Johnian magazine issue 46, autumn 2020
Hugh Dennis: in a nutshell
When I arrived at St John’s I hadn’t even heard of Footlights, and I certainly had no intention of making a career in comedy. In fact, it wasn’t until the final term of my second year that I had any contact with the society at all.
A friend from school suggested that we write sketches together. We performed them at a Footlights try-out, people laughed, and that was it: I was hooked. I then performed in all their shows until I left.
I still had no inkling that I would end up becoming a comedian. After graduation I had the choice of doing a PhD, pursuing comedy as a career or joining Unilever as a marketing trainee. Rather perversely I chose Unilever and worked there for the next five years as the brand manager of Lynx deodorant. Comedy was a side gig.
Steve Punt, a fellow performer in Footlights, asked me if I would join him in a double act, and at weekends we gigged at Jongleurs and The Comedy Store. One night Jasper Carrott came to see us and asked if we would be in his Saturday night show on BBC One. Even that didn’t get me to give up the day job. We did five series before I started to feel that perhaps I should do comedy full-time.
The comedy circuit was much smaller then, really just a handful of clubs, but we were very lucky because we got on TV very quickly. I also became a voice on Spitting Image, which propelled me into the world of voice-overs.
Try to work with good people and value them. The best work is always collaborative.
As a performer you are always asked ‘What was your big break?’ The truth is you don’t need just one – you need lots of them. For me they were: meeting Steve Punt in the bar at the ADC (So far we have worked together for 38 years!); Jasper Carrott coming to see us; coining the phrase ‘Milky Milky’ for The Mary Whitehouse Experience; playing in a football tournament with Andy Hamilton, who co-wrote Outnumbered; not making an idiot of myself in the very first episode of Mock the Week; being asked to do the readthrough for Fleabag; and finding a weird, howling way to say ‘The Now Show’ at the start of every episode. I hope there will be lots more breaks, because I think I am going to need them.
I don’t think of myself as being defined by my career. There is more to life than that, although the phrase ‘work-life balance’ is telling. Work and life shouldn’t really be in opposition if you are lucky enough to enjoy what you do.
Outside work I play a lot of football, or I did until social distancing made it tricky. I also cycle a lot – lycra-ed up in a helmet and sunglasses so no one can tell that it is me – and I am terribly nice to my family.
I would tell my 16-year-old self not to grow a beard yet – because however good you think it looks, it doesn’t. Embarrassing facial features aside, though, my advice comes in three main strands (also the problem with the beard):
• Don’t feel as though you have to know exactly what it is you want to do yet. There is plenty of time to work it all out. Don’t Panic.
• Don’t get obsessed by status, because you could miss out on really good stuff. The pilot for Outnumbered paid nothing and was recorded in the writer’s house with us actors wearing our own clothes! Remember that it isn’t all about you. Try to work with good people and value them. The best work is always collaborative.
• Do something you enjoy. Careers are too long for it to be any other way.
Comedian, presenter, actor and writer, Hugh Dennis is well-known as half of the comedy double act Punt and Dennis and for playing the father character Pete Brockman on the BBC One sitcom Outnumbered. He has also been a regular panellist on the BBC Two news comedy Mock the Week since its first episode.