The comedian and author on his new book spoofing psychotherapy, his recipe for a long-lasting marriage and why it’s important to self-criticise
Jack Dee is one of the nation’s most successful comedians, beloved for his deadpan delivery and sourpuss visage. Last year, while the rest of us were muddling through lockdown baking sourdough and growing our own veg, Dee wrote a book. In What Is Your Problem? Comedy’s Little Ray of Sleet Grapples With Life’s Major Dilemmas, he spoofs the psychotherapy profession, setting himself up as an agony uncle bolstered by four hours of online study at the Ruislip College of Advansed (sic) Learning. It’s funny, sharp and occasionally spot-on.
Did writing a book feel different to writing a show?
It’s more disciplined. In a live format, you have such instant feedback, you know what’s working and what isn’t, so you can go off at a tangent. With writing, the reader only has so much patience with that kind of discursive approach.
Would you ever write a novel?
Possibly. I became very interested in the alter ego that emerged right at the beginning [of this book]. That was what was tickling me all the way through – he’s this absurd charlatan, frankly. I think that could have some mileage in the future.
Did you do much research?
I’ve always read a lot of self-help books and been interested in those quick-fix offerings I describe as philosophy-lite. The first I ever read was Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled and People of the Lie – maybe more psychology than self-help but nonetheless transformative. Probably the most recent great one I read is 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B Peterson. However, the trashier end of the market holds an even bigger fascination. The ones you get at airports and railway stations with titles like How to Make People Like You and Failure Is the Best Kind of Success. “Crisis buys”, I call them. I did read a lot of agony pages as well, partly because I’m interested in the language.
What’s the most genuinely useful self-help advice you’ve come across?
The surprising answer is that as a child I went to quite a religious Church of England school and we had proper scripture lessons. As I’ve got older, I appreciate that there’s a richness there that can inform your life enormously. Treating people as you’d be treated, trying to love your neighbours if not like them – those things are quite powerful if you let them be.
And you flirted with actually becoming a priest?
Yes. I was trying to answer a calling that I mistook for all kinds of things – acting, social work, briefly the priesthood. When I discovered standup comedy, I realised it had elements of many of those things and also spoke to a lot of the writing I’d always done.
Have you ever been in therapy?
I did do hypnotherapy. Having not smoked for 25 years, very stupidly I accepted a real cigarette on set and it took me two years to give up again. The hypnotherapist was incredibly helpful and a hugely bright and insightful person. That’s what makes me a little supercilious when people say: “I’m retraining as a counsellor” – because I’ve known such a good one, I know it’s not just a question of doing a course. Also, the people who do that tend to be the most fucked-up people you know.
The book’s dedicated to Jane, whom you married in 1989. Any tips on staying happily wed?
You’ve got to be nice to each other and allow a little bit of selflessness and a little bit of co-dependency in. Everyone raves about the importance of being independent; actually, it’s much more mature to learn co-dependency and trust someone fully. Once you get there, a little bit of magic can come into the relationship; it becomes more than the sum of its parts. That’s a real blessing.
You’ve been making people laugh for more than three decades. Have we become more earnest as a culture?
I think comedy is suffering from the death of debate. You can’t disagree without there being in some cases incredibly serious repercussions for you personally and that is obviously harmful for everyone in society.
Do you self-censor in your standup?
I self-criticise and it’s important that I do. Really, the only rule of thumb I go by is if I’m going to say something about someone, would I still say that if they were in the audience? A lot of the noise around these issues has its source in people wanting to be included and I don’t want my comedy to say: “I want everyone to enjoy it apart from you, because actually you’re the butt of the joke today.” You become the butt of the joke if you’re bullying, as far as I’m concerned – then the gloves are off and you can suck it up.
Is depression something you still struggle with?
Less and less so, luckily.
What was the last great book you read?
I think good reading is a talent and I’m a mediocre reader – I read all the time but I’m slow, so it needs to be something that’s going to really, really hold my attention. The last one that did that for me was Stoner by John Williams. I can’t remember why I picked it up but it was absolutely absorbing.
What are you reading at the moment?
I cheat and listen to audiobooks. It’s a chance to “read” some of those books I always claim to have read or at least finish them. I’ve listened to Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn… At the moment, I’m listening to Nineteen Eighty-Four again because it’s so relevant.
Who is the funniest author you’ve read?
I tend to avoid comedy writing because I don’t want what I do to be contaminated with anything else, but I do like David Sedaris. Everything he writes is so infused with that attitude he has and that’s what you have to do with standup as well. You’re not trying to come up with individual sentences or paragraphs or gags – you’re creating a universe and drawing people into it.
Do you have a favourite genre?
I love spy novels. Anything by le Carré or Charles Cumming. They’re observational and the narration is very detailed on a psychological level. They’re also gripping without being crime novels, which are always so disgusting to read. I don’t mind if some East German spy gets shot before I go to sleep but I really get upset reading stuff that’s too gruesome.
Who’s your favourite literary hero?
George Smiley, which is unlikely because he’s an old duffer and says very little, but he’s a thinker and plods his way towards a solution each time. He’s cool as well, in his own way.
What Is Your Problem? by Jack Dee is published by Quercus (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply