Classic Interview: Jack Dee

Jack Dee

I've interviewed king of the grumblers  Jack Dee a few times and, surprise, surprise, he is always much more cheerful in a one-to-one than he is onstage. Like Alan Davies he started out in the eighties when the possibilities for a stand-up were massively limited compared to today.  Jack Dee is currently back on his first national tour in six years and has just added a second Hammersmith show to his lengthy run – dates and ticket details here. You can also see him in and out of a boat travelling down the Zambezi with Dara O'Briain tonight on BBC1 in aid of Comic Relief.

This interview below, first published in The Times, dates from September 2004 when Dee (picture by Andy Hollingworth) was hosting the new series of Live at the Apollo. Little did we realise then that this series would play a massive part in triggering the current comedy boom, partly by judgement, partly by luck. Previous attempts to convey the thrill of a stand-up gig on TV had failed, but this series was well-lit, well-edited and made it look like every comedian on the bill was having the gig of a lifetime. No wonder people started buying tickets for big-name tours after this.

The luck was that when Sachsgate resulted in the BBC suspending Jonathan Ross's chat show in 2008, Live at the Apollo was parachuted into the much-watched slot to replace it, boosting stand-up's profile and popularity further. The rest is box office history for Michael McIntyre and a nice warm glow for Jack Dee. What on earth has he got to grumble about?

 

Let’s get the controversy out of the way. Jack Dee is not anorexic. When you tune in to his new series you may think that he is wasting away — if the besuited gagsmith wore a kipper tie it would cover his entire chest. Sitting in his manager’s office in Soho, the comedian explains that he is on a non-Atkins diet. “I’m afraid I started smoking again,” he admits. That filthy habit and no snacking explains his svelte new physique.

The 41-year-old’s new series gives him plenty of opportunities to have a crafty fag. Jack Dee Live at the Apollo showcases a different comedian each week, with Dee opening and closing the show and then doing his own set to end the six-week run. Guests include Ross Noble, Jo Brand and, to kick off, the equally bony Joan Rivers, who stabs her stilettos into everyone from Joan Collins to Donatella Versace (“she looks like a face you’d hang on a door in Africa”).

Dee seems in a sunny mood, but there is nothing fake in his onstage grumbling about everything from German cars to Branston pickle. “It’s a fair comment to say that I’m a pretty miserable person. Comedians are often caricatures of what they are really like. Tommy Cooper was probably something like his stage self, but you’d be appalled if he was exactly like that. The secret is finding one area of personality to magnify and manipulate,” he explains.

Given that he has recently dabbled in acting, appearing in everything from Silent Witness to The Deputy, one might have expected his latest vehicle to be a mix of routines and sketches. This was not even considered. “The idea came about when I was thinking that British TV has never had the equivalent of America’s HBO Specials,” Dee says. “There are lots of acts that can do justice to that kind of show.”

The recent history of television stand-up has been a precarious one. Most shows fail, believes Dee, by being shot in arid studios, with absolutely no atmosphere. “Producers say: ‘Let’s get stand-ups who spend their entire working lives in clubs and film them in a bus depot with the audience drifting from one stage to another.’ You have to be slightly respectful of where comedy comes from. You lose something by not having it in a huge arena. You need a big room with a big audience to have a sense of occasion.”

A light dusting of celebrity punters at the old Hammersmith Odeon adds a frisson of Heat, too. Liam Gallagher and Steve Redgrave get gently mocked, while Ross Noble sat in the stalls for another gig, although when the shows were being edited he ended up being in his own crowd. “I know Ross is surreal, but that’s stretching it,” says Dee.

Since he won Celebrity Big Brother in 2001, Dee has simply continued his gentle upwards trajectory. “I’m glad you said that because a lot of people have suggested that Big Brother was a career move. I accept that it exposed me to a lot of people, but I don’t think I’m working more. I had a pretty full diary before I went in.”

Comedians do thrive on those vérité variants. Rhona Cameron and Al Murray have been embraced too, maybe because they are such a fascinatingly strange breed. “I’ve never met a normal comedian,” asserts Dee. “Try inviting a comedian to dinner — they don’t know what time to turn up or the form, apart from me of course. I’m a gentleman, the rest are common and working class.”

It would have been fun to see Dee back in Hell’s Kitchen, given that before he walked into the Comedy Store in 1987 and saw the light he toiled in restaurants. “I’d love to work with Gordon Ramsay because I’ve dealt with chefs like that. I lied my way into the Ritz by claiming that I was trained. I had six months with a chef who threw everything I made on the floor, so I could have handled it.”

In the future Dee plans to juggle stand-up and acting. He has just shot a Simon Nye comedy-drama entitled Tunnel of Love, about a travelling funfair, and Spivs, in which he plays a naive property developer who gets out of his depth with the Russian mob, opens later this month. He gets endless offers, but tries to choose wisely. “I’m always being asked to do the maverick cop number. I look at the script and if a vintage car crops up by page eight I won’t read on.”

The new thin Dee as Inspector Morse? Fat chance.

 

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