'I've made a lot of very angry men much angrier'
Robert Webb, the co-star of blokey comedy ‘Peep Show’ on his memoir, ‘How Not to Be a Boy'
Robert Webb: “I have heard from some very angry men who I’ve managed to make much angrier.” Photograph: Alan Betson
“I haven’t written it because I think I’m special. I’ve written it because I think I’m typical.”
Robert Webb is deep in the throes of a promotional tour for his memoir How Not to Be a Boy. Known to most of us as the lovable and feckless Jez from Peep Show or the voice of Charmin toilet paper, Webb challenges masculinity and the identities we’re supposed to take on because of our gender.
Sitting in a hotel in Dublin, coffee in hand, he assesses his recent media whirlwind. An appearance on Channel 4 News in August, where he criticised the expectations of men and boys to be tough and hard, ruffled a few feathers.
“I have heard from some very angry men who I’ve managed to make much angrier. At least in the short term. I think when the hullabaloo dies down, they’ll go back to their default livid,” he quips with a ready and loaded line. “But there are your meninists and your MRAs [men’s rights activists] who I was never going to please, no matter how I put this. There’s not much I can do for those guys.”
How does the man who plays Jez, a musician with a brain perfectly malleable for cult recruitment, feel about having this new role of a serious spokesperson thrown upon him? “As a feminist Yoda with all the answers?” he says, attempting to remain stony-faced before cackling at the mild madness of it all.
“I’m kind of interested in what people think about the book but I’m nobody’s spokesperson. I was telling a story but it’s a story with its thinking hat on, of course, and I am trying to advance a deeply unsubtle feminist agenda. There’s no disguise about that.
“And I also get the frustration that when a bloke says it, it gets twice the attention and a fraction of the grief – I am very aware of that – but what was the option? The option was not to write it because, you know, no one else is qualified to write the book about me.”
But this isn’t your regular celebrity memoir that acts as a how-to guide to success or a way to brag about his famous mates. “I’ve got literally two showbiz anecdotes in the whole thing. And they’re good ones.”
The book came on the back of an 1,800-word article he wrote for New Statesman with the same title in 2014. He knew it would have to touch on how the front of masculinity let him down. He toyed with the idea of doing a “humorous survey on men’s culture”, with chapters on Top Gear and lads’ magazines, but he realised that that would be a terrible idea.
So instead, it became a non-linear memoir that hops between different periods in his life. He was assisted by typically teenage angsty extracts from his diaries, where he details the frustration over what felt like forever for him to lose his virginity, and using the lens of gender to tell the story.
“The further I got with it, the more I sort of thought that that would become the governing way of selecting the material of which memory, which story I was going to put where. ‘Actually, that was to do with . . .’ ‘I behaved like that because of that’ and ‘that happened to me because of that’.” he says. “It became to seem like a good way of telling the story. And something suddenly aligned and I thought, ‘Oh, this is actually a really good idea for a book so I musn’t f**k it up now.’”
Midnight is where the day begins, said Bono, and I think I tried to put that in the book but I didn’t get permission. He’s very expensive
These are some chapters, he says, where the jokes had to thin out. Most notably, the death of his mother Pat when he was just 17, paired with the resistance to express that grief fully.
“To me, writing about the bereavement, losing mum . . . I’ve had 27 years to get used to the idea in a way, although that was a properly difficult chapter to write. Mainly I felt a protectiveness to the reader because, you know, I’ve got time to get used to the idea, whereas I sort of feel like I can’t drop these bombshells here and there on the reader without a sense of decorum.”
In one diary entry, he comes as close as he ever has to taking his own life. Two months after his mum’s death and the night before his A Levels exams, he eyes up a tupperware box full of his mother’s very strong painkillers, but by the next morning he bounces back, laughing off the darkness that almost consumed him.
“Midnight is where the day begins, said Bono, and I think I tried to put that in the book but I didn’t get permission. He’s very expensive,” he says, noting that sometimes you just need to survive the night to survive at all.
He takes care when he writes about other people, stating everyone’s qualities and flaws matter-of-factly, but there’s one man who takes up a special place: David Mitchell. The pair met through Footlights, Cambridge’s drama club, in their early 20s and began writing sketches together. As writers and actors, they worked together on BBC Two’s That Mitchell and Webb Look, but their biggest break came in 2003 courtesy of Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain’s Peep Show.
For the guts of 12 years, they were Mark and Jez, the unlikely friends, and, three years after the final episode of Peep Show, the double act are on our screens again on Channel 4’s Back as brothers, sort of. Their friendship needed the short career break from each other.
“We were in each other’s company every day, which was, for two people who are not in love, we just saw too much of each other and it put some pressure on the partnership. We never had a row but we can both do tetchy silence in a devastating courtesy. It’s disgusting to watch.
I do a book event, bit of reading and then we talk to the audience, and the hardest questions are when people want advice
“But it was great to work with him again. What I’m saying is, we had a chance to miss each other and working with him again is brilliant. Because I worked with some fantastic people since, but there is something about a double act – this double act, I daresay, where there is a complicté,” he says, adopting a French accent, “I believe is the word, that I always know what he is doing. I don’t have to look at him and he’s the same. All those years standing on a stage doing live stuff together and it just really works.”
With How Not to Be a Boy, he feels like he’s joining a growing conversation about gender, but reiterates that the book doesn’t make him an expert; it is merely his story. It’s a funny book with a different twist.
“I’ve been doing these Q&As when I do a book event, bit of reading and then we talk to the audience, and the two hardest questions are when people want advice. ‘I’ve got this son and how do you think I should talk to him about this stuff?’ And I go: ‘Oh, I don’t know . . . Well . . . I’m not qualified and I’ve got daughters anyway and they’re still quite little. Just see him as a human instead of a boy? Or a human instead of a girl? And they do have different experiences but they’re not as different as all that and . . . I don’t know,’” he says in a doddered voice.
“People want to know, because I put so much emphasis on gender and gender being made up. People want to know do I genuinely think it’s all that or do I have any time for the idea that men and women are mentally different from birth. I kind of go, ‘I’m not a scientist but I’ve read a couple of books that I can point to you in the direction of. Here’s a link from the Guardian. Here’s Cordelia Fine . . .’”
Although he distances himself from being a spokesperson, there’s no doubt that what he has in his book might make a difference in someone’s life. And as we wrap up our interview and politely discuss what he has lined up for his weekend in Dublin, an elderly white-haired gent in a fine, tailored suit approaches our table.
“Are you Robert Webb?” he asks, reaching out to shake his hand.
“I love your writing. It is so important. Thank you for saying what you’ve said.”
– How Not to Be a Boy is published by Canongate