Jack Whitehall: I’m terrified I’ll wake up one day and stop being funny

The actor, comedian and presenter talks about Covid, pre-show nerves and why he often feels lethargic offstage
The actor, comedian and presenter talks about Covid, pre-show nerves and why he often feels lethargic offstage (PA)
12:46pm, Mon 09 Nov 2020
CBAD8A00-D2B9-4E0E-ADDF-D0366C357A34 Created with sketchtool. E9A4AA46-7DC3-48B8-9CE2-D75274FB8967 Created with sketchtool. 65CCAE04-4748-4D0F-8696-A91D8EB3E7DC Created with sketchtool.

It’s easy to forget, given his mammoth CV and near-constant presence on screen and stage, that Jack Whitehall is still only 32.

From a regular slot on A League of Their Own to co-starring with his dad in comedy documentary series Jack Whitehall: Travels With My Father, and presenting the Brit Awards since 2018, Whitehall’s comedy has delighted audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, and amassed him an enormous 6.1 million followers on Twitter.

He’s now attached to a new campaign with AXA Health, aiming to help people get active in enjoyable, approachable ways. “It’s feelgood health,” he says, “all about finding fun ways to get fit – mentally and physically. It’s aimed at people not necessarily into the gruelling side of working out, and for some reason they happened upon me.”

Is it difficult to look after your health when you’re touring?

“The tour diet is terrible, and you kid yourself that running round on stage is some sort of workout. On one recent tour, I started looking for ways to improve my fitness, and started walking to a lot of the venues.

“It was nice, but sometimes I’d be walking alongside the crowd, and when they’re coming to a big show, they expect you to be swept in backstage in some chauffeur-driven car. I think I punctured the veneer!”

Basketball – 2013 NBA London Live – Detroit Pistons v New York Knicks – O2 Arena

And do you have strategies for looking after your mental health?

“I’ve recently had personal things that I don’t want to go into in detail, but it’s definitely something that has touched my life this year, and I think the most important thing is to talk openly to friends and family. A lot of the men I know aren’t very good at doing that, and I’m certainly not good it all the time.

How much has your work been affected by Covid-19?

“I had two movie releases and they both got delayed, so that threw me a bit. I don’t like sitting still and not being creative, but I’ve been fortunate enough to find ways to work, and I’ve written more scripts this year than any other.

“I did a show for the BBC with no audience, which weirdly I quite liked. When you’re in front of a live audience there’s low-hanging fruit you can go for that gets a cheap laugh, and not having an audience makes me write in a slightly more cerebral way. You can do jokes that are a bit subtler.

Brit Awards 2020 – Show – London

“I feel I’m already trained for it, because at the Brits, the audience isn’t paying attention. There are people there but it may as well be an empty room!”

Do you ever get stage fright?

“Yes – stand-up takes a bit of a toll psychologically, because you’ve got to trick yourself into feeling bulletproof, even when you have nagging doubts. The audience need to think you’re totally in control, but if that goes, it’s quite scary.

“I’ve had mental blanks. Towards the end of my tour last year, I’d performed the show 50 times, and then suddenly, a week before recording my Netflix special, I blanked and forgot where I was. I had a bit of a breakdown on stage – it was terrifying – and for the next week I couldn’t get it out of my head.

“I’d be in the middle of a routine and it would be going amazingly, but there was a voice in my head going ‘you’re gonna forget it again!’ It took me a bit of time to get over, and it makes you want to stay as match fit as possible. In stand-up, there’s always an experience like that lurking round the corner.”

When in your career have you been most nervous? 

“There have been a few things. My first Brits was terrifying, because it was high profile and live. I did a Bafta awards show in LA where the front row was Meryl Streep and Harrison Ford, so I was pretty nervous there.

Graham Norton Show – London

“There was also my first five-minute set on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. It’s the easiest crowd you could hope for – an American TV audience so excited to be there they’d laugh if you put your hand under your arm and made a fart noise. But for some reason, it was the most terrifying experience ever.

“These things diminish with time – and you miss it sometimes. The thrill afterwards when you’ve nailed it is so much greater if you were bricking it beforehand.”

There must be pressure on comedians to always be funny and energetic. Do you ever struggle with that?

“Yeah, 100%. I spoke with Romesh [Ranganathan] about this recently, saying how envious I am of him, because his whole act is this grumpy, deadpan bloke who’s in a foul mood. That’s great because he can easily be in character, but I’m a bit of an upbeat, jolly idiot, so I feel like I’m letting people down if I’m not always up for a laugh and being matey.

“I’m not always as excitable as I appear on TV – sometimes you’ve just got up and you’re getting a coffee and someone says ‘hi’, and you feel you haven’t been the best version of yourself. Maybe I need to just change my act!”

The Bad Education Movie World Premiere – London

You’ve got a massive following on Twitter – do you enjoy social media?

“I try to dip in and out, because it can get a bit toxic, and I wish I was better at having social media detoxes. Although it’s quite cathartic when Arsenal have put in a terrible performance to go on there and read people tearing strips out of them.”

Do you find it easy to make jokes about something like Covid-19?

“It reminds me of four years ago, when as a comedian you looked at Donald Trump and thought ‘I’m not gonna write any jokes about this guy, because it’s going to get tired so quickly’. Of course I did end up doing jokes about Trump because he so dominated what everyone was talking about, and with Covid the same might be true.

“If everyone in the audience is sat there socially distancing and wearing face masks, it might be weird not talking about it. It really would be the elephant in the room.”

Do you think everything should be on the table for comedy?

“In a way, but I think the comedy that I enjoy and am best at tends more towards escapism. I’m not too into politics or holding a mirror up to society – I’d rather give people a distraction from the horrors of the real world.”

It’s tough for comedy venues right now – are you worried for the future?

“I am – club comedy relies on quite tight margins, and a lot of young comedians coming up will have been really hit by this. It’s important that comedians like myself don’t forget where we started.

“I’ve tried to help with fundraisers for clubs that helped me, and once it’s possible, I’ll try and do shows at them, because they’re the lifeblood of the industry. That’s one of the hardest things for comedy – cinemas can maybe make money at reduced capacity, but theatres and clubs need to be full.”

Did you always want to be a comedian?

“I wanted to be a performer. I loved acting, and my heroes growing up were people like Rowan Atkinson and John Cleese. The Edinburgh Festival was my first taste – my eyes were opened and I became obsessed.

“I did my first show there and went five years in a row. It’s so depressing that this is the first year ever they’ve had to cancel. The idea of August without Edinburgh is just so alien.”

Royal Variety Performance 2015

Do you think you’re a different comedian now to when you started?

“I think so – your act develops and the stuff you write changes. I hope I’m getting better. You’re always terrified that one day you’ll wake up and stop being funny. That never goes away.”

If not a comedian, what would you have been?

“I did a lot of art. I probably would have been a cartoonist or artist of some description.”

Sign up to our newsletter