

Despite reluctance to wallow in praise, Brookes acknowledges that 2017’s Body of Work (below, right) was a worthy piece of performance art.  “It was a decent summation of everything I’d been working towards,” he says.  “I knew for a while the sort of thing I wanted to do.  It was just a case of gaining the confidence to do it properly.  But that show had all the things I wanted to talk about, within a decent framework that made it broadly accessible to people.”

Jordan-Brookes-683x1024Making his work “broadly accessible” is Brookes’ hardest challenge.  He can be unsettling in his choice of topics (such as whether, in Body of Work, he was sexually attracted to his grandmother) and bouts of physical comedy, turning his face crimson and almost bursting veins clean out of his neck.  But Brookes shouldn’t be dismissed as a shock artist.  Instead, his “tricks” – as he calls them – serve to gain audiences’ attention before he counterpunches with moments of profound and relatable honesty.

Brookes’ readiness to discuss his own negative traits owes something to the mental health disorder he discussed candidly on Susan Calman’s recent Mrs Brightside podcast.  The condition – known as ‘Pure OCD’ – has forced him to process swathes of often disturbing, intrusive thoughts for nearly half his life.  But it also reflects an inquisitive mind, able and eager to explore the gamut of the human experience.  No wonder some dub him “the existential Michael McIntyre”.

“I guess my act is pretty self-reflective and meta,” he says, “but that’s never been my conscious intention.  It’d be pretty shallow and shit if I simply set out to break all the rules.  It’s really a by-product of my main goal, which is trying to be honest and give a worthy representation of what it takes to be a decent person.”

Blood, sweat and tears

Brookes says his new show, Bleed (below, left), will be no different in that regard, although perhaps even more introspective.  “Like most comedians, I tend to write about what I’ve experienced over the year.  As my last show contributed to me breaking up with my girlfriend, it’s about that in a way.  There’s some sadness in there.

“But I also want to challenge myself differently each time – whether that’s aiming to be more assured onstage or more daring with the bullshit I’m trying to get the audience to tolerate.  So this year’s task has been to come up with some surprises people won’t expect.  I’m interested to see how they react.”

Screen Shot 2018-07-31 at 11.01.19An entertaining Twitter contributor, Brookes often airs anxieties about his material over the summer months and admits obsession with his work can make him difficult company in the build-up to Edinburgh.  But when we speak, he seems calm, concerned only that I try not to make him “end up sounding like a wanker” – an easy task given his charm and lack of pretension.

“It’s actually quite a fun time to talk to people about the show,” Brookes says.  “I definitely feel less anxious about the process than before.  But there’s a pressure that some people will come who haven’t seen me before because of where the show is, what time it’s on or what they’ve heard.  So sometimes I worry this might not be the best representation of me as a performer and those people should’ve come last year instead.  But what can you do?  I’m doing my best to produce something I’m proud of and that’s all you can control.”

The flip side to potentially heightened expectations is that audiences are now more prepared to trust Brookes.  “They seem more willing to give me the first laugh, maybe because they’ve arrived expecting to watch something good.  But let me tell you: that goodwill very quickly evaporates,” he chuckles, as if from bitter experience.  “It seriously, seriously does.  You can’t ride it out for long.”

“You also get the other type of audience who are resistant, because of the show’s reputation.  You see them thinking: ‘All right, pal.  Prove you deserved that nomination.’  I feel like shouting: ‘I didn’t nominate myself for it!  It’s not my fault!’  Fortunately, those crowds are relatively rare and I can keep it in check.”

Newport rapport

Although he’s taken to comedy like a duck to water, Brookes had no thought of trying stand-up until his last year of university in Newport.  “I guess I was a funny kid – your classic defence mechanism – but was obsessed with becoming this troubled writer.  Eventually, I began writing short comedy scripts and did a character on YouTube to minimal acclaim.  But even that minor recognition was enough to make me consider trying it out live in front of people.”

Jordan-Matt-Charlie-Smaller-1As with many formative experiences, the final trigger was peer pressure.  “I was at college with Charlie Webster (right), who’s still a good friend and now a successful comedian.  We got on really well, made ourselves laugh and kept egging each other on to try doing stand-up.  Eventually, we both cracked and got onstage.”

Brookes quickly became “chemically dependent on whether a gig had gone well” and despite the risk of it worsening his condition, he found adrenaline provided respite from what was going on in his head.

“The only time I didn’t have to listen to the intrusive thoughts was when I was performing,” he says.  “Then I’d get offstage and go back to ruminating on what I’d been worrying about all day.  It impacted on my writing.  There was loads of stalling and getting caught up with ‘nonsense thinking’ that hit my ability to work on a joke.  But performing was never a problem, which is why stand-up was so appealing to me at the time.”

Now living in South London, Brookes spent the first four years of his comedy career in Cardiff, which he credits for shaping the way his style evolved.  “It was a nice environment to work in because it seemed less cutthroat than London.  There was a great freedom to experiment and a small, tight-knit group of people who were supportive of each other’s work.  It was far from the open mic cesspit I’ve heard other people describe around here.”

“People like Charlie definitely inspired the direction I took with my comedy.  He would regularly split the room – there’d always be about ten people totally losing their fucking minds, bent double and crying with laughter.  I remember seeing that and thinking: ‘I want that reaction.  I don’t care how many people are laughing, but I want some of them to be absolutely ruined without really knowing why.’  So that was the challenge I set for myself.”

Sucking up

Brookes has achieved that in relatively short order, though the hard work he’s put in shouldn’t be understated.  While others risk spreading their talents a little too thinly, he’s remained focused on honing his stand-up.  A noteworthy exception was a strong showing as the irritating office worker in I’ve Got Your Number, a comedy short Kiri Pritchard-McLean created for Sky Arts in 2016.  “I enjoyed it and would be open to doing more things like that now,” Brookes says.  “There are a few opportunities in the pipeline, but nothing concrete.”

Screen Shot 2018-07-31 at 23.24.09A more recent appearance before the camera was in a spoof charity appeal recorded by Mr Box, Rupert Majendie’s superbly subversive production company.  In the video, Brookes adopts faux sincerity to plead for people to fund his attempt to ‘Suck Myself Off’.  He immediately starts laughing when I mention it.

“I wrote that concept about 18 months ago and naturally assumed it’d go absolutely nowhere.  Then Rupert asked me if I wanted to make something with him and I said: ‘Surely you don’t want to make this?’  Incredibly, he said: ‘Of course we do – let’s make it happen.’  I guess it shows that anything’s possible.  And that there are some great people in the industry prepared to be brave with their creativity.”

While the video showcases Brookes’ playful streak, it’s a long way from his stage persona, omitting a certain aloof confidence – reminiscent of his hero Hans Teeuwen – and genuine layer of vulnerability.  “I really believe audiences want to see something truthful from performers,” he says.  “That’s what I try to give them – for better or worse.  This year’s another step along that journey and the chance to take even greater risks.

“I’m looking forward to Edinburgh, ridiculously.  To gaining more experience – good and bad.  To seeing talented friends like Charlie Webster, Phil Cooper and Chris Chopping.  And to being surrounded by a group of good people set on helping each other make it through the month.”

Jordan Brookes is performing ‘Bleed’ in Beside at Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) every day at 20.30 (except 14th August).  Head here for tickets.  For more information, see Jordan’s official website or follow him on Twitter @jordbrookes.  Main and final images are courtesy of Anneliese Nappa.

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