By Nicko Place
I have long been a big fan of the comedian Robert Webb. From the hilarious ‘That Mitchell and Webb Look’, ‘Peep Show’ and his one-time only, jaw-dropping Flashdance tour de force on a big UK charity night, he’s officially British comedy royalty.
Which made his recently-released autobiography, ‘How Not To Be A Boy‘, something of a shock. It’s not that it doesn’t have its funny moments or its perfectly pitched punchlines and reveals. But it’s a much more challenging and sometimes dour read than you were probably expecting from one of the geniuses behind ‘Skulls‘. Although having said that, a lot of the reviews have since called the book wildly funny, or brilliantly hysterical, so maybe, for the first and only time ever, I just didn’t get Robert Webb’s jokes. …
In fact, Webb’s unexpectedly serious memoir vaguely reminded me of that time the then-TheDaily Show host Jon Stewart appeared as a guest on a live-in-front-of-an-audience CNN news commentary show, Crossfire, and absolutely sliced and diced them (‘You are hurting America’) and then, when one of the stunned and desperate hosts pleaded ‘You were supposed to be funny!’, Stewart shook his head and replied scornfully, ‘Oh no, I’m not your monkey.’ (The show basically never recovered and was axed.)
This book is kind of like that and, equally, for the right reasons. Webb, 45, is not our monkey, peoples. Instead, his book dares to confront, dares to step away from the expected ‘Gosh, being part of Footlights was jolly fun, what ho?’ Instead, Webb examines how wildly unhelpful all the cliches of ‘Be a man’, ‘Man up’, ‘Boys don’t cry’, etc etc etc etc are for a young child, turned adolescent, turned teen, turned lost college boy turned grown up married guy with kids.
Webb’s story has the strange power of not being the worst upbringing you’ve ever heard of. I don’t mean to sound casual about what he went through, especially his unsettling father and his mother’s illness, but the story works so well because plenty reading it would have also endured as much or worse. It’s not a yarn you can shrug off as, ‘well, poor bastard, I’m just glad I didn’t grow up living in an Afghan war zone’. Instead, you can see echoes of men and boys from your own life everywhere, in all their small, suburban, emotionally-limited lack of glory.
Webb has a mission: to shout that he was endlessly fucked up by society’s expectations of what it is to ‘be a man’. His dad was a shit dad, even if it was mostly through ignorance, not evil, as written in this book, and Robert Webb, in turn, has not always been a poster boy of adult manhood, when it comes to relationships, professionalism, respect of others, handling grief, anger, testosterone – ok, basically handling all the emotions and feelings that so many men just aren’t trained/able to express in a healthy, non-damaging way.
In the end, his point is a simple one: what if we just got rid of the words ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’?
‘I promise I’m not being wilfully dense about this,’ he writes. ‘I don’t know what the words “masculinity” and “femininity” have to offer. Avoiding them, we still have a massive language of more precise words to describe individuals and their behaviour which somehow manage not to come pre-loaded with a steam tanker of gender manure from the last century.’
And so it goes, with Webb throwing his hand in the air and leaping onto the stage every time he needs a lab rat to display unpleasant through to horrible behaviour on every point. In fact, the book is almost too far off the scale of ‘brave’ and ‘raw’. There were times where I just wanted to give the poor guy a hug, shrug and say, ‘Shit Rob, we’ve all fucked up. At least you’ve learned from it.’
And he really has. The blowtorch he applies to his own actions, feelings, lack of emotional intelligence at times, and behaviours in relationships is harsh and searing. But this seems to be the point of this book: it took him SO LONG to truly become a person he can respect, to stop being a boy.
It took him possibly up to the actual writing of this book and maybe beyond to come to terms with being a genuinely worthy husband, father and workmate, finally shaking off all the bad learned behaviours, all the turd sandwiches life had dealt him at vulnerable moments in his development, all the misplaced insecurity appearing as rampant ego.
You get the sense he feels it’s a journey that might take the rest of his, my, your and all our lives to only maybe complete.
I went back and watched some of my favourite Mitchell & Webb sketches after finishing his manifesto on how to try to be a less shit guy in the world (which is, you’ve probably realised, also kind of the unofficial mission of this site). It’s hard not to see Webb differently; fresh-faced and curly haired, his manner can so easily be seen as arrogant tosser instead of young comedian having a crack.
I shook it off and saw him again as the BMX Bandit, as the cringeworthy brain surgeon, as the unable-to-fit-in doctor at a bawdy 1970s hospital (maybe my favourite sketch, and inappropriate catch cry of them all). I’ve worked a bit in comedy writing and sometimes you find out your comedy heroes are total wankers in real life, surly arseholes as soon as the lights go down. Not all of them, thankfully, just some.
Robert Webb has gone the other way, saying: You might all love me but I sure as hell don’t. So let’s talk about that and make sure we’re all better for it, especially the women in our lives.
That’s Numberwang, Mr Webb! Bravo.