Jack Dee: A touch of Spleen

Jack Dee's latest TV creation is a grumpy, frustrated stand-up who thinks the world has a grudge against him. Sound familiar? James Rampton hears his side of the story
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The Independent Online

If you were trying to dream up a name for a disenchanted comedian, you would be hard pressed to come up with something more apt than Rick Spleen.

This is the angry, frustrated and utterly money-grabbing character played by Jack Dee in Lead Balloon, a sharp-edged new sitcom which starts on BBC4 on Wednesday. Bitter and twisted is Rick's default demeanour.

More of a "never-was" than a "has-been", he has been reduced to appearing on third-rate chatshows, demeaning adverts and hosting corporate bashes such as the Heating and Ventilation Awards. In the opening instalment, Rick dresses up as a globe and is pelted with rubbish for an ad about recycling and is preparing to compere a conference for that highly reputable outfit, cashloans.com.

In a memorable scene, the terminally stingy comic has a blazing row with an assistant in a toy shop who patiently tries to explain to him that the store's standard rate for engraving pewter christening mugs is £5 per eight letters, and that the nine-letter name "Trixiebel" will therefore cost him £10.

"I don't want to pay £5 for one letter," rants Rick. "What if I just have 'Trixie'? Could I get a discount for using fewer letters?"

It's a sunny afternoon in north-west London, and Dee and his co-writer Pete Sinclair (one of the writers on Have I Got News For You and They Think It's All Over) are sitting in the garden of the terraced house in Willesden that is doubling as Rick's residence. They make a sparky double act. At one point, Dee jokes that, "I'm available for awards." Quick as a flash, Sinclair responds: "And Rick is available to present them."

Dee is everything that Rick is not: friendly, funny and successful. The unrelentingly miserable persona is something that he only wears on stage. But while it is unlikely that you will find Dee reduced to fronting the Heating and Ventilation Awards, the comedian says he did not struggle to find inspiration for the character of Rick.

"I didn't have to look very far to find him. Stories about bitter comedians are legion. At the Baftas one year, they played 'Smile Like You Mean It', which was perfect! You have to say, 'well done, everyone else' through gritted teeth. Rick's quite angry about what's happened to him. In that position, you start to rationalise your failure and say 'they weren't ready for me'.

"He's a comedian who has lost his way and is not as funny as he wishes he was," says Dee, who has made his name with such popular shows as Jack Dee Live at the Apollo and Happy Hour. "There's not much of a grey area in comedy: you're either funny or you're not. Sensing that he's not is very painful for Rick.

"He has never quite made it. A couple of his series never quite gave him the status he thought he was destined for. Since these various knock-backs, he loathes what he does. But he's caught in a trap because he can't do anything else. There's something inherently funny about a comedian who hates his job."

Lead Balloon works because - despite all our protestations - we love nothing better than watching other people squirm and suffer. "Viewers like watching other people experience failure," says 44-year-old Dee, who is himself happily married to Jane and the father of four children.

"When someone like Rick articulates his frustration about a machine breaking two weeks after the warranty has expired, people enjoy that. It's cathartic. It's funny seeing it happen to someone else and thinking, 'thank God that's not happening to me!'"

So - the $64,000 question - to what extent do Rick and Jack overlap?

Sinclair leaps in: "It would be silly to pretend that there is no similarity between Rick and Jack. The difference is that Rick is a lot less successful as a comedian than Jack is - and a lot less rude!"

"Rick and I certainly aren't the same person," Dee adds. "In order to perform a character, you have to separate yourself from him. Having said that, there has to be an element of autobiography in everything you write.

"My experience of achieving modest success has taught me that that in itself doesn't make you any happier - any more than having money does. If you get a bit of money, you'd better be happy already because you've got nothing else to blame if you're not! Contrary to popular belief, happiness is not regulated by the size of your bank balance."

Dee goes on to assert that Lead Balloon - which has shades of both Larry David's great American series Curb Your Enthusiasm, and David Renwick's classic British sitcom One Foot in the Grave - is not merely one extended in-joke for the benefit of his fellow comedians. "I hope it'll be accessible to people unfamiliar with the industry. Showbiz is merely the backdrop to Lead Balloon. The bulk of the episodes are nothing to do with showbiz. The larger part of Rick's malaise is down to the fact that he's middle-aged and angst-ridden. You could say he was in the grip of a mid-life crisis."

In the past, Dee has flirted with straight drama, making well-regarded appearances in series such as Silent Witness and Dalziel and Pascoe. Creating Lead Balloon, though, has reminded him that comedy remains his first love.

"This has made me realise that a lot of straight stuff is just not as much fun," Dee says. "There was a reason I originally became a comedian - so I didn't have to think too deeply about things. I'm not anticipating a return to the straight stuff - and I don't think the straight stuff is anticipating my return, either!"

Finally, has it been a temptation for Dee, a prolific gag-writer, to shoehorn into Lead Balloon leftover jokes from his stand-up act? "No. We've avoided including stand-up material," he deadpans. "At least till episode four, when we're running dry and doing it for the money - like Rick!"

'Lead Balloon' starts on BBC4 at 10.30pm on Wednesday