How We Met: Lenny Henry & Jon Canter

'To fool the paparazzi, Lenny had me carry his adopted baby the day she was brought home'


Lenny Henry, 50, is a comedian and actor who recently appeared on stage as Othello. He is also a founding figure of Comic Relief. He lives in the West Country with his wife, Dawn French, and their daughter

I needed somebody to help put together some stand-up material and my manager suggested Jon. He was this really tall, anxious, Robert Culp lookalike who came into my house and looked very serious about writing jokes and I thought, "He seems very stressed out, is he going to be OK?" But then we started talking and we got on brilliantly.

We've written some good stand-up together. Jon taught me that the secret of good comedy is about what you cut out of a joke. He is incredibly good at organising and reshaping improvisations until they work brilliantly. He is a natural born worrier, though. I'm there bouncing off the walls and Jon's got his head in his hands, tugging at his hair, fretting over a joke. I always think, "This is just a joke, what are you worrying about?" But he's got mad skills and his books prove that. I ring him up and say, "I'm at this bit and I've laughed out loud three times." But he used to get very uptight about it. He's cripplingly modest.

We really got to know each other when we went to Australia on my stand-up tour. We'd go to the gym, then go for a meal and chat for hours, and at the end of the day we'd have five jokes based on things we'd talked about. Our friendship has aided the material – that's how good comedy works. There's a reason Seth Rogen and Jude Apatow comedies work so well; they're mates, they sit around and they crack gags.

Dawn and I introduced Jon to his wife [the artist Helen Napper] when we were all staying in LA during the early 1990s. She is a very good friend of ours. He's never said a damn thing to me about that, but he did invite me to the wedding. Jon's speech was very funny, of course, and I remember laughing at one point and Jon shouted out, "Don't laugh, buy" – because it's his living. It was a very fast thing to say off the cuff.

We've since been on holiday together to Majorca with our wives and kids. He has great barbecue lighting skills. It involves not knowing anything about how to make a barbecue work. Once we spent four hours trying to get this thing to get hot, with our wives standing over watching us, and we're going, "Any minute now..." It was hilarious. We're both very impractical and wimpy.

We stopped working with each other for a while, as he wanted to do other things and I thought we'd hammered it together for so many years that it felt like it was time to do something else. But we've just started to drift back to working together because we missed each other. We want to do something some day that will surprise people, but it will come out of us relaxing together, not sitting in a room pulling our hair, saying, "What's funny?"

Jon Canter 56, is a novelist, comedy writer and editor who has worked with talents from Stephen Fry to Angus Deayton. He lives in Suffolk with his wife and daughter

People are always interested in mine and Lenny's connection. They say, "You're a white Jewish guy, how could you have any bond with Lenny?" And the answer is that our connection is humour.

Of all the comedians I've met, he's one of the least paranoid. Lenny is a real life-enhancing guy; I'm naturally more depressive, fatalistic, but he's got this huge optimism and I feel energised by him. I wasn't quite prepared for the bigness of his voice and his character, though. Often with performers you find that, off-stage, the wattage is lower, but Lenny isn't like that.

We were put together in 1990 by Lenny's literary agent; Lenny wanted someone to shape his material and she felt I might be the one. I wrote mostly for his live touring shows and we had an immediate yin and yang. He'd say, "I want to do a piece about the way my mum hit me when I was a kid." Then I'd go to his house, we'd brainstorm for three days, eat loads, listen to a lot of Prince, and I'd try not to be too married to him. Dawn was always incredibly sweet about it. The main thing would be to get an hour-and-a-half of material then take it on the road, with me always standing in the wings. What's extraordinary is that I get more nervous than him, even though he's the one on stage. I think he feels I worry too much, but worrying is my business.

I realised how close we'd become on the day Dawn and Lenny adopted their daughter, Billie. My wife and I were at their house that day and when we all stepped outside, Lenny asked me to carry Billie, so the paparazzi wouldn't think the baby was theirs – you didn't want them saying, "What's that baby? Is it yours, Lenny?" I was holding the baby, but protecting the adult.

We've been together nearly 20 years, but it's been an open marriage; he worked with [the scriptwriter] Kim Fuller, and I became his second wife. He's gone back to Kim, and then he's had a third wife, and it's back to me again now. I know he has other people that he sees and I'm fine with that.

The only thing I feel bad about is that, though we talk about everything, I never really talked to Lenny about the emotional meltdown he had 10 years ago [when he checked into the Priory with depression, amid tabloid allegations of an affair].

'A Short Gentleman', by Jon Canter, is published by Vintage at £7.99

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own