THE last time I spoke to Jason Cook, we were both awaiting the not-too-distant arrival of our babies. “How’s it been for you then?” says the now father of a 13-month-old daughter, who “wants to watch Disney all the (insert your own beep here) time”.
As most fathers will tell you – if they’re doing their fair share – the first year of a baby’s life doesn’t offer much in the way of time off, relaxation or surplus sleep.
However not many would be able to empathise with the task of simultaneously writing, shooting and appearing in a six-part BBC sitcom.
“Aye, that was great timing,” laughs 38-year-old Jason, adding he’s grateful for the chat. “It’s nice not to be working for a few minutes.”
The upcoming series, Hebburn – Jason’s second baby of the year if you like – is inspired by the comic’s experiences of growing up in South Tyneside. It’s a glittering highlight of the BBC’s autumn comedy schedule with a glittering cast and crew.
“Well, just take Gina McKee and Vic Reeves as Mam and Dad,” he says, clearly still astounded by their involvement.
“Vic is one of the reasons I got into comedy – a total god – and Gina is like a proper award-winning actress. How could I have dared think they’d be saying my jokes? It was all beyond my wildest dreams.
“Then there was Graham Duff (who came on board as an extra pair of writing hands) and Henry Normal, who had worked on amazing shows like Alan Partridge, Gavin and Stacey, Ideal, Mighty Boosh, The Royal Family...
“It was quite nerve-wracking because you felt like your stuff had to be up to standard. Thankfully it seemed to be.
“Then once you start, you have to check yourself and put your hero worship aside. It’s the only way to get the best results. It was still weird sitting having lunch with Vic, mind you.”
The series, which was commissioned after a successful outing at BBC’s Salford Sitcom Showcase in the new MediaCityUK studios last autumn, will tell the story of the Pearson family and their son, Jason.
Adding a dose of confusion to the proceedings, the fictional Jason is played by Jason Cook’s real life mate, comic Chris Ramsey, who is also from South Tyneside but now based in Manchester.
After secretly marrying a middle class Jewish girl, Clare (Kimberley Nixon, star of Channel Four’s Fresh Meat), Jason realises it’s about time he introduced her to his family.
“We did the first week on location in Hebburn and the whole town was out. It was like the circus had come to town,” laughs Jason, who – more potential confusion – paradoxically plays fictional Jason’s friend, Ramsey (based on Chris Ramsey), in the series.
“They were doing what people from Hebburn do. They were friendly and curious, getting pictures with Vic Reeves and all that. It was great.”
Having always based his award-winning stand up shows on his own life and experiences, Jason, who lives in Manchester with his (real-life) wife Clare, says it felt natural to bring his stories to the small screen.
“I always write my stand-up on stage... just knocking a few thoughts and ideas around about my life and my family. It just seems to fall out, so I had lots of material to work with. But I never usually write anything down, so that was a big difference.
“When we got the commission, I just locked myself in a room for seven days a week. What was also very different, in terms of the telly thing, was that every last detail has to be looked at.
“I spent a whole morning looking at wallpaper samples. Wallpaper isn’t funny.”
But only Jason could decide on the wall covering, because the set designers needed to build a studio set based precisely on the first house he grew up in.
“That was weird to see,” he says. “Someone said one day that I’d been sitting on the stairs for ages. I said, ‘Mate, I’ve been sitting on these stairs for 38 years’.”
Speaking after the showcase last year, Jason admitted it was strange to see someone playing his late father on stage.
Tony, who Jason followed into the Merchant Navy and who famously provided the inspiration for several of Jason’s acclaimed Edinburgh Fringe shows, died of cancer in 2008.
“It is a bit weird,” he says. “Vic rang me last night and I answered the phone with an ‘alreet fatha?’ I suppose he’s the closest thing I’ll ever have to a substitute dad.”
There won’t be a dull moment there, I offer.
“You’re not wrong,” Jason concurs. “He’s always ‘on’. He’s most certainly the funniest person I’ve ever met. When we were bored on set, he would sing us David Bowie songs in a jazz style. Then we spent a couple of days making a techno track together on my garage band programme.”
Sounds like there’s a rather special audio extra sorted for the DVD. But let’s not wish the series’ life away.
“We’re just in the edit now and it’s all looking great,” Jason says with an audible grin. “It’s absolutely crammed full of gags.
“When we got the first episode through it was weird. Me and the missus watched it six times. We were both pretty freaked out by the fact that it’s a proper telly programme which is going to be on the proper telly.”
Proper telly indeed. There’s none of the trial and error first series business on BBC3. Hebburn will land front and centre on BBC2 on an autumn date yet to be confirmed.
But there are some important decisions to be made in the meantime. The opening title music for starters.
“When I come off the phone to you I’ve got an afternoon of listening to the first 20 seconds of every song The Futureheads, Maximo Park and Field Music have ever made. I want to try and get the theme music from a North East band.”
Clearly wringing every last bit of enjoyment out of the production process, Jason says he has a second series marked out and ready to go, but is more than happy to revel in Hebburn’s first outing for the time being.
“You always hope that these will happen, but you never really let yourself believe it. Then you get the opportunity to do them.
“It’s the chance of a lifetime really.
“Not many people get to talk about their home town on national telly.”
Page 2 - Busy calendar ahead for popular comedian >>
Busy calendar ahead for popular comedian
JASON Cook’s newfound vocation as a sitcom writer may have kept him busy but you can still find him behind a solitary mic. He has two North East dates this month.
First up is his annual one-man show at Middlesbrough Town Hall on July 20.
Then, on July 27, he will appear at Gateshead Town Hall with good friend and Hebburn co-star Chris Ramsey as part of Newcastle Gateshead Comedy Festival, presented by Jesterval, which runs from this Friday until July 29.
Jason’s show is simply called Stuff I Like To Talk About, which pretty much sums up its content.
"Stand up will always be a huge part of what I do. The show is just about where my life is now and a bit of stuff about the things which I don’t think people are talking about," he says.
"There’s a little bit about being a father but not too much. I find it a bit boring when comics talk too much about that kind of thing.
"There are a couple of bits I do but they’re definitely done from a unique perspective, shall we say."
Jason and Chris join a stellar cast of comics on the festival bill with Jo Caulfield, Anvil Springstien, Andrew Lawrence, The Lost Voice Boy, Paul Sinha, Patrick Monahan, Gavin Webster, Simon Donald and Adam Bloom just some of the laughter-makers stopping off on their way to the Edinburgh Fringe.
Festival venues include Live Theatre, The Hyena, St Dominic’s Hall and The Cluny in Newcastle as well as the aforementioned Town Hall and The Sage Gateshead.
Visit www.jesterval.com for more information and to book.
:: For Jason’s Middlesbrough Town Hall show, call the box office on 01642 729729.