Camden comedian Jack Rooke: ‘Grief is crying and laughing at the same time’

Jack Rooke

Jack Rooke - Credit: Archant

Bridget Galton talks to a comedian who finds the humour and hope in death and depression

Comedian Jack Rooke may tackle depressing subjects like grief and suicide but he wants to make audiences laugh and cry - and give them hope.

The Camden Town resident admits it’s a balance finding a funny formula to discuss painful topics, but he likes to settle audiences down with an initial comic burst.

“They know it’s going to deal with some heavy topics but I want them to laugh and feel safe first,” he says.

“You have to earn the right to ask audiences to confront something difficult, but laughter and crying tread the same psychological line. You could go from one to the other and never know if you are crying with sadness or happiness.

“That’s the only way I can get an audience to properly understand what grief is. Laughing one minute and crying the next, because you miss them but remember something funny about them.”

As a teenager, the death of Rooke’s father sent him into a period of depression and overeating.

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“I grew up the day after dad died. He was poorly for a few months but it was quite sudden. It completely overtakes everything and propels you forward. There was no real transition from childhood to adulthood, helping my mum sort the administrative side you go on autopilot. I didn’t really finish my teenage years.”

But it did spur him to become the first person in his working class family to go to university.

“Going through such a disruptive tragic experience drove me to make sure I was doing something I loved,” he says. “As a bereaved child you are silenced. That’s why I have become such a loudmouth, talkative showoff. After three years having other people speak to me. I got to university and it was brilliant, it suddenly gave me a voice to say what I wanted.”

Aged 16 he joined the Roundhouse’s youth creative projects – a venue he returns to on June 6 as part of the annual Last Word festival of spoken word. “I spent a lot of time at the Roundhouse as a kid, it was my second home. I would probably never have considered a creative career if it had’t been for them. I still had to work incredibly hard - creative jobs still go to people whose parents already have that job - but the Roundhouse breaks that cycle, and makes you think you have a chance.”

While studying documentary making, he started on Good Grief, which is based on filmed conversations with his Nan about their mutual loss. He later worked the footage into a part doc part live comedy show which he says has been cathartic for allowing him to talk about his dad.

“My Nan is one of the most ignored groups in society, an elderly woman who has lost a child. Being 85 she’s lost friends and people would ask her about that but never about her son. She’d never been able to talk about him and celebrate him. It’s giving a platform to a narrative that never has a voice. It’s a little bit heart breaking and uncomfortable but she’s such a funny character, she really embraced the awkward, funny, strange elements of grief.”

While making Good Grief his close friend Olly killed himself aged 27, an event that sparked his second show Happy Hour, which he adapted for a recent BBC3 documentary series Happy Man. Set in Kilburn High Road pubs, talking to young men struggling with mental health issues, it’s part doc, part comedy part storyteling about the meaning of happiness and pressures of failure. “It’s about what it’s like to lose someone to suicide and the limitations of the mental health conversation,” says Rooke who dedicated the show to Olly. He calls the BBC3 series “a well thought out next step to the mental health conversation, showing other solutions to the male mental health crisis.”

What he means is the accepted wisdom about curing depression by just talking.

“Olly knew about Mind and CALM. I was an ambassador for a male suicide charity but he didn’t feel there was the help available. The show says it’s time to do something about the single biggest killer of young men. In the last two years, the mainstream media has been saturated with a clarion call to speak. But getting people to talk isn’t what I’m interested in. Too often people pluck up the courage but the infrastructure isn’t there. It’s about empowering people to seek active solutions to the things they struggle with - for me creativity was a good way of dealing with it - but they can find things that do something, rather than just rely on talking.”