An Interview with Jack Whitehall
By Emma Cox
As Jack Whitehall’s Sheffield, Leeds and Hull Arena dates on his new ‘Stood Up’ tour near, the comedian talks famous friends, family secrets and finding his true voice…
Why have you decided to tour now?
Well I felt like there had been enough of a gap since the last tour. I’ve been itching to get back on stage and I had some stories in mind so I did a few small gigs and they went well, and it went from there. It’s very hard to quit stand-up. I feel a very strong pull whenever I’ve had a break from it.
What’s this tour about?
As always, I like to have a good intro and a banging ending and some VTs in the middle and really throw everything that I can at the show to make it an amazing experience for everybody. Each tour includes the same elements: a lot of humiliating stories about myself, some jokes, a dodgy impression, and a story about the royal family. I end with one of the most candid and outrageous stories I’ve ever told. It’s about myself, and someone else, who may or may not be my father. It will also feature my most ambitious finale to date. Each time I do a finale I think, ‘How will I top this?’, and on this occasion I think I have achieved that. It’s just the right level to give my tour manager heart palpitations every night. The thing about stand-up is you have to go off in between tours and live your life and build up experiences that you can share on stage. But often if you’re working on sets or films, they’re quite hard places to find material that’s relatable or interesting. But the great thing about this tour is that I’ve spent the last two years with my Dad going off to far-flung places, meeting weird and wonderful people and having quite insane experiences. That’s a great environment for sourcing material.
You’ve had to add dates to meet demand – that must feel pretty good?
Yeah, definitely. Once I’ve written a tour I love doing it as many times as I can, so expanding the show is great. I feel I’ve got a show now which is really good and so I want as many people as possible to see it.
Do you miss stand-up when you’re not doing it?
Yeah, definitely. It’s a hard thing to quit. Being in front of a live audience is really addictive and it’s hard to find that feeling elsewhere. I love them both equally but making TV, you make a show and you spend months or years waiting for it to come out while they edit it. There’s something about comedy where it’s just you and the audience and a microphone, and anything could happen. That’s a very freeing experience.
How scripted is your routine and how much of it is spontaneous?
There’s always a framework and it’s the same basic routine, but I do try and alter it depending on where I am. I always try to do a lot of local stuff and make it different every night, and fill it full of references that that audience are going to get. I like to be loose enough to be reactive to stuff that’s going on in the room. I like to be able to go off-piste and run with it.
You’re playing two or three nights in the same city – does that mean you have a bit of time to explore the area in between performances?
Definitely. I like walking around, talking to people, gauging the city and the atmosphere. Plus it’s nice to not be on the road all the time this time. I travel with my regular team including my tour manager and my warm-up Lloyd Griffith, and we’ve been doing this for a while now so we’re like a little family. I enjoy the experience much more these days than I ever have before.
Should people arrive at your gig in time to see the warm-up, then?
Definitely. Most people know Lloyd through Soccer AM and he’s a really good mate of mine. He did my last tour and I was really keen to get him back for this one. The audience love him. And then we’ve got a few other people popping up in some of the other venues. I like being able to introduce my audiences to some new comedians. I like to put on a whole evening with support acts who are top-level.
What have you got on your rider?
Oh, nothing. It used to be Haribo, for years, and I’d turn up at these trendy venues and there’d be packets of Haribo which was very embarrassing. I don’t bother any more but perhaps I should get a little bit like Mariah Carey and start demanding puppies.
Do your family come and watch you?
My dad comes to a few shows, and he’ll be making an appearance at some point, I’m sure. Despite how he comes across on our show, he’s actually very supportive and very game for a laugh. He always threatens to get litigious if I push it too far with my jokes but I think any publicity is good publicity so if he does take me to court for slander, it’ll just be good for the tour. Audiences know him now so that’s really nice. People are already aware of him so that makes the stories even funnier. My mum will be at some of the shows, I expect, along with everyone she’s ever met because she’s very generous with her invitations. At some gigs half the arena is filled with my mum’s friends.
What’s the latest topic of discussion on the family WhatsApp group?
The last thing we talked about was pictures of Gregg Wallace’s body transformation because we’re a bit obsessed with him. He’s kind of a family hero. We love the way he eats puddings on MasterChef. Before that it was us banning my mum from using the word ‘banter’.
Do you ask their permission to tell stories about the family on your tour or do you just go ahead and say what you like?
There’s always an awkward lunch which happens just before the tour starts and I’ll run through some of the stories. It’s a tense negotiation. But I’ve now developed a system where I go through some really outrageous stories that I have no intention of telling on stage, and they’re the ones my family veto, then I sneak through the ones that I actually want to tell. It’s a very calculated tactic which thus far has worked very well.
And will there be any celebrity guests in the audience?
There are usually a few, whether they be my friends or friends of my parents. It’s always funny to look out and see Christopher Biggins in the front row.
“For a couple of years I talked like Danny Dyer”
Have you ever been surprised by someone saying they’re a fan of yours?
What happens now is that people say they’re a fan of my dad. I was at the GQ Awards recently and Liam Gallagher came up to me and said, ‘Your old man’s alright’, which I think from him is a glowing compliment. That was quite cool.
If people know you from TV, can they expect to enjoy your tour?
Yeah, I think so, my persona is pretty much the same. The stories might be a little bit more ‘out there’ than they would see on TV but that’s why I like the live experience. I can talk about things I probably couldn’t talk about on the BBC.
Is your on-stage persona the same as the real you?
I think that’s what I’m like 30 per cent of the time in real life. Obviously one can’t be like that all the time. But I try to stay pretty true to who I am. I’m a pretty upbeat guy with a sense of fun and mischief.
And has that persona changed over the years?
You definitely go through different incarnations as a comedian and you’re trying to find your voice. I went through stages: I tried to do deadpan, I went on stage in a parka, I had a character who was a poet and lasted one night. He was called Jasper and it was dreadful. It was at the Frog and Bucket in Manchester and the audience weren’t enamoured of him. I came off stage and went, ‘Well I’m never doing that again’. And for a couple of years I talked like Danny Dyer because I was desperate not to be posh. It was horrendous. A lot of my early performances are unwatchable now and I wish they hadn’t been recorded in the annals of history. But eventually you find a voice that is truer to yourself.
Was the gig as Jasper your worst ever?
Possibly, although I tell a story on this tour about a gig in front of Prince Charles which was pretty bad. I won’t give it away now.
You don’t get too political, do you?
I don’t think anybody really wants my opinion on politics. I dabble a little bit but I keep it very light. I prefer to be a silly distraction from all the crap that’s going on in the world. That’s my position, and I feel much more comfortable doing that.
In a big arena, how do you make sure everybody has a good time?
I think if you’re going to do venues like that, you have to put on a real show. The night after I’ve been on, someone like Lady Gaga or Ariana Grande is going to be on that stage, so I approach it in the way same way. I like a big ending, and some theatrics, some stagecraft, and some tricks up my sleeve, and try to give it some scale. It’s got to be a show that befits an arena, and not just a man with a microphone. Which would be a lot easier, to be honest.
What does it feel like to walk on stage at an arena – is it like being a rock star?
It really is, and nothing beats the thrill and the adrenaline of stepping out in front of that many people. It’s very hard to come down after it. It really is a buzz, very exciting.
“I like that broad spectrum”
Do you have to stay quite fit to get through all the dates – drinking honey and lemon, and having early nights, and so on?
Yeah, I do actually think I need to be a little more careful than I perhaps have been in the past, because I’m a little older, and the tour is a little longer. But my tour manager is very good and will make sure I get plenty of early nights. Although if the right people are in the house, I may have a glass after the show.
You’ve hosted The Brits and The Fashion Awards. Is it easier to perform your own show for paying audiences?
Yes. Whilst I have a lot of respect and affection for the fashion and music industries, it is quite tricky to play to those rooms. They’re not necessarily the most generous with their laughter. But having people who have paid to see you, and are invested in it, and are actually sitting down and watching you, that’s a luxury that I don’t take for granted.
What are your fans like – are you able to define them?
Not really. Because of the nature of my work, I think I have quite a wide fanbase. Younger fans like a certain kind of work that I do, like Fresh Meat and Bad Education, older fans watch the programme with my dad, and A League of Their Own attracts a different demographic again. I like that broad spectrum and I write the show with that in mind.
Was it a wrench to leave A League of Their Own?
It was a really fun show to do, and I love those guys, and the team. It just felt like the right moment because I’d done it for a while and I didn’t want to stagnate by doing it forever. I wanted a new challenge but I still have so much affection for that show. I went and guest hosted on this last series and I really loved catching up with everybody. Romesh is great, I think he’s done a great job and I still watch the show as a fan. I still see James [Corden] and Jamie [Redknapp]. It will always have a special place in my heart.
What’s next for you?
To be honest, I’m not even looking beyond the next gig right now. I’m just focusing on this. And that’s nice. I don’t even know what I’m doing next year so it’s nice just to be able to concentrate on one thing and not be worrying about a hundred different projects. I just want this tour to be the best it can possibly be.