In 2005, John wrote a show called Those Young Minds in which he was able to look at things like Why did my behaviour change?
Now read on somewhat belatedly due to my Blog-jam…
“From doing Those Young Minds,” John told me, “I then got asked to write something similar about suicide and depression called Cracking Up.”
“Because?” I asked.
“Because my show Hurt Until It Laughs got a Leicester Comedy Festival award, then it was featured on Radio 4, got picked up by BBC Online and came to the attention of the NHS Surrey Primary Care Trust. They wanted something similar done to raise awareness of suicide and depression. I thought: That’s a big old heavy subject for an hour. How many gags can I get out of that?”
“But that actually happened to them,” said John. “I don’t have any experience of suicide and depression. It’s very hard for me. I’ve had girlfriends, not had a drug problem… People ask me why I’m not as big as Michael McIntyre and I say I’m just too normal.”
“In comedians’ terms,” I said, “you are truly a mess of normality.”
“…apart from fighting carrots,” I added. (Look, sorry, you have to have read the previous blog.) “In a way,” I suggested, “it’s very unusual for a comedian NOT to have had experience of depression.”
“When I was a kid,” John told me, “we were never allowed to be bored. If you had nothing to do, you had to go and wash dishes for the nuns and, trust me, you didn’t want to do that.”
“Well, you certainly keep busy on projects now,” I said.
“But people get the wrong idea,” said John, “A month ago, someone from BBC Five Live rang me up and told me: There’s been a government paper brought out on depression and anxiety and we’ve heard you do a lot of this work. Can I ask you what your own problem is?
“I said: I struggle with fucking idiots like you. I’ve not had any mental health problems… yet. It’s bit crass to say to someone: Hello. What kind of nut are you? Cos we need you to go on air.
“People do get the wrong idea… I was doing a gig at the Frog & Bucket in Manchester – it was pretty raucous – and I’d just started this anecdote about my mum and got a big laugh and this woman in the audience went Mmmm…
“I said: You alright?
“She said: Are YOU alright?
“I said: I think I am. What do you think?
“She says: I think you’ve probably got some issues.
“What are you? I said. A psychiatrist?
“Yeah, she said.
“Oh, I said. How about I lie down and you give me a session?
“Alright then, she said.
“So I lay on the stage – this was on a Saturday night – and basically did my routine from the floor with her asking me questions and the audience loved it. She said I had unresolved issues with my mum and I was obviously using comedy as a way of dealing with my traumas and my pain.
“I told her: Listen, this is the first chance I’ve had to have a lie-down.”
“You do seem abnormally sane for a comedian,” I said.
“Most comics never had friends,” John suggested. “They were always on the edge of a group looking in, whereas I was usually in the middle of the group they were looking at, doing something stupid.”
“So how,” I asked, “did you do your Cracking Up project to raise awareness of suicide and depression if you had no personal experience of it?”
“I got Gareth Berliner to help me on it and he was terrific. I always look at a project as an essay. My thing was: If you’ve got a mental health issue, how do you know you have one? What are the symptoms? What is the path to recovery? What’s the resolution?
“I think an hour show needs rhythm and pathos. I’m not a laugh-a-minute kinda guy. I’ll tell you a sad story with a funny bit at the end to lighten it up.
“Cracking Up sold out four nights at the Soho Theatre and, from that, we started up a little production company called Lift The Lid and did a project on smoking cessation for people with mental health problems: because, if you are a mental health service user – or, as I prefer to call them, ‘a person’ – you tend to smoke more than people who don’t have mental health issues.
“That project was called Beyond The Smoking Room. We then got approached by the Home Office to do a project on mental health and diversity in prison: Bringing The Outside In.”
“What’s the diversity bit in that?” I asked.
“Minorities are disproportionately represented in prisons,” explained John. “I am in no way Islamophobic, right? But, believe me, if you went into prison, you would struggle not to be coerced into adopting Islam as a protection. The rise of radicalisation within British prisons is an unspoken secret.”
The show was made into a documentary and won a prize at the Scottish Mental Health and Arts Film Festival in 2011.
There is a Vimeo video online:
“Through my gigs for Combined Services Entertainment – who entertain British troops around the world,” said John, “I found there was a grant available from the Wellcome Trust for people prepared to look at raising awareness of bio-medical issues. So we did a project called Home Front, about de-stigmatising mental health within the armed services. And a research paper about that has just been published.”
“You just seem to go from project to project,” I said.
“At the moment, I’ve been asked to do a project on homophobia. The reality is suicide is the main cause of death for young men aged 18-30. But, with gay men in that age group, they’re three times more likely to commit suicide. The effects of homophobia are felt in the gay community, but there’s no point educating the gay community, because it’s actually an issue for the straight community. I’m not homosexual so, to do that, I will find a gay comic to work with.”
“Why did they approach you?” I asked.
“Because I have a track record,” said John. “I don’t say no to any gigs and, if someone approaches me with a project, I’ll do it.”
“With all these projects,” I said, “you have an endless supply of ready-made shows. So why don’t you play the Edinburgh Fringe every year?”
“Because,” replied John, “if I have £10,000 to spend, I’ll do my house up, not throw it away in Edinburgh. I have kids and a mortgage. If I’m sponsored, as I have been in the past, yeah I’ll do the Fringe. But I don’t get off on the buzz of performing and being part of the showbiz razzmatazz. I never got into it in the first place for fame or success. I got into it to sell my writing and to write a book and plays and stuff.”
“Have you had a kids’ book published yet?”
“Not my own, but I’ve collaborated on one which was basically written in an Islamic Sixth Form College in Leicester. And I’ve got a book I’m currently playing ping-pong with an agent with.”
“You sound like your life is running smoothly,” I said. “You are that unusual thing: a comedian with no worries. What does your wife do now?”
“She has health issues. She’s been battling cancer for seven years. She had 60% of her liver removed, had a radical hysterectomy, had some of her larynx removed. She’s currently got an ovarian tumour. She does some patient educating at hospitals. She talks to doctors about how they break news to patients.”