Jack Dee. The Esquire Interview, Esquire 2002

words: Dan Gennoe

 

This is not the face of a happy man. Mouth turned down at the edges, eyebrows pulled low, Jack Dee, the sharpest wit and snappiest dresser in comedy, is trying to look relaxed as he settles into the dimly lit booth of the swish Manor restaurant, just off West London’s Portabella Road. He adjusts the cuffs of his impeccably tailored silver-grey suit and clasps his hands tightly together on the table in front of him. His trepidation is obvious and the more he tries to disguise it with clam, the more he looks like an East End gangster on the verge of prescribing concrete boots and a watery grave.

With the second half of his sixth UK stand-up tour starting in less than a month, Dee explains that he’s currently in full promotion mode. He jokes about the need to get “ticket sales going again”, and the round of back to back phone interviews he’s just done. 

Momentarily forgetting where he is and what he’s doing he confides wearily, “It never ceases to amaze me the questions journalists ask. Always the same things. ‘How did you get started in comedy? Who do you like? What makes you angry? What makes you laugh?’ Sometimes your heart just sinks.” Almost immediately, he offers an apologetic sneer that says he didn’t mean that quite how it sounded. 

Moving swiftly on, the forty year old father of four remarks that it’s probably for the best that the bitterly cold January weather, and drizzly rain put pay to our original plan to meet at London Zoo. “Actually, it’s a very depressing place,” he scowls. “I go there often with my kids, it’s terrible. The elephant house is really ugly and the old Avery is just a horrible old Victorian municipal building. Then there was that manky old elephant who killed its keeper the other day.” His left eyebrow arches as the absurdity of this tragic turn of events gives rise to a sly breathy snigger. “Crushed his keeper against the wall after fifteen years of loving care and attention.”

Nothing appeals more to Jack Dee than absurdity. Since wandering into the Comedy Store in 1985 after a late shift at the Covent Garden restaurant he was managing, he’s been obsessed with life’s absurdities and irritations. Why do petrol stations sell bird houses? Why do celebrities wear different outfits in every room when photographed for Hello!? Or in the case of Soda Streams, just why?

“That’s what I like about stand-up, that it can deal with the everyday, rather than immediately resorting to surrealism.” He exaggerates his sneer. “Like not being given enough ice in a drink in a pub.” He looks across the table for a note of recognition as if this is what most people spend their days thinking about. “They do this thing where they have this silly little bucket and they do the ice out with a silly little spoon. It’s something you see a lot, but it doesn’t register. I just realise that there was a real moment of annoyance in me when I saw them do that. ‘Would you like ice?’ and then they put this pathetic slither in yer glass. I just articulate these very petty observations.”

Hysterical as his “unreasonable grievances” are, they’re not the real attraction of the man who, with a little help from a beer commercial, some dancing penguins and a widget, went from Perrier Award winning and cult TV comedian to a champion of glum who can sell-out marathon 70 date UK tours. It’s the stony expression, flat voice and no nonsense attitude which have him tied with Victor Meldrew as Britain’s favourite grouch.

Jack Dee doesn’t smile because he can’t. He tries, but the frown he was born with really wont allow it. If anything his face misrepresents him, especially when he talks of his contented existence with wife Jane, daughters Hattie (nine) and Phoebe (seven) and twin sons Miles and Charlie (three) in Wandsworth, South London. When he does attempt genial, the result, something akin to a psychotic Jack Nicholson, is positively terrifying. He re-arches his left eyebrow. “When I was a waiter the only complaints I ever got were that I was sinister.”

 

Until recently, Dee viewed his career as little more than accidental. He grew up in Winchester with his older brother and sister. His mother was a house wife, his dad an executive for a printing firm. He’d always liked comedy and used humour to fit in at school; he first attended a prep-school where he didn’t feel up to scratch and then the local comprehensive where he was deemed too posh. He was bullied, but, he argues, no more than most. And although he would buy Peter Sellers and Richard Pryor albums while his friends where all into punk, and always admired Dave Allen and Billy Connolly, as far as he could recall, he never had a burning ambition to be a comedian. 

“Then last year, on the first leg of the current tour, I met up with a school girlfriend from when I was fifteen. She came backstage with her husband and said ‘Well you did it. You always said you were gonna be a comedian when I was going out with you.’ I had no recollection of that.” He shakes his head, still wondering how he could have forgotten such a vital piece of information. “And it rang a bell. I remember now that I was always going around saying that in my early teens. I just assumed that it was my birthright.”

Unfortunately for Dee, this memory lapse cost him years of soul searching which magnified the alienation of his school days. “I’d failed my A Levels and didn’t know what I wanted to do. And no matter what I did I had this uneasy sense that I was on the wrong train, and became increasingly concerned that I wasn’t ever going to find out where I should be going.” At one point he even considered becoming a priest, going as far as the first interview. “I ended up exploring all avenues and that was one of them. I had always thought that I was religious and thought that might be a solution.” He pauses to give his motives proper consideration. “As much as anything I was looking for something to hide behind. That’s not to suggest all clergy are doing that, but I would’ve been. Later I would dismiss it as a joke, but I think it’s quite a telling chapter in my life. It shows just how utterly confused I was.” It would certain have been an extreme choice of career. “But that’s not entirely surprising for someone in this business; deep down we’re quite theatrical about things, either you’re gonna be a priest or an atheist.”

A series of waiting jobs at restaurants in Winchester followed- “I’d always liked food,” he offers by way of explanation- then restaurant management and even a spell working in the kitchen at the Ritz. “I embarked on a self-education thing thinking that I might open a restaurant. But working at the Ritz made me realise just how horrendous it could be and put me off that as a career. I’d wanted to do something with my life. All my friends had gone off to university to be lawyers and I was left looking like a bit of a prick, so I tried to salvage something and thought catering might be the answer.”

It took the staff of the Covent Garden Pizza restaurant he was managing the best part of a year to convince him that he was too funny to be running  a restaurant. Eventually he gave in and went along to an open mic night at the Comedy Store. “I just remember feeling that they’d started without me. It was a very refreshing time for comedy. Although I like the older school, I’d liked The Comedians, the telly programme, I knew it wasn’t me; I’m not northern, I’m not working class and I hadn’t got a mother-in-law. When I went to The Comedy Store I discovered this whole comedy scene that I felt was about me.” 

As much as alternative comedy appealed, he maintains he still felt slightly out of place. “That’s where the suits came from originally. Most of the alternative comedians were from a very different background to me. For me to have gone on wearing a shabby t-shirt and jeans, talking about my dole cheque would have been a lie. I was working, I’d always worked. I naturally related more to the audience, who’d just come from work, wearing suits. So I thought I should too. It’s just more honest. There’s no point doing stand-up if you can’t be honest.”

Dee returned to The Comedy Store the following week and put his name down on the open mic list, finally making it on stage at 2am. “That was a daunting experience. Most of the audience had left and it’s just the die hards there for the bar. But it was brilliant. I came off feeling that’s what’s wrong with me, I’m a comedian.”

He’s incredulous that he hadn’t noticed earlier. “I always knew that comedy was my best bet in terms of getting attention and surviving. I was at loggerheads with so many teachers at school, because I saw them as the competition. They had this unfair advantage of standing at the front and legitimately having people listen to them.”

Two days later and it’s a very different Jack Dee who comes striding into the bar of The Groucho Club, the notorious Soho private members club for the great and good of the media set. His face still holds the expression of a man charged with finding an answer to world peace by lunch time, but the suit has been traded for jeans, a comfortable jumper and two days worth of stubble. The lively thumbs up as he approaches confirms that he’s in good spirits, and infinitely more relaxed.

In the empty upstairs bar he chucks his coat on a once plush, now worn sofa. “They’re always saying they’re going redecorate it in here, but I kind of like it threadbare.” He slouches down next to his jacket, assuring me that this is as ‘celebrity’ as he gets. “I just like it in here, and it’s handy for my office which is round the corner. I can’t work at home, too many distractions.” Not that he’s particularly got his nose to the grind stone, despite the imminent tour. “The only thing worse than being under prepared in comedy is being over prepared. I get more time off the Santa Clause,” he jokes pouring himself a Coke. What about the twelve TV series, six awards and six national tours that he’s crammed into the last ten years then?

“It’s easy to think, ‘Gosh, that’s a lot of work’, but things like the TV shows only take up a few weeks, so it’s not hard to look busy. People are always very generous, ‘oh you must be exhausted’. But I only do an 8 hour week.” He leans back into the sofa. “I’m lucky because having a life, a normal one, is part of the job. I get to have a great relationship with my kids and see them grown up. It gives me something to talk about. That’s what my audience relate to. I have a family, go to the shops, do the school run, that’s my raw material.” Sensing the Santa comment might have over stated his case, he justifies his days. “As much as I joke about being lazy, the vocation is 24/7 as the Americans would say. It’s a mental thing. As I say to my audiences, ‘you can laugh, but I’m stuck thinking like this’.”

He ponders his last comment, as if unsure whether to expand. “That’s the thing,” he adds tentatively. “I might appear quite composed, but you struggle internally. I don’t think artists are predisposed to being particularly happy and certainly not satisfied. You can’t be. Artistically. Most actors and comedians worth their salt, agonise endlessly over what they do.” Is he prone to depression? “I can get very depressed yeah. And you know comedy isn’t there because we’re happy either. I don’t know any comedians who are actually happy inside, or…” he winces, ordering thoughts, “…no that’s wrong. I consider myself quite a happy person. But I’m also absolutely turned inside out with contradictions and conflict. I can be quite hard on myself, when I should stand back and say ‘look I’m just another comic’.”

“But I don’t have a choice really. I can’t switch off the impulse that makes me need to perform, that’s how I know I’m a comedian. I can’t simply deny that- I spent eight years of my life doing that and feeling like a lost soul. So I put up with all that side of it in order to still have audiences to perform for. But then you get the fame factor,” he says offering an example of his conflict. “That makes it incredibly difficult to get to know anyone, to relaxed with people you didn’t know before.”

Up until his spectacular and ultimately victorious tenancy of the Big Brother house for last year’s Comic Relief, few would really have described Dee as a celebrity. He loathes “film previews” and the “party circuit”, and seems happy that public interest is limited to staff following him around the supermarket, “I have a standoffish look about me, which works to my advantage when I’m out.” So why risk his normal life with Big Brother?

“Yeah, Big Brother was enormous. But I just walked into that completely naive as to the effect it would have. I don’t think anyone imagined it was going to be as big an event as it was.” He emits a snort of embarrassment. “I hadn’t actually seen the first series of Big Brother,” he continues. “I wasn’t really aware what it was and stupidly thought ‘I’ll just take a load of books in’. But Comic Relief is something where everyone in this business does whatever they can.” Suddenly Dee’s honesty gets the better of him and he blurts out: “Actually, I was under fairly direct pressure from Richard Curtis and Lenny Henry, who are Comic Relief, to do it. They invited me over for diner and just…well I wasn’t in a position to say ‘Oh No thanks’. It wasn’t as some have suggested a case of ‘Me thinks it could be good for the career’, it was more like ‘okay you bastards, you got me this time’.”

Curtis & Henry probably couldn’t believe their luck as Dee’s descent from hardnosed comedian, to desperate escapee played out on our screens. “I was so bored. I went completely stir crazy in there. I wasn’t enjoying myself.” So you decided to escape? “Well it started out as me being a bit mischievous, trying to dig under the gate. Then I realised that the gate wasn’t actually locked. As soon as I found that out I was off. I just walked out of the compound and found myself on this new housing estate. But obviously I wasn’t prepared, I didn’t have any money on me. I couldn’t phone anyone or go anywhere and it was the middle of the night. So I thought I’d better go back. A police car went past and looked at me, and I thought it might be funny to be taken back by the police, but they didn’t stop. I couldn’t even get arrested. I was gone for about 3 hours.” A look of satisfaction crosses his face. “Most of the senior production people were called in from home because no one knew where I was. The security were useless, they were wandering around with a dog going ‘Jack, Jack, are you there Jack’. I was going to break back in, but it didn’t seem worth the effort. They controlled the story very carefully. They were very embarrassed.”

While Vanessa Feltz may have stripped away the layers of fame with her am-dram nervous breakdown- Dee still looks aghast at the table writing and teary nocturnal confessions- it was Dee who gave the most away. It was the miserable star of the John Smiths adverts who went in. But by day three he was a family man, missing his wife and kids, who’d reverted to behaviour a naughty child- ‘Jack would you please get off the roof’. ‘Jack the fire extinguisher is not a toy’.

“It’s good to be childlike. We’re all still children really.” He says, sprawling across the sofa. “To be honest that’s another thing I like about a suit on stage. It’s a symbol of being grownup. A lot of what I do is playing with my status. Becoming a child, seeing things childishly, being made to look silly, it’s all the funnier because I’m trying to be a grownup. It’s like, ‘Okay, we’re all grownups, but how are we really coping with that fact’. Most of us retain a very childlike mentality. I find the whole ‘Sharpe suited Jack Dee’ thing somewhat depressing really, everyone missed the joke. But that’s partly my fault because can’t say no to the suits, not when someone else’s paying.”

Relaxed to the point of exhaustion, Dee’s talking about his kids with a mix of pride and sheer envy. He contorts in a painful, but much needed stretching which gives way to a dry, Sid James cackle. “I remember one of my daughters, she was about three, asking, ‘how do you spell shop?’” he stresses the SCH. “So I tell her, it’s S.H.O.P. Then she goes ‘how do you spell ship?’” Again stressing the Sch. “I’m thinking where’s this going? Anyway I spell it, S.H.I.P, and then she goes ‘how do you spell shape?’ and I suddenly get a nasty feeling what the next SCH word is. So I tell her ‘What you need to remember is, all SCH words start, cerrrr hurrrrr, S. H.’ There I am, feeling really clever and she looks at me and goes, ‘Sugar’.” He collapse into disbelieving laughter. “One word. The only one. Genius. Kids, fucking genius.”

Jack Dee’s UK tour runs from 17 February to 12 March.

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Dan Gennoe

Dan Gennoe is a London based freelance journalist & author. He's written features, interviews and reviews for the likes of Esquire, GQ, Arena, FHM, Q Magazine, Mojo, Red, Time Out, The Independent and The Mail On Sunday. Dan also writes books, both fiction and non-fiction, and has ghost written the odd celebrity biography.

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