Profile: Hebburn creator Jason Cook
When Jason Cook was in the Merchant Navy, he used to write sketches for a friend back home in Newcastle. He’d pop them in a big brown envelope and ship them back to Tyneside, where his mate would perform them at The Hyena Comedy Club.
After six months at sea, he finally come home to watch them being performed – and from that moment he was hooked. He quit his job, sold his house and, with the help of dad Tony, put all his effort into comedy. “It was a bit of a gamble looking back,” admits Cook, “but it’s worked out thankfully.”
It wasn’t always plain sailing. During his stand-up set, he often talks about a particularly bad Christmas gig at The Hyena, when he was mini-kieved off stage. “I got showered in them,” he says. “I had to sit at the bar afterwards stinking of garlic and butter.”
In the early days Cook honed his stand-up at nights like this, learning how to win over the most inattentive audiences. He then moved to Manchester, where he hosted a series of nights at the Frog & Bucket Comedy Club.
Jason’s first Edinburgh Fringe show, My Confessions, received widespread acclaim from both reviewers and his peers. A personal exploration of his complicated family relationships, the show closed with an unforgettable story about his dad’s health problems. “A lot of people have assumed that it was cathartic. But for me, if something’s cathartic it should be resolved at the end, and it wasn’t really.
“It was a good show with a good message but it didn’t really help me at all. I must have performed it about 35 times and I was always upset afterwards.”
A year later, he was back in Edinburgh with another show. A stark contrast to his debut hour, Joy was about finding happiness in everything life dumps at your doorstep. This “victimless comedy”, as Jason describes it, has become his trademark within the festival circuit.
“Most of the time, comedy is massively cynical,” he says. “There’s always someone to point and sneer at, but I’ve always thought that if you buy a ticket with someone’s name on it and you go away without learning anything about them then you’ll feel just a little bit cheated.”
These days, Cook is on his way to becoming a household name. His family sitcom Hebburn debuted on BBC2 last Thursday night, with 1.8 million viewers tuning in. A semi-autobiographical comedy about life in the North East town, Hebburn tells the story of the Pearson family: Joe [Jim Moir], Pauline [Gina McKee], Vicki [Lisa McGrillis], Dot [Pat Dunn], Jack [Chris Ramsey] and his new wife, Sarah [Kimberley Nixon].
Cook also has a part in the show, as loveable rogue Ramsey. “I was terrified of how it would turn out,” he confesses. “I’ve written sketch shows and long story-based stand-up shows for years, but this was a whole different thing.
“Because Baby Cow and Channel X [who co-produce Hebburn] have a big thing about the writer having control, I was choosing the wallpaper, the ornaments in the house, everything. The amount of pressure on set is incredible, because if anyone has a question about anything in the script, all eyes are on you, no-one else.”
Perhaps, though, that’s just the way he likes it.