Robert Webb may be best known to American audiences as Peep Show’s man-boy Jeremy “Jez” Usborne, and if his new autobiographical book is to be believed, Webb’s own life has exhibited a fair bit of Jez’s selfishness and immaturity. How Not To Be A Boy: Rules For Being A Man uses his own boyhood, and later manhood, to examine with brutal and sometimes heartbreaking honesty the damage that gender conditioning can do. Although it’s more memoir than manifesto, Webb still effectively dismantles masculinity in his own life and finds compassion for himself and others. It’s also very, very funny.
Webb answered The A.V. Club’s 11 questions on the eve of his North American book tour, and he also talked about poetry as religion, the potential for violence in elevators, Canadian conservative academic Jordan Peterson, and one very powerful word.
In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
Robert Webb: My children. Because they are innocent and sunny. They remind me that everything’s gonna be okay, or at least that’s what I tell them.
RW: Blimey. I’ve been so lucky, and I think the things that I really cared about have got all the attention if not more than they deserve. But I suppose—so I made a documentary about poetry. It was about T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock.” It got plenty of attention, but there again it was just one hour, and it went out once. I guess I’d like people to see it more. It’s really difficult to find on YouTube—it is there, but it takes a little searching. So I suppose it’s that, because that was a massive labor of love. It went out once—it was on BBC 2, three million people watched it, and then it’s gone.
So I suppose that, but I really mustn’t grumble about it.
The A.V. Club: It was a documentary about one poem?
RW: It was called My Life In Verse, and they got four people, slightly off TV, to talk about their favorite poems. So I talked about the Eliot poem, but there again I got to talk to Clive James, and I talked to Andrew Motion, and I talked to my former English tutor and some other proper poets. So it was a whole thing about my relationship with poetry, sort of focused on the Eliot poem.
AVC: What is your relationship with poetry?
RW: I think to put it in one sentence: It does for me what religion does for people of faith.
AVC: At least in the States, we all have to memorize “The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock” in about seventh or eighth grade.
RW: Of course, because Tom is American. So to you it might be, “Oh gee, not that again.” But we get the same with Shakespeare. It was this discovery when I was about 17, and I just thought it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever read. So I jumped at the chance when they said, “Hey, we’re making documentaries [by] people who’ve been on TV a little bit, to talk about poetry.” And that was the obvious one for me.
RW: Oh my goodness. That would be—I was quite late, really, actually spending money on music. So that would be Faith by George Michael, which I bought on vinyl. I’d just got a record player—well, we didn’t call it a record player. We called it a midi system. This was 1987 or something like that. So I had a record player, a twin tape deck, and a brand-new and futuristic CD player. But I bought it on vinyl for whatever reason. But before that I’d been bought things by other people. There was someone called Shakin’ Stevens. He may have been a domestic star only, but he was a sort of—almost an Elvis impersonator. He had a couple of hit songs.
I got somebody to buy me the single of—oh god, what is the rock song about the boyfriend who finds his girlfriend is the centerfold—it’s called “Centerfold,” by J. Geils Band or something like that. And I had no idea what it was about, but I just really liked the tune. And I got my grandparents to buy me the single, which turns out is about somebody discovering his girlfriend doing a porn shoot—not a porn shoot, but certainly a tasteful nude spread in a gentleman’s magazine. [Laughs.] But I didn’t know what that was about. But yes, the answer’s Faith.
RW: No, not at all.
AVC: Why not?
RW: Because I think to believe in ghosts, you’d have to believe in laws outside of what we’ve discovered about physics and math and the nature of reality. So I don’t. There was a time in my life—when I really, really needed to—I believed in the afterlife. When my mother died, I found it really useful that I’d been taught The Lord’s Prayer in primary school. And so I used that to communicate with her because I wouldn’t accept that she’d disappeared altogether. But that was for a couple of years—I found that consoling, the idea of heaven. But in terms of ghosts? No, I’ve never, ever really believed in ghosts. No.
RW: Mayonnaise. It’s my weakness. There is no food that mayonnaise doesn’t improve. And that’s that.
RW: Elevators. Just the tension—there just always feels like there’s the potential for massive violence. Well, not violence—but everybody’s pretty uptight. And everybody’s looking—maybe this is a British thing—we’re just looking at what floor we’re on, where we’re going, and there’s this tense silence.
AVC: Do you ever talk to anybody on elevators?
RW: Well, they have to start. I’m very approachable, and if they start to talk, I’m happy to reply, and it can be perfectly okay. But when nobody’s talking, I do find it quite tense.
AVC: Have you ever taken the stairs to avoid it?
RW: No. I’m too lazy to do that.
AVC: Have you ever had a violent encounter on an elevator? Is this rooted in something?
RW: [Laughs.] No, no, no, not at all. No, not remotely. It’s a completely irrational fear. It’s not even a fear—I was just trying to answer the question! That was the first thing that came to mind.
RW: Well, if I couldn’t be a superhero—and I was pretty keen on Zorro—I wanted to be an expert sword fighter who goes around fighting crime. But as I grew out of that, then by the time I was 13, my dream job was exactly what I’m doing now. So I wanted to be a comedy actor and writer. And I still think of myself like that even though I’m writing books and sketches.
AVC: There’s certainly a lot of comedy in the book—the section called “A Brief Word About Cunts” was particularly funny, not least because it introduced me to the phrase [from Rik Mayall] “a spoonful of the devil’s cum.” And of course at the moment the right is up in arms about Samantha Bee calling Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt.”
RW: [“Cunt”] is a divisive word, there’s no doubt about it. And there are as many different feminist takes on this as there are feminists. And I have lots of sympathy for the idea that you just don’t use it at all, or certainly a man doesn’t use it about a woman, or a man or a woman shouldn’t use it about a woman, or let’s just forget about it altogether. It’s rightly a powerful word—and sometimes it’s the only word that will do. So for me, generally, when I’m in the company of people who I know won’t be offended, it’s actually quite casual. But when I’m speaking in public, I am a bit more careful about it.
AVC: It’s a much more gendered term here in the States.
RW: Fair enough, yeah. Actors use it just completely indiscriminately, about whoever it is that is behaving badly. That’s just the word that comes to mind. And as I say in the book, in that context, and that context alone, it’s almost affectionate.
But it should be a powerful word. Germaine Greer made a whole documentary about it once—she had a half an hour to talk about why we shouldn’t be shy of it. I mean, god knows she gets herself into trouble. She’s not popular at the moment. But I do sort of love her—she speaks the truth as she sees it, and always has done.
RW: When I’m in a hotel I probably do more reading than watching stuff. I suppose flights are really good for catching up on movies, but once I’m sitting down and I’m not panicked and worried about, you know, “Is it going to be delayed? Did I get on the right plane? What’s going on?” Once I’m settled [at the hotel], I’m quite happy to read. And then you play that cat-and-mouse game with housekeeping because they want to tidy the room. I just want to stay in the room. So I don’t watch that much—I suppose I’ll turn on the news, or if I turn on the TV without particularly looking for anything, and suddenly there’s Speed, or there’s The Bourne Identity, or some movie that I love that I’ve watched three times already, then I’ll probably do that just to feel more at home, I guess. So comfort viewing, basically.
AVC: What do you read?
RW: At the moment I’m reading—I won’t take it with me to the States because it’s a massive hardback. But there’s a volume of essays by Zadie Smith called Feel Free, which I’m really enjoying. I’m trying to read Jordan Peterson’s 12 Ways For Young Men To Get Their Bloody Hand Out Of Their Pockets or whatever he’s called it, just so I know what I’m talking about. He is starting to come up when I do the book events and the Q and A’s and the being interviewed. So I owe him the compliment of having read his book. I’m halfway through at the moment. I guess I’ll read it on the plane.
AVC: Is it… awful?
RW: Wellllllll, there are at least two Petersons. There’s this sort of—the book itself is not awful. It’s quite interesting, and he’s not without humor and compassion, although I don’t think those two qualities are exactly his priorities. It’s quite fun, in some ways, when he’s verging on the banal—things like “It’s a good idea to get up at more or less the same time every morning and have a high-protein, low-sugar breakfast.” We can all get behind this, this is all fine. He’s clearly a conservative, so you can see why he’s picked certain examples to illustrate his point. That’s fine, too. I don’t think he’s pulling the rug over anybody’s eyes there. But then you see him on YouTube and you see him being interviewed, and he’s just so fucking angry. And you kind of go, “Jordan! Mate! What did they do to you? Just calm down. It’s really okay.”
I heard an interview with him, it was with Anne McElvoy of The Economist. It was a podcast, and it was an hour-long interview, and she kept reaching. She’s a liberal, but she’s not a leftist herself, and she kept reaching for the common ground and going, “Come on, Jordan, it’s not as bad as all that, is it.” And he just wasn’t having it. His certainty worries me. He’s just so certain about everything, and I find that troubling. And some of the stuff he says, I just plain disagree with, but I don’t think he’s a shocking, terrible monster. I just think he’s an academic who’s enjoying some attention. And whether this is the beginning of his—whether it’s his 15 minutes or whether he’s going to be with us for the next 30 years is anyone’s guess really. But he’s a complicated figure, a complicated figure. And after I’m with you, I’m going to Toronto, so I’ll meet all of his bereft students who must be wondering where the hell he is.
RW: It’s difficult, isn’t it? I mean, morally, I think yes, absolutely. I’m still interested in movies that were produced by Harvey Weinstein, for example. A good movie is a good movie. Rather more directly, say, the films of Roman Polanski—and I take a very dim view of Polanski personally—but he’s clearly a brilliant director. Would I work with him? I mean, god knows that call is never going to come. I’m not a Hollywood—I’ve never worked in the States. But if it did, no, I wouldn’t. So how I feel about it as a professional and how I feel about it as a consumer are two different things, really. I mentioned Eliot earlier—he was a very, very conservative person, and Ezra Pound, who edited The Wasteland and was a great friend of T.S. Eliot, held views that not just verge on fascism, but the guy was into eugenics and all kinds of stuff.
You can forgive some of this stuff because it was a very, very long time ago, and other writers that I admire—H.G. Wells thought that there were just too many people in the world and we need to sterilize various people, and all this fucking terrible nonsense was going around in the ’20s and ’30s. Philip Larkin, who I love, or at least whose poetry I love, said some horrible things in his letters, to Kingsley Amis amongst others. I don’t think less of his poetry because of that. I think the answer is yes, you can and probably should separate the artist from his work.
RW: Sometimes you get job offers where you think—for example, in the theater, you think, “Oh my god, so this is at least three months that I’m going to have a very different life if I say yes, to if I say no.” Because you’re doing eight shows a week for three months, and that’s quite a big deal. There was a play I did called Fat Pig. It was by Neil LaBute, and it had already been on in the States, and then it came to the West End. And [I had] an offer. And I changed my mind literally [while] my agent stepped out to go to the loo. I rang her to turn it down, and her assistant said, “Michele will be with you in three minutes.” And over the course of that three minutes I changed my mind and took the job. And if I hadn’t done that, that would be a whole West End theater aspect to my career that I wouldn’t have had. So it’s kind of worryingly random. So there’s no particular decisions that were difficult. I’m just aware of the quite big implications for how you spend your time, and the consequences for your family, once you’ve had children.
RW: You know what, I bet I’m not the first person to say this, but I think it would be 45, because I’m 45, and actually I feel more balanced and more content with what I’m doing than I have done before. My problems with alcohol and tobacco are under control. I’m less worried, less competitive, less hungry, less anxious about my career than I was. I’m sort of fatly comfortable in certain ways. It’s not like I’m going to retire, but I don’t need to worry about—I don’t need to feel too pushy or hyper about stuff. So I honestly think I’m happiest right now. So I’m going to say 45.
RW: Am I going to get an abortion this summer?
AVC: That is what David Sedaris asked.
RW: I have no current plans for an abortion.
AVC: And what question would you like us to ask the next person?
RW: Oooh, okay. [Laughs.] “Why are you what you’re like?”
AVC: And why are you what you’re like?
RW: For various reasons, but primarily because of my childhood is why I am what I’m like.