“Did you ever perform?” I asked him.
“No. Absolutely never performed. Not really had any interest in it,” he said.
“You came up through local newspapers?” I asked. ”Reports on garden shows?”
“Never really had any interest in journalism either,” he told me. “Never wrote anything for the college magazine. After I left London University, I wanted to stay in London because I was a music fan. I was staying at a house in Camberwell with a typewriter and thought I’ll write a review of that gig I saw last night. I sent it to the NME. They said: We really liked it. Why don’t you tell us what gigs you’d like to review and we might commission you and we’ll pay you. So I became a music journalist, but never trained.”
“So you went straight from university to journalism?”
“Via being a dustman in Belsize Park,” explained Bruce. “I was Peter Cook’s dustman. The funny thing is when I left my house in Camberwell at 6.30am I often saw a near-neighbour Peter Richardson (of The Comic Strip) coming home from a late night out, so it was a bit of a comedy route as well as my comedy roots. But that’s the only other job I’ve ever had. Being a dustman.
“I was at Time Out for about 8 or 9 years – started on music, then more on the TV section and then edited things from there. But, when I was doing TV, they used to call me ‘Mr Comedy’ – I would always do Vic & Bob or The Fast Show or Harry Enfield.
“The 1990s were my Time Out years. I handed in my notice the day the New Year Millennium edition went to press. I planned to go freelance – there were actually jobs in journalism in those days – only 14 years ago! – but, out of the blue, I got offered a job editing the TV section of the Saturday Express magazine. That was when the paper was edited by Rosie Boycott, so it was a different paper then, with different aspirations. About a year later, it was taken over by Richard Desmond and he wanted to strip everything back – no pun intended – so I left to go freelance again and… basically I owe everything to Stewart Lee.
“I got sent a copy of one of Stewart Lee’s books when he was in the doldrums and he wasn’t doing very well and no-one was interested – I think it was the one called The Perfect Fool. I was getting quite pressured from his agency (Avalon) to do an interview with him but I didn’t really think anyone would be interested in Stewart Lee. As a courtesy, I thought Oh, I might as well pitch this to someone, so I emailed the Arts editor of the Evening Standard – I had never written for them before – and they said No, we’re not remotely interested in Stewart Lee, but we ARE looking for a new comedy critic. So I started at the Evening Standard in the summer of 2001, just before 9/11 and I never did do the Stewart Lee interview, but I owe it all to him.”
“The fickle finger of fate,” I said. “Now everyone wants a Stewart Lee interview. You can never tell who is going to succeed.”
“Sometimes you know when people are going to be stars,” said Bruce. “Maybe I should have stayed a music journalist. I would be much better spotting future music stars than future comedy stars. I saw U2 at the Half Moon and it was obvious Bono should be climbing on amplifiers at the O2 Arena and not at a pub in Herne Hill.
“But, with comedy, the acts I have really loved I’ve usually thought They’re never going to be big and often I was wrong.
“Like Micky Flanagan who I used to see doing stuff at The Hob when he was about 40. I thought Yeah, he’s very good. I like him very much. But this is kind of his level. Then somehow, when the Comedy Gods decided to make comedy for arenas, he got swept up and I think he now does more dates at the O2 than Beyoncé.
“The main case of me being wrong was Vic & Bob. When they had their residency in Deptford and they did pubs, I used to go and see them every Thursday night long before they did TV. I thought: This is brilliant. They can attract 100 people every Thursday night in South London but, if they try North London, they’ll get 3 people. I could never have predicted Vic & Bob would get as big as they did. But, once they make it, it kind of makes sense.
“The interesting thing I’ve seen in comedy in the last few years is a whole new generation becoming the establishment. And the whole conveyor belt nature of comedians where they fall off the other end and fall out of favour – or not even fall out of favour, but people like Vic & Bob and Harry Enfield or Ben Elton.
“I used to watch the TV series Skins and suddenly all the comics I thought were young, hip comedians were suddenly all playing the parents. Harry Enfield, Morwenna Banks, Bill Bailey and even at one point Chris Addison cropped up as a dad.
“Your latest book is Beyond a Joke,” I said, “about the dark side of comedians.”
“It was about the history of comedy,” said Bruce, “and the history of all these troubled comedians from Grimaldi to Tony Hancock and so on and I kind of thought it was a thing of the past – comedians being slightly dysfunctional.
“My dilemma to resolve was Are strange people attracted to stand-up comedy or does stand-up comedy make people strange? I think I concluded it’s a bit of both. Strange people are attracted to it but, if you’re normal and you’re attracted to it, you’ll end up strange. It doesn’t make strange people normal, but it does make normal people strange.
“It’s like Jimmy Carr says – You’re the only person in a room with 2,000 people facing the wrong way. You’re on your own. That’s why it’s weirder than being in a band. It’s a solo thing. And it’s weirder than being an actor because you’re supposedly saying your own words, particularly this autobiographical, authentic comedy. Various comedians say It’s like therapy but, rather than us pay a therapist, we do our gigs and we get paid for the therapy. But I don’t know if it’s effective as therapy, because they still seem a pretty screwed-up bunch.”