Josh Widdicombe on TV's influence ahead of Doncaster, Yarm and Halifax gigs

The comedian Josh Widdicombe talks to Hannah Stephenson about the influence of television, juggling work with a growing family, and his on-screen comedy inspirations.

Josh Widdicombe. Picture: Jay Brooks/PA.

Tune into most contemporary panel shows and comedian Josh Widdicombe will probably have at some point made an appearance.

Tousled, boyish and bespectacled, you may have seen him on Channel 4’s late night talk show The Last Leg with fellow funnymen Alex Brooker and Adam Hills, or on Mock The Week and Taskmaster, or with his good friend James Acaster on Hypothetical. He’s even starred in his eponymous sitcom, Josh.

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Yet the 38-year-old comedian, who grew up in Devon, says most people who approach him in the street these days do so because of the chart-topping Lockdown Parenting Hell (now just called Parenting Hell), a podcast he created with comedian Rob Beckett when they were stuck indoors with their kids.

In it, they highlight their own real parenting dilemmas and disasters – Widdicombe has two children, Pearl, three, and four-month-old Cassius – and interview celebrities about their own parenting techniques and terrors.

They’ve had some great names on the show – Paloma Faith, Peter Crouch, Dawn O’Porter and Robbie Williams, who was still in bed when he joined the parenting chat, he recalls.

“In a weird way, we’re like a much lower key Kardashians,” Widdicombe says. “Our life is a soap opera. As we talk about our lives and interview comedians and celebrities about theirs, they show their reality, complaining about their lives and talking about the things that we all go through, whether it’s trying to get a (child) seat in a car or struggling with a night feed.

“There’s a vulnerability that you maybe don’t get in a chat show appearance where you talk for seven minutes, and four minutes of that is about your new film.”

The podcast has become a huge hit which the pair, who are good friends, intend to continue. During lockdown Widdicombe’s wife, TV producer Rose Hanson, had their second baby and he says he relished the time at home although he doesn’t want any more children. The podcast did at least give him a reason to shut himself into a room.

“My wife does more (of the childcare) because I’m upstairs doing interviews,” he says deadpan. “I’m chatting on Zoom and calling it a job. But you want to be around, you want to be present, you want to remember your children’s lives because, before you know it, the sands of time will have gone through your fingers.

“The thing that goes is any semblance of hobby or a social life. I’ll be either working or parenting for the next three years – and then maybe I’ll go to the pub.”

During lockdown he also found time to write his childhood memoir, Watching Neighbours Twice A Day… in which he recollects growing up on Dartmoor in the 90s and watching an inordinate amount of TV.

The book features a mix of news events which framed his youth and is filled with his memories of the pop culture of the time, from Neighbours to TFI Friday, the Spice Girls to Blur, along with a mixture of iconic news events including the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the election of Tony Blair, the emergence of Cool Britannia as well as comedy influences of the time.

He writes from a viewpoint that his actual life wasn’t very exciting, unlike events in the wider world. “I lived an exciting life vicariously through the television. If people ask me for my childhood memories, the truth is the scenes in Neighbours or events in Gladiators are far more vivid to me than bike rides.”

Watching TV comedy as a youngster in the 90s spawned his love of the genre. His parents, whom he describes in the book as a couple of ‘old hippies’, loved alternative comedy, immersing themselves in the political diatribes of Ben Elton and the wacky shenanigans of The Young Ones, and let 10-year-old Josh watch it irrespective of the watershed.

So is he careful these days about what he lets his three-year-old watch? “It’s not the television that terrifies you, it’s the whole world of social media, and phones. You see TikTok and all these negative things you didn’t have as a child.”

After leaving Manchester University, Widdicombe held down a variety of office jobs and worked for a short time as a sports journalist. He began doing stand-up in his early 20s, coming up alongside the likes of Sara Pascoe, James Acaster and Rob Beckett – but not in the cut-throat, competitive environment you might imagine. Indeed, they are all good friends.

“That’s a myth about comedy, that it’s a bitchy world. I’ve got loads of close friends who are comedians. I really like almost all of my peers – I find them funny.”

It was a hard slog in the early days, he agrees. “It was tough. For two years I’d be doing gigs above pubs to no-one, and I’d be travelling around for no money. It’s a lot of hard work to get anywhere because you’re doing the toughest gigs you’ll ever do when you are worst at it.

“My first gig went well and I think that if it had gone badly I would have just quit then. I had the same set for the first year. I’d adopt this Stewart Lee-style delivery. Many people go deadpan when they start as a defence mechanism. It took ages for me to work out who I was. Now, you get to perform to 1,000 people in a purpose-built theatre who want to come and see you and you are the best you’ve been, because you have 12 years’ experience. It’s in the wrong order.”

When the pandemic struck he was in the middle of a UK stand-up tour, Bit Much, which has just resumed. “The good news is, I’m so unsatirical and untopical that every joke still stands,” he says, smiling. “I’m interested in the minutiae observations of everyday life. I have no jokes about Brexit but I do have five minutes on advent calendars. That sets the tone.”

Yet when the show was postponed, he enjoyed having his evenings to himself. “These days I’m normally done by 7.30pm when my daughter’s in bed, but I’m going to have to start working in the evening again.” While he says he doesn’t have a career masterplan or burning ambition, he does want to do new stand-up tours, write more books, do different TV shows.

Of course, fatherhood has affected his lifestyle. “Some people are much more tired once they’ve got children. I would say I’m less tired because I’m just not hungover. I used to go out on a week night and have four pints and be tired the next day. I don’t do that anymore. That’s the biggest lifestyle change.

“But I don’t need to do any of these things really to have a good time now. I really like my life. I like my job. I love my family. But don’t worry, when they’re seven I’m going back on the lash.”

Watching Neighbours Twice A Day… How ‘90s TV (Almost) Prepared Me For Life by Josh Widdicombe is published by Blink, priced £20.

Josh Widdicombe’s tour goes to Cast, Doncaster, Feb 21; Princess Alexandra Auditorium, Yarm, April 11; and The Victoria Theatre, Halifax, April 12.