"I'm selling it as a show about cock, but it's much more about friendship and relationships."
If there's one name I didn't expect to see in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme this year it's comedy writer and performer Jack Rooke. After performing his second Fringe show Happy Hour in 2017, Jack near enough promised everyone that he'd never return to Edinburgh and to this day still hasn't been able to perform that show again.
Yet it's that same show which opened many an exciting door for Jack, including a BBC script commission and a book deal. So against all odds Jack is returning to the Fringe with Love Letters, a show which promises more jokes, stories of gay friendship and a live harpist. If that's not value for money, I'm not sure what is.
Chatting to Jack two years on about his decision to return, it seems his outlook on the festival has changed as he predicts that the 2019 Fringe will be known as 'The Queer Year'.
You're returning to the Fringe this year which is something I never thought you'd do again...
I know! I think I told everyone that I wouldn't. I actually owe the writer Adam Kay who wrote This Is Going to Hurt around £500 because after the Edinburgh Fringe last year, we were at a party and he said "Stop being miserable. You'll be back next year." and I was like "No. I categorically swear on £500 that I will never perform at the Fringe ever again." And now I'm starting to slowly realise all these bets that I made with people.
Why are you coming back then?
I had such a bad time last time which is in absolute contrast to how the show went. My second show Happy Hour went really well. It got lots of great reviews, it got nominated for The Scotman's Mental Health Fringe Award, it got me a BBC comedy script commission, it got me a book deal with Penguin - all the people who have given me work came to see that show in Edinburgh.
I have to sometimes get over the fact that I had a bad time because it's completely changed what I've done for the last two years. So I wanted to go back with a show that didn't feel so traumatic and wasn't me going over things like grief or suicide.
After making the BBC Three documentary in 2017 and a theatre show about suicide, I became this 22/23-year-old poster child for mental health. That wasn't really representative of me who just wants to do comedy, be funny and write silly jokes.
I also want to write the wrongs of how bad and how ill I got in 2017 and actually go up with a fresh mindset and have fun. My main goal is to have fun and tell jokes.
What can people expect from this year's show?
I would like to establish myself more as a comedy performer as well as someone who can make comedy theatre shows so this show allows me to be a little bit more of a stand-up comedian on stage. It's definitely more joke heavy which is why this show is the first show I've ever done to be in the Comedy section, the other two were both in the Theatre section.
Which I think was maybe the right decision to make, but this time I'm much more interested in making sure that my audience are entertained. It's being produced by a comedy production team, Berk's Nest, who I love and are the best.
It's similar to my other shows in that a lot of the jokes are very self-deprecating about coming-of-age and figuring yourself out and it's a show I'd probably want my brothers to come and see.
The only thing I guess I want to say with this show is that I wish there were shows for gay and queer people that aren't so orientated around sex and the stereotypes of queer culture. I'd love there to be more neutrality. Love Letters is actually more of a show about gay friendships and queer friendships than anything else. I'm selling it as a show about cock, but it's much more about friendship and relationships. But there are some dick jokes in it!
And you've got a harpist on stage with you?
Yes, I have got a harp on stage with me so it's weird because whilst it's the most stand-up I've ever done, I've still got this giant 7 foot musical instrument on stage with me. But I really like performing with someone else. It makes it much less of a lonely experience if you have someone else on stage to bounce off and Alex is sweet and has really deadpan reactions to me.
It's also fun to see the harp which is traditionally a romantic and bouji instrument being used to tell stories about gay romance and coming from the sort of background I come from instead of being a posh straight wedding in the home counties.
How long have you been working on the show for?
After the second show, I basically quit everything. I never ever did Happy Hour again and because performing at the Fringe made me miserable I had this script commission and book deal to focus my attention on.
But then I missed performing stand-up and I wanted to figure out a way to tell jokes so I came up with this really silly idea at the end of 2017 where I wanted to write a show where at the end I got married to someone. I definitely think I went a bit mad and wanted to write a show about whether equal marriage really means equality because I don't necessarily think it does.
So in April 2018 I searched "LGBTQ Wedding Harpist" and Alex was the top one on Google so I thought "I'll just use this guy" and at the time all I had was a slot at Latitude Festival, headlining the Cabaret tent.
When I met Alex and asked him "Do you want to make this show with me and in 6 weeks take it to Latitude?" he thankfully said yes! It was amazing because my name was in the big name slot on the Cabaret stage which I've never ever had before and it went down really well.
We had no plans for what to do from Latitude onwards but because we enjoyed it so much and the audience enjoyed it so much, I managed to get the Roundhouse in Camden to give us a grant to develop the show further. We performed it there at Valentines which sold out so then the next logical step was to do Edinburgh!
So the short answer is April 2018. But in the last three weeks I've re-written the whole thing. It's still got the same sentiment but it's changing ever more.
Have you enjoyed writing this show a lot more than your previous shows?
Yeah! My first show no one knew who I was, my second show was a commission for Soho Theatre so there were people checking in and giving me notes where as this one I've self-commissioned it in a sense. I just wanted to write something that was funny and I've really enjoyed doing that.
I don't want to sound braggy but the last two times I've gone to Edinburgh I've had to prove myself where as this time I'm developing a sitcom, I've working on a book, I've got several broadcast things in development and actually going somewhere - so I don't feel like I need to prove myself as a comedy writer anymore.
I guess what I want to do is keep up live performance as part of my career because it's the reason why I've had all these opportunities come my way.
I would not recommend to anybody to take a show about mental health to the Edinburgh Fringe. It's like being a turkey and inviting yourself to a secret Santa party.
Why have you called the show Love Letters?
The show is almost a love letter to myself when I was figuring out a lot about being gay and also relationships with people and romance and love. Grief has always shaped my identity much more than being gay.
It's not a coming out show. This isn't my coming out story and even though I know some reviewers will describe it as "A coming out TED Talk." it's not that. It's actually a lot more retrospective. It's me making comments about a certain experience that I went through.
What are you most looking forward to about Edinburgh this year?
I think there's a really great bunch of people, fellow performers, going up this year. I've titled this year's Fringe 'The Queer Year' because all my favourite LGBTQ+ acts and writers are up there.
Who are you most looking forward to watching perform?
Diane Chorley. David and Simon and the whole theme around it is amazing. That is my favourite top act to see which I feel bad for saying because it does clash with me time wise but you can see both on different days!
Also The Pleasance this year have done this award which I'm really passionate about called 'The Common Award' which helps a working class artist take their first show up to Edinburgh and I think it's really important. Edinburgh has got vastly more expensive this year than ever before and that has implications because it prices out a lot of writers and artists from working class backgrounds who perhaps can't afford it
And that's a real shame when so much of the TV, film and book industry are up there looking to discover new talent. A really good friend of mine called Rhys Slade-Jones won the award so he's doing a show about growing up in Wales called The Land of My Fathers and Mothers and Some Other People which is on at The Pleasance Courtyard.
Sophie Duker as well is great and I just think she's very wise and clever and puts a lot of great principles into her material so I'm feeling very excited about the amount of LGBTQ+ defining acts that are going up this year whose shows might not necessarily be about their sexuality.
Considering the current climate it feels like a cool thing to be a part of.
Outside of the Fringe what are you working at?
I'm still developing my BBC pilot for a series and that's all I can say! The series hasn't been green-lit but I'm writing more episodes so fingers crossed.
I've also got a book coming out Spring/Summer next year called Cheer the Fuck Up which is part comedic memoir, part advice guide on how best to help someone going through a shit time. It's like an ode to friendship really.
I've interviewed a few different people for it like James Acaster and Scarlett Curtis who wrote a great book about feminism for it and I've still got a few more to do but we've got some really good people involved.
Hopefully it'll be a good fun guide for what to do when you worry about a friend. We've all got that one friend that we're a little bit more worried that and I've both had that and been that friend which means I can write about it from a dual perspective.
I'm also going to try and get some free Fringe slots to do some work-in-progress readings of the book in Edinburgh.
Finally, how would you sum up this year's show in just five words?
Netflix should really buy it.
Jack Rooke: Love Letters runs from 1st - 24th August (not 13th) at 7.30pm at the Assembly George Square Gardens (Piccolo). Book tickets here.