Robert Webb is one of the country’s most successful comedians, but in his searingly honest autobiography he explores the dark side of life. He talks to Kate Whiting.
“All comedians secretly want to make themselves useful,” says Robert Webb, star of Peep Show and one half of double act Mitchell and Webb, “Because we don’t really believe that making people laugh is any kind of noble calling.”
Webb is talking about writing his searingly honest autobiography, How Not To Be A Boy, in which he describes how his childhood was shaped by fear of his dad, his mum’s death and his teenage suicidal thoughts. The book started life in 2014 as an article of the same title for the New Statesman, in which he described his upbringing in a working-class house in Lincolnshire.
The 44-year-old argued then that society’s continuous gender conditioning (that often begins with ‘blue is for boys, pink is for girls’) is responsible for many of its problems, including his and other men’s inability to express their emotions.
Webb admits that the most difficult chapter to write was the one which deals with his mum’s death from breast cancer when he was 17.
“It’s been 27 years and I ought to have got used to the idea. I felt a responsibility there because she wasn’t just my mother. It’s one of the parts of the book where I gave myself permission not to be funny. When you’re taking the reader into the bedroom where your mother just died, it would be inappropriate to start making jokes.”
In a diary entry dated June 12, 1990, the young Webb, finding it impossible to revise for A Levels, muses on ending his life by taking an overdose of his mum’s painkillers. “I’m never going to see her again everything is pressure,” he writes.
He says it was the thought of what his death would do “to everyone else” that stopped him: “It just felt like it wasn’t an option and it’s never been an option since.”
Webb also explores the complex relationship he has with his dad, who left the family home when he was just five. Following his mother’s death he went to live with him again and he says he couldn’t have written the book while he was alive - he died in 2013.
“I had to be quite hard on him about the mistakes he made when I was little. I hope I’m generous to him later. I’m not out to settle scores. He was a lot of fun to be around and a good chap in many ways.”
In the book, he describes his dad having “a temper” after being in the pub and knocking one of his older brothers off his chair. So he was abusive?
“That would be the word we use now. At the time, it was pretty standard and there was really nothing out of the ordinary about that level of physical admonishment.”
Webb is also critical of himself. A few years ago he would easily polish of a couple of bottles of wine a night while smoking 30 Marlboro Lights.
Of his drinking, he says: “I know it became a problem because my wife Abbie had to tell me things three times. I was just forgetting everything. I was never horribly aggressive but I just have to keep an eye on that and I drink a lot less now.”
Webb married Abbie, a fellow comic, in 2007 . They have two daughters and Webb says he’s conscious of wanting to model what being a good husband and dad should be to his daughters.
“I know they have got their eye on me and the way I model being a man in a domestic setting is critical really. I get this stuff wrong all the time. I still get angry when what I’m actually feeling is embarrassment and I still don’t do 50 per cent of the house and the kids, but I am doing a lot better than I did before and trying to take responsibility for my health.”
How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb is published in hardback by Canongate, priced £16.99. He will be at Waterstone’s in Leeds tomorrow evening. Tickets cost £5 and are available from www.waterstones.com