Robert Webb: “Men are embarrassed about even the best emotions”

Robert Webb has spent a lot of time lately talking to his younger self. Here he discusses the emotional inhibitions of men, and how he dealt with the death of his mother

I have spent a lot of time recently talking to my younger self. I did it very explicitly in my book, where I literally have conversations with my 15-year-old self. It has been a long conversation and I don’t know if either of us are any the wiser, me or my younger self.

When I was 16 it felt acceptable to be a virgin. But I was very aware of a clock ticking. My mates had girlfriends and I felt like the last person on Earth who hadn’t done it. When you put yourself under that much pressure, you are not the most attractive person in the world. So the overriding thing I would say to my younger self is to relax about girls. People can smell the desperation. Also, that school blazer you’ve worn every day for two years? You need to get that cleaned and have a bath more than once a week, mate. I was complaining to my diary that I was surrounded by girls who lacked the imagination to want to have sex with me. But basic hygiene would have been a start.

The overriding thing I would say to my younger self is to relax about girls. People can smell the desperation

I was the funny one at school doing impressions of teachers and making up stupid songs. The big step was writing sketches and performing in front of people. That started when I was 13. It either takes a lot of confidence or a lot of insecurity. It is a weird combination because what you are after is the unearned love of strangers, which is a peculiar thing to want. Once they were laughing, any fear went away.

Fear, pain and grief are not seen as appropriate emotions for a boy. You are told to man up, that a man is someone who bottles up, shrugs off or ignores his own emotions. So you lose, or don’t develop, the skill of being your own emotional detective and figuring out why you are so angry. Emotion has to come out somewhere, and it often comes out as anger – which is somehow accepted and excused among boys.

Robert Webb and comedy partner David Mitchell in Cambridge in the mid-‘90s, in a photograph taken to promote their first two-man show
Robert Webb and comedy partner David Mitchell in Cambridge in the mid-‘90s, in a photograph taken to promote their first two-man show

At 16 I started coming out as someone who wanted to be on TV and write comedy. Before that, I’d say I wanted to work in computers – in the 1980s that was a great line because no one had a clue what that might involve. I’d told my mum earlier. Your heart would sink, wouldn’t it? “I want to do this completely mad thing.” She was encouraging without being all that encouraging. By the time she died, I was applying to university.

Losing my mum at 17 must have emboldened me. It was the worst thing I could possibly think of happening, and then it happened. After that you go, fuck it. I’m going to write the word Cambridge on this application, even though I feel like a fraud. There was a ‘fuck you, life, I’m going to go for it now’ thing, which was the silver lining I had to pluck out. Because it had to be made to mean something. I’m not saying if she had lived I wouldn’t have tried. But part of my heart turned to ice, I developed a ruthlessness that wasn’t always helpful.

DID YOU KNOW…

Since 1991 The Big Issue has sold more than 200,000,000 copies – helping the most vulnerable in society earn more than £115 million.

The first five years are the worst. It gets better. But watch out for Mother’s Day, Christmas and anniversaries – you will find yourself very upset. That’s what I’d tell my younger self about bereavement. Also, don’t expect too much from your friends. They don’t know what to say or do. You are not going to get over it. But you are going to make peace with it, and that is the best you can do.

It was a massive break meeting David Mitchell. The crazy plan was go to Cambridge, join Footlights, find someone to do funny things with. Then you get there and think, oh fuck, we are never going to be Fry and Laurie. David and I immediately made each other laugh. I proposed we do a show and I was in the year above, so he was being asked out on a big comedy date by someone older. It went spectacularly badly. We hadn’t learnt our lines but got through it. So we learnt all the wrong lessons, about how we’d always get away with it. We hear the same music in a joke and have always been greater than the sum of our parts. He’s been a terrific friend as well. We were best man at each other’s wedding.

Robert Webb and his wife Abigail Burdess
Robert Webb and his wife Abigail Burdess

If you want a man to stare into the middle distance, ask about his relationship with his father. Expect the word ‘complicated’ to feature heavily but you won’t hear the word ‘loving’. We are embarrassed about even the best emotions and it is a dreadful shame. Some men don’t recover from masculinity. You can get to the end of your life and never realise you have been playing this lousy part.

I always imagined getting married and having children. Not everyone does. Abbie [above, with Webb] didn’t picture herself as a wife with children. We met 15 years ago and she has been a huge influence on me addressing my feelings. My younger self would be very pleased that I am a happily married man with two wonderful daughters. He would be surprised – this is going to come across incredibly smug – that we live in a terraced house. He wouldn’t understand what doing fairly well financially buys in London. But having grown up in a bungalow, he would marvel at all the stairs.

Some men don’t ever recover from masculinity

There are lots of ways to be a dad but instead of making up my own way I let the original model reassert itself. And it was no beauty because my dad was not a terrific family man. He was strict, unreliable, unpredictable. He didn’t drink much more than most people of that time and place but that was a lot. I found myself not copying exactly but that model came back to haunt me. I drank too much. I felt this bread-winning panic. All the stuff we talked about, that I would do half the house and half the kids, didn’t work out. I wasn’t doing it well at all at first.

When we knew the sex of the first baby we didn’t buy five gallons of pink paint. But there is harder stuff to keep an eye on when bringing up daughters. People comment about their body shape, appearance or hair, call them beautiful more often than clever or strong. We didn’t ban dolls but made sure they had Lego spaceships too. They both do karate. I hope if we had boys we would be equally conscious. We certainly wouldn’t be telling them to fucking man up when they fell over and hurt their knee.

Peep Show

If all I’d done was Peep Show [above] and That Mitchell and Webb Look, that is still more than most people dream of when they start out. My younger self would be thrilled – there were four series of That Mitchell and Webb Look on BBC Two, the same as A Bit of Fry and Laurie. When our show was cancelled, I thought, what’s the point of me now? After my kids were born, I took on everything offered – stuff like Argumental, Young, Dumb and Living Off Mum, and what was that voiceover, Hotel In My Bedroom? Restaurant in My Pocket? God knows. A load of real rubbish. My heart wasn’t in it and the audience noticed.

If I could have one last conversation with someone, it would have to be my mum. I think I did say thank you and I did say I love you to my mum. What more is there to say? But I would do it anyway, for the sake of spending some more time with her.

How Not To Be a Boy by Robert Webb is out now (Canongate, £16.99)