Jen Brister on her new show Meaningless

As Jen Brister brings her exceptional Fringe show back to Scotland on tour, we discuss how to be angry and articulate

Feature by Ben Venables | 09 Nov 2018
  • Jen Brister

"I felt a lot more vulnerable on stage than I have before," says Jen Brister.

That may seem a surprise. Meaningless is a show of such controlled anger, so commanding, that any kind of fear seems distant. It also holds a classic comedic premise: when Brister's mum moves in, it puts an inter-generational and odd pair dynamic into a modern family home. 

Meaningless is honest and personal. It has lots to say about raising young boys to a strange societal silence. A silence that leaves even search engines at a loss to explain a universal experience for every woman. A show where anger increases the heart-rate; but also one that comes from the heart.

"This is the show I've written that has been closest to what I want to say," she says. "There's so much shit happening that it's made me insanely cross. I wanted to be able to talk about it."

But Brister knew the show would be somewhat redundant if she didn't speak to everyone. An angry show about gender roles and widespread hypocrisy, however justified, may seem to preach or polarise without care and thought. "I wanted to do it in a way that didn't alientate men. That wasn't my intention. My intention was for it to be as inclusive as possible.

"I also wanted to say it's legitimate to be angry. Not only legitimate, but that you should be angry, and you shouldn't be afraid of saying so – that it's OK."

She achieves inclusivity without risking ire through empathy and understanding; such as in part of the show when Brister addresses men who may feel some guilt or shame about #MeToo – or those who now at least have the capacity to reflect back on past actions. "My biggest surprise in doing the show was how many men came and how many men enjoyed it. I don't know why I thought that they wouldn't. And getting the tone correct was my biggest fear."

It's through such care and attention that Brister strikes such a mature and intelligent figure. Yet, focussing her anger has not always come easily. "I took everything very personally," she says of her early years in comedy. "Every email or phone call that was ignored, every rebuff, every frustration, I would think it was all about me – when actually it's not.

"Sometimes, in green rooms, I'd be very defensive. And I didn't take banter very well. I was that person, and no one likes that person. I'm not that person in green rooms anymore. I've learnt to channel my anger into things that are more helpful."

Brister's decision to place her mother at the heart of Meaningless helped draw out issues through a comic and relatable relationship. A relationship which understands the people in our lives are not one thing, and nor are our feelings, of simultaneous love and fury, towards them one thing. "The thing about my mum is that she is such a contradiction in terms of who she is. She's a massive feminist. She's always been: 'Women have to work harder for everything so you need to toughen up'. But, at the same time I say to her 'Don't you think mollycoddling boys is part of the problem?'"

Brister adds: "I guess the show reflects how a lot of people feel and so it makes people feel a lot less alone. We can be positive and take some agency with what is happening.

"People contacted me and said they'd felt very positive and fired-up. I've never written a show where people have said it's changed their mind about something... I had one guy who came up to me in tears. He was a single dad with two gay sons and he said he found it very empowering. That's what was really lovely, and unexpected, about the show for me."

Jen Brister: Meaningless, The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 13 Nov; The Stand, Edinburgh, 14 Nov http://www.jenbrister.co.uk/