Interview: Jack Dee, stand-up comedian

Jack Dee: looking forward to getting back on the live circuit
Jack Dee: looking forward to getting back on the live circuit
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WE TEND only to see his perennial hangdog persona, but Jack Dee is doing very nicely, and is looking forward to being back on tour again, he tells Jay Richardson

As a stand-up who began his first gig fielding the heckle “tell us a joke” with a belligerent “no”, Jack Dee isn’t renowned for currying favour with audiences.

Jack Dee and two penguins in a scene from the John Smith adverts

Jack Dee and two penguins in a scene from the John Smith adverts

Yet touring the UK for the first time in six years, the 51-year-old Dee is relying on public goodwill to a greater extent than when he won Celebrity Big Brother in 2001. Because he’s brought his guitar.

Sharing his irritation and impotence regarding all aspects of modern life, Dee’s latest show could also be his most personal to date. With extended moaning on the perils of raising teenagers, it also tentatively alludes to his struggles with alcohol and religion.

His musical finale is delivered with all the world-weariness and ambition to spread woe of a beaten-down bluesman. It chronicles the dead-end jobs he endured before he discovered his vocation and had his epiphany – on the verge of quitting his faltering career, he adopted a miserable, deadpan persona. A channel for genuine bouts of depression, it’s been his trademark ever since.

“I’ve always taken a guitar with me because of the long periods of time backstage or in hotel rooms, it’s just a very nice, therapeutic thing to have,” he says. “It feels like an honest admission, I don’t know why. And I’ve always wrestled with what an encore should be for stand-up. It’s not like you can do anything other than a bit more material, in which case why not put it in your set? What’s more, you have to top what you’ve just done.

“I had all these bits and pieces that I didn’t want to put into stand-up, which I felt more in control of putting into a verse. Like when I worked in a factory making artificial legs. That’s not something I necessarily want to make a stand-up routine about if you’ll forgive the pun. But it’s something I wanted to write about.”

Relaxed, affable and open, he doesn’t sound like “the little ray of sleet” characterised by his friend and fellow comic Jeremy Hardy. Although he’s joked that this tour is an ideal opportunity for him to escape his family.

Unlike Rick Spleen however, the struggling comedian he played in his BBC sitcom Lead Balloon, he doesn’t harbour any malice towards the new wave of comics with skyrocketing careers. What’s routinely overlooked is that Live At The Apollo, the original shiny floor showcase that instigated comedy’s primetime boom, began as Jack Dee Live at The Apollo. In partnership with bullyboy super-agent Addison Cresswell, he founded Open Mike Productions, which also makes Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow and Alan Carr: Chatty Man, as well as several other star vehicles. Dee has been instrumental in countless comedians’ success.

Seeking a creative outlet for himself after Lead Balloon ended last year, he’s one of a clutch of big-name, middle-aged stand-ups, such as Frank Skinner, Sean Hughes, Alexei Sayle, Harry Hill, Alan Davies and Phill Jupitus, who have lately returned to the comedy clubs and festival circuit to prepare material for theatre tours, after years away broadcasting and writing books.

“It’s funny, because the higher up in the business you get in terms of your profile, the more isolated you become, especially from other comedians. There’s been a lot of getting to know the new comics I wasn’t aware of, catching up with those I knew when I was starting out. I’ve missed the backstage camaraderie. Touring on your own, it’s just you with a Sudoku in your dressing room. Or in my case, a guitar.”

Throwing himself into work has always been his bulwark against the blues. Stand-up is “something you can’t switch off the impulse to do if it’s in you. For me, and I suspect a lot of others, it’s in your blood and you can’t deny that, it’s almost too painful to deny it. I was quite content writing Lead Balloon. But the minute we decided not to do any more, I was looking around and thinking, ‘Woah, I need to keep going creatively’. You can’t block it, you just can’t.”

An advantage he has over his greying peers is that he perfected his grumpy old man shtick decades ago. “It’s almost a sad thing to admit. But I’m growing into my act and my face the older I get!” he chuckles.

His capacity to deliver a sharp gag while appearing thoroughly bored doubtless suggested him as successor to the late, much-loved Humphrey Lyttelton as chairman of Radio 4 institution I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. Stephen Fry and Rob Brydon filled in as caretaker chairs too, but it was Dee that Graeme Garden approached to take over permanently.

“Which was very flattering, very nice, though I hadn’t appreciated what a big deal it was for listeners. As far as I was concerned I was just helping out. But it’s a very healthy thing it continues and I’m sure it’s what Humph would have wanted.”

Memorably, after someone shouted “it’s not the same without Humphrey Lyttelton is it?” during a recording in Swansea, there was awkward silence until Dee responded wearily: “Ah, dear Humph. I wonder where he is now? I envy him.”

He’s pleased that his latest hosting role, broadcasting on Sky Atlantic next month, captures stand-up’s collaborative aspects more than its confrontational, despite its title. He sees Don’t Sit In The Front Row as a variation on established panel formats, with comics nurturing a relationship with the crowd and the programme showcasing acts that don’t always thrive in the “competitive” environment of shows like Mock The Week and 8 Out of 10 Cats.

Four people in the front row, “vetted” for excessive exuberance and masochism – “my primary concern was that it wasn’t going to be shooting fish in a barrel” – slowly reveal information about themselves, while three comedians try to build routines from their anecdotes. Younger, idiosyncratic performers like Sara Pascoe, Aisling Bea, Eric Lampaert, Katherine Ryan and Joe Wilkinson join panel show veterans such as Frank Skinner, Dave Gorman, Hugh Dennis and Ed Byrne.

The dialogue “comfortably supports different types of comedy voices” Dee suggests. “Some panel shows, and this isn’t a criticism, are simply comedians competing for a spotlight. That’s all very well but it can extinguish certain types who don’t get a look-in, because they’re not hard-hitting comics. We realised that female comedians especially are actually a lot more comfortable on a show like this.”

There’s a tendency to define all stand-up-audience interaction as heckling. But “sometimes the most exciting and funny parts for a comedian are the unexpected contributions” Dee counters. “When we have to think on our feet and get thrown off what we normally do.”

Although his “lemon-sucking” face usually dissuades strangers from approaching him in the street, he endured persistent heckles throughout the 1990s as the face of John Smiths bitter (“the midget with the widget”). Yet after Celebrity Big Brother, and his efforts to escape and steal a hug from his wife Jane, his public image became, if not loveable, certainly more sympathetic.

Regardless, he’d still have “warned off” Julian Clary, who won this year’s CBB.

“When I did it 11 years ago, there’d only been one series of Big Brother, there hadn’t been any I’m A Celebrity … and this explosion of reality TV. I went into it thinking it was just a celebrity version of a popular TV programme, the way Comic Relief always do. But now it’s viewed in a very different light. So I would have told Julian ‘be careful, because you give up a lot of your privacy’.

“I imagine he did it for the money though. As I bloody well wish I had!”

•  Jack Dee is at The King’s Theatre, Glasgow on 25 Sept and The Playhouse, Edinburgh on 29 Oct. Don’t Sit In The Front Row begins on Sky Atlantic next month.