Laughing is more relevant than ever, says UK comedian Jack Dee ahead of Dubai show

Dee airs his views on the importance of comedy during tough times, a multi-cultural audience, cancel culture, and more.

Photo: Supplied
Photo: Supplied

Enid Grace Parker

Published: Wed 12 Jan 2022, 1:10 PM

Last updated: Wed 12 Jan 2022, 3:34 PM

In this time of the pandemic and all its issues, who wouldn’t welcome the chance (now more than ever) to take some time out from the worries of daily life, and enjoy a truly great comedy show?

British comedian Jack Dee, famous for his ‘grumpy’ routine, is heading back to Dubai after over six years, to bring us some much-needed laughs.

Veteran act Dee - star of sitcoms like Bad Move and Lead Balloon - is performing a headline show at Dubai Opera on January 19, part of his ‘Off The Telly’ International Tour.

The stand-up star, actor, presenter and writer renowned for his deadpan humour and sarcasm, is excited to be performing in Dubai again and looks forward to hearing “laughter through the masks”, he told City Times in a Zoom conversation.

He beckoned UAE fans to “come out and have a great time”, adding that it was “always a privilege to play in different countries and different cultures”.

Dee, who also hosts the BBC Radio 4 show I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue and presents TV comedy shows like Live At The Apollo and ITV’s Saturday Night, spoke to us about the importance of laughter during tough times, the dangers of growing ‘cancel culture’ in the arts, his new book What Is Your Problem - written during the lockdown, and more.

Firstly, how do you feel about heading back to Dubai (as part of your Off The Telly international tour), over six years after your last performance here?

It’s very exciting. I’m looking forward to seeing how much it’s changed and progressed in those six years, because it’s such a rapidly growing place.

When I was there last I remember seeing such a lot of building work going on, and thinking this place is going to be incredible in a few years’ time.

And at the moment in Britain they are playing a documentary series about Dubai, and I hardly recognise it! It’s absolutely incredible.

So I’m excited to be coming back to see it again.

People here in the UAE as well as all over the world have been through a tough time because of the pandemic. Do you feel comedy is more relevant than ever now, to give people a break from their lives with some laughs?

Well, I think laughing is more relevant than ever, and we deal with the hardships and difficulties in that way and I certainly don’t think it’s corny to say that you do need to be able to laugh at these things.

I think laughter is a really healthy way of processing some of the darker stuff that goes on in our life; the fear of illness and losing people and stuff like that is also stuff that you can look at from a different angle and I suppose that’s where we come in, as comedians.

Dubai has a very multi-cultural audience with nationalities from across the world - does performing in cities like this make the job of a comedian more challenging?

Essentially with anyone coming from another country and doing stand-up comedy, I think there would be a lot of expats in the audience; there were last time.

What they’re going to enjoy or not enjoy, is the performer and the performance. Inevitably there might be references that don’t go quite so well with some parts of the audience as they do with others. That’s always going to be the case and that dynamic is exaggerated when you come to an audience like you’ll get in Dubai, I think.

But I think basically they’ll either get me or they won’t, and that’s the only challenge. I will probably discover as I go through a few things that maybe don’t work quite so well and I wish I’d had four or five nights in Dubai to really hone it.

But there’s something exciting about coming out and just actually having to be thrown in at the deep end and go for it.

You’ve been part of British sitcoms as well as television and radio shows but is there something special and different about doing live stand-up comedy? What is it about this that appeals to you most?

I suppose the thing about live is it is such an immediate response. You think up something on the way to the theatre and then you can open your show with it, and you’ll immediately know whether it works or not.

Whereas with a sitcom, if you’re in it or indeed even if you’ve written the sitcom, which I’ve done a lot of as well, you often don’t know if it’s worked, for months and months! And then bits of it work better than other bits, and you wish you’d done it a different way and it’s really quite frustrating sometimes.

So I suppose it’s the immediacy of it that’s really great about the live thing, but at the same time it’s very ephemeral, it’s there and gone, so you’ll never see that moment again, you know? Whereas if you’ve recorded something on television, a sitcom or something, it’s there forever.

You’ve been doing comedy gigs since the 80s, but do you still have fears when you go up on stage? How do you deal with them?

I suppose you learn to manage fear, when you do this for a living. You manage your stress and anxiety and you learn a way of channeling that into being very focused, and not allowing the fear to govern the performance.

I always find that if I have stage fright and am very nervous, I tend to go even deeper into what I’m intending to do, and I get on stage and really have a little plan, especially for the first four or five minutes of being on stage.

And then it will start to open up. The important thing is that you rediscover the show every night for yourself, otherwise it won’t work; you won’t be able to do it properly.

Do you ever go through your own shows and do a kind of post-mortem? How self-critical are you?

Well, I am! It’s interesting, especially when I’m writing a show, developing it, which can take, you know, a few months. I will go through that process of recording myself every night and then have a listen to it in the car on the way home, or on my way to the next gig.

And just analysing it to that extent and seeing what was working, what wasn’t working. Very often, it’s a technical thing - I’m just talking too fast, that’s why it didn’t work as well as it should have done. So I’ll slow down.

So these things are quite useful, and I think it’s an important part of it, to be fairly self-analytical, but at the same time, you don’t want to overdo that either, otherwise it starts to feel like you become too prescribed, and it becomes too much of a recital.

And that I think is not what the audience wants. The audience wants to be at something which is spontaneous as well.

Comedy is something that continues to evolve whether in stand-up or television or films - but today a lot of stuff from years ago has come under scrutiny for material which some people deem offensive. What are your thoughts on “cancel culture” and the lack of debate now?

I think ‘lack of debate’ is absolutely key to it, and until both sides of any argument actually sit down with willingness to listen and see if there’s common ground first of all, I don’t see it really improving.

And it is sad to see this kind of censorship creeping in, in some areas of comedy and the arts, generally. I think it can only be a bad thing, and one of the things that’s really bad and dangerous about it is that it pushes people away from that place where they could actually stop and listen because you’ve been told ‘you can’t say that’, and you know, ‘you’re this kind of person for saying it’.

Once you’ve been told that, then you stop listening! And we all owe it to each other to listen to each other, whatever you’ve got to say. That’s how you learn, that’s how you develop; I try to be open-minded, and I’m open to the idea of changing and improving what I do, because I don’t want anyone in my audience to feel excluded, but at the same time, I want them to hear what I’ve got to say without becoming hysterical in the wrong way.

Who are some of the comedians whose work you admire?

There are so many! I always was a great fan of Richard Pryor, Billy Connolly, Dave Allen. A lot of other American comedians as well, like Bob Newhart, going back some. And there are a lot of contemporary American comedians that I think are fantastic. In Britain, we’re very, very lucky with some amazing comedians, so I feel I’m in good company. I don’t have to look very far to find comedians that I really enjoy listening to and watching.

So I think it’s a very, kind of, healthy art form at the moment. I genuinely think it’s in a good place, actually.

As someone for whom humour is a profession, how much is it part of your daily life and how does it help you deal with life and difficult situations personally?

It’s interesting, because I think that comedy can help anyone. I think sitting back and taking a perspective on life is always going to be useful, and sometimes, the perspective of humour is very helpful.

It’s a perfectly good way of processing difficult emotions sometimes. Most people will relate to the idea of being in a bad place, and then they go and have coffee with a friend, and the friend makes them laugh at what they are going through.

And you think, ‘it’s done me good talking to you because I’ve been able to laugh at this’ - and you feel better, you feel rejuvenated.

I think laugher can do that for us; I think comedy can do it - that’s part of its function, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. Often when we’re laughing at things that may be inappropriate to laugh about, what we’re doing is something that is perfectly good and healthy, and useful to our lives.

Coming back to the pandemic, during the lockdown you wrote a book called What Is Your Problem which basically spoofs psychotherapy. In this time where almost everyone is talking about or indulging in self-help, what kind of research went into the book and what inspired you to write it?

Well research, first of all, none whatsoever! That’s not quite true - I read a lot of agony aunt and agony uncle pages, and I read that kind of self-help book anyway, just because I like the whole idiom of that language.

But I was amused by the idea that some people who qualify late in life as psychotherapists and you haven’t seen them for a few years, you say ‘what are you up to’, ‘oh, I’m a psychotherapist’.

And usually they’re the most scr**ed up people you can ever think of! And you think, well, if you can be a psychotherapist, I give up, because you should be going to a therapist rather than becoming one.

So part of the book is taking a position on that, and another part of the book is inviting people to look at their own situations from a different angle.

Tickets for Jack Dee - Off The Telly at Dubai Opera are available on Platinumlist, Dubai Opera and Virgin Megastore priced from Dh195

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