Jack Whitehall interview: ‘At heart, I’m still quite childish’

He’s played a student in ‘Fresh Meat’ and a teacher in ‘Bad Education’, and now he’s graduated to filling arenas. But has success forced Jack Whitehall to grow up, or is he still a big kid?

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© Rob Greig

‘My mum did that,’ says Jack Whitehall with a grin, referring to the pencil-drawn height chart on the wall of our photographer’s studio. ‘She still measures me, actually. And my grandmother’s obsessed with it. No matter what I achieve, she says that I’ll never be as tall as my cousin. I get my mum to tell her that I have a bigger dick than him. I’m bigger where it counts.’

Whitehall – 25, phenomenally successful and now living in a £2.6 million Notting Hill flat with his girlfriend, actress and former model Gemma Chan – has come a long way since he started stand-up as a deadpan 18-year-old in 2007. Only a handful of comics can say they’ve co-written and starred in their own sitcom (BBC Three’s ‘Bad Education’), captained a team on a panel show (Sky’s ‘A League of Their Own’) and been crowned the ‘King of Comedy’ at the British Comedy Awards (twice!), all in a single quarter-century. But – as the knob joke suggests – his schoolboyish sense of humour hasn’t changed a bit.

Whitehall does, however, seem to have matured into a media-savvy interviewee. When I meet him to talk about his latest success – a massive arena tour, which kicks off next week – he’s on his guard. Even a simple question like ‘Who is your favourite comedian?’ gets a cautious, considered response. ‘It’s so hard to answer,’ he ponders, scratching his beard, ‘because it says so much about you. If you say “Bill Hicks” you sound wanky and pretentious. If you say “Louis CK”, well, he’s become the stock answer, so you can’t say him…’

This is what life has become for Jack Peter Benedict Whitehall: a constant stream of interviews and panel shows and, therefore, a constant careful watching of his words. There’s no avoiding the ‘Fresh Meat’ star’s seemingly unstoppable attempt at world domination. Heck, you’ve even been greeted by his face on the cover of Time Out this morning. Which leads me to ask…

© Rob Greig

Are you worried people will get bored of you?
‘Definitely. You become conscious of your ubiquity, mainly through journalists reminding you of your ubiquity, but also just being in too much stuff. It’s hard, because you film a load of things, and then they all come out at the same time, it’s not something you do consciously.’

Can you still enjoy a drink in the pub without getting hassled?
‘Sort of. The great thing about London, though, is that people don’t really give a shit, and I like that. If someone recognises you in a pub, you could be the third famous person they’ve seen that day. Londoners keep themselves to themselves. Like a city full of serial killers.’ 

You’ve said you used to be irritating because you were always trying to make people laugh. Has stand-up made you more tolerable?
‘It definitely makes you more sombre as a person. It’s an outlet for me. I can perform and make people laugh and get that hit, and then in real life be slightly more mellow. My mate Danny at university really knocked it out of me. I’d just started doing stand-up, and if I ever said anything that was even remotely attempting to be funny, he’d go, “Always on,” and that completely breaks you. Danny was a dick.’

Are you still friends with him?
‘Yeah, and he still says it now! I saw him last week and he did it. I’m not “always on”! Bastard.’

© Rob Greig

Maybe you’re ‘on’ without realising it: you’ve certainly come under fire for some off-the-cuff jokes you’ve made.
‘There’s definitely a market in manufacturing outrage. It’s a real ball-ache when you’re being harangued by a big, aggressive newspaper because you said something stupid. The challenge is not to let it get to you, and not to let it affect your output. Luckily, I’m such a child that I just constantly say what I think. I could probably do with a little more self-censorship.’

There was that joke about Prince Harry taking cocaine you made – the tabloids had a field day with that…
‘Well, they sell papers, don’t they? A story about the royal family is always going to excite middle England. It’s so bizarre. For me, the royal family are like beefeaters: they’re there, a novelty, and if they vanished tomorrow it wouldn’t affect my life: I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. I mean, you can say what you like about politicians and no one cares – and they’re elected members of parliament! It’s mad.’

Speaking of politicians, your dad outed you as a ‘good old-fashioned Tory’ on ‘Backchat’, the talk show you host with him. Where do you stand politically?
‘As far away from my father as possible! Growing up with a Tory dad makes you very sceptical of them as a party. But I wouldn’t throw my weight behind any of the major parties. I met Ed Miliband after the Daily Mail had been attacking him over his father, and told him that I thought he dealt with it well, and he was appreciative of that support. Then he invited me to Prime Minister’s Question Time, and I was like, “Look: I said I liked you, but that’s one step too far.” I haven’t got to my “political” stage yet. Give it five years and maybe I’ll be ranting on about the paradigm. Say “paradigm” three times into the mirror, and Russell Brand comes out and tells you not to vote.’

How do you find working with your dad?
‘It’s nice to be able to spend time with him, because he’s a funny guy. It’s stressful, though, because of his age, and because he didn’t ask for any of it to happen. If he doesn’t want to do something he’ll say “fuck off,” which is good. But it means doing anything with him is quite an intense process. Likewise, my mum’s got the patience of a saint.’

How is she dealing with having two celebrities in the family?
‘Two egos! Two divas! No, she deals with everything very well. She steadies the ship constantly.’

© Rob Greig

Is she as eccentric as your dad?
‘When I was a teenager, my mum – and we had to seriously talk her out of doing this, it’s unbelievable – wanted to get this amphibious vehicle. She wanted to have it in Putney, where I grew up, and drive around in it – do the school run in it and stuff – and then drive it down the river. We had to sit her down and go, “Please do not buy this, we will literally be humiliated and mocked by everyone at our school!”’

I think it sounds quite fun.
‘Your mum, coming to pick you up in an amphibious submarine car? It would be awful! It would be the worst thing ever! We were like, “It’s not happening. Seriously: foot down.”’

Your dad has become a comedy figure in his own right. Are you worried about him upstaging you?
‘[Laughs] No, I don’t mind that. If he wants to.’

What if he suddenly booked his own arena tour?
‘I think that would be another “amphibious vehicle” moment, and I’d have to talk him out of it, as it might be quite embarrassing for his children.’

© Rob Greig

You’re no longer living with your dad. You’ve moved out of the Putney family home and moved in with your girlfriend Gemma Chan.
‘Yes. Prepare for stilted answers and awkward conversation for the next ten minutes…’ 

Right. Erm… so she’s an actress, and is famous herself. What’s it like having such a public relationship?
‘We try not to have a public relationship. We don’t talk about each other in interviews [laughs], we try not to go out and get photographed and stuff like that. We try to lead separate lives publicly.’

Do you think you’ll settle down with her?
‘Are you my mother? Well… I don’t know… bleugh! When I decide I’ll probably talk to her about it first rather than discussing it in the press. But she’s completely different to any girl I’ve dated. She’s special, in the good sense of “special”.’

And, just like your stand-up routine, you took her to Nando’s on your first date…
‘And various other dates, subsequently. I’m just a big fan of Nando’s! Did you see the thing with the Manchester United footballer Adnan Januzaj? There was a kiss-and-tell story and she was complaining that he had taken her to Nando’s, which I thought was grossly unfair. Just because he’s a millionaire footballer doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy piri-piri chicken. Good on the young lad.’

Is that a sign that a girl’s a keeper: you can take her to Nando’s and she enjoys it?
‘Yeah, and she can be comfortable. That you don’t have to go to some ridiculously overpriced fancy restaurant to show off or anything.’

Are you an elite Nando’s black card holder?
‘Even if I was, I don’t think I would be allowed to say. Put it this way: the only card I have in my wallet is a credit card. Although I don’t, actually, because I don’t have a wallet.’

You don’t have a wallet?
‘Yeah, I’m like the Queen.’

You have someone to carry your money for you?
‘No no. I lose my wallet so much, I go around now with just loose change and keys and my card. I lose stuff all the time. I’m an idiot. I have no organisation in my life. When I was a teenager, my mum used to sew zips into the pockets of my tracksuit bottoms so I didn’t lose things.’

© Rob Greig

Would you like to have kids?
‘Err, I don’t know, really. I can’t answer that, I haven’t thought about that too much… yet.’

You’re not exactly running out of time. You’ve achieved so much at a young age.
‘It’s only downhill from here!’

Do you have a plan for the future?
‘I’ve never had any real plan. I’m very happy with where I am at the moment. But I’m at a weird stage, because this tour will end and I’ll then go back to writing another one, which will take a long time. There might be another “Fresh Meat”, I don’t know. And I’ll be doing one more British series of “Bad Education”, but then that will be the end of it.’

Is that your decision or the BBC’s?
‘My decision. Never say never, but I think three series is probably enough. It feels like a lot of these things will be coming to an end, so I’ve got to find new projects to do. It’s a daunting prospect, to not know what the next thing is.’

Do you have any hidden talents you could put to use?
‘I do quite a lot of art. I went to my school on an art scholarship, and I always thought I would do something artistic, in the more literal sense. There’s actually some art work that I display during my show, and it’s the first time in my professional career that I’ve called upon my artistic abilities.’

What kind of art?
‘My drawings are quite graphic. I don’t want to reveal too much ahead of the show. When I was a kid I used to earn money during the holidays by going off and doing portraits of people near where I lived. I could see myself doing that again, when I’m old and grey. I definitely think that if I did have kids, I’d like to do some kind of illustrations for them. But that’s a long way off.’ 

Sounds like you’re growing up…
‘I do feel a bit more grown up, but not really. At heart, I’m still quite childish.’


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