‘I hope you’re going to call me a “c*nt” less than she did.’
Fresh from Kathy Burke’s extremely sweary podcast, Jack Whitehall arrives for Time Out’s photoshoot in unquenchably cheery spirits. We’re in a cavernous studio just down the road from the Emirates Stadium, a frequent haunt when he’s not touring, filming, sitting on chat show sofas, popping up on just about every panel show on telly, or any of the other showbiz activities that keep this comedy phenomenon busy.
With an arena tour kicking off imminently, it’d take more than a few c-bombs to rob the Londoner of his bonhomie – although the death of his beloved Arsenal’s title challenge is having a red-hot go. Whitehall built his early tour dates around being able to watch the Gunners’ fixtures and the possibility of taking in an open-top bus parade, so he’s suddenly got more stage time on his hands. ‘I texted my promoter, quite drunk and emotional, and said: “I’m available on all of the dates that I said I wasn’t”,’ he says.
Luckily, he’s got some major new material to help fill those extra dates: he and his partner, Roxy Horner, have just announced that they’re expecting a baby.
When they found out, Whitehall had already nutted out its central conceit of his new tour, ‘Jack Whitehall: Settle Down’ – that of a manchild finally trying to meet adulthood head on. ‘When we found out we were having a baby, I was over the moon,’ he remembers, ‘but it wasn’t long afterwards that I was thinking: Oh, this could be a whole new avenue [of comedy]. I might not have to just do jokes about my cantankerous father and boarding school.’
Thirteen years on from his first tentative London stand-up gigs at The Comedy Tree nights in the Putney Walkabout, making jokes about Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and fielding heckles about AGAs, ‘Settle Down’ is a tour conceived last summer and refined in work-in-progress gigs at Soho comedy clubs.
If you’re new to him – and someone in the UK must be – there’s a lot to catch up on. He first threw himself into stand-up after dropping out of Manchester Uni, broke through on screen as annoying public school boy JP in Channel 4’s hit student comedy ‘Fresh Meat’, created his own sitcom (BBC Three’s ‘Bad Education’), twice won the ‘King of Comedy’ at the British Comedy Awards, earned acclaimed for a dramatic turn in a BBC adaptation of ‘Decline and Fall’, and these days pops up in Hollywood blockbusters alongside The Rock.
Somewhere along the way he turned into the nation’s posh kid brother – polarisingly privileged, sure, but knowing and self-effacing about it. His background and education have obviously helped (he went to Marlborough College and his dad is a revered talent agent), but he’s also carved out his own opportunities, writing prodigiously and generally making things happen.
The first time I met Whitehall it was in a Manchester pub where he was filming on ‘Fresh Meat’ in 2011. Our interview took place, unusually, in a small cleaning cupboard and while he was a natural in front of the camera, at close range he seemed like what he was back then: an early twentysomething on the cusp of a breakthrough and still getting his head around it.
That nervy energy is long gone. He’s 34, the hair is longer, tucked inside a celebrity-issue baseball cap, and he seems extremely at ease for a man who’s on the verge of standing on stages for three months trying to make a glum nation laugh.
Routines about drunken hijinks are going to be really tragic in my forties
So how serious is he about this whole ‘settling down’ malarky? I remind him that the last time he was on the cover of Time Out, he didn’t even own a wallet. ‘I didn’t have a wallet?’ he replies, horrified. ‘Like I’m the Queen?’
When I ask him which of his more juvenile habits he’ll have the most trouble shaking off, there’s a slight pause. He’s not offended, he just needs time to tot them up. ‘Being a hot mess. Being late to everything. Being slightly emotionally stunted. My hedonist tendencies, like binge drinking.’ The distant-yet-looming prospect of middle age keeps him up at night, he admits. ‘I’m conscious that routines where I’m recalling being an idiot and drunken hijinks are going to be really tragic in my forties.’
It’s not the only time in our conversation that it feels like the old Jack and the more grown-up version are wrestling with each other. He winces when he recalls some of his early stand-up material. ‘I’ve been around long enough to look back and think: Eugh, that was a bit of a cheap shot. I like to shock people, but I try to interrogate my jokes more than when I was more inexperienced. I don’t like punching down.’
In truth, for a man so well-connected he has Prince Harry’s mobile number saved on his phone, having to punch up can limit your targets.
Instead, Whitehall likes to turn the mockery on himself: the absurdity of his privilege. ‘I don’t want to be snooty and aloof,’ he says, ‘I want to own it and make a joke of it. But equally, it’s why I don’t really get involved in culture wars stuff: no one wants a privileged, straight, rich white guy preaching to them.’
He’s also more than aware that extreme poshness is not the comic selling point it once was. ‘I’m conscious of it when the Tories are in government and it’s a load of public schoolboys messing up the country,’ he says. ‘You feel vicarious embarrassment and a little bit of “posh shame” by proxy. Politicians like that always remind me of people I knew at school. Your heart would sink every time they came and sat next to you in the canteen. And now they’re running the country.’
No one wants a privileged, straight, rich white guy preaching to them
Just don’t expect him to morph into a plummier version of Stewart Lee. ‘My comedy has always been lighter, a way of distracting people,’ he says. ‘I’ve always wanted to offer escapism.’
Escapism for him is watching ‘Succession’, the none-more-zeitgeisty HBO comedy-drama by his old ‘Fresh Meat’ writer Jesse Armstrong. ‘On paper it didn’t necessarily sound like appointment viewing, but it turned out to be my favourite show on television. People love watching privileged arseholes, it turns out.’ He laughs. ‘And thank god they do.’
Whitehall is now firmly on Hollywood’s radar, albeit after a false start (he had a small voice part in ‘Frozen’ that was cut from the final film). His recent roles in hit family movies ‘Jungle Cruise’ and ‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’ have offered a cuddly contrast to his more penis-related stand-up material. His next movie, sci-fi comedy ‘Robots’, co-directed by the man behind ‘Borat’, should align those two worlds more closely. ‘Filthy’ is how he describes it.
It’s not all been plain sailing in Tinseltown, where Whitehall’s line in extreme self-deprecation tends to cause puzzlement – or worse. ‘I’ve gone into meetings and really talked myself down,’ he admits, ‘and then been told that I’d completely tanked it.’ Working with Hollywood titan and self-actualisation deity Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson on ‘Jungle Cruise’ must have been a problem, then? ‘I just regressed to my childlike state and asked him endless questions about wrestling,’ remembers Whitehall. ‘That was the one solid bit of common ground that we had.’
Has Hollywood demanded cosmetic changes of him, too? ‘I looked like Goofy when I was in my adolescence, so my teeth got done early doors,’ he says. ‘But everyone there has ridiculous teeth. Hopefully I won’t feel the need to get rid of my perfectly good teeth and come back with a set of horse-like veneers.’
Jack the lad
Whitehall admits that when he’s in LA, he can’t wait to get back to London. ‘A lot of it is the social aspect: friends and family,’ he says. ‘I love going to pubs, Sunday roasts, all of that. I really pine for that. I normally put on a stone within a couple of weeks.’
He’s a big foodie – even if his lockdown grub blog, ‘Food Slut’, has fallen by the wayside. ‘I went to Lyle’s in Shoreditch for the first time last week, which was great. We go to Riva in Barnes as a family a lot, which I think is the best Italian restaurant in London. Hearty food that, again, I only eat in London. In LA, they put kale in fucking everything. There’s a restaurant there with a sign on the door that says: “Our secret ingredient is love”. I’m like: it’s not, it’s kale.’
I get abuse from a whole cornucopia of London society
I wonder if his love of London cuts both ways? ‘It’s a very mixed bag now,’ he notes of his typical interactions with Londoners. ‘I get posh people or students coming up to me and saying how much they love “Fresh Meat” and JP – or people shouting “J-Penis!” at me. Then I’ll get men in vans demanding I tell (‘A League of Their Own’ co-captain) Jamie Redknapp he’s a wanker. Then an older generation comes up to me to tell me my father’s funnier than me.’ He laughs and takes a sip of his black coffee. ‘I get abuse from a whole cornucopia of London society.’
Whitehall grew up in Putney, where his now-also-famous parents – curmudgeonly ‘Travels with My Father’ co-star Michael and gregarious mum Hilary – still live (he lives in Notting Hill with Roxy Horner and their dog, Coco). Horner’s family hails from Essex, a posho-meets-Cockney cultural exchange that he talks about with relish. ‘Her granddad, Dell, is this amazing old-school cockney who knew the Krays and loves jellied eels and going down the dogs,’ he says. ‘I want to bring up our child to be full Cockney. I don’t want a posh kid.’ I ask him how he plans to achieve that. ‘I just won’t talk,’ he says.
Big room comedy
In July, the tour wraps up with three nights at The 02 – the kind of vast space that has been a graveyard for comedians. Tim Minchin, after all, once penned a ditty called ‘Nothing Ruins Comedy Like Arenas’, while the grind of performing to vast audiences drove one of Whitehall’s comedy idols, Steve Martin, out of stand-up altogether. So what’s the secret to ringing laughs out of row 220? ‘I’m quite a big, theatrical performer,’ he says, ‘and I think it really helps with a big room like that.’
In keeping with the whole maturity vibe, the visual tenor of his show is sophistication over silliness. So no more entrances on Segways or on horseback. ‘Mind you, I’ve said that every year,’ he concedes, ‘then three weeks later, I’m flying on stage dressed as an emu.’
Maturity, for Whitehall, has its limits.
‘Jack Whitehall: Settle Down’ runs UK-wide until Jul 16.