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Jack Dee

Later (July 2001)

PICTURE the scene. It’s the affluent late Eighties and you’ve decided to take your new girlfriend out for a meal. You pick somewhere expensive, in Covent Garden maybe or one of the chrome and polished glass places in Fulham, just to be sure of making the right impression. You walk in, designer suit freshly dry cleaned, classy lady on your arm, and the first person you run into is Jack Dee. The only problem is, Jack’s a few years away yet from becoming the nation’s favourite sardonic funnyman, the comedian with a permanent frown who’s always got a bad word to say about something. Jack is your waiter.

“Being a waiter is an endless cycle of setting tables and serving people, so inevitably you get bored and frustrated,” Jack smirks, mischievously. “So if someone is a pain in the neck, you start messing around. I’d deliberately give people what they hadn’t ordered, just to convince them they’d made the mistake instead of me. Just absolute bloody mindedness. One guy wouldn’t look at me and just asked for the manager. Which, for me, was too much to bear. So I thought ‘I’ve got you, you fuck’. They ordered salmon and I told the chef ‘he wants his heavily laced with garlic’. It pleases me that I did that.”

You’d think Jack would have calmed down a little once he graduated up to restaurant manager, but if anything he got worse. He remembers “doing a Basil Fawlty” and telling a customer “I’m sorry we don’t serve second cups of coffee”. And he even came close to putting one poor bloke in hospital.

“A guy asked for a fingerbowl and I just forgot,” Jack says sheepishly. “So he said (irritated whiney posh voice) ‘can we <I>please<I> have a fingerbowl?’ By then I was busy with another table and he got all shitty with me and said he’d write to the owner. So I just thought ‘fuck you’. I got a bowl of water, stuck it in the microwave and put it on turbo, so this water was fizzing when it came out. Just evil, a terrible thing to have done. I put a piece of lemon in it which was practically cooked by the time it got to the table and as I put it down, he plunged his fingers into it and screamed. ”

Jack managed to talk the guy out of calling the police, but this incident made one thing very clear. He had a talent - a vindictive, merciless and cruelly hilarious talent, sure, but a talent nonetheless. And he was letting it go to waste.

THE first time Jack discovered he had a knack for wringing laughs out of ritual humiliation, he was at school in Winchester. Most stand-ups say they turned to humour win over the classroom bullies, but Jack was different. He wasn’t a victim, he was one of the tough nuts. And he wouldn’t pick on the nerds who had coughing fits during games. He went for the teachers.

“I spent my schooldays answering back to teachers and being cocky,” Jack remembers, sipping tea in a restaurant in Soho. “I always had a wisecrack remark for the teacher. I was in a class of my own. A very small class.”

It must have won you respect.

“It did,” Jack nods. “One teacher said to a kid called Mann, ‘what kind of a name is Mann anyway?’ and I said ‘he’s more of a man than you’ll ever be’. Which is bold when you’re 13. I’d make irritating remarks as well. One teacher used the phrase ‘any port in a storm’, and I said ‘why is that? Is it because if there is a storm you’d like to drink any type of port regardless of its quality?’, and before I ended the sentence I was outside. Looking through the glass door at my classmates.”

Jack had been working in the restaurant trade for eight long years when a friend suggested he put his barbed sense of humour to good use and try stand-up. “It all came quite easy the first time. And then I starting thinking about it too much and that undid the whole thing. I got into thinking you had to be really up and say (brightly) ‘hiiiiii!’ and it was a terrible strain.” Depressed and disheartened, Jack decided to give up, but not before he’d honoured his final bookings. “Knowing I was going to give up, I didn’t care any more. I used to walk on and say ‘hi, good to be here! What a great club this is!’, and I just did it deadpan. And people started to laugh.”

Three years of doling out vicious attacks in the name of humour followed and in 1991, Jack was nominated for the Perrier Award.

“It boiled down to me, Frank Skinner and Eddie Izzard and Frank won. I really thought it should have been me,” he recounts with an embarassed laugh. “No ‘well done Frank’ type sentiments going on at all.”

Jack was offered a TV series anyway and a year later he was on Channel 4 with “The Jack Dee Show”. Comedy was the new rock’n’roll, after all.

“It was and I like to think of myself as the new easy listening section. I was never comfortable with the rock’n’roll comparison. Because good comedy has to have a sense of its own absurdity and rock’n’roll often doesn’t.”

IF there’s one thing that’s kept Jack both sane and credible through his career as a “showbiz personality”, it’s been this acute sense of his own absurdity. From the moment a producer suggested his TV show should be set “at a bus shelter, and the Krankies should come on”, right through to his recent brushes with vanity, pomposity and Chris Eubank on “Celebrity Big Brother”, he’s been the normal bloke struggling for a bit of common sense in a ludicrous world. A man, crucially, you can trust.

Which is why when talk shifts to the John Smiths telly adverts that turned Jack Dee from a cult figure to a household name (with a little help from some dancing penguins and a pub “they” put in afterwards), you get the one thing that Jack’s former employers in the brewing industry fear most: the truth.

“I was offered a load of free John Smiths. I didn’t really want it, though,” Jack shrugs. “I don’t like it very much. It’s not very good beer. It’s got no character, there’s no body to it, it’s just watery. And I quite like bitter.”

Jack pauses to allow himself a small wicked grin.

“So, yes, I lied about that. But it is a nice house.”

You must have done a lot of soul searching before you took that job.

“I agonised,” he smiles. “I agonised for minutes.”

You’ve been replaced by a cardboard cut out now, of course.

“That’s right. The cardboard cut out has a very nice house as well now, I believe.”

Jack’s proclaimed himself as “the hard man of comedy” in the John Smiths ads, but a sharp suit and deep frown aside he’s never seemed that tough.

“I’m not a hard man, no. I deplore fighting and oafishness and laddishness. I don’t like it when I see it in other people and when I see it in myself.”

When were you last in a fight?

“I got into a scuffle with [TV critic] Victor Lewis-Smith outside the Groucho club. It’s not a thing I’m proud of. I’ve never seen him since but when I see him I’ll say sorry. Something he’d written had upset a very close friend and I’d drunk too much and I became aggressive and took a swing at him. I was just becoming indignant for the sake of it and getting on my high horse.”

Have you ever been arrested?

“No. I came near when I was a teenager. I was 17 and staggering home pissed and a policeman pulled up in his car. I came over and put my hand through the window and snubbed his nose, going ‘you’re a great bloke’. He let it go, which is fortunate.”

Jack went through a period in his mid twenties of drinking regularly that he now laughs off as his “my booze hell” period. The frustration of being stuck in a job he hated takes some of the blame, but there was a deeper cause as well.

“I always had this sense in my life that I was on the wrong train and didn’t know where to get off or didn’t know which direction I should be going in. And so I comforted myself with drinking. Using something to excess is part of growing up. I think it’s a good lesson to learn. Now I just drink a bit.”

When was the last time you blacked out drunk?

“I’ve had a couple of occasions where I’ve wondered how I got home. I can’t remember what the taxi was or any of that. I hate that. It’s a horrible thing when you can’t quite remember who you saw last before you got to bed.”

HIS marriage to his wife Jane (the woman he shouted his love for on “Celebrity Big Brother” and ran to hug when Anthea Turner was leaving the house - the one thing almost certainly secured his victory) and the birth of his four children (Hattie,8, Phoebe, 6, and twins Miles and Charlie, both 2), helped Jack calm down a lot. But it took a few years of travelling the world as a comedian before he felt entirely comfortable with what he was doing.

“The first time I played in Canada was in front of three thousand people at a comedy festival,” he says. “And I was so nervous I couldn’t move my hands, they were stuck in my pockets. I had to do the whole gig with a microphone in the stand, just stood there, and funnily enough everyone said afterwards ‘that was a good idea, just standing there with your hands in your pockets’.”

Jerry Sadowitz was punched out during a show in Canada for shouting “good evening moosefuckers”. Anything like that ever happened to you?

“Not really. I did a gig in the middle of nowhere in Australia. It was an outback place and all these guys had turned up in their four wheel drives to this bar with a corrugated roof and no one laughed throughout the gig. This bloke came up afterwards and said ‘good on you mate, bloody funny’ and I said ‘but no one laughed’, and he said ‘oh no, we don’t laugh here. Because if we laugh, you can’t hear if it starts raining and we don’t know then we can’t get home’. If it starts raining, they get in their cars and they’re gone.”

What’s the weirdest gig you’ve played?

“At a club in Stockholm called Schtandupcomedyclubben. It was on a big ship where Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip had their honeymoon night and I was brought over by some drama students who said they were excited by ‘alternative comedy’. I was really nervous because the first comedians did their set in Swedish and everyone loved it, so the MC said ‘don’t worry, I’ll do my bit in English to get them used to it’. And he went on and said ‘don’t you hate the way all the blackies hang around the docks?’, and the audience went mad. This young, hip looking audience had completely missed the point.”

NOWADAYS, when he isn’t making fuzzy felt pictures for charity or trying his hand at serious acting in the likes of “Art” and “Silent Witness”, Jack makes a healthy living out of hosting corporate events. He says he enjoys the challenge of writing fresh material for the occasion, something which he repeats when talking about the second series of “Jack Dee’s Happy Hour”, which comes back to BBC1 in May. But what clearly also appeals to him is the chance to savour some pure grain, off-the-scale absurdity in a world away from the public gaze.

“I’ve had some great ones where the organisers say ‘you mustn’t mention this and this’, and I construct the whole gig on that, talk about all of those things, and everyone pisses themselves. And the same guys say ‘brilliant, just want we wanted’. I hosted the Fashion Awards and I had one joke about Marks And Spencers that was causing the organisers to walk around with wet trousers, so I had to drop it. It was ‘Marks And Spencers are going through a bad time with their fashion. Even their mannequins are wearing Gap’. But I got in another crack at Marks And Spencers and that went down well.”

Has anything gone disastrously wrong at one of these events?

“I did an awful gig for a printing company and I offended the chairman. The whole audience looked at the chairman’s table first and he wasn’t laughing, so it all went a bit dead. The next gag didn’t work and there was a bit of an atmosphere and the chairman just got up, put his napkin down and walked out. Then I stupidly made a joke about Frank Bruno, forgetting he was backstage about to come out and do the prize raffle. I ended up walking off another wing so I didn’t have to go past him.”

At that point, a friend accosts Jack and they start chatting about the previous night where they attended the recording of “This Is Your Life” for Jonathan Ross. In 24 hours, he’ll enter the “Celebrity Big Brother” house and lose the plot in such a spectacularly hilarious fashion he’ll be voted outright winner. Does he ever think that his life might be a little. . . absurd?

“Yes, it is,” he admits, smiling. “I often think this is very strange, it’s very unusual to be living like this. And it’s funny because normality starts to creep into those situations and you think ‘oh this is boring, I’ve got to do another fuzzy felt picture before I meet Mark Lamarr to plan this’. It’s silly because I should be pleased. But, to some extent, I relish all those little experiences where you can do things and just have little anecdotes. I like that your life can hop from one thing to another.”

And with that he jumps in a waiting car, back home to spend one last night with his wife and family, and pack his suitcase for the strangest experience of his life.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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