How did you get into stand-up?
Some of my friends said, “Maybe you should perform some of your stories, because they’re quite funny.” I just googled “stand-up London”, clicked the first link, phoned the first number and went on the first stage. No passion, no inspirations, no history, just an apathetic drifting into something that I turned out to be nauseatingly good at. I couldn’t give a shit and I’m still good at it. Cocky, isn’t it?
What do you care about?
Literature. The novel’s finished. Tiny advance, which means it’s a good novel. Always remember, the smaller the advance, the better the book. I was distraught to get any money for it.
Was writing novels always your dream?
When I was eight I used to decorate my own little books and put bar codes on them. But my mum’s a cleaner; my dad was an asbestos remover. I wasn’t brought up to think that dreams are achievable. The grammar school system was smashed away by well-meaning liberals. So I was fucked, packed off to a comprehensive along with all the other bright working-class kids, to be watered down and then shipped out to Asda. So it was a pie-in-the-sky dream. I just kept it ticking over.
Do you have strong feelings about schools?
What we should’ve done in the Sixties is fixed the secondary moderns; we made an intellectual error. Bright working-class kids now go
to a comprehensive. The value system inverts temporarily: you want to be the most popular, and if the system of value in a secondary school is who is the toughest, that becomes the value system. If you’re born in a council flat now to a single mum, you have less chance of getting to Magdalene College than you did in the Sixties. That’s fucking awful; that’s unacceptable.
Did you have a tough time at school?
No, because I was funny and it was easy to be popular. What I did come out with was five GCSEs grade A to C, which is a lot more than other people came out with. But I could have done more. I turned it round and got a First at uni. But what’s the point in looking at freaks like me, who are the exception? The majority of those kids, you go: “Whatever happened to Terry who was so bright at primary school?”
Does your family mind being in your material?
My mum likes it because she knows it’s true. I always talk about my dad in the present tense on the stage. He’s funnier alive than dead. So that’s upsetting, but in the right way – moving.
Do you think it’s easier to write comedy when you’ve been having a hard time?
Yeah, particularly for British people. We want to hear comedy about pain. We like bathos.
Is there an essence of British humour?
Definitely. We put each other down. If I went on stage in the States and started laying into the front row without establishing myself with a joke, it would be a problem.
You won a comedy prize at Edinburgh in 2010. How did that feel?
Amazing. I don’t have the skill to – I’ll use a Forster word – “dissimulate” – otherwise. I wanted to win it and I was obsessed with winning it. The Oxbridge I never got to was all bound up in winning.
Do you still get nervous before performing?
Put it this way – Imodium could sponsor my tour.
Do you consider yourself political?
Not really. I’m more sociological than political, more about gender and class and masculinity and femininity and ideas like that.
What do you think of the coalition?
I hate everything David Cameron’s doing with a passion but it’s quite refreshing to see someone actually doing something. It’s like someone punched me in the face after I’ve been sat in a room for 20 years.
Is religion a part of your life?
Not at all. I’m atheist. I don’t think I meditate in a Buddhist way, but I take ten minutes each morning to focus on different areas of my brain and make sure they’re working.
Is there anything you’d rather forget?
I’ve had some horrible things happen but I don’t want to forget them, because I write about them and turn them into comedy.
Was there a plan?
The plan was to do advertising and have an interesting hobby in the evening. Inside all along, I was a narcissistic, self-centred, attention-hungry little gremlin. The moment someone injected the heroin of stand-up, I was hooked.
Do you vote?
Yes, I voted Liberal Democrat. I certainly won’t be [doing that] next time.
Are we all doomed?
I don’t think so. The Arab spring filled me with a new hope.
1980 Born in Enfield, north London
2004 Wins Laughing Horse New Act prize
2006 Takes his debut show, The Theory of Pretension, to the Edinburgh Fringe
April 2010 Causes controversy by joking about autistic children on the Australian Good News Week TV show
August 2010 Wins Edinburgh Comedy Award on third consecutive nomination
April 2012 Publishes his debut novel, The Humorist (Simon & Schuster, £12.99)