How We Met: Lenny Henry & Jon Canter

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

Sunday 26 April 2009 00:00

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

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