Comedian Jack Rooke is more than just the ‘fat, gay Stacey Dooley’… as well as delivering contagiously funny stand-up routines, he has made a name for himself tackling serious issues like suicide and mental health. He is part of this weekend’s Southbank festival Being a Man, sponsored by Gillette.
When did you begin performing?
On the Soho Theatre Comedy Lab in 2014, when I was really quite shit to be fair.
What have been the highlights of your career?
Definitely the BBC Comedy adaptation of my debut show Good Grief for Radio 4 which I co-wrote with my Nan, and bits of an interview with her are in the show and that for me was cool. To put a comedy about a working class family going through grief on high-brow, clever-people radio was pretty good fun. And my BBC Three documentary series Happy Man which came out in April, was something so challenging for me personally and also my straight mates call me the ‘fat, gay Stacey Dooley’, so it was nice to shut them up and actually do a documentary myself.
And what’s been your most disastrous gig?
Anytime I do a gig in a private members club full of posh people and I accidentally call them all twats at some point, and have dug myself in massive holes trying to apologise.
Do you go out on the gay scene?
I try to avoid the gay scene in London because I’m chubby with no beard but a personality, therefore I might as well be firewood to mainstream gay culture. That’s very catty [laughs] but I know it’s what a lot of guys like me feel.
I do, however, go out in Manchester because I think it’s just more open and inclusive and I enjoy the amount of Coronation Street chat that goes on in the smoking areas.
Do you feel people expect you to focus on your sexuality in your comedy?
Sometimes, especially from straight men actually. Male reviewers have said stuff like “oh you don’t really focus on your sexuality enough” and I’m like yeah, cause I’m not a gay comedian, I’m a comedian who is gay. Sexuality is not a key focus in my work in the same way Brexit isn’t. When I have something interesting to say about it, then perhaps I’ll write material about it. For now, like Brexit, I’m willing to let others take the spotlight, although I do speak about gay culture a lot, how I feel it’s very exclusionary at times, and my dislike for the majority of YouTube coming out videos. Mainly because they’re always lit badly, unless it’s like a super-rich kid gay YouTuber – you know the ones.
Do people expect you to always be switched-on and funny? How do you react to them when you’re having a bad day?
I think I’m self-deprecating enough from the off for people to not pester me to be funny 24/7. But when they do want me to be funny, I tend to just stream anything my mum is doing. She’s hilariously like a cross between Gwen from Gavin and Stacey and Pam from Gavin and Stacey. She’d be a great laugh in XXL.
What do you see as the biggest issues facing gay men in relation to their masculinity and their identity?
This is a big question. I guess it’s just the fact that mainstream gay culture is so exclusionary in every way – from size and appearance, to masculinity, to sexual preferences, to lifestyle, to culture. There’s such a pressure now to be that sort of “super-gay.”
I think a lot of London-based gay men need to realise how lucky they are nowadays and ensure they educate themselves on the struggles of people, only a few decades ago, who fought so hard against right-wing oppression, anti-LGBT media sentiments, extreme violence and a severe lack of equal rights.
I think my generation of gay men have become very complacent nowadays and judgement is passed so heavily on looks that we’ve gone from being an exciting, counterculture group of humans to a very dull, predictable, marketable community of bores – and I really hope that stops.
I hope we become more open, inclusive and accepting of all on the spectrum of masculinity. I also hope your magazine has a fat gay person on the cover one day, and I hope we continue to call each other out when we act in exclusionary ways. A lot of gay men are kind people who’ve had to overcome severe conditioning to want to be straight, and we must remember to be more kind within our own big ol’ gay community.
You recently lost your friend Olly to suicide.
Yeah, losing Olly was the basis for Happy Man my BBC Three series. He had struggled with various mental health issues and did reach out for help, did talk to his friends, family and therapist and yet still took his own life. Which is why I’m doing a panel talk at Southbank Centre’s Being A Man festival called ‘More Than Talking’, to explore those alternative solutions. What can we do to save more men outside of just talking about talking, which is what I feel the current mainstream mental health conversation just fixates on. My BBC Three series was about showcasing men doing different things to improve their mental health outside of what long NHS waiting lists can offer.
What were some of the toughest moments you had in dealing with his loss?
Anger. I think I’ve been angry for two years now and because of the state of politics and the state of mental health cuts. I don’t see that anger fading, so instead I try and invest it in my comedy as a sort of call to arms for audiences to leave and put pressure on local government to change things.
How did you association with CALM begin?
I actually worked with CALM long before Olly died. I was 18 when I first started volunteering and they had a tiny office in South London that smelt of feet. Now they have a huge office that smells lots better and an ever growing presence in Britain, and they’re really saving a lot of lives. They are an incredible charity, I owe a lot to them especially in supporting me during grieving Olly.
You say that talking about mental health isn’t always enough. What can we do to help those suffering?
Encourage people to find a tool-kit of ways to cope with when they’re feeling down. Exercise is so key – physical health can massively improve your mental health. I think acceptance is key, hobbies, anything fulfilling. I explored a lot of alternative solutions in the BBC Three doc which is still on iPlayer now should you fancy a butchers: bbc.in/HappyMan
What has gotten you through any dark moments in your life?
Weirdly, music. M.I.A., Corinne Bailey Rae, Santigold, obviously Gaga – I mean as we speak I’ve just booked tickets to see her in Brum. I think music and my mum and creative expression. Picking up a pen and noting down how I’m feeling, even if it’s total crap. That’s always where the start of my most successful ideas have come from.
Southbank Centre’s Being a Man festival sponsored by Gillette runs from 24-26 November and features a packed weekend of talks, debates, comedy, performances, interactive workshops and free events exploring all facets of masculinity in 2017.
— Gillette UK (@GilletteUK) November 9, 2017