Entertainment

10-year journey: Jack Whitehall on telling jokes in the university union bar to selling out arenas

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Matt Blake
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Jack Whitehall

In the space of 10 years, Jack Whitehall has gone from a posh teenager telling jokes in his university union bar to arena-filling comic, actor and TV presenter. Maybe he should have told that to Steven Seagal

If I could distil the past 10 years into a single phrase, it’d be: ‘shits and giggles’. It’s been a great ride – definitely more giggles than shits. But some shits, too, I guess. That’s comedy.

Perhaps the worst show I ever did was my first. I was 17, in a comedy show at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival in a venue that’s now a disabled toilet, which is telling. The opening line of the review I remember best was, “The only good thing about this show is the colour scheme.” He said I was, at best, doing an impression of what I thought a stand-up was, and the sketches were rip-offs of Not The Nine O’Clock News. Which they were, to be fair.

The reviews were bad, but I got the bug. I started doing low-level gigs in Manchester where I was studying history of art. At first, I didn’t know what my voice was. I’d try out loads of angles and voices, but it never worked; nothing was coherent. Then I realised: I needed a shtick.

That’s where the privileged thing crept in. I started playing someone who is higher status – playing up to Britain’s obsession with class, but undercutting it with self-deprecation. I realised I was doing something different from other stand-ups.

I spent my first big pay cheque on a high-powered crossbow and a double-handed broadsword. I’d done my first weekend at The Comedy Store and got paid £600 in cash. So my mate Marcus and I got horrendously pissed and bought the crossbow and sword. We spent the night play-fighting and shooting arrows into a mattress we’d found. It seemed a good idea at the time.

The moment I thought, ‘I’ve made it!’ was my first gig at the Hammersmith Apollo. Three thousand people, my name in huge letters outside. That was exciting. Fuck, seeing my name in lights still gives me a tingle.

I do sometimes wonder how I got here. I guess it’s bloody-minded drive and ambition that’s kept me going. I’ve got a lot of that. It drowns out the self-doubt.

My lowest point was after a gig in Milton Keynes in 2009. Another comedian said he’d drive me home, but left before I’d finished my set, the bastard. I remember standing in a layby in the dark as I rang my mum to borrow money for a Travelodge. I had a little cry and asked her why I was doing this. My dad was in the background going, “No, no, make him stop!” But she talked me off the ledge.

Jack Whitehall

Jack with his dad Michael

My worst review, though, came on a plane to America. I noticed the man in front was watching my stand-up on the in-flight entertainment system. Then I watched him turn it off and put on the in-flight map. That’s the worst review you can get – you’d rather watch an animated plane for four hours than me.

Steven Seagal pushed me into a pond in Bangkok this year. My dad and I bumped into him in our hotel while filming my new Netflix show, Travels With My Father, and I had to ask him what was the essence of Zen. Without a word, he grabbed me, threw me in a water feature and walked off. Apparently that was his answer. A career highlight or lowlight? I’m not quite sure.

Comedy’s changed hugely in the past 10 years. For one, audiences are more savvy than they used to be because there’s so much of it on TV. It makes audiences tougher, which is good because it keeps you sharp. And honest.

Word is, comedy is about to go bust. It had a boom in the Eighties and then flatlined. People stopped watching. Then another boom in the Noughties and we’ve been riding that wave since. My advice is get in quickly, because the smart people are saying it might all be about to disappear.

Certainly the routes to becoming a household name are changing, too. In the old days – ha, the old days! – you could do a good set at Live At The Apollo and be booked for a tour. Now, not only is it all over the TV, but there are more comedians to contend with. I feel for anyone starting out now.

The next 10 years will include a breakdown, then rehab, followed by an aborted attempt to break America. Quit comedy. Take it up again. Do Hamlet. Yup, that’s the plan: I think we need another posh white man to play Hamlet.

The truth is, I want to be an actor. But you don’t know how far you can push it. If I did Shakespeare, people will just say, “C’mon, Jack, what are you doing?” No, no.

You need to take baby steps. Teeny, tiny baby steps.

Travels With My Father is available on Netflix now

(Photography: Tom Barnes/body images: Rex)