Cheer up

Jack Dee is back with Lead Balloon but what will it take for him to cheer up?

Rick Spleen is a ‘what-if version of me’, says Jack Dee. Well what if we made it our mission to cheer him up?

There’s a dark cloud approaching … oh, and the weather doesn’t look too great either. The cloud in question is Jack Dee, comedy’s most lovable grump, who has agreed to let the Guardian and its very own crack team of happiness experts spend the day trying to cheer him up. Of course, when we say “crack team of happiness experts” what we actually mean is a journalist with a ticket for the duck bus.

The plan is as follows. We’ll board the London Duck Tour‘s amphibious vehicle at Waterloo station and travel by land and sea (well, the Thames) through the capital while bringing joy and happiness into Jack’s gloomy world. Along the way we might even chat about Lead Balloon (Dee’s sitcom is back for a fourth and final series) and Jack’s status as a bit of a Brit comedy icon.

“Now, you might have noticed that this bus has a name – Rosalind,” announces, Craig, our tour guide for the day, as the Duck Tour driver revs the engine. “All of our buses are named after heroines from Shakespeare’s plays. This one was originally going to be called Ophelia but if you’ve read Hamlet you’ll know she drowned at the end, so it’s probably a good idea we didn’t go with that.”

Dee grimaces. It’s hard to know whether the scowl is put on for the benefit of the Guardian’s photographer or if he really is finding Craig’s procession of rapid-fire punchlines so awful. Either way, I decide not to attempt my own pack of pre-prepared gags and settle into a more traditional interviewer’s role. So, Jack: when were you last this excited about something?

“Well, I don’t ever get excited,” he says. “I haven’t been excited since I got a Chopper bicycle when I was about 12. Once you get older you realise there’s always a catch to everything. So when I get, say, a commission to make a TV show, the catch is that you have to deliver something and then the sense of responsibility overwhelms the joy of the occasion.” Hmm … this assignment might be tougher than we first thought.

It swiftly becomes apparent, however, that Jack’s at his most animated when discussing his work. In fact, Lead Balloon is a sitcom based around work, or rather, the work that Jack would be doing (advertising shoe polish, hosting the budget channel) had his career not turned out quite so rosily. “My character, Rick Spleen, is a what-if version of me, really,” he explains. “Where nothing did quite turn out right and everything else is still around the corner.”

‘I used to love whizzing around on my motorbike from the Comedy Store to Jongleurs and then back to the Comedy Store, with maybe a show in between’

Jack Dee CraigJack Dee and tour guide, Craig. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Were this Duck Tour to pass the landmarks of Jack Dee’s career, rather than some posh buildings and a big clock, its route wouldn’t be markedly different. Just up the road in Soho, for instance, is the Comedy Store where Jack first cut his teeth, appearing for the first time in 1986 at an open-mic night without bothering to go to the lengths of actually writing any jokes.

“It should have been a disaster,” he admits. “But it went well. And that whole period of my life actually had a really good feel to it. I loved the weekends, where I would be playing 10 or even 12 gigs. Whizzing around on my motorbike from the Comedy Store to Jongleurs and then back to the Comedy Store, with maybe a show in between.”

He pops his head out of the bus and points: “Of course, I used to work up there as well, at the Ritz.” He did, too, after fibbing his way into the kitchens. “I was washing lettuce mostly,” he recalls. “Then, after a few weeks, just as I was getting the hang of everything, they realised I didn’t actually know what I was doing so they put me on nights, just making sure stock pots didn’t boil over, until these black Jehovah’s Witnesses would come in and cook all the breakfasts. That was strange; they’d bring copies of Watchtower with them and try and convert me.”

It was a few streets further east, however, while managing a pizza parlour in Covent Garden, that Jack fell out of love with the restaurant trade. “I’d be drinking enormous amounts of wine to get myself through it. Pints of red wine – a really harsh, cheap Lambrusco or something, topped up with a dash of soda to make it drinkable. The barman would keep filling me up so I never knew how much I was drinking. My teeth were stained red by the time I left that job. That’s not a good combo, is it? Looking after the general public when you’re half cut …”

Did he get into trouble? “I was always lying to the customers – telling them we had arrangements with other restaurants in the area that meant they had to go elsewhere if they wanted to drink a second cup of coffee. The waiters and waitresses all loved me because I was helping clear the place out.”

Surely people must have complained? “The letters started coming in but because I was a trainee manager I would get in early and intercept them. Anything that looked vaguely handwritten would go straight in the bin.”

‘I’m part of a tradition of people who aren’t pleased. Anyone else who has the same attitude, I just think they’re … sensible’

Jack DeePhotograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Communication these days is similarly one-way. Jack’s taken to Twitter, although admits to using it only for “self-serving” purposes. In between plugs for his recent work and lengthy rants about a malfunctioning American-made fridge – an ongoing drama – he posts the occasional cracking one-liner. Does he worry that the internet means his jokes will all get pinched the minute they’re posted?

“Yeah,” he says. “I used to put good jokes on but now I only put on jokes that I think have no other use. If it could have some life elsewhere I won’t put it on; I don’t think anyone does, really.”

And how’s the fridge? “Not fixed yet. The guy’s coming again on Friday. That will be over a month to get it fixed. Absolute disgrace.”

Our happiness mission is foundering here and maybe that’s for the best. After all we’re currently in a golden era for the professional grump. Does he look at other comically disgruntled middle-aged men – David Mitchell and Charlie Brooker, for instance – and feel they’re stealing his shtick?

“I’m just part of a tradition of people who aren’t pleased,” he says. “I would never think anyone else who has the same attitude was getting it from me. I’d just think they’re … sensible.”

In the past, Jack has used antidepressants to combat his “default setting” of depression but found they made him creatively numb. He is, however, more enthusiastic about hypnotherapy, which he regularly undergoes.

“It brings down the barrier between the conscious and the subconscious and you get to throw little messages over the wall into the deeper psyche … I. Thiiink. Itttt’sss. Reee. Leeey. Grreeaaaatttt.”

Just as he says this, the bus finally jolts into the water. Pootling along beside the houses of parliament, Jack doesn’t have much to say on the current government – political comedy was never a strong suit of his – but he manages to take a typically downbeat view of our current economic plight.

“I’m beginning to think that maybe I was wrong to be so fed up with everything before,” he admits, “because looking back it wasn’t too bad, really. So yeah, I may have been wrong on that. But now? Well, now I’mreally fucked off with things.”

At this point Craig pipes up cheerily: “It’s very important you don’t fall into the Thames as you can easily get pulled under. Did you hear about the guy who drowned in a bowl of muesli? He was swept under by a strong currant!”

Jack’s face is still set to grimace. How does he rate Craig’s patter? “I think he’s doing a really good job, actually. It’s a thankless task trying to sound like you’re not just repeating the same thing over and over but it seems like it’s really natural.”

When we reach the end of the tour, Jack’s happily chatting away with Craig. We might just have succeeded in our task to cheer up Britain’s grumpiest comic. Have you had a nice day, Jack?

He looks around, seemingly trying to work out what qualifies as enjoyment these days.

“Well,” he says, ” … it went on a bit.”