What’s the secret to being content with your life and how does it involve ice cream? Over to the nation’s new agony uncle, Jack Dee
Employment news now, and the comedian Jack Dee has announced he is to take up the role of “the nation’s psychotherapist and agony uncle”. The position is, he adds, “self-appointed”. Which explains a lot. It’s certainly an interesting change of direction for the distinctively acerbic comic who is often billed as “Britain’s little ray of sleet”. “My dear friend Jeremy Hardy [the comedian, who died in 2019] coined that phrase, so I use it as a nod of respect to him,” says Dee. “And also because it’s true.” But the new gig makes (marginally) more sense when Dee explains the background behind it: “I’ve written a book to tackle people’s dilemmas and problems. It was commissioned off the back of a programme I did called HelpDesk, where we did about six shows on BBC2 handling the country’s problems around Brexit and various other issues. I wish that show had gone a bit further because I think it was such a fun format – which, of course, Question Time then stole from us. They’re the ones who’ve carried on, and I’ve been left in the gutter as usual. But even before that, I had an agony uncle column in the lads’ mag Loaded when they briefly tried to reinvent themselves. So I was one of the reasons that reinvention didn’t work. Maybe it’s because I wouldn’t go topless like most of their stars.”
Tongue is never far from cheek in the book, as hinted at by the title What Is Your Problem?. But there’s a semi-serious point smuggled in there too, says Dee. “I think it’s good to be reminded that you can approach your problems with humour. Sometimes it can be more useful to stand back and laugh at your situation than take it too seriously. Everyone can relate to the idea of being in a bad place, and then going out with a mate, having a cup of coffee, telling them what’s going on and finding that you’re actually laughing about it. That can be as helpful as drilling down into the issue and unpacking it. I’m certainly not debunking psychotherapy or counselling: counsellors can be miracle-workers, and I would never hesitate to recommend it to people who need it. I’m just saying that sometimes we can approach these things ourselves – we’re stronger than we think.”
And occasionally, he says, the solution to our troubles is even simpler. “You know, ‘Pull yourself together’ is often a pretty good piece of advice. ‘Crack on’ is perhaps just what we need to hear. These days mental health seems to get mentioned every other sentence. And that’s great that we’re no longer stigmatising the idea of talking about it; but at the same time we need to be sure we’re not claiming ‘mental health issues’ when in fact they’re just normal emotions like feeling anxious or sad one day. Doing that just belittles serious mental illness.”
If Dee sounds impatient, he’s probably earned the right to be. The I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue chairman has always been open about his own struggles with depression and alcohol, but today Dee is frank too about how therapy helped him (“saved my life”) and Alcoholics Anonymous didn’t. “I benefitted from stepping back from it and realising that I was very depressed and was drinking in a very harmful way, but that that didn’t mean I wasn’t able to have a normal life. I wasn’t relating to what I was hearing at AA, and thought, ‘Well in that case, I’m out.’ “I do still like a glass of wine and a beer, but I’ve learnt that actually I can structure my life so that it’s not what I live for.”
These days, continues Dee, “I’m a contented person” – which is even better than being a happy one, he insists. “Happiness is variable. You can make your child happy by buying her an ice cream. So do you give her ice creams all the time? Obviously not. You actually want her to be contented – and she’s contented because there’s structure in her life and a loving environment. These things are more meaningful, especially as she goes on into adulthood, than having an ice cream every single day.” If it’s a surprise to hear there is actual contentment lurking behind that trademark Dee scowl, it’s the same for him. “It’s a miracle to me that it’s worked out this way. And I’m certainly not advocating my route to anyone else. If someone came up to me and said, ‘I’m in AA, and I read what you said. Should I start drinking again?’, I’d say absolutely not. You stay where you are and do what you’re doing. I’ve got my story and you’ve got yours; let’s both do our own thing.” He ponders the happiness vs contentment ice cream analogy again, and adds: “Have a Cornetto instead.”
To receive this month’s choice, What Is Your Problem? by Jack Dee, for £14.99 (incl p&p), sign up to the RT Book Club now on a monthly or quarterly subscription to suit your reading speed — and enjoy free delivery with your book sent giftwrapped to your door.