SITTING on the red sofa in Ruby Wax's living room in genteel west London, I am waiting for her to arrive when she bursts through the door, 15 minutes late, like a pocket whirlwind. She takes one look at me and says: "You remind me of someone in my past."
She scrutinises me. "I can't decide whether you look like my uncle who scared the shit out of me," she pauses, "or an ex-boyfriend from high school I quite liked.
"Uncle, boyfriend, uncle, boyfriend," she joshes, slapping herself about the face in a slapstick routine.
It's classic Ruby – to be aggressive and funny at the same time – but the ambivalence she feels is real. This is the first interview she has done since abruptly dropping off the radar five years ago and she's noticeably nervous. Until now, she has never spoken publicly about what caused her to trade in her 20-year TV career for neuroscience and psychotherapy. One minute the American-born comic was dissecting celebrities such as Pamela Anderson, Imelda Marcos, Fergie and OJ Simpson on her Ruby Wax Meets… and The Full Wax series of interviews, the next she'd gone into hibernation.
Before we start, Ruby, 54, pops upstairs to change out of her "schlumpy" tracksuit. When she returns minutes later she's in pressed jeans and a more attractive top, but interestingly without her usual props – her pillar-box red lipstick and extensive make-up. Instead, there are freckles where there would be blusher, her lips are pale, and her eyes dart vulnerably. This is an unadorned, unmasked Ruby we never see on television.
The decision radically to change her life, she says, came in 2002 when she met Camila Batmanghelidjh, the charismatic founder of Kids Company, a charity which helps traumatised children. "I went down to her south London premises to shoot a short documentary on the young children they help: it was meant to be a quick job, but it was as if those children scented that, like them, I was damaged goods, and that, as Philip Larkin put it, I had also been f***ed up by my mom and dad.
"They opened up to me. We just sat there, sharing and connecting as people in a way I hadn't experienced. At the time, my career was going nowhere: I was doing a TV show interviewing shallow celebrities who were actually more real than I was.
"Afterwards, Camila – who is probably the most inspirational person I've met – said to me, 'You're deeper than this, Ruby, you're good at reading people, why don't you go into something like psychotherapy?'"
Ruby, 54, who is married to TV producer Ed Bye and has three teenage children, says that to the surprise of her thespian friends, including collaborator Jennifer Saunders and long-time mentor Alan Rickman, she promptly embarked on a masters in psychology and psychotherapy training. "As a teenager, I'd dropped out of psychology at Berkeley (University of California], but I'd always hoped to go back to it. It seemed like the right time. I was hungry for something more to my life.
"Comedy had been a great gig for me, but along the way it became my defence, my way of seeming to confront my life without really doing so. I used to live off gags about my parents. I would describe how my neurotic mother, a compulsive cleaner, would fly across the room in a horizontal position like a crazed bird in flight if I even had a rogue crumb on my mouth. And how my father – a sausage-skin maker from Vienna who lost everything when synthetic casings replaced real sheep bladders – would take us to restaurants, pluck the sausage with a fork and then go, 'We're leaving,' if the skins weren't real."
Ruby's parents, Edward and Bertha Wachs, had fled the Nazis in 1939 and settled in the Chicago area, but the rage they felt at having to leave their homeland, she says, found a convenient repository in their only child.
"My parents had so much anger. In my father's case, it didn't help that he really wanted a son; and my mother, she was beautiful, she wanted someone who looked like her, whereas I was a gawky, ugly kid." She flashes a rueful smile. "They wanted a poodle and I was a dachshund."
As a child, Ruby was desperately lonely and later diagnosed as clinically depressed. "The depression first happened when I was ten," she says. "It was like I was permanently stoned. Nothing really mattered."
What triggered it? "Who knows? Everything that happened since I was two." She spent a short time in the Priory rehabilitation clinic some years ago, she adds, but the clinical depression is managed by daily medication.
In 2002, Ruby wrote a book about her parents – called How Do You Want Me? – describing in highly comic terms her life at the vortex of a bizarrely dysfunctional triangle. Even the truly awful stuff – like her parents taking her on a cruise when she was 35 and booking her a bunk in their bedroom – was made to work as a gag.
She reflects that her book was "not really that honest. My dilemma was that people expected me to be funny, but if I'm to be really honest, it's not very funny. Like my dad, whenever I went home, it was the norm that I sleep in the same room as him – even when I was a grown-up. He never laid a finger on me but still, it was an abusive relationship that only came to an end in my early thirties when my therapist gave me the courage to resist".
I ask her what she's learned about herself through psychotherapy. She reflects a moment. "When you get to 40 or 50, it becomes unpalatable to be blaming it all on the parents. It's enough already, the damage is done. My father is dead, my mother has dementia. When I visit her she doesn't even know who I am. Yeah," she smiles thinly, "we get on much better now she's a vegetable."
Ruby says she's had to accept that the film of her life doesn't end the way she'd want it. "I never got the cuddle everyone gets in Winnie-the-Pooh land. But I've learned to accept it without disintegrating. I still hurt – the difference is, I can bear it." Does she intend to work as a psychotherapist when she qualifies this year? "I might do a couple of clients," she says. "I already see half a dozen for free on the NHS as part of my training. But, in all honesty, I can't picture myself sitting at the end of a sofa patiently babysitting somebody while they slowly unpeel like wallpaper."
Instead, she says, her passion is to do gigs and speeches incorporating what she's learned about neuroscience. Recently I saw her chair a Kids Company conference on "the effects of childhood trauma on the workings of the brain" and she was, it has to be said, a revelation. She had the audience eating out of her hand as she harnessed her sharp wit to address a cause that desperately needs fresh approaches – the rise of the teenage killer.
"When I was growing up," Ruby told the crowd of more than 1,000 people, "I was under the illusion that our personalities were ready-made – like Campbell's soup – that whether I was minestrone or chicken noodle depended on the recipe put in by my ancestors. But what the latest research shows us is that at birth, the right side of the brain – the part where conscience and emotionality will later reside – is hardly there, a void, and only develops in response to input by the mother or caregiver. We tune in to Station Mommy and that's how the hormones release the chemicals that hit the neurons that form the brain. It's not nature versus nurture, but rather nurture that impacts nature. Think about that. This is profound, because it means we need people to take these young, traumatised kids whose brains have frozen and try to defrost them."
But what about the comedy? Surely, there's no better buzz than making people laugh? "That's what I used to think. But having to be funny all the time… it doesn't feel like me any more. I feel like me now, sitting here talking to you. I have doubts flickering through me, a frisson of fear: you look vaguely familiar and, yes, I'm tempted to make you laugh, but I don't want to do it in a vicious way or in that high-octane Ruby tone any more."
She's still a work-in-progress, she says, but the past five years have changed her in a significant way. "I used to be fuelled by rage towards people who got in my way. If I felt envious, I'd annihilate you. I've learned to value people more, like my husband, for how he's supported me. And I'm trying to be there more for my children. I was too absent in their early years."
She pauses, a mischievous expression flashing across her face. "Still, maybe it was a good thing I was out of town so often. My mother f***ed me up by being there. If only she had gone out, I would have been better off."
It's reassuring that Ruby can still be deliciously vicious. "Yeah, I can still be a princess," she says, "but I'm not angry any more. My parents were angry people, but like the children I met at Kids Company, I am rewiring my brain, and choosing not to be."
THE realm of emotional and mental health has proved a fascinating field of exploration for a number of comedians, often inspired by their own experiences or those of their loved ones.
AFTER 20 years as a celebrated stage, screen, film and radio star, in 2006 Fry wrote and presented an Emmy-award winning TV documentary, Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, where he revealed and explored the symptoms and possible causes of his own depression, which he had thought was a bipolar disorder. In fact, he was diagnosed with cyclothymia, a disorder which entails severe and recurrent mood disturbances. In May 2007 Fry was announced BT Mind Champion of the Year in recognition of the awareness raised by this documentary.
AUSTRALIAN-born Stephenson arrived in London to pursue an acting career in 1976. By 1980 she was a household name and sex symbol, starring alongside Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones and Rowan Atkinson in the subversive TV comedy sketch series Not The Nine O'Clock News. It was on this show that she conducted a spoof interview with Billy Connolly; they began a relationship and are now married with three children. In 1996 Stephenson gained a Californian doctorate in clinical psychology and set up her private practice, specialising in sexuality and sex therapy. Controversially, she wrote a biography of Billy Connolly, analysing his behaviour in the context of the sexual abuse he suffered in childhood at the hands of his father. Billy won the 2002 British Book of the Year award.
THE Monty Python star was at the top of his game professionally when, in 1973, depression began to manifest itself in flu-like symptoms. His GP claimed the illness was psychosomatic, but Cleese suspected he was depressed and entered group therapy. During his recovery he developed an interest in psychology and, with his therapist, Dr Robin Skynner, co-wrote two books, Life And How To Survive It and Families And How To Survive Them.
SERVING as a gunner during World War II, Lance-Bombardier Milligan was wounded in Italy and suffered shellshock, which triggered his bipolar disorder and the first of many nervous breakdowns. Nevertheless he forged a career as one of the most popular comedians of his era: with The Goon Show and the groundbreaking Q he exhibited a black humour and surrealism that has inspired generations of comics since. Milligan spoke out candidly about clinical depression and its effects on his creativity: "It's the nature of who you are. You will see sunsets in a special way, you will see life in a special way." He once admitted: "I have got so low that I have asked to be hospitalised and for deep narcosis (sleep). I cannot stand being awake. Something has happened to me, this vital spark has stopped burning."