Jack Dee: ‘I’m a positive energy kind of guy’

The comedian on doing standup in prison, his first open mic with Paul Merton and taking I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue on tour

How did you get into standup?
I went to the Comedy Store in Leicester Square one night in 1986 as a punter and felt immediately that this was what I was supposed to be doing. Jeremy Hardy, Paul Merton and John Hegley were on. It felt like this new comedy scene had started without me. It so happened that it was an open mic night, and it sounds mad, but I asked the compere if I could go on. It was a baptism by fire but afterwards they offered me another try-out the following week. And so it began.

You recently made a documentary on Tony Hancock, a comedian who influenced you. Is there someone away from the world of comedy who inspired you?
My grandfather was a keen artist and I remember when I was young, he showed me a painting of a zebra. It was just black stripes on white paper but I remember him saying how much he admired what the artist doesn’t do in order to tell you that it’s a zebra. I’ve always tried to make my standup like that – creating a picture that tells you much more than the words you use.

Where do you find your material?
The best material is when you pull something from thin air and it works with your audience. It’s silly and pointless but for some reason gets a big laugh. You find it by always being available to that moment.

Do you have any pre-show rituals?
Whenever a ritual starts to embed itself, I try to get rid of it before it becomes an obsession. Otherwise you start to attribute success or failure to irrelevances such as the colour of your socks. However, a good routine (slightly different) is essential for efficiently getting your mind into the zone of what you are doing.

Can you recall a gig so bad, it’s now funny?
For reasons that only he can account for, my agent once booked me to do a gig inside Perth prison. The warden cheerfully told us (Sean Hughes and Rob Newman were similarly mystified to find themselves on the bill) that most of the audience were “re-murderers”. This meant, as he explained in his doleful Scottish accent, that they had: “Murdered, done time, got out and murdered again.” And so it was, for our own safety, that the lights had to be on the audience instead of the stage.

Best heckle?
It was at the aforementioned “gig” that I started a tried and tested routine saying, “I was on the bus the other day …” at which point someone from the back shouted “Lucky you!” Tough crowd.

Best advice you’ve ever received?
“I wouldn’t.” (Jane, my wife, when I told her I’d been asked to play Perth prison).

Do you have any regrets?
Not listening to Jane more.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, you’re taking it on a national tour. What can audiences expect?
It’s a greatest hits show so we do many of our favourite gags, rounds and sketches. The material changes from town to town and for me, it’s great because it’s so nice to work with other comedians instead of being a one-man band. The cast includes Rory Bremner, Marcus Brigstocke, Pippa Evans, Tony Hawks and Milton Jones as well as Colin Sell on the piano and of course Samantha who scores every night.

Throughout your career, you’ve done standup, writing, acting, documentary-making and reality TV. What’s next for you?
I’m doing a podcast soon with Seann Walsh called Oh My Dog. Partly because we both have a dog and wanted to explore what that’s all about, but mostly because we felt that there aren’t enough podcasts being made by comedians and we wanted to try to put that right.

Any bugbears from the world of comedy currently?
Not from me. I’m a positive energy kind of guy.

I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue is on tour. Oh My Dog will be available from 6 March on Apple Podcasts.


Interview by Liam Pape

The GuardianTramp

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