Interview: Simon Day, comedian

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Comedian Simon Day has always struggled with addictions, and even a spell in Borstal didn't straighten him out. But finding his wife and starting a family has helped him in his recovery

• Taking one day at a time: Simon Day

"I LOVE people. I am obsessed with characters. If I see someone who's a character I'll observe them as much as possible, and if I get a chance to talk to them, I'll notice every nuance or phrase," says Simon Day.

For proof of his superior powers of observation, visit YouTube and reacquaint yourself with the unforgettable roster of characters he created for The Fast Show: Competitive Dad, pub bore Billy Bleach, Dave Angel Eco Warrior, music hall legend Tommy Cockles, and Carl Hooper, host of "That's Amazing!".

What really amazed me was discovering that until fairly recently, Day managed all that incredibly astute scrutiny while he was completely off his face. In his memoir, Comedy and Error, the 49-year-old reveals that he's spent most of his life battling addictions to alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, crack, gambling and food. He's also been a thief, done time in jail, and lived rough, during a prolonged period of homelessness.

He paints an unsparing picture of his worst excesses and seems determined to portray himself harshly, with revelations such as: "Not a day goes by when I'm not mired in self-obsession; having children has helped but it's all about me in the end."

Day explains that this perspective is integral to his recovery process. "I am in AA now and that is kind of part of what it is, to be hard on yourself. The first thing I learned was, 'Maybe it's all your fault.' All those things that you thought were slights, where everyone had treated you badly, well, a lot of that is your own fault. Believe it or not, it was really freeing to hear, because then you start saying maybe I've got to change certain things."

In theory, his life should have panned out differently. Day had a middle class upbringing in the salubrious London suburb of Blackheath. But life wasn't entirely peachy. The middle of three sons, he was a demanding little boy who never got over the transition from cooed-at babe in arms to a toddler forever being reprimanded and corrected.

"I wet the bed three or four times a week right up until I was in my last year at primary school. It was soul-destroying for me and very boring for my parents." He was also – and still is – incredibly clumsy, though that, he jokes, is the least of his worries.

School was problematic thanks to dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and his profound disregard for the establishment.

"No-one could tell me anything – not teachers, not family members, not any person in authority. The idiots I would listen to: the oddballs, the tramps… I took my information from television and books and comics and whispered folklore." When punk came along he also took on board the message "Be what you want, do what you want. … have a laugh and don't listen to anyone." That spelled curtains for his academic career. After a period of truancy, he left school with just one CSE.

A series of McJobs followed, though Day was often fired for robbing his bosses blind. He also stole from his family and friends, even while relying on those friends' generosity because he had nowhere to live. After his parents split up they both entered new relationships, and neither offered the teenager a permanent home.

"I was really shy and when I was smoking a lot of pot and everyone would be tiptoeing around, I'd be wondering, do these people really like me? I had very low self esteem." Isn't it remarkable how many shy, maladjusted misfits go on to become performers, I ask.

"I think you need to do that because you're not happy in the normal world. For me, as I was growing up, being in a quiet room, I didn't like that feeling, like something was collapsing – I need to talk, I need to speak and make it go away.

"It all starts from not really liking yourself and thinking you need to do more to be liked, so you start standing up and doing stuff. I felt an affiliation with comedians. I used to think of comic stuff, and when I did make my friends laugh, I could see from their faces that I could do it well. I think there's a template for what makes a comedian. A lot of comedians have problem childhoods and are not comfortable within themselves and invent personas."

He crawled into his addictions, spending hours playing the fruit machines in order to tune out the world. He drank, and smoked forests of dope. But he only stole to pay for his fruit machine habit, he says – and that's what brought him the lowest, resulting in his jail sentence for theft. Bad as it was, he writes, "I was glad to be banged up. I'd become a walking shame dog, a pariah, a menace to society, a doughnut without any jam in the middle. At least now I'd get fed and have a bed."

Even so, he was absorbing it all with a writer's eye. "I think you could get a good three-part comedy drama out of this memoir for the telly. Pad out the Borstal thing a bit more. There's a lot of stuff I left out, stuff about the race riots and all that. It was a very interesting time. Even when I was in there, amidst all the other strange feelings inside my head, I thought, 'You're kind of lucky to be seeing this. A lot of people don't see what goes on.'"

Addiction is an isolating disease, all the more so if you don't understand what's going on, he says now, with the benefit of hindsight. "It's not knowing, that's the problem. Not knowing why you're doing this stuff, so you just think you're bad. And your parents are telling you you're bad."

These days, he says, we're so aware of the perils of addiction that young people have better access to help. "I see young people at AA now, and it's astonishing. They hear people talking and think, 'God, this is me.' I was more upset about my parents' divorce than I made out. I would say, 'Hey, I'm fine,' but in fact I was a seething mass of hurt."

His comedy career didn't kick off until he was 29, and he owes a great debt to Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, who thought he was hilarious, and gave him his first break. They, along with Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse, were his greatest mentors. "Paul and Charlie were concerned with actually making me be brilliant and do what I did best in their show. Vic and Bob, it's quite hard to fit into their work. They were constantly trying to get me to do Cockney stuff they thought was quite funny, because they were from up north. They were great to me and continually promoted me. If I died on stage, they said that it was because the material was going over the audience's heads. You need those kinds of people."

Knowing what I know now, I say, some of his characters seem pretty close to the bone. Were they tough to perform? His answer is surprising. "You're the first person to ever notice that. Some of those people are the people that I would have liked to be accepted by. Like Billy Bleach. When I was at secondary school and all these kids were working-class, they were the people I wanted to be. Not be, but I felt guilty for being middle class. I hated it. I felt working-class kids had aspirations and middle class kids had guilt. These characters are nice loveable people."

As Day's career picked up, so did his drug consumption. He took industrial quantities of cocaine and ecstasy, and progressed to crack. He was earning hundreds of thousands of pounds a year and watching a sizeable chunk of that income go up in smoke. Superficially respectable, he was actually falling apart. Then in 1998, he met his wife Ruth, and, corny as it sounds, falling in love with her saved his life.

"I was ready for it. I was in dire straits, and from a selfish point of view, I needed a sensible lifestyle. She wasn't into The Fast Show. She didn't know anything about it, so she wasn't an avid fan of mine. She's very confident in herself, and it seemed to work. We were really comfortable with each other."

When they moved in together he finally gave up the crack pipe. The other addictions persisted, though, until he was invited to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. There he discovered a room full of people with stories similar to his own. "It was a real light-bulb moment. I felt part of something – something real and with integrity."

He and Ruth married in 2002 and, after IVF treatment, they had a son, Lloyd, and a daughter, Evie, aged four and two. He is a besotted dad, cheerfully admitting:

"I'm amazed that no-one conveyed to me the sheer joy that children can bring you. It's all about them – everything. Parenthood is an enormous human project that I will never finish."

• Simon Day's memoir, Comedy and Error is published by Simon & Schuster, 18.99