Jack Dee’s grouchy stage persona and trademark deadpan delivery have made him one of Britain’s best-known and most cherished stand-up comedians. Not content with that accolade, the grumpiest man in comedy has now turned his attention to his memoirs.
How did the book come about?
I’d been approached to write a book several times, but I didn’t want to write a straightforward autobiography – a boring chronological plod through the details of my life. What actually interested me was exploring why I find things funny. That morphed into telling the story of how I got into stand-up and everything that happened up to the point when I stepped on stage for the first time. I had tried so many other things in a confused and lost sort of way. I’d had countless part-time jobs: I’ve worked in the kitchen at The Ritz, in an artificial leg factory… I even delivered incontinence pants for the NHS. The Tuesday edition of the Evening Standard [London’s evening newspaper] used to have a double-page spread of odd jobs and one day I looked through and I realised I’d done literally every job advertised. It wasn’t until I discovered comedy that my life had any real direction.
Performing was that profound an experience for you?
I’d been grasping at every straw that seemed to present itself – I’d even seriously considered becoming a vicar and explored that quite fully, but nothing had ever quite worked out. To actually find something that I knew in my heart was absolutely right was an epiphany. Everything came into focus. Once I realised I see the world through a comedy lens, everything made more sense.
Ross Noble [another Brit comic, but with sillier hair] told me that when he started out you were a big influence on him and he tried to be you. Then he realised he had to find his own voice. That search for who they are as a performer seems to be most comedians’ main subject…
Yes, it does. I write about the period when I was still working as a barman and doing gigs in the evening. It is that process of finding your voice and then losing it, and of learning to trust your instinct and your natural comic resources, rather than trying to manufacture anything you think might make the audience laugh.
Being a comedian, did you feel any pressure to make your biography funny?
Not particularly, but I’ve found it almost impossible to write about most of the things that have happened to me without finding some comic slant because that’s fundamentally who I am. I asked Pete Sinclair, who I write [TV show] Lead Balloon with, to read it and I said, ‘Look, you’ve got to be ruthless. If you think it’s w***y, you’ve got to tell me.’ Authors do that all the time and I valued discovering that you do need to share it with people, you’ve got to be open. But yes, I made it funny. It would have been repressive not to.
Was what you left out of the book as important as what you put in?
Probably. I don’t talk a lot about my family, for instance. If it’s not germane to me getting into comedy, it’s not in the book. I mention them, of course, but it’s more to do with the background psychology of certain decisions I made. For instance, my mother’s family were all on the stage, so she was aware of what a precarious livelihood that would be. When I was 16 and said I’d like to be an actor, she said, ‘That’s great, good for you, but you will need a trade. Learn to be a waiter or something because you won’t earn any money.’ So the direction I took was not, ‘I’m going to go to drama school’, it was, ‘Oh, I’d better learn to be a waiter.’ I also don’t dwell very much, for instance, on my depression and alcoholism. It’s mentioned, but I didn’t want to turn the whole thing into a misery memoir. I think that’s a pitfall with a lot of autobiographies; they can easily become self-pitying and I wanted to avoid that.
Thanks For Nothing is published by Doubleday. Dhs91, available to order from Magrudy’s