Jack Dee: ‘He was satirical without being a smartarse’
Politics was central to Jeremy’s character but what made him unique was that he could be compassionate without being right-on, caring without being pious, and satirical without being a smartarse. He was 100% filled with mirth and that gave him licence to bring political topics into his comedy without ever seeming didactic or preachy. That’s a lesson to so many of us. He could get so much content past you while he was making you laugh – then on the way home you’d really start thinking about it.
I first saw him when I ventured into the Comedy Store in 1986. He was transfixing. It’s an intimate club and he was there in his cardigan with a pint of beer talking about the world. He opened my eyes to the new world of comedy that had emerged in a way that I hadn’t appreciated through watching TV. I got to know him on the circuit and we became friends. In any conversation we had – whether he was talking about what was going on in my life or his – he never lost his sense of mischievousness. When we made Jack and Jeremy’s Real Lives [for Channel 4 in 1996] it was a chaotic, hectic time – I would be laughing so much when we were writing it, and then he was always able to make something funnier than it ever appeared on paper.
Mark Thomas: ‘The conscience of the comedy world’
Jeremy was one of the first comics I ever saw. I loved what he did so much that when I started out I found myself impersonating him. He was very gracious … he came up to me and said: “Oh Mark, you’ve got your own voice.” Watching him was like watching a masterclass. He showed you what you could do and made you want to up your game. He was head and shoulders above every else – one of a small handful of comics that other comics go and watch.
Whatever he was talking about – socialism, politics, Ireland, racism – he was able to make it funny, but he was always provocative. He was fearless and compassionate, and those two things absolutely went together. As a campaigner he took the boldest steps, he didn’t care about what were fashionable causes. Morally, he would commit to something and then go the logical, rather than the career distance. I loved listening to him on Radio 4. His musical (mis)interpretations on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue were genius, and it may have been jolly japes on The News Quiz but he had a way, in each episode, of flipping something on its head and making you think. He was wonderfully self-effacing and cynical, but he never stopped believing in change and that we could be part of it. He was like the conscience of the comedy world.
Angela Barnes: ‘Beautifully silly but saying something’
Growing up as a Radio 4 comedy nerd, Jeremy was my hero. His was one of the voices I loved to hear on the radio. It’s standup comedy that is really saying something but is also beautifully silly. I always admired how he could be angry in such a funny way. It was genuine, righteous anger but he made it so accessible. And he put his money where his mouth was: he didn’t just talk about politics, he went out there and campaigned. Jeremy had no ego: if you were funny, he laughed at your jokes. When I started doing comedy and got to be on The News Quiz it was surreal and quite nerve-wracking, but he was so supportive. It felt like sitting next to an old friend, and that’s exactly how he treated me.
Phill Jupitus: ‘Comedy is a poorer place without him’
Sometimes you see a comic and know you couldn’t do what they’re doing, and there is something a bit dispiriting about it – but watching Jeremy made you think “Why am I even bothering?”!
I first met him in the mid-80s when we both did an audition on the same day. He was this ordinary bloke in a cardigan, talking at you in a very level way, but there was a lyricism to him that constantly blindsided you. He had an uncompromising political side and was no sellout. He wasn’t a careerist but an activist who did comedy.
Once, Jeremy wrote something absolutely terrible with a Sharpie about the director general of the BBC on the wall of the Radio Theatre. It caused something of a stink. He got caught in the crossfire when the BBC was attacked for being too biased, but he was a proper voice for challenging what was going on – and not in a ham-fisted way. He was subtle but at the same time he could take the gloves off and be very, very direct. For such a miserable sod, it was always a joy to work with him. Comedy is a poorer place without Jeremy.
Mark Steel: ‘A perfect friend’
I first saw Jeremy do comedy in the early 80s in Edinburgh. He was doing 20 minutes in a little church, to 30-odd people. He’d just started out but was clearly so on top of it. Quite quickly he was on the comedy circuit, which was so much smaller than it is now – a dozen magnificently shambolic clubs around London. One of the frustrating myths about that time is that it was all political and you just had to slag off Norman Tebbit to get a laugh. But the circuit was really music-hall variety – often you’d be the only comic on the bill, alongside a juggler and some peculiar acts.
People also say that comedy was all middle-class then, but it was really tough – they used to sling bottles at you. There would be a really working-class audience, mostly blokes, and then there was Jeremy, with his cardigan, and he’d come on and always win them over. He was brilliant at jokes, rather than routines, which came later. There was a great bit he did about how, coming from his sort of background, he’d be jealous of working-class kids because they’d get a bike for their birthday but his dad would come in and say: “Son, as it’s your birthday, I have bought you a fountain pen so you may keep a diary like Samuel Pepys.”
Jeremy was a perfect friend because he was brilliantly warm but also utterly, outlandishly appalling. He would say the most outrageous thing because it would get a laugh. If you’re a comic, there’s no one you’d rather be around than someone like that.
Tim Brooke-Taylor: ‘The best worst singer I’ve ever heard!’
I worked with Jeremy for about 20 years on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. He was not only a good comedian but a sharp and intelligent man whose originality and provocations added an extra element that was needed, turning our sometimes smug comedy into great satirical comedy. You never quite knew which way he would leap – which was infuriating, but absolutely necessary. He stuck to his principles and still got the laughs.
We went on tour together, so I spent 24 hours a day with him, and he was always sharp and always thoughtful and affectionate. He was also the best worst singer I’ve ever heard. I remember doing a Clue charity show at the Royal Albert Hall and we had a huge orchestra accompanying us for One Song to the Tune of Another. Jeremy started singing and the look on the musicians’ faces was the funniest I’ve ever seen. I always used to wave a white flag while he was singing and duck out of the way just before he turned round to see what I was doing. Was he really that terrible? Yes! But he was able to laugh at himself very much, and I admired him for that.