Jack Dee Interview
Jack Dee discusses bringing his live tour, Off the Telly, back to audiences after it was cut off in its prime when the pandemic hit the UK.
Written by James Rampton.
“It’s been such a surreal journey. I had just got the tour started and was playing to bigger rooms, having spent the past six months travelling around Britain doing church halls and arts centres getting it right. Then the curtain fell on the tour because of lockdown.
“That was annoying. People just don’t think about people like me in the pandemic, do they? It’s all about the doctors and nurses!”
This is typical of Jack’s wonderfully acerbic sense of humour. Specialising in beautifully worked, brilliantly deadpan observational routines and truly memorable one-liners, Jack is a compelling stage presence. His grouchy on-stage demeanour is particularly magnetic. Audiences really relate to Jack’s exasperation with the idiocies of the modern world. He explains, “that persona has always chimed with audiences. People enjoy hearing me articulate things they’d been half-thinking themselves. That’s where the identification comes in.
“My job as a comedian is to locate those things, put them into words and make them funny for people who lead much more productive lives and don’t want to spend time doing that. That’s my silly job!”
After months cooped up at home, we are all desperate for a rollicking good night out, and that’s exactly what Jack provides. “Before I did warmup shows for this tour, I got really excited, but I was also daunted and mildly intimidated. I thought, ‘what am I going back to? Are we all going to be so beaten up by the whole experience of the pandemic that it will be hard to enjoy life again?’”
In the event, however, “people realised very quickly that this is what we need and this is what makes life worth finding vaccines for. Otherwise, if life is going to be rubbish anyway, why bother with a vaccine?’ As soon as I got back on stage, I was immediately re-energised. It was a lovely feeling to be back.”
As human beings, we all thrive on these shared experiences – and we have really missed them. According to Jack, “we get such a strong remedial effect from going out, whether that’s having a drink with friends or being able to see a live show in a theatre or a club.
“That is the lifeblood of what we do. It’s incredibly important and helps us cope with the harder things that are going on in life. We’ve had months of not being able to do that, and the effect has been insidious. It has created a vacuum and the vacuum has been filled with hysteria and panic and less creative solutions to our worries.”
Jack, who was also enjoyed a stellar TV career on programmes such as The Jack Dee Show, Jack Dee’s Saturday Night, Jack Dee’s Happy Hour and Jack Dee Live at the Apollo (“in fact, I’ve probably appeared in every TV show with my name in the title”), outlines what subjects he will be addressing in the new show. “At first I thought everything would need to be seen through the lens of Covid. I was saying to myself, ‘how long is this going to go on for? At this rate, Covid is going to go on longer than one of Robert Preston’s questions!’”
However, Jack carries on, “I was over-thinking things. People are actually more concerned with going out and having a good time. So in the show I make references to Covid – it would be odd not to – but I move on relatively quickly. I am aware that every comedian will have material on Covid and I don’t want to be the guy who overdoes that. At some point, people will think, ‘let’s move on’.”
It is true that comedy is always a tremendous release in such tough times. “It’s been very tragic,” Jack says, “but part of our coping strategy is to be able to pick ourselves up and laugh about it. Comedy is a great way of helping us put things into perspective.
“Comedy can also be a very good thing to help us rebuild and get back to something a bit more normal. There have been some farcical elements in the way Covid has been dealt with, and we owe it to ourselves to look irreverently at those.”
Jack doesn’t feel nervous about the approaching this subject in Off the Telly. “I’m not one for gnawing my nails and trembling about things. If an idea makes me laugh, I’ll share it with the audience, and usually my instincts are right.
“Of course, it’s a global tragedy. But so was the First World War and that didn’t stop us making sitcoms about it. That’s how we are as a species. We are sophisticated enough to take two views at once and know that one doesn’t insult the other.”
Jack, who has also somehow found the time to write a hilarious new book called What Is Your Problem?, will be focusing in Off the Telly on the woefully inadequate way in which the government has handled the pandemic. “It’s very disappointing that we’ve had so many crass examples of hypocrisy. I’m too much of a libertarian not to want politicians to have a private life. But sometimes you think, ‘hang on, this is more important than that. If you’re asking us to do this, you have to do it as well. You have to set an example.’
“So prior to his fall from grace, I found myself defending Matt Hancock who was having to deal with an incredibly difficult situation. But then he goes and breaks the rules by having an affair with his adviser. You think, ‘screw you. How ridiculous that you’re re-enacting a school disco in your office!’”
The comedian is eager to emphasise that he is never preaching to his audience. “It is vital that the audience don’t feel lectured to. I’d be mortified if they ever felt like a worthy point was being made on stage. All I’m doing is sharing what I think, and people are relieved that those doubts and maverick thoughts lurking at the back of their minds are not so unusual and weird.”
Whether something is funny or not takes precedence over all else in Jack’s show. “The audience never misunderstand me. They either find it funny or they don’t. I’ve tried every other way, but I know that if it’s not funny, it’s my fault. It’s not the audience’s fault. I can’t get away from that, and that’s very disappointing!”
Finally, Jack reveals why he has called the show Off the Telly. “The title comes from my disenchantment with the kind of telly I get offered now. I really won’t do anything with ‘Celebrity’ in the title anymore.
“Artists are known for doing things they’re really good at, whereas celebrities are known for doing things they’re really terrible at. They go on Bake Off and make an absolute tit of themselves, and that’s how they make a living.”
Will Jack be appearing in the next run of Celebrity Love Island, then? “Not this season. I’ll let everyone else get buffed up first. I don’t want it to be unfair. Other people have to have time to get fit so they can catch up with me. Otherwise I’d win too easily.”
Jack Dee’s new show Off the Telly is at Leeds Grand Theatre on Sunday 15 May 2022. Book tickets here.