Robert Webb: ‘Jokes are important for men – we think we invented them’

The actor and author on his mother’s death, meeting David Mitchell and why being funny is the best way to slide under men’s emotional radar

I meet Robert Webb at Ham – a restaurant named not for any staple piggy fare, but for Anglo-Saxon etymology (“home”). We are, obviously, in north London. In a private attempt to marry the two concepts implied by the name I choose a cooked breakfast, while Webb is seduced by the waitress’s upbeat talk of what varied and happy lives Ham’s chickens have led before finding their way into today’s special. He’s been here a couple of times before with his wife and fellow comedian, Abbie Burdess, and their two young daughters – and more often in a previous incarnation when it was called Brioche, and Bill Nighy was to be seen reading the paper. Today, the hottest April day since Daily Express headlines began, we are surrounded almost exclusively by ladies who brunch. Being blokes, at least in our subterranean lizard brains, we reflexively mumble about whether we would be better off in the moody-looking boozer across the road, before beginning a conversation about masculinity and its discontents, the subject of Webb’s memoir, How Not to be a Boy.

The book started out, he suggests, as a bit of a sociological treatise, with chapters on style magazines and Top Gear. Fortunately he abandoned that and wrote mostly about the two men he probably knew best, at least in his formative years, himself and his father, Paul. The latter was a man’s man, in the sense that once Webb met a stranger in a local bar who confided to him: “If you’re going to Woodhall, look up Paul Webb. You won’t find anyone better for drinking, fucking and fighting.” At the time, Webb was home in Lincolnshire from university at Cambridge where he had become a star turn with Footlights. His parents had divorced after his drunk and violent father had walked out when he was six. He was back living with Paul in the holidays, though, because his mum had died of cancer the year before. In a Footlights pantomime – his first time on stage with David Mitchell – Webb had created a character called Frank Spaniel from Wood Dyke village: “I’m Frank Spaniel and I have three boys and one of them is an actor and a queer but we don’t talk about it …”

Webb’s book explores some of that territory, and its fallout, from a distance, and with the confidence of someone who has spent a couple of decades satirising the male animal in Peep Show and beyond. It is in part a confessional about how man tends to hand on anger to man – Webb details some of his own failures as a husband and a parent, often as a result of drink, and despite his invisible cloak of “sensitivity”. He also ventures some thoughts about how that particular cycle might be broken by a lot more openness, a lot less defensiveness, and some old-fashioned growing up.

“I hope,” he says, “it’s a bit like me saying, ‘Look, I’ve taken my trousers down first and you are allowed to point and giggle if you like, but you know you also have asymmetrical testicles or a birthmark in the shape of Guernsey and this might be an opportunity for you to talk about those things too.’” He is hoping the book finds its way behind the closed bedroom door of the adolescent male. “It’s very nice of course if India Knight calls the book marvellous, but I do get a particular thrill when I hear from young men who don’t read books very often who say, ‘You know, you have changed my mind about a few things …’”

Professional comedians often find it hard to resist a punchline when it comes to writing paragraphs. Webb is not always an exception to this, even in the darker parts of the book about the fear and loneliness he inherited from his relationship with his late father. I wonder how conscious he was of that.

“There were obviously times when I made things funny which didn’t seem funny at the time,” he says. “Sports day wearing girls’ socks for example was mortifying, but you can play that for laughs in retrospect; likewise the live-or-die intensity of teenage crushes. But when I get to telling how my mother died, I think there is a decorum about saying these things clearly. I have had 28 years of getting used to the idea, but there is a sort of duty of care in how you handle that with a reader – the prose has to become straight and honest.”

Isn’t irony, even so, always the default defence mechanism of the British male?

“There is a line. I don’t want men only going around saying exactly what they feel and bursting into tears on everyone. I think jokes are very important in talking to a male audience. Partly because we think we invented them. We own bants. And secondly because men don’t want to listen to another bollocking about what we are like. Comedy is a way of sliding under that radar.”

Ham breakfast and roasted Fosse Meadows chicken breast with Cornish potatoes, chard and aioli, at Ham, north London.
Ham breakfast and roasted Fosse Meadows chicken breast with Cornish potatoes, chard and aioli, at Ham, north London. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

With the arrival of his happy chicken and my more sanguine sausage we talk about the ways in which boys still become boys and girls still become girls. “You can forget about that for a long while after childhood,” Webb suggests, “until you become a dad yourself and you still get these indulgent looks when you walk into Mothercare, and people stop and point and say, ‘Oh my God! Isn’t it amazing, that grown man is in here trying to buy clothes for a baby!’ You realise that the world is still very much set up for your convenience.”

Cooking is something of a case in point. Many men, of course, still can’t stop themselves dramatising their time in front of the hob as a primal act. Webb spent a good deal of his childhood in the kitchen of the golf club in Lincolnshire where his nan and his Aunty Trudy worked, watching them. “Because of that, and because my mum did all the cooking at home, I think I always got it into my head that cooking was a stereotypically female thing.” It wasn’t until he lived with his dad – who surprisingly turned out to be a terrific cook – that he began to change his mind. Still, there was always a justification: his dad used to say that men make the best cooks because they knew how to enjoy food. When Webb started to see men cooking on TV, he saw something of the same line: “TV chefs were all these macho men, who made the kitchen a fantastically aggressive environment. It was like learning that florists were complete bastards, and worked 16-hour shifts: ‘That fucking petunia should never be next to that lily!’”

I wonder what his mother would have thought of his deconstruction of his family life, would she have approved?

“She would have had some reservations in the old-fashioned phrase about washing dirty linen in public,” he says. He suggests he couldn’t have written the book in the way he did if his parents were alive – “Though obviously I wasn’t saying to my dad: ‘I thought you said you had emphysema, get on with it, I’ve got this book to get done.’”

I wonder if he had more sympathy with his old man, once he became a father himself.

“In some ways,” he says, “but when it came to thinking about the physical punishment, that moved me further away from him. By the time I got to know him a bit better as a teenager, he had calmed down and was aware he had fucked things up, and he was quite busily trying to make amends.”

The cliche of the actor, particularly the comic actor, is of someone who hides behind masks because they can’t bear to be themselves. That doesn’t seem to apply to Webb: whether he is playing Jez in Peep Show, or even Bertie Wooster on stage, you always have the sense he has found a way to play a version of who he is. He admits meeting Mitchell at Cambridge was the catalyst in that; if they hadn’t found each other he fears he might have been trying to forge a career in small venues as “your thinking man’s Keith Lemon”.

He is following up his memoir with a novel – “a sort of time-travelling grief-stricken rom com”. “I am used to all kinds of exposure,” he suggests, “but this will be a new one.” He wrote 600 words that morning. He reckons, as we walk out into the sunshine, there might yet be another 300 in him after lunch.

How Not To Be a Boy is out now in paperback (Canongate, £8.99). To order a copy for £7.64, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

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