At first glance, these books have an awful lot in common. Indeed, all three might have been produced by the same self-centred chatterbox, so similar is the slightly manic, self-consciously jokey, self-interrupting, lower-middle class vernacular in which they are all written. Fluent, full of ideas and, above all, conversational.
All three authors treat their imaginary readers like members of a live audience. ‘Sorry, I’m rambling,’ confesses Jo Brand at one point. ‘Tear this bit out and use the pages to make paper aeroplanes or something,’ advises Jack Dee at another trick moment. And in his opening remarks, Peter Kay goes right over the top by mysteriously including Jeremy Irons in a list of great comedians of the day, only to add the footnote: ‘Just checking you were paying attention.’
Inevitably, the experiences and tastes of these three ‘much loved’ public figures often overlap. All three of them may not have once driven vans delivering incontinence pads to old age pensioners in Putney (only Jack Dee did this) but they’ve all spent half their life sitting on the M1, they’ve all appeared at the Comedy Store and all three claim to find real life — everything from garlic bread to baggage carousels — much funnier than actual jokes. And, as if to prove their ordinariness, all three drag in the names of hundreds if not thousands of friends with names like Mike, Monica, Dick, Julia, Betty, Brian, Lizzie, Helen, Malcolm, Alice, Stuart, to mention just a few who have helped or hindered them on their way.
As with other outrageously open types, you wonder at times what they’re trying to hide. All three narratives sometimes irked me with their embedded insincerities. Is pudding-loving Jo Brand’s ego really as ‘fragile as an egg shell’? When Peter Kay watches punters arriving for his first TV show, do his nerves really drive him to ‘the edge of insanity’? And did sullen old Jack Dee really spend half the evening of his Comedy Store triumph sitting nervously on the toilet?
Surely not, but these books still have a lot to offer about what Dee calls ‘that strange vortex of arrogance and diffidence that governs the comedian’s psyche’, the thin line between the funny and the dreadfully un-funny, and the wonderful sense of safety an entertainer feels when his act is going well.
And anyway, the comedian’s life is revealed here from several different angles. Jo and Jack’s stories focus on the torture of growing up and the stony paths that led them both eventually to the stage, ending abruptly when they do their first successful auditions. Peter Kay has already covered that ground in his book The Sound of Laughter, which apparently sold a million copies when it came out a few years ago. In this current book, he describes the life that followed being voted Comedian of the Year in 1996, how the gigs came ‘flowing in’, the standing ovations, the ‘fantastic reviews’, doing warm-ups for Parkinson and hundreds of charity shows and corporate events.
In the process, Kay tells us a lot about ‘death trap’ digs which even successful comics have to endure (bare wires everywhere). ‘What it’s like inside the rear quarters of British hotels and conference centres, the semi-clean Portaloos and finally the motorway food they choke down on the way home, cold Ginster’s parties, Dairylea Dippers and as often as not, a king-size Twix.
And, throughout it all, duvet-loving Peter seems to lead a semi-sedate life — he says several times he’s teetotal yet sings the praises of Bailey’s Irish Cream, which I gather is only 17 per cent pure alcohol — doesn’t share any personal problems with us and remains utterly devoted to Bolton, the Lancashire town where he grew up.
In contrast, his colleagues write about their life of failure, parental problems and the amount they drank as they struggled towards the bright lights. Deeply depressed and lonely as hell, Jack Dee attended AA meetings for six years while Jo Brand boasts that she was constantly ‘rat arsed’ and ‘off the wall’. Which makes her common-sense and deadly serious account of working in the emergency clinic at the Maudsley Hospital at the end of these tumultuous years particularly impressive.
And, of course, these ordeals also make their eventual comic breakthroughs even more moving. Jack Dee’s account of his brief but auspicious audition at the Comedy Store — ‘Anyone here from Finland? No? Well that’s my act buggered then’ — is extremely gripping. And so is Jo Brand’s account of her successful debut at a comedy club in New Cross. Violently coughing up fake blood onto her voluminous white T-shirt, she began her act by spluttering, ‘Oh dear, must give up smoking’.
For the inside story of what happens later to this lucky trio, I fear we must wait for their next books. Anyway, all three of these narratives contain intriguing flash-forwards to the author’s present-day life and major or minor events which happen as they toil over these autobiographies. Jo Brand is fairly reticent about her current circumstances but admits in passing that her 2003 ‘makeover’ with Trinny and Sussanah was ‘fucking hilarious’.
Meanwhile, Jack Dee takes time off to rage about a patronising barber he’s had a spat with and mentions the ten sockets now on either side of his desk which enable him to indulge in his passion for electronic gadgetry. And Peter Kay suddenly interrupts his own flow by writing ‘Jesus! I’ve just got a text saying Michael Jackson is dead’ and ends his book by exclaiming even more vociferously, ‘Shit! I’ve left my bath running!’